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Books of Instruction. 0619: Anon., The Polite Academy

Author: Anon. (in part by Madame Le Prince de Beaumont)
Title: The polite academy, or, school of behaviour for young gentlemen and ladies. Intended as a foundation for good manners and polite address, in masters and misses. Containing 1. The beauty and advantages of a genteel behaviour and agreeable complaisance. 2. Some rules and observations, for moral behaviour in young ladies; very necessary to be inculcated while at boarding-school, in order to be practis'd when they come from it. 3. Directions for good manners, agreeable behaviour, and polite address, on most common occasions in life. 4. Some directions for an early genteel carriage in walking, saluting, making a curtsey, bow and dancing the minuet. 5. Some observations on the real use and advantages of dancing, by Mr. Lock and the Chevalier de Ramsay; with some very necessary instructions by an eminent master. Illustrated with twelve copper plate cuts, beautifully engraved
Cat. Number: 0619
Date: 1762
1st Edition:
Pub. Place: London
Publisher: R. Baldwin
Price: 1s
Pages: 1 vol., 108pp.
Size: 12 x 7.5 cm
Illustrations: None (frontispiece and eleven further full-page engravings, as in British Library copy, missing)
Note: MS. inscription: Mary Coker Dec 29th 1763', then 'Mary Lloyd'

Images of all pages of this book

Page 003 of item 0619

Introductory essay

The Polite Academy was a popular book. It first appeared in 1758 and had reached a tenth edition by the end of the century. The 1762 printing in the Hockliffe Collection comes from the second edition.

The aim of the book was set out on its title-page. It was 'intended as a Foundation for good Manners and polite address'. This covered both physical and mental deportment. In the view of the authors, these were one and the same thing. 'A Young Woman of Virtue and good Sense, will never think it beneath her Care and Study to cultivate the Graces of her outward Mien', the book begins, for they 'contribute so considerably towards making her Behaviour acceptable'. If young women avoid 'all particular and affected Motions of the Head, all wanton or oblique Glances of the Eyes, all Ogling or Winking, dimpling of the Cheeks, or primming of the Lips', in other words, they will be recognised as having modest, genteel and complaisant personalities, and will therefore be highly esteemed (pp.vi-vii).

This general aim is set out in the lengthy preface. The actual means to achieve such respect are set out in the body of the book: the 'Directions for An Agreeable Behaviour and Polite Address'. The key to knowing how to behave is to know one's place in society's hierarchy. One's rank, the book's very first chapter explains, is derived from one's parents. Or at least each child derives his or her 'first Station in life' from them, a qualification hinting at the possibility of later social elevation (p.1). Clearly the authors felt that anyone reading their book would be from the middling classes, for the reader is told that, by virtue of your schooling, 'You are placed above vulgar Children (who run wild about the Streets)', but that 'there are others above you.' (p.2)

As the text runs on, it gets more and more specific. Successive chapters deal with how to behave at school, at Church, when walking in company, when walking alone, at mealtimes, and so on. These rules are rather precise. 'In eating Fruit', the reader is told, for example, 'do not swallow the Stones, but lay them and the Stalks on one Side of your Plate, laying one of the Leaves that came with the Fruit over them.' (p.20)

The next section deals with posture and deportment, teaching the reader how to stand, how to walk, how to bow or curtesy, and how to dance. Engravings, missing from the Hockliffe copy, illustrate the approved manner. 'Having given, I hope, sufficient Rules for good Behaviour ... of the Body', the author ended this section, 'I shall present my little Readers with an entertaining moral Tale, which may serve as a Picture for the Mind.' (p.55) What follows is Madame le Prince de Beaumont's 'Beauty and the Beast' (p.56ff.), subtitled 'An Entertaining Moral Tale, from the French'. This had first appeared in English in her Young Misses Magazine in 1757, only a year before the first edition of The Polite Academy. The text is identical in both. (See 0008 for more on Beauty and the Beast).

The volume continues with 'Some Observations on the Real Use and Advantages of Dancing' (p.85ff.), the sentiments drawn from John Locke, Giovanni Andrea Gallini (whose Treatise on the Art of Dancing was first published in 1762 in London), and 'the Chevalier de Ramsay'. This was Andrew Michael Ramsay (1686-1743), a Scot who had converted to Catholicism, who had became a close associate of Fénelon, archbishop of Cambray, and who had spent most of his life abroad with the Jacobite court. For some time indeed he was tutor to Prince Charles Edward Stewart, the 'Young Pretender', and his brother, later the Cardinal of York. His sentiments on dancing had presumably first appeared in his Plans for the Education of a Young Prince (1732). The books ends with a poem entitled 'The Art of Dancing, with Directions for Dress' (p.95ff.).

Overall, then, The Polite Academy might be characterised as a finishing school in book form. With the exception of 'Beauty and the Beast', the book did not seek to entertain its readers, although this is not to say that children would not draw some pleasure from reading of the most refined way to dance a minuet, say. But essentially the aim of the book was to teach gentility to middle class children. As such its primary appeal was probably to parents who wished to facilitate the social elevation of their children. Children might owe their starting station in life to their parents, the book was careful to stress, but if they learned to walk, talk and dance well, they might be able to advance further. In fact, this was simply an open expression of the raison d'etre of so much of the children's literature of the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Whether books of instruction or moral tales, the central purpose of the new, post-Newbery children's literature was to enable children to do well for themselves in their future lives. The emphasis of these books on education, morality, propriety was the symptom of this central purpose.