Letters to a Young Lady
by Rev. John Bennett,
published in 1811 by
William E. Norman
Title: Letters to a Young Lady: On a variety of useful and interesting subjects; calculated to improve the heart, to form the manners and enlighten the understanding…Sixth American Edition. Two Volumes Complete in One. By Rev. John Bennett (British), published and printed in Hudson by William E. Norman (1811).
Editorial Introduction: Well, ladies, while life isn’t fair, and we aren’t equal yet, we’ve certainly come a long way since 1811. Though some may still espouse Rev. Bennett’s philosophy, at least in the twenty-first century most will refrain from articulating such sentiments in public. The goal of this informative little volume (as its forward, or “Advertisement” advises) is to “serve the fairest and most amiable part of the creation; to rouse young ladies from a vacant or insipid life, into one of usefulness and laudable exertion – to recall them from visionary novels and romances, into solid reading and reflection – and from the criminal absurdities of fashion, to the simplicity of nature and the dignity of virtue.”
Clearly aimed at young ladies of the upper classes (whose fathers or husbands could at least afford to buy books), this work is divided into sections including “Religious Knowledge (with a list of proper writers), Polite Knowledge (as it relates to the Belle Lettres in general: Epistolary writing, History, the lives of Particular Persons, Geography, Natural History, Astronomy, Poetry, Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Heraldry, Voyages, Travels, &c., with a catalogue of, and criticisms upon, the most approved authors under each article); Accomplishments (Needlework, Embroidery, Drawing, Music, Dancing, Dress, Politeness, &c.), and Prudential Conduct and Maxims with respect to Amusements, Love, Courtship, Marriage, &c.”
So herewith, without further ado, are a few gems of pious and polite society’s advisories to young ladies in 1811 (italics Rev. Bennett’s):
Page 12: “A bad man is terrible in society; but an unprincipled woman is a monster. The peace, happiness and honor of our sex” [Ed. Note: that is, Rev. Bennett’s] “are so very much in the power of yours after marriage, that the most abandoned libertine shudders at the thought of an union with woman, who has not piety and virtue. His intimacy with some females, of a certain description, has given him such a disgusting picture, as will never be forgotten. In his moments of reflection, he execrates his folly, and when he deliberates, whom he should chuse for the companion of his life, appeals from the treacherous, ruffled bosom of an harlot, to one, that will be always faithful, and always serene. Without piety, indeed, a woman can never fully possess the true powers of pleasing. She will want that meek benevolence, sympathy and softness, which give an inexpressible lustre to her features, and such a wonderful ascendancy over our affections. We shall not otherwise approach her with confidence, or dare to repose any of our secrets, or concerns or our sorrows, in her sympathizing breast.”
Editorial Note: Such, according to the honorable Rev. Bennett, were the duties of pious upper class women – even when unfortunately wedded to “the most abandoned libertine.” One presumes that women unable to carry this off in exchange for a means of support, or who cherished a preference for ruffles, were immediately reclassified as “treacherous harlots.”
Pg. 93: Letter LVIII. “Poetry I do not wish you to cultivate, further than to possess a relish for its beauties. Verses, if not excellent, are execrable indeed. The muses live upon a mount, and there is no enjoying any of their favors, unless you can climb to the heights of Parnassus. Besides, a passion for poetry is dangerous to a woman. It heightens her natural sensibility to an extravagant degree, and frequently inspires such a romantic turn of mind, as is utterly inconsistent with the solid duties and proprieties of life. To increase the number of imaginary, when life already abounds with real, sorrows, by nursing a sickly extravagant sensibility, is, in a rational creature, the very height of imprudence…In this human wilderness, thorns are perennials. Roses are but the perishable ornaments of summer.”
Pg.109: Letter LXVI: “Music, by which I mean playing on an instrument, or occasionally singing, is a very desirable acquisition in any women, who has time and money enough to devote to the purpose, for it requires no inconsiderable portion of both. It will enable you to entertain your friends, to confer pleasures upon others, must increase your own happiness, and it will inspire tranquility, and harmonize your mind and spirits in many of those ruffled or lonely hours, which in almost every situation will be your lot. The passions of mankind, however, have very much debased and profaned this art, which, like others, was originally sacred, and intended to chant the praises of the Almighty. Many songs are couched in such indelicate language, and convey such a train of luscious ideas, as are only calculated to soil the purity of a youthful mind. I should therefore recommend (if I may so express myself) rather the sacred than the profane, of this study. Indeed, church music is, in itself, more delightful, than any other. What can be superior to some passages of Judas Maccabeus, or the Messiah? There is not, perhaps, an higher amongst the melancholy pleasures, than a funeral dirge.”
