Letter III (1824)
ON THE MOTIVES FOR FEMALE IMPROVEMENT.1
Having endeavoured to gain over vanity to the side of improvement by representing intellectual beauty as the handmaid or auxiliary to personal charms, I shall not in this letter address my fair readers merely as young ladies, but as rational beings, citizens of the world, in which, whatever may be their future destinies, they are each called to act their own individual parts, whether with propriety or impropriety. Though fair their prospects, their success or propriety in life must depend in great measure on the rectitude of their judgments, the soundness of their understandings, and the steadiness of their principles.
Happiness, even such as this can bestow, is not a thing to be defined: it has neither a local habitation nor a name. Happiness, under the title of the supreme good, was the theme of the ancient philosophers, and it is still sought for by mortals in various ways and under various names: many place it in riches, a few in fame, numbers in sensual pleasures, and not a few in the gratification of vanity: some have sought for it in the palaces of the great, while others have idly pronounced that it is only to be found in the cottages of the poor: all are equally mistaken; it is neither the gifts of fortune nor of nature, the luxury of the court, nor the simplicity of the hamlet, which constitutes happiness. The portion of felicity which may be attained, even in this life, must depend on the mind and the disposition of the individuals, rather than on the station in which they are placed, or on the eminence on which they stand.
It would be a folly to deny that some situations are less favorable to morality, and consequently to happiness, than others; indeed, both extremes of society – that is, the very high and the very low – are more inimical to the attainment of virtue and intellect, without which there can be no real enjoyment, than the middle rank: yet the great Creator and Governor of all mankind is not a partial being, and is more equal in the distribution of the blessings which his providence bestows on all his creatures than, on a slight and superficial view of civilized society, some few persons are disposed to admit. That a certain degree of felicity is the consequent attendant on virtue, while even the slightest deviation from moral rectitude is sooner or later, in one way or other, followed by pain even in this life, is a fact which might easily be proved in theory, and which experience and observation daily confirm. This incipient retribution is in proof of the moral government of God, which, begun below, will reach beyond the grave. ‘Angels are happier than men because they are better;’2 and one human being is happier than another in proportion as he more resembles that great Being who is the source and fountain of all good.
Arrived at that period of life when the maturity of womanhood is added to the bloom of youth, when vanity gives place to sentiment, and puerile amusements or trifling occupations cease to charm, it is the natural wish and laudable desire or every virtuous and amiable female to form those ties which shall increase the objects of her affection, while they enlarge the sphere of her pleasures and her duties. Friends more experienced and more advanced in life may tell them, and tell them truly, that every state has its mixture of good and evil, and that marriage, instead of being the end of care, is but too frequently the beginning of sorrow. This will not avail; youth listens with distrust to the trite maxims and chilling advice of declining years: when love and matrimony are in one scale, prudence and celibacy in the other, they stop not to decide on which side lies the balance of comfort; or, if for a moment they hesitate, hope, thrown into the favorite scale, soon makes the other ascend to the beam.
The maiden transformed into the wife, the mother, and the mistress of a family, what but the previous cultivation of her mind can enable her to perform aright the various and serious duties which these important relations demand and involve? Should she be united to a man of sense, will not her partner expect to find in her a friend in whom he can confide, a companion with whom he can communicate in his graver as in his lighter hours? Should it, on the contrary, be her unfortunate lot to be bound to a man of weak and scanty intellect, an improved understanding on her part will be still more indispensable, as she may not unfrequently be called to supply by her better judgment the defects of his; and, on many occasions, to rectify by her prudence the errors and mistakes which his weakness of vanity may lead him to commit. Many men with abilities below mediocrity have, when united to women of good sense, who have known how to lead without appearing to govern, passed through life respectably.
As mothers, if young women wish to act with propriety or appear to advantage in that important and interesting character, a variety of useful knowledge is necessary. Maternal love is an instinct, or, to make use of a more elegant term, a sentiment so strongly implanted in the female breast as to require the control of reason to prevent it from overstepping these limits by which even our best and purest affections require to be bounded.
In a silly or ignorant woman maternal love will sometimes become a selfish passion, which, degenerating into weakness instead of promoting the benefit of her offspring, may produce effects injurious [to] the object it was fondly designed to cherish.
