Oversold and Under-delivered

Erin Mackie
University of Canterbury, New Zealand

In Restoration and eighteenth-century studies there has been increasingly sophisticated attention paid to the cultural-social and political significance of types of power and prestige exercised informally as manners, taste, and civility.[1] Following Jürgen Habermas, the sites where such powers are articulated are most often collected under the rubrics “bourgeois public sphere” or “polite public sphere.”[2] As social and cultural historians have documented, the development, especially after 1688, of these realms of legitimacy and identification to a great extent supplanted that of the court and Church. In contemporary historical and cultural criticism, Habermas’s critics and revisionists continue to refine our understanding of the cultural institutions within which the disciplines of taste and civility took, most commonly identified as club and coffeehouse society, the popular periodical, and later in the century, the lending library.[3]

The sphere of polite letters and conversation ideally operated according to a revised set of principles centered on civility rather than courtliness, on cooperative exchange rather than competitive display, on affective and stylistic restraint rather than extravagance, on notions of interiorized virtue rather than on status-linked privilege, and on a moral-aesthetic standard—taste—that transcends both wealth and status and depends upon the disciplined integration of innate sensibility and its externally mediated forms. This shift from courtly to civil codes of conduct was accompanied by the elaboration of an interiorized, psychologized concept of subjectivity. Such inalienable, interior notions of human virtue and identity put pressure on the relation between interior “authenticity” and its external, socially contingent representations.[4] This relation and especially the disciplined cultivation of a correspondence between inner and outer, between individual sensations and their outward expression, between the moral man and society’s manners preoccupies eighteenth-century social and cultural thought.[5]

The topic of Jenny Davidson’s Hypocrisy and the Politics of Politeness: Manners and Morals from Locke to Austen (Cambridge, 2004), then—the culturally and politically inflected discourses of morals and manners—is timely. Her attention to the fissure between morals and manners, what she calls “hypocrisy,” offers a sharp focus. The book’s chronological range from the late-seventeenth to the early-nineteenth century responds to the recent interest in “the long eighteenth century.” This chronological range is matched by the study’s generic array: Hypocrisy and the Politics of Politeness addresses prose satire (Swift, Mandeville), social comment (Swift, Mandeville), philosophy (Hume), the personal letter (Chesterfield), conduct literature (Chesterfield, Edgeworth), and the novel (Richardson, Austen).

However, I found these initial promises disappointed by the book’s flaws: its failure of contextualization, reductive dichotomization, overstatement, insufficient referencing and substantiation, semantic sleight of hand, and even—especially in the discussion of Swift in Chapter 1—outright flimsiness of argument. Although the plausibility and substance of argument improve as the study moves forward toward the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century, the book’s lack of attention to the cultural-historical context of the polite public sphere and its tendency to circulate its arguments around false dichotomies seriously compromise its value.

Davidson’s lack of contextualization would be less disorienting if she did not announce her methodological affiliation to both rhetorical and cultural criticism “which operates by situating texts in a dense network of cultural practices and artifacts” (3–4). Hypocrisy and the Politics of Politeness does nothing of the kind. Its discussion of the discourses of politeness and civility proceeds without mention of the cultural institutions central to the development of these discourses: that entire network of establishments—the coffee house, the popular periodical, the lending library, the whole economic arena with its financial and commercial institutions—is passed over in thunderous silence. Habermas’s Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, indeed the term “public sphere” or even “polite public” are never mentioned. The book, then, fails to acknowledge, let alone engage, a central debate concerning the significance of politeness and its affiliated institutions. Although I understand a critic’s desire to distance herself from Habermas’s formulation and from the perhaps by now heavily determining parameters it places on the discussion of politeness and politics, I remain bewildered by these glaring absences. Ignoring this entire arena of cultural institutions and the central debates concerning them limits, if it does not wholly negate, Davidson’s claim to employ the methods of “cultural criticism.”

Instead of offering any discussion of the extensive nexus of milieus in which politeness operated and through which it was articulated, Davidson announces: “[t]he history of manners is to a great extent the history of the conduct book, as this prescriptive genre is where manners leave their most obvious traces” (7). Accordingly, Davidson completely ignores the contributions of the periodical press; her book registers no awareness of the project of the reformation of manners undertaken in The Tatler and The Spectator and other periodical papers. Such a pronouncement is typical not only of Davidson’s puzzling avoidance of the materials that form the very matrix of her topic, but also of an unfortunate proclivity toward reductive overstatement.

Davidson sets out to look at arguments that she claims defend hypocrisy as a political or moral virtue. She claims, though fails, to situate these arguments in the eighteenth-century arenas of the polite public. Her arguments work through casting debates about manners and morals into a dichotomy she establishes between truthfulness and politeness. She concludes that the writers she examines here advocate politeness over truthfulness, and that, in effect, this constitutes a defence of hypocrisy because it proceeds even in contexts that associate politeness with dissimulation or hypocrisy.

