No. VI.


To Miss. ———


My dear Elizabeth, 

         In compliance with your request, and encouraged by the entertainment you assure me you received from my little history of Melville and Serena, I proceed to give you some account of the younger daughters of Sempronia, who were not more fortunate than their sister, and whose misfortunes originated in the same source, a narrow and defective education. 

         Martha, the second daughter, married a Mr. C. a reputable tradesman, who making no pretentions to refinement himself, was not disgusted with the narrow views, and vulgar dialect of his lady; who, with a mind as uninformed as Serena’s was far from possessing the same gentle and placid disposition. On the contrary, her naturally strong passions, and volatile temper, seemed to have acquired additional force from the painful constraint [68] she had been obliged so reluctantly to submit to, under the arbitrary jurisdiction of her mother. She married to gain her liberty, without feeling any particular tenderness or esteem for the man whom she gave her hand. Coercive measures may have a restraining effect for a time, but can never subdue an untractable spirit: it is only by engaging the affections, and enlarging the understanding, that the heart can be meliorated, or principles be formed; for like a bow forcibly bent, the mind recoils from oppression with elastic power. The husband of Martha, a man of probity, and plain common sense, wished to find in a wife a cheerful companion, an œconomical manager of his domestic affairs. Martha’s lively manner, and strict education, afforded him the most flattering expectations, that he had made a suitable choice. 

         He gave way to her plan of dissipation for the first month after their marriage, without remonstrance, as he imagined that after the display of her bridal ornaments, and the round of congratulatory visits, usual [69] on some occasions, that she would assume a matron-like behavior, and engage in the employments of domestic life; but, to his great mortification, he soon began to find that he had deceived himself: one scheme of amusement prepared the way for another; the circle of their acquaintance became every day more extensive; and while he was engaged in in his warehouse and comptinghouse, Mrs. C. was all over the town, in the park, at the theatres, at card-parties, and assemblies; and returned at all hours fatigued and exhausted in the pursuit of those pleasures, which from their novelty, and former prohibition, were sought by her with additional ardor and spirit. In vain Mr. C. entreated, expostulated, and even threatened; when she could no longer prevail on him by artful flattery and caresses, she awed him into silence by the violence of her temper; he was fond of peace, and too frequently purchased it at an expensive rate. 

         Mrs. C became a mother, and her husband now hoped the cares of her nursery would engage her attention, and have a more [70] powerful influence over her mind, than all his hitherto ineffectual remonstrances. For a few weeks, his hopes seemed realized; but Martha had none of that refinement, which by associating a thousand tender circumstances, gives additional poignancy to natural affections, and binds them more closely to the heart. She soon became tired of performing the duties of a nurse to her offspring: when a girl, she had imagined herself fond of children, because she had considered them as a sort of live dolls, and they supplied the place of baby-house amusements, which she had just been persuaded to resign. But the attention they now required, appeared a very different affair; to sacrifice her rest by night, and her liberty in the day, to watch over them in sickness, and perform the numberless tender and delicate attentions, necessary to their fragile age, —was an insupportable fatigue, of which she fancied herself incapable; she persuaded Mr. C. that the delicacy of her constitution incapacitated her for performing the duty of a mother, and prevailed on him to suffer her to resign the care of the child to the care of an [71] hireling, where it soon after perished by the small-pox, which raged in the neighbourhood, and which it caught in the natural way: for Mrs. C. had an invincible prejudice against inoculation, and all her prejudices were passions; for taking up her opinions without examination she prided herself upon ever obstinately adhering to them. 

