'Upon your entry into the world': masculine values and the threshold of adulthood among landed elites in England, 1680-1800

Henry French, Mark Rothery

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticlepeer-review


Compared with studies of earlier and later centuries, discussion of masculinity in the ‘long’ eighteenth century has often concentrated on typifying discourses abstracted from conduct literature, or by reference to gender values expressed in prosecutions and publications relating to ‘deviant’ sexualities. Less attention has been given to identifying private understandings of masculine norms embedded in family correspondence. This study identifies values that were ‘routinized’ within a sample of landed families, that is, those norms rendered unremarkable by everyday rehearsal and mentioned only in passing. It focuses particularly on a ‘make-or-break’ moment in male development – sons’ departure from direct parental control. This pivotal step offered the chance to enact ideals of masculine autonomy, self-control and independence, but carried the risks of debt, disease or disgrace. This article evaluates three important aspects of the tense relationship between filial ‘entry into the world’ and parental expectations. Firstly, it explores parental understandings of this dilemma, and illustrates how fears were counter-balanced by recognition of the importance of personal autonomy within practices of elite masculinity. Secondly, it shows how families mitigated the perils of filial independence, particularly by inculcating ‘familial’ values, and selecting appropriate role models (often siblings). Thirdly, it examines sons’ responses to these efforts, and whether hidden differences of opinion were concealed beneath outward conformity. These private unpublished records demonstrate a number of insights into elite masculinity. Despite the inherent dangers involved in the process, the gentry deemed the beginnings of independence to be crucial to their sons’ development as men and negotiated the process in various ways. Ongoing support was provided by family members. Women were amongst the most important of these and mothers played a very important part in both advising and admonishing. Parents and other family members were more likely to recommend the example of living role models than to suggest particular conduct books or advice manuals. Family cultures of masculinity were apparent in this correspondence as well as the broader social assumptions about manhood that informed them, and demonstrate a greater degree of continuity in gender norms than has previously been supposed
Original languageEnglish
Article number4
Pages (from-to)402-422
Number of pages21
JournalSocial History
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2008


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