First, outside of satire and the satirically inflected, self-consciously “contrarian” social criticism of Mandeville, it is well nigh impossible to locate texts that make arguments that define hypocrisy per se as a moral and political virtue. Davidson’s attempts to make her texts do this depend, for example, on the renaming of “gallantry,” “tact,” “manners,” even “politeness” itself as veritable synonyms for “hypocrisy,” and, as in the example of Swift, by imposing on the text a laboriously contrived misreading (7, 15–32). The rhetorical confusion and logical slippage in the book stems from a fundamental misconception of the terms and aims of the discourses of manners and politeness in the eighteenth century. Here, the debate is not simply or centrally one between “truthfulness or politeness,” but rather one between competing regimes of manners and decorum, all of which lay claim to both morals and manners. The writers Davidson engages have a well-developed sense of what we would call the necessarily mediated conditions of all human socio-cultural institutions. I concur with Davidson that these writers share a concern with the perils of this mediation, the risks of counterfeits, hypocrisy, and dissimulation with all their exploitative and destructive effects. However, it is, I believe, a serious flaw in this thesis to polarize the issue as between, on the one hand, a reductively conceived, fully transparent “truthfulness” and, on the other, an inherently deceptive and opaque “politeness.” The eighteenth century debates, in my understanding, do not come down “for manners” and so “against truthfulness” or for “truthfulness” and so “against manners.” Rather, what we might see in most of the texts Davidson presents are attempts to negotiate a kind of manners that is more truthful and a kind of morality that might find socially and culturally refined forms of expression. Finally, I believe it is simply untrue to state that writers “from Locke to Austen” who come down firmly on the side of politeness do so even where it means embracing “dissimulation or hypocrisy.” The discipline of politeness, of coordinating manners and morals is largely, as it so emphatically is in Austen, one that involves not only the critique and reform of the external forms, manners, but also the refinement and development—what we might call the socialization—of the interior, authentic, “truthful” self. It is this dialectic between morals and manners that is missing from Davidson’s articulation of her topic and that results in the production of reductive polarities around which the often quite implausible conclusions of the thesis are arrayed.[6]

The treatment of Swift is the weakest portion of the initial chapter which goes on to say mostly unexceptionable things about Locke and Mandeville; the facile equivalence of Swift’s, Locke’s, and Mandeville’s political and ideological positions is a problem throughout, as in the statement that declares all three writers as representatives of “eighteenth-century liberal thought” (45). The second chapter, on Hume’s and Chesterfield’s alleged apologies for hypocrisy, usefully examines the controversies surrounding these writers, though characteristically suffers from a too-easy conflation of the terms “hypocrisy,” “politeness,” “gallantry,” and “adultery,” and from the neglect of the libertine traditions that inform Chesterfield’s attitudes and those of his critics. The discussion of how Chesterfield’s letters are edited into conduct books and so evidence a “professionalization of gentility” that opens them to a much wider class base, comprises one of the more interesting observations of the book (71).

The final three chapters deal largely with women and the discourses of politeness, sincerity, and hypocrisy. Chapter 3 “describes a three-way confrontation between Burke, Wollstonecraft and Godwin,” in which Davidson finds evidence that neither Wollstonecraft nor Burke wish to discard either virtue or politeness, but rather to “finesse the gap between them” (12–13). I observe that this project to reform manners and morals through establishing a discipline of interchange between them is typical not only of Burke and Wollstonecraft but also of most of the writers this study addresses; attention to it would have obviated the reductionist thesis the book struggles to defend. Chapter 4 points out how Richardson anticipates his own sharpest critics with his “sophisticated examination of hypocrisy” (108–9). The discussion here contributes to Davidson’s examination of the ways in which politeness, hypocrisy, and its attendant discourses are inflected along the lines of class and gender and how they inform the mid-century discussion of novelistic and narrative authority (112–13). In a final chapter centering on Mansfield Park, Davidson argues that Austen defends “those forms of insincerity that are produced by dependence” even as she reveals the “price” these forms exact in the repression of desire and agency (146). However, Davidson does not examine those forms of insincerity as they are produced by privilege and power, represented here in Sir Thomas and his family, and so she leaves unexamined the novel’s critique of conservative manners. This is puzzling since this critique would seem to make better sense with Davidson’s own assertion that Austen attends diligently to the repressive price of the conservative regime of modesty than does her contention that Austen, even as she exposes its high cost, at the same time defends this regime and its manners.[7]

Because of constraints on space, I have had to excise from this review lengthy portions of analysis, and so fear that my judgments on Hypocrisy and the Politics of Politeness might themselves appear summary, reductive, and insufficiently substantiated. I have sought to pinpoint what I see as the set of basic conceptual flaws that might generate most of the study’s weaknesses and oversights while giving some sense of the book’s materials, aims, and procedures. Because of its topic, this book should be of interest to literary, cultural, and historical critics; however, I fear that scholars who share my interest in this field of study might well share as my frustrations with the book’s unfulfilled promises and its often unconvincing, sometimes bewildering, premises and conclusions.