         Martha’s manner of life began to affect the income of her husband; for she had contracted several debts, which he had been obliged to discharge. He now earnestly wished for a separation, for his wife was incapable of attending to reason, and was seldom at home, but in the intervals of lassitude. Her temper naturally acrimonious, was still more embittered by his sharp and repeated expostulations. They met only to quarrel, and parted with mutual contempt and aversion; till he at last came to a determination to give up trade, to collect his effects, and retire into a distant country, and should his wife refuse to accompany him, to allow her a stipulated separate maintenance, and [72] to insist on her returning to reside with her mother. This proposal she absolutely rejected, and after much unavailing recrimination, agreed after much unavailing recrimination, agreed to accompany him into the country. He took care to reside in a remote house, in a village situated as far as possible from any market-town; when Martha, in despair at being torn from London and its amusements, took an unhappy resolution of drowning reflection by constant inebriation, which, in short time, brought on a complication of disorders, that terminated her useless, and wretched existence, —and relieved her husband from a ruinous, and worthless companion.

         The younger daughters, Ann and Charlotte, possessing fewer personal attractions than their elder sisters, remained unmarried. Ann, naturally of a gloomy and timid disposition, rendered still more splenetic by an infirm constitution, accidentally hearing a charity-sermon preached at their parish church, by a popular Methodist teacher, was struck by the vehemence of his manner, and alarmed by the severity of his [73] doctrines. Her religious ideas (if ideas they could be called) had been taken upon trust, without ever once suspecting that religion is a personal concern, in which as every individual would be accountable only for himself, neither the state, or our fore-fathers could have any possible right of interference: she had no notion that belief must be founded upon evidence, and consisted in a real assent to a clear proposition; and being no mathematician, took for granted, that the dogmatist who erected his own judgement into an infallible tribunal, must be divinely inspired, and could be liable to no mistake. Her pride was flattered by the fancy of spiritual superiority, and her spleen gratified by drawing a narrow circle, and saying, “Surely we are the people, and wisdom shall die with us.” The fact is, bigotry is ever the child of ignorance, and the cultivation of the understanding is the only radical cure for it. Mr. Locke, speaking of persons who contract their views, and who consequently are frequently mistaken, observes, “The reason whereof is, they converse with but one sort of men; they read [74] but one sort of books, they will come to the hearing of but one sort of notions. The truth is, they canton out to themselves a little Goshen in the intellectual world, where light shines, and, as they conclude, day blesses them; but the rest of that vast expansion they give up to night and darkness, and so avoid coming near it. They have a pretty traffick with known correspondents in some little creek, with which they content themselves; but will not venture out in the great ocean of knowledge, to survey the riches which nature has stored other parts with, no less genuine, no less solid, no less useful than what has fallen to their lot in the admired plenty, and self-sufficiency of their own little stock, which to them contains whatever good in the universe.” 

         The want of information is generally accompanied by a proportional presumption and tenacity. A truly great mind, who has studied the human heart, is sensible that diversity of opinions are essential to our [75] nature, and arise out of different temperaments, different degrees of intellect, and of knowledge, various habits, associations, and prejudices. Faith is not a magical word (as some seem to suppose) but the result of that degree of evidence, which is proportional to the capacity of every individual. Whose then can be the standard soul? 

         “It is much easier (said the late amiable and excellent Dr. Price) to say what is not, than what is truth.” “Perhaps, he adds, some of my ideas may be wrong, but should that be the case, I am under no apprehension of any ill-consequences; being persuaded that my interest in the redemption by Jesus Christ depends not on the justness of my conceptions of it, or the rectitude of my judgement concerning it, but on the sincerity of my heart. Indeed, I seldom feel much of that satisfaction which some derive, from being sure they have found out truth; but I derive great comfort from believing that error, when involuntary, is innocent, and that all that is required of me as a [76] condition of acceptance, is faithfully endeavouring to find out, and to practice truth and right.” 

         All Christians accord in the leading facts of Christianity; and if they would agree to reason differently about the nature of those facts, with mutual candor and charity, no harm could possibly happen, and great good might ensue; as such a fair and cool discussion, if uniformity of opinion were possible, would be the most likely means of securing it. For when the sourness of bigotry, and the fury of party-rage were laid aside, and obstinate adherence to emphatical words and phrases would gradually give way, and all men rising into ideas, and imbibing that spirit of love and good will, which is the essence of the gospel, would convert the Christian church into a paradisaical slate, and win the nations of righteousness, by letting their “light shine before the world, so that men seeing their good works, would glorify their God.” Nor will the religion of Christ ever be universally propagated, till this [77] benevolent and liberal spirit distinguishes its professed disciples. 