When riches and prosperity are the lot in marriage of the fortunate fair one, an enlightened and cultivated understanding will enlarge her capacity for happiness, and give a higher zest to all those pleasures which wealth or power can command; while, at the same time, it will lead her to moderation in enjoyment, and teach her how to make the proper use of those goods which Providence has so plentifully bestowed. Avoiding ostentatious profusion on the one hand, and a parsimonious meanness on the other, she will settle her establishment and regulate her domestic economy with equal propriety and prudence. Partaking with cheerfulness and dispensing with liberality all that is necessary for the comfort of her household, or for respectability in the situation of life in which she is placed, she will still reserve a surplus ready at command to be applied to the purposes of private benevolence or public utility.
If an enlarged and improved intellect is requisite in order to enhance the value of, and give stability to, the blessings of prosperity, in the dark and trying time of adversity mental advantages are still more important and still more necessary. In the gay morning of life, in the bright noon of prosperity, beauty, fashion, taste, accomplishments, are all-sufficient; but when sorrow dims the eye and strikes the heart, when the relentless hand of Death tears from the affectionate wife the beloved husband, or suddenly snatches from the tender mother the infant she had fondly cherished, or by slow and wasting disease bereaves her of the child of her heart –the one on whom her best, her brightest, hopes had centered – can aught this world affords, much less its vanities, suffice to strengthen and support the hapless mourner?3 Tell the afflicted widow, tell the distracted mother, whose bosoms are pierced with sorrow’s keenest dart, that they still possess riches, beauty, external accomplishments, with all the world calls good and fair – they listen not; the ear of grief is deaf to the voice of flattery, and the tear-filled eye of sorrow sees nothing but its own woes. Even the mild voice of friendship fails of pouring balm into the deeply-wounded spirit. In the language of Job may it be said, ‘Wretched comforters are ye all.’4 But, when all external help fails, the well-stored mind is a tower of strength: it is like the house built upon a rock, which, when the rain descended and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, it fell not, for it was founded on a rock.5
So she whose mind has been exalted and imbued with religious principles, whose memory is filled with wisdom’s lore and virtue’s precepts, while she sheds the tear which nature prompts, and which religion does not forbid,
‘Adores the storm which wrecks her earthly joys.’6
Piercing with the eye of faith the dark cloud which envelops humanity, she perceives behind it the bright beams of heavenly love, till at length, calm and resigned, she follows cheerfully the path marked out for her by her God, as did the children of Israel the pillar of cloud and fire which guided them through the wilderness to the promised land.
Should early disappointment blight the fair blossoms of hope, or blast in evil hour the fruit of enjoyment but scarcely tasted – should misfortune, sudden and destructive as the storm in harvest, destroy in one fatal hour present comfort and future prospects – should sickness, and
‘Poverty, to fill the band
Which numbs the soul with icy hand’—7
should dependence be the lot of declining age—what can preserve the hapless female, who lived only to vanity, from wretchedness and contempt? Stripped of the gaudy trappings of prosperity, deprived one by one of those artificial elegancies and real comforts by which she had in her better days been accustomed to be surrounded, shunned or neglected by hollow friends and summer acquaintances, she sinks under the iron hand of adversity, or dwindles by degrees into meanness and nonentity.
True dignity depends not on extraneous circumstances: friends, connexions, fashion, style, may for a while throw a dazzling lustre around the minion of Fortune; but it is mind, and mind only, which can confer real and permanent respectability, and constitute the only essential difference between one human being and another. The lowliest female whose head is trained to knowledge, and whose heart is formed to virtue, is more truly great than she whose brows are bound with a diadem, if that diadem be not adorned with those fairest jewels in the female crown—religion, virtue, and good sense.
1 Letters to Young Ladies, 16-23.
2 Lines from The Fair Penitent(1703), III.i.98-99, by Nicholas Rowe.
3 Lanfear speaks from personal experience here, having lost her husband to suicide in 1809 and her eldest son, John, in 1817 at the age of 12.
4 Job 16.2.
5 Reference to the parable of Jesus about two men, one who built a house on sand and the other upon rock, found in Matthew 7:24-27 and Luke 6:47-49.
6 Source unknown.
7 Lines taken from Thomas Gray’s ‘Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College’ (1747).