No. XI (from Letters and Essays, 1793)
Josepha, or the pernicious Effects of Early Indulgence
Nekayah, Princess of Abyssinia, casting her eyes upon the Nile that flowed before her, “Answer,” said she, “great father of waters, thou that rollest thy floods through eighty nations, to the invocation of the daughter of thy native king. Tell me, if thou waterest through all thy course a single habitation from which thou dost not hear the murmurs of complaint!”2
Melancholy are the pictures which Dr. Johnson draws of human life: But after making every allowance for the dark medium, through which his natural temper might lead him to view the world, we are obliged to confess, though oft-times with reluctance, that his observations are, generally, too much founded upon truth. In the house of mourning, the chamber of sickness, within the gloomy walls of a prison, or in the cheerless hut of poverty, we allow of sorrow, and expect complaint; but the murmurs of discontent are not confined to these. The palaces of the great, the mansions of the rich, the abodes of the apparently healthy and prosperous, are too frequently inhabited by mortals bending beneath a load of real, or imaginary afflictions, and many a gilded coach contains an aching heart. What are the causes of this comparatively universal uneasiness, in a world where so much beauty is displayed, and so much bounty distributed? The benevolent Creator of men gave us existence, that we might be happy; he rejoices in the felicity of his children, and we never more properly enter into his “everlasting plan,” than when our hearts are expanding with gratitude, and exulting with virtuous and pleasurable emotions. To answer the question philosophically, the limited capacities of human beings might be alledged, as the primary cause of all our woes. Ignorance produces error, and every deviation from truth and virtue, however small, may be considered as a deviation from happiness in a moral sense. The discontent so prevalent, may be attributed also to factitious refinement, our slavery to fashion, and wrong education. The wants of nature are few, but we are for ever increasing our desires, and disturbing our repose in search of ideal good, and artificial luxury. By false delicacy we enervate our minds, relax our nerves, and render our sensibility so unpleasingly acute, that the lighting of a grass-hopper becomes a burden, and the most trivial disappointment a serious calamity. In conforming to fashion, we frequently are obliged to sacrifice our own inclinations, and submit to a bondage more arbitrary and intolerable than the heaviest chains. By wrong education these evils are perpetuated, which may therefore be mentioned both as a cause and an effect. The wrong education of youth produces weakness and impropriety of character in more advanced life; and this effect is again the cause of improper tuition to posterity.
Mr. B. a man of amiable disposition and unblemished moral character, but possessed of a weak and uncultivated mind, lost his wife, a very valuable woman, at an early period of life, who left behind her an infant daughter. Deprived of his beloved companion, and not choosing to enter into other connections, he devoted his whole attention to this child; to enrich her, he pursued his trade with indefatigable industry, and no moments appeared to him so sweet, as those, in which he caressed his little darling; he thought no expence too great, which might contribute to adorn her person, and improve her mind. Conscious of the defects of his own education, he prized learning in others, and endeavoured to procure the best masters the town afforded, to instruct his young Josepha in the various branches of polite knowledge supposed to be necessary for ladies in genteel life. Some of his friends advised him to send her to boarding-school; but Josepha wept, and remonstrated; he immediately therefore gave up the plan, and, in the stead, invited to his house a young lady in the joint capacity of governess and companion.