         The testimonies which our ancestors gave to the sincerity of their principles, by no means invalidates ours. The world, like every individual, has its progression from infancy to old age: the perfect age is more mature than the last. The reformers did much, we have done more, and more still remains to be done by future ages. Every doctrine that shuns investigation, excites in us a suspicion of its origin; the truth must be a gainer, by free unrestrained inquiry, and in the end “approve itself to the conscience of every man;” and like the pure gold, come out uninjured from a trial by fire, which can consume only the dross that obscured its lustre. Should the horrid idea so injurious to the perfections of God be really true, that we shall be judged at the last day by our opinions, as well as practice (opinions which can be valuable only in proportion as they produce virtue) what considerate man would dare to erect his own into a standard of faith? and where so many wise men differ [78] lay claim to infallibility?-But to return from this digression. 

         Ann, now become a proselyte to the rigid supralapsarian system, grew every day more narrow and morose; the most innocent cheerfulness she considered as unpardonable levity, her days were consumed in attending lectures and sermons, and her rest broken at night by superstitious terrors. Her former acquaintance she regarded with horror, as in a state of reprobation; or, if she vouchsafed to enter into conversation with them, representing the deity after her own gloomy conceptions, she falsely described the paths of piety as strewed with thorns and briars, so that despairing of ideal perfection, they were ready to give up all virtue as unattainable. Incapable of generalizing ideas, and comparing Scripture with itself, she understood nothing of the gentle spirit of the gospel, which teaches that without charity, all other sanctimonious pretensions are as “sounding brass, and a tinkling cymbal.” The repeated precepts of love and confidence in God, kindness to our neighbour, [79] purity, and benevolence of heart, were not sufficiently sublime and mystical to engage the notice of our devotee: particular figurative expressions, clothed in the symbolical language of the earlier periods of the world, engrossed her whole attention. She overlooked the description of the day of final retribution, represented with majestic simplicity by the Saviour of the world: “I was hungry, and ye fed me; sick, and in prison, and ye visited me, &c.” and supposed that salvation would be the reward, not of right conduct, but of sound opinions. These associations continually dwelt on, at length, from the constant pressure of the same ideas, had a physical effect on the brain, and produced that state of nervous irritability, — that tends to hypochondriac melancholy; a shattered constitution became yet more impaired; and this unhappy victim to gross ignorance, and abject superstition, became a prey to that dreadful train of nervous affections, which admit to no cure, and by which the vital powers are consumed in cruel agitation, and insupportable terrors. [80] 

         Charlotte, the younger daughter, though not possessed of that superior genius, which notwithstanding all local disadvantages will educate itself, was not devoid either of capacity, or taste; but being kept from books, and confined to the society of narrowminded and illiterate people, she made but little improvement: for — 

 

         “Without enlivening suns, and genial showers, 

         And shelter from the blast, in vain we hope

         The tender plant should rear its blooming head, 

         Or yield the harvest promis’d in its spring.”

                                                      Akenside.

 

Precluded from mental pursuits, her ingenuity could display itself only in drawing the pattern, and shading the colours for a carpet, or a fire-screen; and her taste in fancying the ornaments to decorate her person. In such, or similar occupations, she spent her early youth in innocence, and tolerable tranquility, and amused herself by forming many little plans (should she ever change her situation) for the disposition of her nuptial finery, the furnishings of her house, and the style of her equipage. In [81] these dreams her youth passes away; every rising beauty became her rival; and every charm, as it faded, gave a pang to her heart, which was alternately harrowed by jealousy, by envy, by disappointed hope, and unavailing regret. 