[1] See, for example, G. J. Barker-Benfield, The Culture of Sensibility: Sex and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Chicago, 1992); Anna Bryson, From Courtesy to Civility: Changing Codes of Conduct in Early Modern England (Oxford, 1998); Philip Carter, Men and the Emergence of Polite Society, Britain 1660-1800 (Essex, 2001); Michael Curtin, “A Question of Manners: Status and Gender in Etiquette and Courtesy,” Journal of Modern History 57 (1985): 395–423; Martin Ingram, “Reformation of Manners in Early Modern England,” in The Experience of Authority in Early Modern England, eds. Paul Griffiths, Adam Fox, and Steve Hurdle (London and New York, 1996), 47–88; Lawrence E. Klein, “Liberty, Manners, and Politeness in Early Eighteenth-Century England,” The Historical Journal 32.3 ( 1989): 583–605, and Shaftesbury and the Culture of Politeness: Moral Discourses and Cultural Politics in Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge, 1994); Erin Mackie, Market à la Mode: Fashion, Commodity, and Gender in “The Tatler” and “The Spectator” (Baltimore, 1997); Shawn Lisa Maurer, Proposing Men: Dialectics of Gender and Class in the Eighteenth-Century English Periodical (Stanford, 1998). Helen Berry sees the recent critical interest in eighteenth-century manners as giving birth to a “paradigm of politeness” which she seeks to qualify with attention to the fascination with “impolite behaviour” accompanying it: “Rethinking Politeness in Eighteenth-Century England: Moll King’s Coffeehouse and the Significance of ‘Flash Talk,’” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 11 (2001): 66–67.

[2] Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger with Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge, Mass., 1991).

[3] Because of the now firmly substantiated political and historical importance of these idealized arenas of polite discourses, Brian Cowan and Steven Pincus recently have revisited the English coffee-house and its defining discourses: Steve Pincus, “‘Coffee Politicians Does Create’: Coffeehouses and Restoration Political Culture,” The Journal of Modern History 67 (1995): 807–34; Brian Cowan, “What was Masculine about the Public Sphere?: Gender and the Coffeehouse Milieu in Post-Restoration England,” History Workshop Journal 51 (2001): 127–57. The specifically philosophical and specifically Whig articulation of politeness and sociability, their best expression and proper limiting forms, in Shaftesbury has been expounded by Lawrence E. Klein in Shaftesbury and the Culture of Politeness. The more popular ideological project of Addison and Steele in their periodical papers is one focus of Mackie’s Market à la Mode, and “Being too Positive about the Public Sphere,” in Addison and Steele’s “Spectator”: Emerging Discourses, ed. Donald J. Newman (Newark, 2004). The peculiarly gendered inflections of eighteenth-century notions of politeness and decorum, especially of woman’s typically ambivalent role in a culture that at values her reticence and conformity even as it condemns her opacity and duplicity has been explored by critics such as Laura Brown, Ellen Pollack, Felicity Nussbaum, and Claudia Johnson.

[4] Indeed, attention to this relation, especially in novelistic discourse, goes far to create the modern notions of the “well-rounded character” and characterological “depth,” as Deidre Lynch demonstrates in The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning (Chicago, 1998).

[5] The failure of this correspondence—as dissembling, dissimulation, affectation, and even hypocrisy—pinpoints the profound sin and rhetorical fallacies of Milton’s Satan, the delusions of Etherege’s Sir Fopling Flutter, the preposterous pretensions of the beaux, fops, and smart fellows scattered through The Tatler and The Spectator, as well as the grave crimes of Richardson’s rake anti-hero, Lovelace. Concern with establishing this correspondence between morals and manners, and so avoiding the fallacies and sins of affectation and dissimulation, informs the philosophy of Shaftesbury and Locke, the satire of Swift and Mandeville and Pope, and is an insistent theme in the eight volumes of Addison’s and Steele’s The Tatler and The Spectator. The tension between morals and manners, between being and seeming, is a constant motif in the theatre; the preoccupation with the class- and gender-based exclusions and privileges of the polite world and its discourses of taste and manners characterizes many of the mid- and late-eighteenth-century novels.

[6] It results as well in her proposal that, with her study to guide us, we might dispense with “the language of subjectivity” and pursue the ideological investment of men and women “within linguistic, cultural and political communities” following “the language of politeness” alone (5). But the very tension between outer and inner, between manners and morals with which Davidson is so concerned is itself contingent on the very discourse of interiorized bourgeois subjectivity that Davidson would seem to want, for undisclosed reasons, to suppress. I really can make little sense of this proposal in the context of the topic she presents here

[7] See Claudia Johnson, Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel (Chicago, 1988), 94–120.