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Part 1: 1600-1800, Sources from the Bodleian Library, Oxford

Editorial Introduction - Michèle Cohen, American International University in London

A historical study of masculinity is a relatively new topic, as Michael Roper and John Tosh pointed out in Manful Assertions.(1) Drawing on feminist and women’s historians’ insights into the social and historical construction of gender and sexuality, they called for a gendered history of men. Though much of the research into the historical construction of masculinities as one aspect of gender initially focused on the nineteenth century, work on the eighteenth century has been expanding.(2)

The study of eighteenth-century masculinity is particularly interesting because while the concern over manliness is evident in the conduct, advice and educational literature represented in this set of microfilms, it was interwoven with another concern, anxiety over effeminacy. Why was a concept signifying problematic gender boundaries for men a pervasive cultural metaphor throughout the century?

One explanation relates to the discourse of politeness. Politeness, a ‘complete system of manners and conduct based on the arts of conversation’, was at the heart of the sociability that developed in the social and cultural spaces of the new urban culture of early eighteenth-century England.(3) Politeness was central to fashioning of the gentleman, and required that men soften their manners and refine their conversation. Periodical, conduct and advice literature - including the advice fathers such as Colonel James Forrester and Lord Chesterfield wrote for their sons - all agreed that this refinement was best achieved in the company of women. The mixed conversation of the sexes was considered by many as the ideal social arrangement and so improving of both sexes that by the end of the century, the ‘free communication between the sexes’ had come to be an index of the polish and civilisation of a nation.(4) However, while the presence of women was indispensable for shaping the gentleman, it was also, paradoxically, the site for a deep anxiety about effeminacy. The dilemma of politeness is encapsulated in this remark by a contemporary, that while the company and conversation of women was necessary to refine men’s manners, too much of it was apt to effeminate them. Polishing men out of rude nature did not necessarily make them more manly. The tensions of politeness were compounded by the necessity for men to emulate the French, held to be the best models of polite conversation, but disparaged at the same time for their effeminating social practices. It was to acquire French polish, manners and language that aristocratic youths spent years and vast sums in France, on their way to Italy on the grand tour, the final ‘finish’ of their education. However, though by going abroad young men were expected to be polished out of their ‘rusticity’ and return ‘compleat’ and accomplished, they could equally well develop, some feared, ‘an effeminate and unmanly foppery’.(5)

Could men be at once polite and manly? This vexing issue remained a preoccupation for most of the eighteenth century, and was embodied in the ‘predominant eighteenth-century image of unmanliness’, the fop.(6) The fop was effeminate because he spent so much time in the company of women that he tended to behave like them, and because he had become Frenchified in his manners and language. As such he had forfeited his identity both as English and as a man. The fop was both a parody and a warning of the dangers of showing an excessive devotion to the ideals of politeness. To avoid becoming a fop, a young man had to exercise self-control. This is at the heart of Chesterfield’s advice to his son. Politeness may have been about ease and sociability, but it required constant vigilance and discipline of body and tongue.

For the second half of the century, however, politeness and the practices for fashioning the gentleman were the object of increasing criticism and censure. Richard Hurd’s Dialogues on the Uses of Foreign Travel is a critical text, because it explicitly opposes both travel abroad and politeness not just as frivolous, but as alien to the masculine English character. By the 1780s, the shifts announced in Hurd’s text were taking place: not only did Vicesimus Knox, Headmaster of Tonbridge School, declare that he wished travel abroad were not a required part of a gentleman’s education, but, John Andrews asserted, thought of the English might ‘gain in delicacy and refinement’ by associating with women like the French did, this advantage was outweighed by the threat to ‘manliness of behaviour and liberty of discourse, the two pillars on which the edifice of our national character is principally supported’.(7) By the end of the century, politeness had become feminised and a new conception of the gentleman was emerging, one defined no longer by his politeness and his conversation, but by the strength of his masculine English character.


(1) M Roper and J Tosh (eds), Manful Assertions: Masculinities in Britain since 1800, London, Routledge, 1991.
(2) Recent studies include Philip Carter, ‘Men about town: representations of foppery and masculinity in early eighteenth century urban society’, in Hannah Barker and Elaine Chalus (eds), Gender in Eighteenth-Century England, Longman,
1997; Elizabeth Foyster, Manhood in Early Modern England, Longman, 1999; Tim Hitchcock and Michèle Cohen (eds), English Masculinites 1666-1800, Longman, 1999; Michèle Cohen, Fashioning Masculinity: National Identity and Language in the Eighteenth Century, Routledge, 1996.
(3) John Brewer, The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century, Harper Collins, 1997.
(4) John Millar, the Origin of the Distinction of Ranks, London 1779.
(5) Richard Hurd, Dialogues on the Uses of Foreign Travel Considered as a Part of an English Gentleman’s Education: Between Lord Shaftesbury and Mr Locke, London, 1764.
(6) Carter, ‘Men about town’.
(7) John Andrews, A Comparative View of the French and English Nations in their Manners, Politics, and Literature, London, 1785.

Michèle Cohen, 2000



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