Page 110: Dancing: “Dancing, in a degree, is professedly an essential part of a good education, as correcting any awkwardness of gesture, giving an easy and graceful motion to the body and if practiced early, perhaps even in directing its growth. Modern manners, however, have carried the fondness for this accomplishment to an immoderate extreme. A passion for making the best figure in a minuet, is vastly beneath the dignity of a woman’s understanding. And I am not sure, whether excelling in this particular does not inspire too great a fondness for dissipating pleasures, and proportionately abate the ardor for more retired virtues. A woman, who can sparkle and engage the admiration of every beholder at a birth night or a ball, is not always content with the graver office of managing a family, or the still and sober innocence of domestic scenes. Besides, dancing is not, at certain moments, without certain temptations. An elegant illuminated room, brilliant company, the enchanting powers of music, admiring eyes, obsequious beaus, attitudes &c. are apt to transport the mind a little beyond the rational medium of gentle agitation.”
Page 111-113: On Dress: “It is the opinion of (I believe) Rochefocault, that nice observer of life and manners, that the affection of woman increases after marriage, whilst that of man is apt to decline. Whatever be the cause, a prudent woman will, at least, use every method in her power to guard against so mortifying a change. Neatness, however, is easily practiced, and will always have considerable weight….Finery is seldom graceful. The easy undress of morning often pleases more, than the most elaborate and costly ornaments. I need not say how much time and money they rob us, which are sacred to virtue and to the poor, nor how soon this very embellished body will be dust and ashes. The perfection of the art is conveyed in two words: an elegant simplicity. Ladies are certainly injudicious in employing so many male friseurs about their persons. The custom is indelicate; it is contrary to cleanliness; and all their manoeouvres cannot equal the beauty of natural, easy ringlets, untortured and unadorned.
The nearer you approach to the masculine, in your apparel, the further you recede from the appropriate graces and softness of your sex. Addison, in his day, lashed, with a delicate vein of irony, this absurd transformation. The present age wants such an inimitable censor. The riding habits, particularly, that have been so fashionable, and even made their appearance in public places, conceal everything that is attractive in a woman’s person, her figure, her manner and her graces. They wholly unsex her, and give her the unpleasant air of an Amazon, or a virago. We forget that you are women in such a garb, and we forget to love.”
Editorial Note: It wasn’t until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that it began to be acceptable for women to ride horses astride in split skirts, rather than sidesaddle – and then eventually, in breeches. At the time this book was written, the necessity of riding sidesaddle made it almost impossible for women to proceed at much more than a walk (and heaven forbid their horses should rear or bolt). Thus, in Rev. Bennett’s day, women were forced to risk their necks for the sake of propriety if riding horseback; so here he adds insult to injury by complaining that then-current riding habits “conceal everything that is attractive in a woman’s person.”
Page 113 – 114: On Dress (continued): “Every public paper one opens, is a violation of your delicacy and an insult to your understanding. Powders, perfumes, pomatums, cosmetics, essence of roses, Olympian dew, artificial eyes, teeth, hair advertised for you advantage, would be a heavy stigma if some kind and well-disposed persons amongst our own sex, were not willing to share with you, a part of the burden. – Blush, my dear girl, at such unseemly practices. Be content to be what God and nature intended you; appear in your true colors; abhor anything like deceit in your appearance, as well as your character. What must all sensible men think of a woman, who has a room filled with a thousand preparations and mixtures to deceive him? What money, what time, must be given to this odious insufferable vanity! Under such unnatural management, how different must be the female of the evening and the morning! What must we think of marriage, dressing-rooms, and toilets! What an opening for expostulations, coldnesses, aversions! If an “elegant simplicity” be the perfection of dress, this is surely, as far s possible, removed from perfection. It is not simplicity; it is not elegant….
It would be cruel to add anything to the punishment of the men, who can have recourse to such effeminate artifices. They have already the scorn and ridicule of one sex, and the stern contempt and indignation of the other. They are poor amphibious animals, that the best naturalists know not under what class to arrange…
Painting [Editorial note: here meaning makeup] is indecent, offensive, criminal. It hastens the approach of wrinkles; it destroys constitutions, and defaces the image of your maker. Would you think of giving the last touch to the pieces of a Poussin, or a Salvator Rosa? Believe for a moment that the Almighty is, at least, as great in his way as either of these artists.
Let the martyrs of fashion, luxury and dissipation, who turn night into day, have recourse to this filthy and abominable practice. Let them seek a resource from the rebukes of their conscience in gaiety and noise. – But let the fairness of your complexion be only that of nature, and let your rouge be the crimson blush of health arising from temperance, regularity, exercise and air….”
Editorial Note: Rouge, though used sparingly, was the most popular cosmetic of the nineteenth century for upper class women; eye makeup was less so. Some women made their own blushes, using flowers or other natural pigments. Foundation makeup was more commonly associated with prostitutes.
