To give me something weekly to do, I thought I’d post a throw back historical thing each week. Just a brief glimpse.
Today, I want to talk about Hester Chapone. Born in 1727 to a gentleman and daughter of a colonel, she began writing at a very early age and was published at the age of 23. She married a solicitor at age 33 and eventually died in 1801. Her most famous work is Letters for the Improvement of the Mind.
Do you recognize that line? Yeah, Darcy says that about Elizabeth reading in the “accomplished woman” debate.
Chapone was a member of the Bluestockings, a group of intellectual women who hosted a salon about cultural pursuits instead of gambling and flirtation. They were wealthy and well-bred. And well-liked.
Chapone’s conduct book began as letters to her 15 year old niece in 1773 but by 1800 there were 16 different editions made. Her letters encouraged rational understanding of not just the Bible but history and literature, book-keeping and other household management in addition to botany, geology and astronomy. She discouraged sentimental novels but supported all other kinds of reading for women. Even the famed proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft enjoyed her model of study for women. This is a stark contrast to other conduct books of the time which rely heavily on Bible teaching and strict obedience to parents and husband.
Georgian Novelist Frances Burney was a fan of Hester Chapone, and we know Jane Austen enjoyed Miss Burney. I really do think Austen was intentionally referencing Chapone with not only Darcy’s line about an accomplished woman improving her mind via extensive reading but also in Persuasion when she writes, “But I hate to hear you talking so like a fine gentleman, and as if women were all fine ladies, instead of rational creatures. We none of us expect to be in smooth water all our days.”
Chapone also acknowledged ladies could be rational creatures:
“The same degree of active courage is not to be expected in woman as in man; and, not belonging to her nature, it is not agreeable in her: but passive courage—patience, and fortitude under sufferings—presence of mind, and calm resignation in danger—are surely desirable in every rational creature…”
“If you have natural modesty, you will never transgress its bounds, whilst you converse with a man, as one rational creature with another…”
Want to read Mrs. Chapone’s work? Several reading options are found here: Project Gutenberg