Josepha was agreeable in her exterior, and engaging in her manners. Nature had also endowed her with warm affections, and some share of good sense; but indulgence rendered her impatient of disappointment, and the delicacy and tenderness with which she was brought up, increased her natural sensibility to a degree bordering on weakness. It was her father’s wish, to see and make her happy; his intentions were good, but he mistook the way. His fondness led him to anticipate her desires: he watched her very looks; and the least cloud on her brow overwhelmed him with anxiety. The young lady her companion, accustomed to dependence, and naturally blessed with a mild and gentle disposition, instead of counteracting, increased the evil, by uniformly giving way to all her little whims and caprices. Being thus never contradicted, and gratified in all her wishes as soon as formed, Josepha grew restless and languid, for want of sufficient motives to awaken her energy and exert her faculties: she was both too timid and too delicate to be fond of public amusements, and the indulgence she met with at home, rendered her too fastidious to cultivate much acquaintance. What then was to be done? She painted, she drew, amused herself with musick, read novels and poetry, and repeatedly changed the fancy of her clothes; but all proved insufficient to employ her time, and occupy her thoughts: she felt herself discontented and unhappy, though she knew not why. Thus passed the first nineteen years of her life, when she was one day aroused from the torpor of vacuity, by Mr. B-s informing her, that he expected a large party of gentlemen to dinner. They came, and among them was a young man of the name of Clermont: he appeared to be about twenty-eight; he was not handsome, but his person was graceful and his conversation intelligent; while equally devoid of fulsome flattery and coxcomical self-sufficiency, his easy ingenuous manners gave the promise of an amiable and benevolent heart.
When dinner was ended, and the desert gave place to the wine, Josepha and Miss –––– retired to the drawing-room. Clermont allured by the sound of the harpsichord, and preferring the company of the ladies to the noisy toast, and bacchanalian song, soon followed them. Josepha played and sung with more than usual pathos, and when at the tea-table, entered into conversation on the topic of the day, the last new publication, &c. &c. in a manner uncommonly animated, though somewhat embarrassed: the company were no sooner gone, than Josepha asked a thousand questions concerning the gentleman, whom she had taken so much pains to entertain: and learned that he was young man of good character, genteel family, but small fortune; and her father added, that he believed he loved books better than business. She expressed her approbation of his polite and elegant conversation, and intimated a wish that he might be again invited to the house: this wish the old gentleman took the earliest opportunity of complying with, in consequence of which an intimacy ensued. Clermont was now a constant visitor: he lent her books, and brought her music; listened with pleasure while she sung, and admired the landscapes that she drew; but “he never talked of love,” nor was there any peculiarity in his manner, by which she could judge of the state of his heart. Josepha’s partiality increased, and every repeated interview served but to cement her attachment, and involve her in greater anxiety. Harassed by suspense, and tortured by the possibility of mortification and disappointment, she indulged the most cruel inquietude: sleep forsook her pillow; and her complexion, in which the lily was before rather too predominant, acquired a still paler hue.
Mr. B. fondest of parents, saw her droop, and suspected the cause; when one morning surprising her in tears, he besought her with the most soothing tenderness, to make known to him the occasion of her sorrow. Unable to resist his paternal endearments, she hid her face in his bosom; and confessed without reserve the soft cause of her present infelicity. He affectionately embraced her, smiled at her embarrassment, and bade her dry her tears: Mr. C. he said, could not remain insensible to her attractions, (for, who could behold his beloved Josepha with indifference?) the attachment, he had no doubt, was reciprocal, and it was inferiority of fortune that kept him silent: but, what was fortune, when put in competition with her happiness? He had gold enough for them both, and if she would give him leave, he would that day make Clermont acquainted with his good fortune. Complicated were the emotions, which at that moment changed the faint tints of Josepha’s cheek, to the liveliest crimson; nor would she suffer her father to depart, till he had promised to relinquish his scheme for the present, and take no future step without her knowledge and approbation. Yet the consolation, that he had administered, sank deep into her heart. If Clermont really loved her, (which she now persuaded herself was the fact) how delicate, how disinterested his conduct.3 Gay hope once more gilded the fairy prospect, and the fond illusions were too enchanting to be soon resigned; after indulging for a while these romantic reveries, she formed the resolution of making him acquainted with the favourable sentiments, which he had inspired; but, how was this to be done? Her father, it is true, had offered his interference; and, perhaps, he was the properest person to act in an affair so delicate: but she was fearful of the manner, in which he would execute his commission. Clermont possessed a mind refined and elevated, and she shuddered at the idea of the blunt and mercantile style, that Mr. B. might probably address him in, and her pride prevented her confiding in any other friend. After a thousand projects, one moment embraced, and the next rejected, she determined to write to him herself; and the very same evening returned to him a pamphlet, within the leaves of which he found the following epistle.
