Fictions of Modesty: Women and Courtship in the English Novel

Ruth Yeazell
June 1991

From the late seventeenth century to the beginning of the twentieth, no figure was more central to debates in England about the relations between the sexes than that of the modest woman. Drawing on a wide range of narratives from the period, Ruth Bernard Yeazell analyzes the multiple and conflicting wishes that were covered by talk of “modesty” and explores some of the most striking uses of a modest heroine.

Combining evidence from conduct books and ladies’ magazines with the arguments of influential theorists like Hume, Rousseau, and Wollstonecraft, this book begins by asking why writers were devoted to the anxious remaking of women’s “nature” and to codifying rules for their porper behavior. Fictions of Modesty shows how the culture at once tried to regulate young women’s desires and effectively opened up new possibilities of subjectivity and individual choice.

Yeazell goes on to demonstrate that modest delaying actions inform a central tradition of English narrative. On the Continent, the English believed, the jeune fille went from the artificial innocence of the convent to an arranged marriage and adultery; the natural modesty of the Englishwoman, however, enabled her to choose her own mate and to marry both prudently and with affection. Rather than taking its narrative impetus from adultery, then, English fiction concentrated on courtship and the consciousness of the young woman choosing. After paired studies of Richardson’s Pamela and Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (even Fanny Hill, Yeazell argues, is a modest English heroine at heart), Yeazell investigates what women novelists made of the virtues of modesty in works by Burney, Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and Gaskell.

A speculative postscript briefly addresses the discourse of late nineteenth-century science in order to show how Darwin’s theory of sexual selection and Havelock Ellis’s psychology of sex replicate fictions of female modesty. While those who sought to codify modest behavior in previous centuries often appealed to Nature for support, our modern understanding of the natural, Yeazell suggests, owes something to the work of the novelists.

Sharply reasoned and witty, Fictions of Modesty will appeal to all those interested in women’s studies, the English novel, and the continuing history of relations between the sexes.