Letter VI (1824)
ON THE SINGLE LIFE.1
During the long and glorious reign of Queen Elizabeth, women in England occupied a lofty station in society, and both demanded and obtained from their lovers a respectful homage and a chivalrous fidelity. Ladies of rank received an education similar, if not equal, to that of their male relations, and, like them, were instructed in the learned languages, and in all the different branches of knowledge and science which were at that time the fashion of the day. In the subsequent period of monarchical tyranny and civil commotion, the female sex lost much of that respect and many of those advantages which they had enjoyed during the brilliant and fortunate reign of the virgin queen. At the restoration of Charles the Second, of licentious memory, a laxity of principle, and a corresponding dissoluteness of manners, succeeded to the rigid morality and formal exterior of the old puritans: the ladies of England no longer retained that sanctity of manner and elevation of character which had distinguished not only many individuals among them, such as Lady Jane Grey, Lady Rachel Russell, &c. but British females in general.
In the court of a gay, luxurious, and dissipated monarch, women sank from the high pinnacle on which they had been placed, and soon came to be considered merely as beings, or rather as slaves, who, by their charms, their graces, and their allurements, were to adorn society, and give zest to pleasure. Too many, flattered by the mock homage of gallantry, submitted without murmuring to the tyranny and sexual gratification of their depraved and voluptuous masters.
The female character thus degraded, women soon lost that elevated station in society which they had previously occupied, but which they have never since entirely regained.
The evil consequences of this humiliation have been, and perhaps still are, in a degree, felt more severely, after a certain age, by unmarried than by married females. The matron has sufficient occupation and amusement in her own family to prevent her, as she advances in life, from regretting the flight of time and the decay of beauty, or from vainly attempting to prolong, beyond the time prescribed by nature, the pursuits, the follies, or the charms of youth. If she has performed the important duties of domestic life with any tolerable degree of propriety, she is sure of being rewarded by the affection of her family and the respect of the world: satisfied with the protection and the esteem of her husband, interested and gratified by the love and the attention of her children and grandchildren, her cares, her pleasures, her hopes, and her wishes, all centre in the home circle.
The elderly unmarried female is differently, and, generally speaking, less fortunately, situated. The season of youth and of beauty, of flattery and of juvenile amusements, passed and gone for ever, she gradually awakes as from a morning dream, and reluctantly exchanges the gay, the delusive, visions of her early years, for the more sober and dull realities of mature age. Her parents are, perhaps, no more, or, if still in existence, declining in health and years, and fast sinking into the gaping tomb: the home circle is broken; brothers and sisters, companions of childhood, dispersed and scattered abroad; partial and admiring friends no longer surround her – by some she has been deserted, by others forgotten; till, at length, no longer sheltered by the paternal roof, she feels alone in the world, destined to travel the remainder of life’s dull journey solitary and unregarded. A limited, too often a very limited, income adds to the difficulties with which she has to struggle: depressed in spirits, and sometimes, from a feeling of mortification and disappointment, peevish in temper, she vainly seeks for sympathy or friendship: instead of that attention and consolation which her forlorn situation demands, the finger of scorn is, by the frivolous and the gay, ever ready to be pointed at the antiquated virgin; while the silly youth and giddy girl find amusement in ridiculing those little foibles and harmless singularities which not unfrequently mark the character of the single woman.1
The dread of encountering these evils, which the generality of females, from education and other circumstances, are but little calculated to sustain, has induced many an amiable, though, in this respect, feeble-minded girl, to accept the first offer of marriage which may be made to her, or till a new generation of youthful damsels spring up to occupy her place, and to demand that homage which a maiden turned of forty must no longer flatter herself with the expectation of receiving from the other sex. Some of these inconveniences attached to celibacy in general; but peculiarly felt and feared by the delicate and sensitive female, are, though not entirely removed, we will hope, in the enlightened age, gradually wearing away: the greater part of them has arisen out of the circumscribed sphere which custom has allowed to women, and from the prejudices which many have entertained, and some persons of both sexes still continue to entertain, against the rational cultivation of the female understanding, lest such cultivation should take from the feminine graces of women, interfere with the pride, or encroach on the privileges and boasted superiority of man.
Learned ladies and female authors have long ceased to be regarded either as objects of curiosity or aversion; and the epithet blue-stockinglady, as a term of reproach or ridicule, is no longer applied to any but the affected, superficial, and half-witted female, whose pretensions to learning or science are not justified by her attainments.
The progress of civilization, which is daily advancing both in the old world and in the new; the more general diffusion of literature both in town and country, by the means of libraries, book-clubs, reading-societies, &c.; the greater attention paid to female education than formerly; and, above all, the splendid talents which, of late years, have been displayed, and the lofty energies which, in various ways, have been exerted by women, have redeemed their character as a sex from the charges of imbecility and frivolity – charges by which they have been too often and too long both cruelly and unjustly insulted by those who are incompetent to judge of female ability, and who, from mistaken notions of its real value, still wish to debar woman from free access to the tree of knowledge.
The single woman of the present day is chiefly distinguished from her married sisters by possessing more literary acquirements, more elegant accomplishments, or higher attainments in some particular art or science, than the numerous avocations of domestic life have allowed the matron either time or opportunity of attending to.
In the present day, various causes, which it would be unnecessary in this place either to inquire into or enumerate, have operated, and continue to operate, as a check on early marriages; consequently, spinsters of a certain age being more abundant, the unmarried female is no longer considered as an anomaly in society; and the ancient virgin, such as we find her depictured by the dramatist and the novel-writer of the last century, is at present a character but seldom seen, and which will soon become nearly, if not entirely, extinct.
