Letters to a Young Lady
(by the Rev. John Bennett)
…on a Variety of Useful and Interesting Subjects, Calculated to Improve the Heart, To Form The Manners and Enlighten the Understanding
“That our daughters may be as polished Corners of the Temple.”
Have you ever felt a wish to be a Polished Corner? I bought this little book a few years ago in Corning, a small town in rural New York State. It’s dated 1843, and this is its Tenth American Edition, but the original edition was published in England in 1795. The author's preface states, ‘this Work was originally dedicated to the Queen of England’. That would have been Caroline of Brunswick, unlucky enough in 1795 to become the unloved bride of George IV. An ill-starred choice of dedicatee. But so many editions! And so many decades! How many hundreds, perhaps thousands of girls were presented with a copy of this book?
It doesn’t claim much - only to Recommend:
I Religious Knowledge, with a list of proper writers.
II Polite Knowledge, as it relates to the Belles Lettres in general: Epistolatory Writing, History, the Lives of particular Persons, Geography, Natural History, Astronomy, Poetry, Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Heraldry, Voyages, Travels etc; with a catalogue of, and criticisms upon, the most improved authors under each article.
III Accomplishments, as displayed in Needlework, Embroidery, Drawing, Music, Dancing Dress, Politeness, etc.
IV Prudential Conduct and Maxims, with respect to Amusements, Love, Courtship, Marriage, etc.
What can he mean by that last ‘etc’?
The book was certainly read, for here are some bookmarks I found left in it - the labels from a bottle of Sarsaparilla Fluid Extract! (WHAT is Sarsaparilla?) And it is written in the form of letters to one Miss Lucy ******* whose mother has died. Rev. John begins by condoling with her:
It would give me the sincerest pleasure, if I knew how to alleviate your grief, or afford you a single moment’s consolation.
He proceeds to attempt to do so:
I need not press upon you the doctrines of religion. You have, doubtless, considered who it is, that has deprived you of this invaluable parent; a God of infinite wisdom
(God! – God has done it to her deliberately!)
who, without the strongest reason, would not afflict; and a Being of unbounded power, who is abundantly able to make up your loss, and open you to a thousand sources of comfort.
He’s scarily sincere. I can’t think what Lizzie Bennett would have had to say to this. Poor Miss Lucy! Indeed, for me, the spirit of Jane Austen hovers over the pages of this little book like the spirit of God over the face of the waters, lifting one cool eyebrow and smiling a Giaconda smile. The Rev. John concludes his first letter by assuring the young lady that both parties will benefit from their correspondence:
If I am able to communicate to you any little knowledge, you will more than repay it by that ease, delicacy, refinement, confidence and expansion, which the mind never effectually feels, but in the friendship of a sensible and an interesting woman.
|The frontispiece to the book|
It’s fascinating to see how he goes on. While he clearly believes in educating women, and feels they are let down by contemporary standards, he never for a moment expects a girl to step out of the domestic sphere. Reading his second letter, I shudder at the lot of a young lady in the late 18th/early 19th century. Imagine being told this kind of thing, again and again; imagine having this kind of mirror continually held up to you:
The timidity, arising from the natural weakness and delicacy of your frame; the numerous diseases to which you are liable; that exquisite sensibility which in many of you vibrates to the slightest touch of joy or sorrow; the tremulous anxiety you have for friends, children, a family…; the sedentariness of your life, naturally followed with low spirits or ennui, whilst we are seeking health and pleasure in the field; and the many lonely hours, which, in almost every situation, are likely to be your lot, will expose you to a number of peculiar sorrows which you cannot, like the men, either drown in wine or divert by dissipation.
Those were the days. And it doesn’t end there. “From the era, that you become marriageable,” Reverend John warns, croaking like Poe’s Raven, “the sphere of your anxieties and afflictions will be enlarged.”
Here is his advice on personal adornment.
Finery is seldom graceful. The easy undress of a morning often pleases more than the most elaborate and costly ornaments. [He may have something there.]
The nearer you approach to the masculine in your apparel, the further you will recede from the appropriate graces and softness of your sex. Riding habits… conceal everything that is attractive in a woman’s person… they wholly unsex her, and give her the unpleasing air of an Amazon, or a virago. [Good grief!]
Painting is indecent, offensive, criminal. It hastens the approach of wrinkles, it destroys constitutions, and defaces the image of your Maker. [Oh come on…]
He is hilarious on dress:
Young ladies should not be too liberal in the display of their charms. Too much exposure does not enhance their value. And it approaches, too nearly, to the manner of those women, whom they would surely think it no honour to resemble. Bosoms should throb unseen.
Yes, those are his italics. I really don’t think the comedy is intentional… Rev. John warns Miss Lucy frequently of the danger presented by the opposite sex, and in doing so throws much light, for me anyway, on the behaviour of Elinor in ‘Sense and Sensibility’(1811). No wonder she suppresses all trace of feeling for Edward, if she’d read much advice of this sort:
To entertain a secret partiality for a man, without knowing it reciprocated, is dreadful indeed. If you have address and fortitude enough not to betray it, and thus expose yourself to ridicule and censure (and yet what prudence is always equal to the task?) it will cost you infinite grief, anxiety and vexation, and a victory over yourself, if you do gain it, may be at the expense of your health and constitution. It will, at the same time, totally unfit you for any other connexion, for who would take the body, when another person is in possession of the soul?
Good works, though, are always acceptable in a woman. Do you remember Jane Austen's Emma and Harriet, visiting the sick and poor of Highbury? Well, here is the Reverend John's Miss Louisa, daughter of a clergyman, being held up as an example to Miss Lucy:
I have often heard Louisa dwell with rapture on the entertainment and edification she has received in many cottages, when she has been carrying clothing, cordials or money, to the distressed inhabitants…
General admiration is Louisa’s reward:
[she is] praised as often as her name is mentioned, and followed, whithersoever she moveth, with their tears, and with their blessings.
Contrast with this from Austen's 'Emma' (1815):
'She understood their ways, could allow for their ignorance and their temptations, had no romantic expectations of extraordinary virtue from those, for whom education had done little … and quitted the cottage with such an impression of the scene as made her say to Harriet, as they walked away, “These are the sights, Harriet, to do one good. How trifling they make everything appear! –I feel now as if I could think of nothing but those poor creatures all the rest of the day; and yet, who can say how soon it may all vanish from my mind?”'
And of course it does so the very next minute, as Mr Elton appears, Emma’s designated suitor for Harriet’s hand.
‘ “To fall in with each other on such an errand as this,” thought Emma, “to meet in a charitable scheme; this will bring a great increase of love on each side. I should not wonder if it were to bring on a declaration…”’
Whereupon she falls back to retie a perfectly good bootlace, in an attempt to throw Harriet and Mr Elton together. What censure would the Rev. John Bennett have had for such scandalous behaviour? Let us hope and believe that in real life, Emmas have always been more common than Louisas, and that most, if not all, of the young women who read this tightly printed little book did so with at least the occasional wicked smile.