Shyness and Savoir-Vivre: Social Knowledge, Emotional Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century France

Philippa Lewis

Late nineteenth-century French psychology conceptualised shyness (timidité) as an emotion which was, in certain cases, constitutive or symptomatic of illness. While this process of medicalisation has received increased critical attention in recent years, its significance cannot be appreciated fully without an understanding of the alternative theories and conceptions of shyness which existed in France in the same period. In an attempt to further this understanding, this paper will explore the complex ways in which French etiquette literature of the long nineteenth century situated and made sense of shyness. The paper will make three principal observations. First, it will suggest that, regardless of ideological orientation, many etiquette manuals of the period seem surprisingly categorical in their condemnation of shyness on moral and/or pragmatic grounds, repeatedly identifying the shy individual as one who transgresses key moral and social codes of collective life; that is, the codes of politeness or savoir-vivre. However, a closer examination reveals a cluster of texts, mostly from the latter years of the nineteenth century, which display a more nuanced understanding of the experience, and an awareness of the way shyness troubles the conflation of manners and morals embedded in the notion of etiquette. For example, texts which remark on the frequent coexistence of shyness with virtue in the same individual, the analogical rather than essential connection between shy and vicious behaviour, or on the intense suffering caused by shyness in the subject, draw the reader’s attention to the futility of deducing moral character from manners. Highlighting the fundamental illegibility of the shy individual, whose ‘true’ virtue may be masked by vice-like behaviour, such remarks destabilise the etiquette enterprise as a whole. The paper will conclude with a third observation: while etiquette literature of the late nineteenth century seems impervious to emerging scientific theories of emotion, might it be possible to see the implicit influence of these theories in the increasingly specific – and increasingly sympathetic – focus on shyness in these manuals?


Philippa Lewis is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow based in the French Department at the University of Bristol in the UK. She is currently working on a literary and cultural history of shyness focusing on France in the long nineteenth century. She has published articles in Modern Language Review and Nineteenth-Century French Studies and her monograph, Intimacy and Distance: Conflicting Cultures in Nineteenth-Century France, is forthcoming this year with Legenda.