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Manners and Civility
From Wisdom Literature to Novels of Manners

Manners and Civility
  • Mansfield Park (by )
  • Emma/By Jane Austen (by )
  • The portrait of a lady (by )
  • The Age of Innocence (by )
  • The Late George Apley 
  • The Instruction of Ptah-Hotep and the In... (by )
  • Sacred Writings (by )
  • The Book of the Courtier (by )
  • The Rise of the Novel of Manners : A Stu... (by )
  • The English Bible : Translated Out of th... Volume: 4 
  • Evelina; Or, The History of a Young Lady... (by )
  • The Man of Feeling (by )
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The old, English proverb “you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar” testifiest to the codes of etiquette established and re-established over millenia. 

Ptahhotep, an Egyptian city administrator and vizier (a high ranking political advisor), is credited with writing one of the world’s first books on polite conduct, The Maxims of Ptahhotep, in the third millennium, sometime during the rule of King Izezi of the Fifth Dynasty. In the early text (on display at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris), Ptahhotep expounds upon civil virtues such as self control, kindness towards fellow beings, and truthfulness.Written towards the end of his life--scholars debate whether he lived over 100 years--he sought to share his ancestral knowledge with his son Akhethotep, who would later succeed him as vizier.  

Chinese philosopher and teacher Confucius similarly spread ideas concerning manners and civility. He believed that ancestral veneration, familial loyalty, and respect given from children to their elders created the basis for an ideal government. Perhaps the earliest teacher of The Golden Rule, Confucius instructed us to “never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself” in his Sacred Writings.
Almost 2,000 years later, the ideals commonly associated with manners, etiquette, and civility had transformed from public and familial service to classist self-preservation. Baldassare Castiglione, an Italian soldier, diplomat, and an important author of the Renaissance period, wrote The Book of the Courtier and detailed what constituted a perfect courtier, or one who was regularly present at the courts of monarchs or royal personages. The text deviates from the teachings of Ptahhotep and Confucius in that it prescribes, through a series of fictionalized conversations, ways to become the perfect gentleman. To qualify as a fine, civic-minded man, one must have a moderate temperament, an intellectual mind (a familiarity with the classics and fine arts), an adequate athleticism, and a warrior spirit.

In more contemporary works (specifically the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries), gasping expanses of time and philosophical movements separated notable writers and thinkers from their predecessors. Charlotte Elizabeth Morgan’s The Rise of the Novel of Manners: A Study of English Prose Fiction Between 1600 and 1740 details the societal influences that prompted the movement from ancient wisdom literature to the novel of manners. While English scholars translated Biblical texts into the King James’ Bible from 1604 to 1611, 18th century writers like Frances Burney, who wrote Evelina, and Henry Mackenzie, author of The Man of Feeling deviated from those specific types of morality tales. In the 19th century, famed author Jane Austen wrote novels in a similar mode, including Mansfield Park and Emma. They depicted the societal nature of etiquette and manners concerning women at that time.

The World Public Library has a long collection of novels of manners, including works by Henry James (The Portrait of a Lady), Edith Wharton (The Age of Innocence), and John P. Marquand (The Late George Apley).

By Logan Williams

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