The Novel of Manners
Although the novel of manners has always
defied easy definition, literary historians seem to have arrived at a consensus
on at least three elements: it originated in
Changes in English society in the
nineteenth century that eroded the boundaries between these various groups
provided the background for the emergence of the novel of manners.
Industrialization, urbanization, and revolutions in transportation and
communication were accompanied by profound changes in the social hierarchy. As
the aristocracy lost power to industrial and business interests, the standard
markers for determining an individual's position in society were becoming
increasingly unreliable. In some sense, the novel of manners emerged to clear up
this uncertainty by offering detailed renderings of how the various groups
behaved in everyday situations, and by both describing and prescribing codes of
conduct. Many works contrasted the customs of the various groups, examining not
only class and economic differences, but also the differences between city and
countryside, between an earlier agrarian culture and a contemporary industrial
order, and between
This apparent necessity to compare the
conventions of two or more groups led some early critics to insist that the
novel of manners was not suited to American literature. They proclaimed the
The novel of manners is dominated by women—as authors, as subjects, and often as intended audience—and for this reason has occasionally been dismissed as trivial. William Forsyth (1871), for example, tempers his praise of Jane Austen's novels by criticizing the constant "husband-hunting" by Austen's female characters. But although the focus of the novel of manners—domestic life, matrimony, and social behavior—tends to be narrow, the "manners" being studied very often have far wider implications beyond the pouring of tea and the search for the proper mate. Adherence to good manners in these texts is not only a reliable indicator of one's social standing, but is intended to serve as an indicator of good morals as well.
The novel of manners often deals with gender issues as well, as the accepted standards for both manners and morals differ markedly between men and women. Regardless of the social class under study, there are frequently two distinct sets of codes in operation, and as many feminist critics point out, the ideals prescribed for women were often a source of anxiety for nineteenth-century women writers—an anxiety that plays itself out in the novels. In many woman-authored texts, the interaction of individual characters with the social conventions of their cultures is not a happy one, and the conventions themselves are as likely to be satirized as celebrated.
The novel of manners describes in detail the customs, behaviors, habits, and expectations of a certain social group at a specific time and place. Usually these conventions shape the behavior of the main characters, and sometimes even stifle or repress them. Often the novel of manners is satiric, and it always realistic in depiction. Examples include Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair, and various works by Edith Wharton.
The novel of manners is a sub-genre of the realist novel which deals with
aspects of behaviour, language, customs and values characteristic of a
particular class of people in a specific historical context. ...
novel that examines the customs and mores of a cultural group. The novels of
Jane Austen and Edith Wharton are widely considered novels of manners.
novel that describes in detail the customs, behaviors, habits, and expectations
of a certain social group at a specific time and place. Usually these
conventions shape the behavior of the main characters, and sometimes even stifle
or repress them. ...
novel focusing on and describing social customs and habits of a particular
work of fiction that re-creates a social world, conveying with finely detailed
observation the customs, values, and mores of a highly developed and complex
Definitions of Comedy of manners on the Web:
The comedy of manners is a genre of play which satirizes the manners and
affectations of a social class, often represented by stock characters, such as
the miles gloriosus in ancient times, the fop and the rake during the
Restoration, or an old person pretending to be young. ...
play about the manners and conventions of an aristocratic, highly sophisticated
society. The characters are usually types rather than individualized
personalities, and plot is less important than atmosphere. Such plays were an
important aspect of late seventeenth-century English Comedy. ...
Form of comic drama that became popular in
variety of comedy concerned with the mores and manners of an artificial and
sophisticated segment of society.
Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing
Oliver Goldsmith, She Stoops to Conquer
Richard Brinsley Sheridan, The Rivals, School for Scandal
Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
Philip Barry, The Philadelphia Story (1939)
Working Girl (1988; w. Kevin Wade, d. Mike Nichols)