Tuesday 4 December 2012

How to be a Young Lady - Katherine Langrish

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.”
Well whoopee-doo.

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.


Laurie said...

Lovely post. Sarsaparilla was the pre-Pepsi ladies'soda fountain drink. You can still get it but my guess is it's now made entirely from E numbers.

frances thomas said...

A wonderful find, Katherine. Mu unseen bosom is throbbing in amazement. Still one imagines Jane Austen wouldn't have taken this stuff too seriously

H.M. Castor said...

What a fantastic post! And yes, to be told all this repeatedly... argh!

adele said...

Sarsaparilla is revolting. I had it once. But a great post, Kath as ever.

Theresa Breslin said...

I adore these old books - thanks so much for allowing us a glimpse into this one. In my Girl's Companion pub 1947 but reprinted into the 1960s there's a section entitled 'The Gentleman's Privilege' which states that 'there are certain services which a gentleman should perform for a lady, and it is courteous for you to give him the opportunity to do so...' Disappointingly it goes on to list these as opening a door, or helping you out of a car etc

Katherine Langrish said...

Disappointing indeed, Theresa! Thanks for all your comments. For those who wish to explore further, I think you can find Letters to a Young Lady on Google Books. But perhaps this taster will suffice!

Caroline Lawrence said...

Fab post, Kath!

P.K. Pinkerton and I LOVE Sarsaparilla! It's also known as "root beer" in America and it makes a great "float". Put a scoop of vanilla ice cream in a tall glass and add chilled root beer... Voila! A "root beer float"! Taste of my childhood in Bakersfield California.

Sarsaparilla is also recommended by The Stranger in The Big Lebowski.

Katherine Langrish said...

Root beer! THANKYOU Caroline. I have often wondered!

Leslie Wilson said...

I did enjoy this - and the Rev would surely censure Emma's wanton destruction of her bootlace. There is a kind of sadistic pleasure in the gentlemans enumeration of the horrors of young lady hood, isn't there?
However, he may have had a point about 'painting' , for the cosmetics of that age were highly toxic - white lead? and quite a few of them did have the effect of destroying the skin beneath, and then of course the merchants of cosmetics had their client for life...

Marie-Louise said...

Penned by Mr Collins, surely? Hilarious. Great post

Katherine Langrish said...

Good point about the poisonous cosmetics, Leslie. I wonder what the constituents of face paint were, by the 18th C? I'd heard of Queen Elizabeth using white lead, but was it still in use three centuries later? Anyone?

Marie-Louise - absolutely Mr Collins!

maryom said...

A fascinating look at how BORING life must have been! ".. 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." So the men are bored and go out hunting shooting and drinking while the womenfolk get to stay at home and continue being bored leading to depression - that is what he's saying, surely?

Ann Turnbull said...

A boring life, yes - but only if you were a young lady. I bet the young women in the cottages had a much livelier time.

Leslie Wilson said...

I should have to ferret through some of my old research resources to give you chapter and verse - but I understand that safe cosmetics began in the 20 th century

Laura said...

I now HAVE to find a reason to use the phrase 'unseen bosom' seriously.

Sounds like to be a lady was absolutely dire! Here's hoping there was a whole bunch of tomboys about - if you can't get all ladies to behave the same way today, perhaps young ladies were just as reluctant to follow the herd then? Human nature can't change that much, surely? Here's hoping..

Lynn said...

Loved this post, Katherine. Had me, by turns, shaking my head and chuckling.

(Root beer float! Haven't had one of those in years.)

Susan Price said...

Is 'root beer' ginger beer, then? I quite like ginger beer, especially if alcoholic - oops, I suppose that shows that I am not a lady.
If it's anything like coco-cola, no wonder it's revolting, Adele! I've always found coke revolting, and wonder how they ever sold a single glass.
Kath - great post!

Theresa Breslin said...

But cosmetics still aren't safe. Aren't Botox and some wrinkle creams packed with toxins?

Katherine Langrish said...

Not ginger beer, Sue. I've finally looked up 'root beer' and it was originally made from sassafras bark (whatever THAT is: this is becoming an endlessly receding enquiry!) but is now sold and flavoured with anything from vanilla, wintergreen, cherry tree bark, licorice root, sarsaparilla root, nutmeg, acacia, anise, molasses, cinnamon, clove, and honey.