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Propriety and Delicacy

Around the beginning of the nineteenth century a new literary morality appeared in England. Books once read aloud in family circles were now considered unsuitable for women and children and were subjected to expurgations.  Surprisingly enough, the Bible was one of the most frequently bowdlerized books.

The term "bowdlerize" came from Dr. Bowdler and his sister who published The Family Shakespeare  in 1807. This book was advertised as having all the troublesome or improper portions eliminated. The book was popular with the growing middle class and members of the evangelical religions and led many other authors to try their hand at purifying various works.

The paradox is that one had to have a worldly or salacious mind to recognize all the improper words and understand all the double ententres. There has even been some speculation that it was this element of the editing that caused Miss Bowdler's name to be left off the title page.  Yet, a Miss Bowdler, perhaps the same one? caused a scandal in Fanny Burney's day by displaying a preference for masculine over female company and seemingly not paying a dot of attention to propriety.

By the end of the first decade of the century, people were already shaking their heads over what their parents had allowed to be read in family gatherings. In 1814, some thought Sterne inadmissible to a society "where good breeding and innocence are cultivated."

There was a market for extracts of books. Words, phrases, and situations that had not previously injured the innocent were now suspect. Moral progress was cited as the grounds for spurning works which the eighteenth century took in their stride.

Where an earlier age had  The Prince, or the letters of Chesterfield to his son, and admonitions not to eat with one's dagger, the early years of the nineteenth century were the day of the conduct book. These books were less concerned with the minutia of calling cards than with the reader's character.the A vast change in manners  did take place in the latter days of the eighteenth century and the first part of the nineteenth.

Etiquette writers of the 1770's  commented on the change; by 1830 the process seemed to be complete. The English saw the French Revolution as the natural result of the French's propensity for indulging their emotions and reacted by enforcing laws against gatherings of large numbers of people and by deploring the expression of emotions. Rules of propriety-- stronger than legalities- encouraged the stifling of expressions of emotion in public.  The Princess of Wales was sneered at for expressing her emotions in what the aristocracy saw as a theatrical manner.

Leigh Hunt was astounded at the free talk in farmhouses in 1805. A relative of Sir Walter found that she could no longer read the works of Aphra Behn because of the improprieties contained in them. These same works had been enjoyed when read aloud in a family circle when the lady was a girl. The new moralists of the nineteenth century, in a reversal of roles, shook their heads over their fathers' wild oats and their mothers' loose behavior.

The rising middle class had a great deal to do with the new morality as did the growth of the evangelical religions such as Methodism. Another cause, growing out of the other two and out of the philosophies of Rousseau, Shaftesbury, and the  vogue of sentiment and sensibility, was the concept of "delicacy."

Perrin, in his book Dr. Bowdler's Legacy, advances the theory that the changing idea of delicacy helped fuel the new morality. In 1700, Congreve used the word delicate to indicate someone who made subtle distinctions in behavior or subject matter. The word was morally neutral. Addison, in 1712, connects the word to chastity but distinctly separates it from any squeamishness of language. As quoted by Perrin, Addison  was against euphemisms and in favour of plain speaking. He felt there was less danger for the innocent and unwary when seduction was called seduction and a strumpet was called a strumpet. Trollope, writing during the reign of Queen Victoria, agreed with him.  Speaking of "fallen women", Trollope says " the very existence of such a condition of life... was supposed to be unknown to our sisters and daughters.." He argued that this ignorance led to a continuation of the sins. How could girls be armored against seduction if no one ever told them what seduction was? Unaware of seduction, fornication, and smooth talking roués, girls were easy prey for seducers.

Such ignorance might not be too harmful for girls who were strictly and rigorously chaperoned, but it was disastrous for ones like Lydia Bennet or others whose circumstances precluded chaperons. Silence on the subject  of loss of virtue also meant that girls did not understand the true payment that would be extracted in shame and the ruin of all reputation and chances for a future.

By the middle of the eighteenth century delicacy had joined with the new cult of feeling from France and taken on a new life.  Now, delicacy came to mean "something shrinking, sensitive, easily wounded---..." Delicate people were not in ill health. Their feelings and emotions were so tender and delicate that they cried easily, blushed often and readily, and swooned whenever  faced with something  too strong for their sensibilities. While men never did quite accept the tasks of swooning or blushing, the eighteenth century man did cry as easily  as  did the lady. However,  Gentlemen soon found tender feelings a liability in their world and transferred the attributes, task, and requirements for delicacy  to the female sex almost exclusively. This was intensified when the idea of the masculine  stiff upper lip gained wider acceptance among all classes of Englishmen.

