Notes on the 19th Century: The Functions of Victorian Manners

The functions of Victorian manners during the 19th century rested on its investment in creating a genteel populace. In this way Victorian manners can be seen as an “investment” of the body. Michel Foucault reminds that, “…the body is directly involved in a political field, power relations have an immediate hold upon it, they invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs”(Foucault 25). Of special consideration is how this immediate hold fixes itself on the body through the ideals set forth by the social hegemonic domain of power.  The individual finds that the spaces they inhabit whether public or private test their mastery of Victorian manners.  As an ideological implement to serving a political/social hegemony, Victorian manners functioned in three important ways: to curb egalitarian “excess” in a purportedly democratic environment, promote consumerism in an increasingly capitalist, market-driven society, and to exert social control over the masses (Kasson 6).

Victorian manners stood as a “conservative bulwark” against social disorder and unrest (Kasson 62). As early as 1787 in the aftermath of Shay’s Rebellion, constitutional framers would convene to stabilize and strengthen the new American republic and stem the tide of social revolution (Franklin 93). Though the War for Independence was predicated on the ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness this new government immediately saw danger in the lingering revolutionary fervor. Edmund Burke, 18th century political theorist and Anglo-Irish statesman declared that “manners are more important than laws. Upon them the laws depend”(Monaghan 75). Burke was laying the ideological framework for a conservative model of personal self-governance. Manners lead to a populace that respected the law and their “place.”

Similarly in 1832 Frances Trollope wrote of offenses stemming from people’s “fallacious ideas of equality” and how the institution of slavery itself appeared “far less injurious to the manners and morals of the [American] people…” (Kasson 58). Here Trollope points out how revolting it was that people from lower classes emboldened themselves into believing they were the political equal of those in the higher classes. Kasson indicates that in this statement Trollope came close to implying that an element of servility was essential to civility (58). Servility however seemed to be fitted best for certain classes of people- the poor and the enslaved Africans. Such notions of preferred behavior for the masses exemplify a need for acceptance of the status quo in order for them to be complacent with their condition, however pitiable.

A populace such as that would be less inclined to revolt or question authority. Dred Scott would find that his own “fallacious ideas of equality” within the judicial system would set a legal precedent in 1857 when Justice Taney declared that “blacks had no rights which the white man was bound to respect…”  Ultimately the conventions of Victorian manners legitimated the political hegemony that kept people from questioning authority thereby curbing political unrest.


Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punishment: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1979

Kasson, John F. Rudeness & Civility: Manners in Nineteenth-Century Urban America. New York: Hill and Wang, 1990. Print

Franklin, John Hope. From slavery to freedom: a history of African Americans.New York: A.A Knopf, 2000

Monaghan, David M. “The Decline of the Gentry: A Study of Jane Austen’s Attitude to Formality In Persuasion” Studies in the Novel. Vol. 7. No.1. 1975 pp. 73-87

Stancliff, Michael. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper: African American Reform Rhetoric and the Rise of the Modern Nation State. NY: Routledge, 2011. Print

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