The greatest evil at present attending celibacy is that it tends both to engender and to promote a spirit of selfishness among its votaries: but this is an evil by no means confined to the weaker sex; single men are generally found to be equally, if not more, selfish than single women. Self-love is a passion inherent in human nature; it has by some philosophers been said to be the master-spring by which every other passion is impelled and called into action: be that as it may, self-love will, on inquiry, be found to take its various modifications of character in individuals from the situations in which they are placed, and from the many adventitious circumstances by which they are surrounded.
The infant, stimulated by the desire of food, clings to the nurse from whom it receives its first and natural supply of nourishment; the pleasure afforded to the child by the gratification of its only desire mingling and associating itself, as its faculties expand, with the idea of its nurse, produces in its breast the sentiment of affection to her person, and thus, by degrees, transforms the at-first mere selfish into a social passion. As the child advances in months and in years, other objects and more persons contributing to its happiness and amusement, the sphere of its attachments becomes enlarged. In process of time, if engaged in domestic life, the circle grows wider and wider, till, at length, the selfish passions being all associated with or transferred to other objects, self-love is forgotten, or totally absorbed in the social affections.
The unmarried female, cut off from all the tenderest charities of human life, looks around her in vain for an object on which to fix her affections: none appearing, her sensibility, deprived of the proper channels in which it ought to flow, recoils on her own heart; till, at length, self becomes the central point to which her cares, her anxieties, all tend, and in which, at last, her pains and her pleasures alike terminate.
To counteract, and, as much as possible, keep within due bounds, this fond encroacher, inordinate self-love, the staid maiden should mix, as much as her circumstances will justify or her situation allow, with liberal and general society; she should also, wherever she is situated, endeavour to take an interest in all that is passing around her: by so doing she will learn to abstract her ideas, and prevent her thoughts from recurring too frequently to her own particular circumstances or sensations. She may likewise cultivate individual friendships with females, either married or unmarried, whose pursuits and dispositions accord with her own.
Has she sisters or early friends settled in her vicinity, let her not, because they have no longer undivided affections or unappropriated time to bestow, fancy herself slighted or neglected, and, in consequence of that suspicion, give up their society: on the contrary, she should endeavour to secure their friendship, and evince the sincerity of her own, by taking a kind and affectionate interest in their concerns, being ready at all times to offer them assistance when needful, to visit them in sickness or affliction, to sooth them in the hour of nature's sorrow, to share with them, in a degree, the care and the attention due to their offspring. By persevering in this conduct, she will gradually lose the sense of her own loneliness, secure the respect and esteem of all rational persons, and gain the affections of the rising generation.
Young people are always gratified and flattered by the notice of persons older than themselves; more especially so when such persons are held in high estimation by their parents. When elderly persons complain of the want of deference and attention in the young, the faults alleged most frequently originate with themselves. When women somewhat advanced in life affect the gaiety and folly of youth, or, having themselves passed the joyous season of juvenile amusements, commence censor, and sternly rebuke or indiscriminately blame the levity of childhood, and the innocent but unavoidable mistakes of inexperienced youth, what claims have they to the respect or gratitude of those whom they offend rather than favour?
To those single women who have no very near relatives or connexions, charity, both public and private, offers a never-failing source of praiseworthy and interesting occupation. There are in the present day (to the honour of the ladies of Great Britain be it recorded) so many benevolent institutions of various kinds, both patronised and managed entirely by the female sex, that not one of them who wishes to exert her talents or undraw her purse-strings for the benefit of her fellow-creatures can justly excuse herself on the plea of having no opportunity to render herself useful, or complain of want of coadjutors in the great work of charity. To those who are fond of children, and find pleasure in attending to them, schools of various descriptions and denominations present a substitute for children of their own. Attending in all weathers, and in public, and perhaps mean apartments, teaching over and over again the simple elements of learning to little awkward mean-clad urchins, may be a less elegant, though not a less useful, employment than sitting in the drawing-room with the genteel and accomplished young ladies while they practise their musical lessons, or con2 over their French and Italian exercises. None, whatever be their fortunes or situations in life, are born merely for themselves: surrounded on every side by our fellow-creatures – united to them, as mortals, by similar wants, similar necessities, and by mutual sympathies – who shall dare avow their right to be idle, or show their charter for being born merely to consume the fruits of the earth? Nature and religion alike forbid the empty boast.
Those, of either sex, who make their own personal comfort and individual gratification their primary object and sole study, seldom, if ever, obtain the end proposed. The less we think of ourselves the more we enjoy existence, which can never be barren of felicity to those whose time and talents are engaged in any laudable pursuit; and, after all we can either hope for or imagine of good in this sublunary world, the greatest portion of real happiness will ever be found in a steady course of virtuous actions, and in the habitual exercise of the benevolent affections.
1 Letters to Young Ladies, 54-63.
2 Cf. Lanfear’s comments above in her letter to Mary Hays on 4 February 1801: "Though I have now no wish to change it, I perfectly agree with you in pronouncing a state of celibacy to be but little favourable either to virtue or happiness – I wonder not that old maids generally speaking have been objects of censure or ridicule – Perhaps there is no character, which it is so difficult for a woman to maintain with propriety. Her affections like a stream impeded in its course either run into irregular channels, or return into her own bosom where pent up, they ravage & destroy the soil they ought to have adorned & fertilized. In the first case unless her understanding is of the superior class (for understanding will always command respect) there is danger of ^her^ becoming contemptible, in the latter of growing unamiable."
3 This seems an unusual word choice but it is the word in the original text.