Though it  became corrupted to mean one who shuddered at the mere mention of anything about the opposite sex, who covered piano legs and  refused to say that word, and one who couldn't even sit on a seat just vacated by a male, the idea  of delicacy started life in philosophy and theories of moral sentiment.

Pamela, or Virtue rewarded, by Samuel Richardson

The  delicate were supposed to have an intuitive ability to tell right from wrong; they were supposed to have an infallible eye for beauty and proportion, as well as  instinctive knowledge of the proper behavior in any circumstance. Many such as Anna Isabelle Milbanke, who became Lady Byron, were thought almost infallible in their moral judgments.

The theory of a delicacy was just not strong enough to support all that was expected of it. Neither, it turned out, were those poor females who were expected to possess this trait. When females sought to judge other's degree of delicacy by their reactions to  Pamela they discovered that the truly innocent had to be taught that certain subjects were supposed to bring a blush to their cheeks.

By 1789, the Reverend John Bennet was stating that delicacy..."extends to everything where woman is concerned. Conversation, books, pictures, attitude, gesture, pronunciation, should all come under its salutary restraints."  Clothes were not excluded. The moralists praised the innocence of the white muslins but took exception to the unstructured nature of the gowns. The practice of omitting stays and undergarments had a short duration. Being "tight-laced" was a literal, and not just a figurative, state.

It is noticeable that the Rev. Bennet does not even pretend to include gentlemen in his treatise. Already the gentlemen were willing to let females be the guardians of delicacy. They appreciated that  it was hard to have delicacy while dealing with all the  business of living.  Having delicate taste now meant being shocked at every mention of anything that might be construed as being evil, sexual, realistic, compromising, or part of bodily functions. An 1834 guide book for females warns ladies against blowing their nose in public.

There was, later, a certain amount self-deception in the men's belief in the virgin female mind as well as in that of the Angel in the House. Delicacy in late Victorian days meant weakness and helplessness-- even of those women who managed their homes, several children and an abusive husband. The wives were supposed to  blush at mention of the marriage bed while presenting their husbands with the numerous children engendered there.

courtesy of the James Smith Noel Collection

Class consciousness  was also at work. Only the wives of those in certain social strata were considered delicate. The daughter of the washer woman, no matter how innocent, was never burdened with delicacy. Some women of other classes did ape the manners of those of the upper but not aristocratic classes.

All through the period, the aristocrats of the highest levels often thought themselves above such rules.

By the  early nineteenth century, the idea of delicacy was applied mainly to debutantes and other young unmarried females. The idea that a young lady should not even hear or see anything that might call forth a blush  was widely held in the Bon Ton. This rule limited the dinner table conversation where the young ladies were present to innocuous subjects. It became a major faux pas for a young lady to give anyone reason to question her sense of propriety. One lady was ruined because her skirts were awry when she fell from a horse. Others lost their reputations due to  accidents or the malice of others. There was no appeal of the sentence and no mitigating circumstances were accepted. Delicacy, like virginity, could only be lost once.

The proliferation of books, lending libraries, and magazines, as well as the new roads and the practice of a season in London, were thought to significant power to overwhelm a girl's natural delicacy and to put them in danger. By the time of the Regency, the belief that innocence will invariably repulse and abhor sin and sex was held by far fewer people than had espoused the belief in the beginning. Even if one gave lip service to the opinion, few parents or guardians were willing to trust their charge's future to such uncertainty as instinct. Instead, there was the equivalent of a tome of rules that young ladies had to follow to escape ruin and reach the sanctity of a "good match."

Though those who promoted the idea of female delicacy did so, they said, in order to protect the innocence of females, the  main purpose of the was control of the female mind and spirit and virtue. To be pronounced "indelicate" meant social ruin for a young lady. It is indicative of the purpose of the rule of "delicacy" that women of the lower classes were considered exempt from its effects and requirements. A lower class female did not have any delicacy. This lack separated her from her more aristocratic neighbor and provided servants and labourers for the benefit of the "delicate' upper class female who were barred from taking part in the real world.  How could a lady's purity and delicacy be assured if she went out into the world?  A girl reared to have "delicate" sensibilities had to be protected from even the hint of impropriety. It was this opinion that lead to so many females concealing their authorship under the phrase "By A Lady".


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