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Fashioning Masculinity. National identity and language in the eighteenth centuryPrinter-friendly versionPDF version
Fashioning Masculinity. National identity and language in the eighteenth century
London, Routledge, 1996, ISBN: 978041510735X; 192pp.; Price: £80.00
Dr Robert B. Shoemaker
University of Sheffield
Dr Robert B. Shoemaker, review of Fashioning Masculinity. National identity and language in the eighteenth century, (review no. 40)
Date accessed: 6 March, 2014
See Author's Response
Growing out of recent work on gender, scholars are now turning their attention to the history of masculinity. A key aspect of this subject is how masculinity is constructed, since, in the words of Michael Roper and John Tosh, 'masculinity is never fully possessed, but must perpetually be achieved, asserted and renegotiated'. The eighteenth century, a period frequently seen as pivotal in shaping modern gender roles for women, is providing fertile ground for historians of masculinity as well. In this clearly written and carefully argued book, Michèle Cohen investigates the role played by the French language and conceptions of otherness in shaping ideas about the education and self-fashioning of gentlemen in eighteenth and nineteenth-century England. Her initial concern was to explain how French came to be perceived as a 'female' language, as it is by school children today, but her research led her to investigate changes in gentlemanly ideals over the period from the late-seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries.
The book starts in France, with an examination of the French concepts of politesse and the honnête homme in the seventeenth century, in which gentlemen were expected to perfect their social skills through conversation with women in the salons: not only would men learn from the refined and delicate discourse of women, but their own conversation would be improved by their efforts to please their female audience. In the late seventeenth century a similar, but not identical, code of conduct became influential in England, politeness, which also viewed the ability to converse in French, the universal language of European courts at the time, as an important skill. Once again women were expected to play a crucial role, but concerns were now expressed that overexposure to female conversation would make men effeminate, and this concern extended to the influence mothers exerted over their sons. One of the advantages of the Grand Tour, which became fashionable as a means of completing the education of young gentleman around the turn of the eighteenth century, was that it removed boys from their mothers. But there were worries that such travel could corrupt, and that by encouraging men to develop ornamental accomplishments for public display, the Grand Tour also rendered men effeminate. By the late eighteenth century, men were expected to spend less time honing skills for public display and were expected instead to develop their mental faculties and acquire the virtue of sincerity. Taciturnity, which had once been seen as typical fault of English gentlemen, now became 'the emblem of his self-discipline, and his strength – in other words, of his manliness' (p. 105).
As a consequence, learning French was now seen in a new light. Men were no longer expected to cultivate their tongues by learning foreign languages through conversation, and the attention shifted to studying grammar as a means of developing analytical skills. But French grammar was seen as too simple, and the foreign language education of boys (now taking place in public schools rather than on the Grand Tour) turned to Latin. Correspondingly, the teaching of French came to be associated predominantly…