Page 115: “I rejoice that the good sense of my countrywomen has corrected some late glaring indecencies of 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 honor to resemble. Bosoms should throb unseen. The bouffant was an ornament of too transparent a kind. Wherever delicacy throws its modest drapery, imagination always lends inexpressible charms. As fine a woman as the Venus of Medici, would cease to be admired, if curiousity ceased to be suspended.”
Editorial note: In other words, ladies, leave something to “curiousity” to avoid being classified as a brazen harlot unfit for marriage; and let Rev. Bennett and his cohorts imagine the rest. Plus ca change…. this pious clergyman’s cheerful acknowledgement of the lust he excoriates elsewhere seems more in keeping with twenty-first century scandals.
Page 115 (cont’d): “Such simplicity will recommend you to God; and if you retain any fears of offending him, how dare you deface his image, in your countenance, by artificial decorations. Such innocence will charm, when paint is dissolved. It will call up a bloom, and cast a fragrance even on the latest winter of your age.”
Page 186: On Marriage and Spinsterhood: “Marriage is, doubtless, the most natural, innocent and useful state, if you can form it to any tolerable advantage. It bids fairest for that little portion of happiness, which this life admits; and is, in some degree, a duty which we owe to the world. If entered into from proper motives, it is the source of the greatest benefits to the community; as well as of private comforts to ourselves. …A single woman is, particularly, defenceless. She cannot move beyond the precincts of her house without apprehensions. She cannot go with ease or safety, into public. She is surrounded by many real dangers, and fancy conjures up more spectres of its own, top disturb her repose. As she goes down the hill of life, her friends gradually drop away from her, like leaves in the autumn, and leave her a pining, solitary creature. Even brothers and sisters, when married themselves, lose their fondness for her, in the ardors of a newly acquired connexion; and she wanders through a wide, bustling world uncomfortable in herself, uninteresting to others, frequently the sport of wanton ridicule, or a proverb of reproach.
Men are often too much engrossed with business, ambition, or criminal pursuits, to think very seriously of this connexion; but if they happen to remain single, their very efforts become their amusement, and keep them from experiencing that unquiet indolence, which, by enervating the mind, powerfully awakens imagination and the senses. A woman has abundant leisure to brood over her inquietude, and to nurse the vapors, till they terminate in disease. She has not so many methods for dissipating thought. Her element is her household, and the management of her children; and till she becomes a mother, she has not objects of consequence enough to occupy the mind, and preserve it from feeling unpleasant agitations.”
Concluding Notes: Letters to a Young Lady was published in no less than eight editions, so there seems to have been quite a demand. The first edition was published in 1789; it was followed by editions of 1792, 1793, 1798, 1803, 1811 (the edition quoted here, and the only one published in Hudson), 1823 and 1841. Rev. Bennett was a noted theorist on proper education for women in his era, and was widely published in both the US and England. His “Strictures on Female Education,” published in 1795, warns of the dire influence of novels on women, arguing that they were destined to “pave the way for their future seduction.”
We can only be grateful that the era that produced the Rev. John Bennett’s absurdities also brought us Jane Austen (writer of the “visionary novels and romances” he abhorred), who gave us a very different Mr. Bennet – and his daughter Elizabeth, one of the most memorable heroines and triumphant wits in the history of English literature. Given how broadly the Rev. John Bennett’s works and others penned by those holding similar opinions were distributed in England in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it’s not a stretch to assume they were read by Ms. Austen. In fact, Austen wrote a near Rev. Bennett-equivalent in the person of the ludicrous Mr. Collins; and the second to last sentence in the excerpt from Page 12, above, almost mirrors the admonitions of Miss Bingley, enumerating the qualities required of a “truly accomplished” woman. Finally, Charlotte Lucas’ rationale for marrying Mr. Collins echoes Rev. Bennett’s observations above – but from the viewpoint of a woman whose only option was matrimony (holy or not), as follows:
Here is Rev. Bennett on Page 186 of Letters to a Young Lady: “Marriage is, doubtless, the most natural, innocent and useful state, if you can form it to any tolerable advantage. It bids fairest for that little portion of happiness, which this life admits; and is, in some degree, a duty which we owe to the world. If entered into from proper motives, it is the source of the greatest benefits to the community; as well as of private comforts to ourselves.”
And here is Jane Austen in Chapter XXII of Pride and Prejudice, setting forth Charlotte’s reflections on accepting Mr. Collins’ proposal: “Charlotte herself was tolerably composed. She had gained her point, and had time to consider of it. Her reflections were in general satisfactory. Mr. Collins to be sure was neither sensible nor agreeable; his society was irksome, and his attachment to her must be imaginary. But still he would be her husband. – Without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honorable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want. This preservative she had now obtained; and at the age of twenty-seven, without ever having been handsome, she felt all the good luck of it.”
So after perusing Rev. Bennett, feel free to repair to Pride and Prejudice (1813) to refresh yourself with Austen’s perspectives on music, piety, reading, and marriage.