But only English language poetry. For, ‘with regard to the time spent in the acquisition of languages, I fear I must incur the risk of being thought neither liberal not enlightened; for I confess, I do not see the value of languages to a woman, except so far as they serve the purpose of conversation with persons of different countries, or acquaintance with the works of authors whose essential excellencies cannot be translated into our own tongue; and how far these two objects are carried out by the daughters of England, either from necessity or inclination, I must leave to their own consideration.’
There is, of course, much good advice buried in these manuals too. Time and again the emphasis is upon the importance of friendship and persistence in marriage. Rarely, if ever, is the subject of sex touched upon. The nature and conduct of marital relations were explained in cheaper pamphlets distributed through a more clandestine social network. Instead, in the more acceptable manuals, lines such as, ‘The bloom of modesty is soon rubbed off by vulgar contact; but what is thus lost to the young female can never be restored,’ served as a warning to young ladies inclined to bestow too generous affections on the opposite sex.
The more polite manuals were intended for and of use mainly to the women of the ever-growing middle classes, but they were popular with poorer girls too, who perhaps wanted something to hope for in their hard lives. In poorer communities, social niceties and divisions of the sexes were more to do with division of labour if not outright survival. This was particularly pertinent on the American Frontier, where even until the latter half of the 1800s, a good worker with a cheerful demeanor was viewed as more important qualities than perfect manners. The man was expected to have total financial dominance, and control of family decisions, although both of these lessened by the late 1880s.
Much of the advice for all classes in manuals, diaries and letters of advice centred on how to ‘maintain comity’ within the household once married. This, was not always successful. The wedding night was a surprise for many, though certainly not all. For many women, including Queen Victoria, entering into a successful sexual partnership was one of the delights of marriage and adult life. For others, it was dramatically less successful. When unfortunate Oregon couple Mary and Arnold Myers married in 1870, Mary informed Arnold on their wedding night that an injury in childhood had rendered her unable to have children and that a pregnancy might be fatal. The social purity movement associated with the Comstock Laws (following the Comstock Act of 1873, prohibiting the delivery or dispersal of contraceptives or birth control literature in the United States) meant that many couples were ignorant of contraception, or felt that contraceptive methods were unacceptable. Mary and Arnold's marriage survived only five days. They had sex once, on their wedding night. Mary later testified during their divorce proceedings that it was ‘imperfect and got more by force than by anything else & hurt her very much’. She had not told Arnold of her situation before the wedding, because ‘it was not the place of a young girl to tell such things’. But Mary and Arnold’s case was the exception. Arnold wanted a wife who would live with him and with whom he could have a sex life, a not unreasonable request from married life in any age. However, just over half of all Mary’s Oregon contemporaries seeking divorce stated verbal and/or physical cruelty during the same period (infidelity is cited only in a steady ten to twelve percent of cases). She escaped to California to live with her mother and Arnold was granted a divorce on grounds of impotence: Mary’s.
As, towards the end of the nineteenth century, frontier conditions faded across America, the earlier manuals made a comeback and like the women they had tutored, gave birth to a second generation with more capacity for comfort and education. The marvellous Daughters of England went through further editions, still giving spurious advice, such as, ‘Beauty, health, and temper. These are the personal qualifications universally considered to be of great importance to the female sex’ but for those aiming higher than life as a simple ornament, ‘The art of writing a really good letter ranks unquestionably amongst the most valuable accomplishments of woman’.
It seems there’s never been an easy time to be a woman. Our modern manuals, magazines and literature still continue to emphasize image over worth, publishing unattainable ideals and bizarre interpretations of what femininity should be. But one sentiment from 1843 remains as valuable today as it was then, and although it applies to the male in this instance, it's universally applicable: ‘Having chosen your lover for his suitability, endeavour to be satisfied with him as he is, rather than imagine him what he can never be. It will save you a world of disappointment’.