         Fond of distinction, she knew not how to resign with a grace those obsequious attentions to the young female mind. She had no acquirements to substitute in the place of the allurements of youth and sprightliness, and she found herself, by degrees, neglected, and alone in a crowd. She had many acquaintance, but no friends; for intellect and virtue alone capacitate for friendship. By virtue, I do not mean the mere absence of gross vice: virtue is active — “it is sense, and spirit with humanity,” and must be the result of reflection, and fixed principle. The weak and the ignorant can never be properly termed virtuous; they may have a happy temperament — (“but mere good-nature is a food”) and if they chance to fall into good hands, may be preferred [82] from any glaring misconduct, and pass decently through life; but like the camelion, the color of their minds must depend entirely on the surrounding circumstances; and even in the most favorable situations, “the spaniel food (as observed by one of the periodical writers) will frequently turn mule fool.” Every evil, both physical and moral, must be ultimately traced up to limited faculties, and the want of knowledge.

         Charlotte found no resource in the company of her sister, who entered not into the social spirit of Christianity, but passed her time in a monastic seclusion from the world. This unfortunate woman, who knew not how to throw a lustre over her declining years by the dignity, which intellectual attainments bestow, vainly endeavoured to conceal the ravages of time by affecting the gaiety of the youth; and the very attempt, as it bespoke the vacant mind, pointed the “bitter scorn of grinning ridicule.” Without resources in herself, solitude she found intolerable, and sought a relief from the weariness of ennui [83] in visiting from house to house, in watching the conduct of her neighbours, and circulating the anecdotes she collected in her rambles; and, though this was done without malice, merely to enliven the insipidity out of commerce, where neither the heart, not the understanding had any share, it involved her in many inconvenient and disagreeable circumstances. At the card table, she tried to beguile the tedious hours by the vivid emotions, which gaming seldom fails to excite; but unskilled in the science, her temper became soured, and her fortune injured; till, at length, mere weariness for want of a sufficiently interesting pursuit, and disgust with life, brought on a languor that terminated in a jaundice and slow fever, and delivered her from the dreadful vacuity of having nothing to do, to hope, or to fear. The excellent Dr. Priestley, in his treatise on education, justly says, that “The mind suffers more in a state of suspense and uncertainty, how to get the time over, than almost any exertion whatever;” and that this “is perhaps more frequently the cause of suicide, from life becoming [84] absolutely insupportable, than all the other causes of it put together.” 

         May these examples, my dear young friend, stimulate you to such an improvement of your faculties as will elevate, and adorn your character in this world, and capacitate you either for active or contemplative life; and also fit you for a higher situation in a future period of existence. It is time for degraded woman to assert her right to reason, in this general diffusion of light and knowledge. The frivolity and voluptuousness, in which they have hitherto been educated, have had a large share in the general corruption of manners; this frivolity the sensible vindicator of our rights justly attributes to the entire dependence, in which we are trained. Young women without fortunes, if they do not chance to marry (and this is not a marrying age) have scarce any other resources than in servitude, or prostitution. I never see, without indignation, those trades, which ought to be appropriated only to women, almost entirely engrossed by man, haberdashery, millinery, &c. [ 85] even mantua-making. —Fine citizens and soldiers this race of delicate, contemptible beings would make, if called out for the defence of their country! 

         Those who have families of daughters, without the means of amply providing for them, should endeavor to restrain that aristocratical taste for style and expense, which is at present so prevalent in this great metropolis, and to give them strength of mind and body, so that they may be accustomed to regulate their conduct by reason, to contract their wants, to act upon a plan, and to exert their talents upon every trying occasion. Fortitude, and firmness of character, are equally necessary and becoming in women, as in men, and are calculated to strengthen, not to extinguish, the humane and gentle virtues. Excessive and unrestrained sensibility is ever selfish; properly regulated it will give energy and interest to virtue; but flattered and fostered, is but a more specious name for imbecility, and in the end contracts the heart, and [86] renders it callous to everything beyond the narrowest of all circles. 

                           I am, with sincerity, yours.