“After much anxiety and mature deliberation, I sit down to write what some persons would term romantic, and other deem ridiculous and inconsistent with propriety. Mr. Clermont I am convinced is possessed of a mind, that rises superior to vulgar notions and debasing prejudices; and under this conviction I venture to confess even to him, that his character, understanding, and the sentiments which at various times I have heard him utter, (on many subjects so similar, and congenial with my own) have made an impression on my mind, more deep and interesting, than I was myself at first aware of. This sympathy is not the effect of youthful levity, or the wayward child of yesterday. It is now many months since you was first introduced to my acquaintance, and time, instead of obliterating, has added strength to a partiality, which a first interview began: I think I have no reason to be ashamed of a sensibility founded on nature and awakened by reason. Why then should I blush at declaring sentiments, the basis of which is virtue? Yet at this moment a crimson glow suffuses my cheek, – whilst an hesitating doubt suspends for a while the motion of my pen, and bids me burn what I have written, and endeavor to subdue, or continue to conceal within my own bosom a preference which ought not to be given unasked for. In return for this frank, and perhaps unguarded avowal of my sentiments, I ask an answer equally open and ingenuous. If your heart is already occupied by any prior attachment, tell me so: should this not be the case, and yet you love me not, attempt not to deceive me. I am persuaded you are above being actuated by interested considerations; and be assured I am too proud to wish to owe your attentions to any other motive than that of affection.”4
No sooner was this important letter out of her own power, then her spirits failed, and her heart misgave her; the most torturing agitation racked her bosom. One moment she repented the rash step, and would have given the whole world to have recalled the lines which she had so precipitately written: the next she endeavoured to calm her mind, by the recollection of what her father had said in the morning. Thus passed the night. The next day she was in some measure relieved from this cruel sate of anxiety, by receiving an answer full of gratitude, respect, and professions of attachment. Clermont, though not absolutely in love with Josepha, was not engaged to any one else: her letter awakened his sensibility, and excited his astonishment: for notwithstanding she had ever received him with smiles, and distinguished him by many marks of favour, his vanity had never flattered him with having made so strong an impression on her heart.
Josepha, though secure of her lover, was still far from being happy; fear and jealousy continually haunted her sickly imagination, and a word or look less animated, created a thousand doubtful suspicions. Clermont feeling himself both hurt and perplexed by her distrust of his sincerity, entreated, that an early day might unite them for ever. She consented, and he soon after met her at the altar; where smiling, yet weeping, she appeared like an April sun, faintly beaming through a watery cloud. In becoming his wife, she changed her situation, but not her disposition. Of Clermont’s behaviour she had no just cause of complaint: for in him she found the kind, the affectionate husband, and the sensible and worthy friend; but Josepha was too much spoiled by indulgence, and enervated by prosperity, to enjoy the blessings with which she was surrounded: the most trivial occurrence, if it happened contrary to her wishes, was considered as a real misfortune; and, if she was indisposed, the whole house must be employed for her relief. Three years passing after their marriage without children, were the source of much disquiet! – a son at the end of the fourth, removed this cause of discontent. But the care attending the delicate constitution and precarious life of an infant, involved her in new and perpetual anxiety. Their family was soon increased by the birth of another son: but this was a terrible disappointment; for she had set her heart upon a daughter. The next child proved a girl, and all her wishes now seemed gratified; for Providence had never yet denied her any blessing: but, alas! the little Josepha, whose opening beauties the mother beheld with fond delight, was seized with the small-pox. The child after fourteen days of suffering, began to recover her health, but the charms of her face, and the delicacy of her complexion, were gone for ever: this was a cruel mortification; and all the good sense and persuasive eloquence of Clermont proved ineffectual to reconcile his lady to this irremediable misfortune: from her weak and useless lamentation she was roused by a stroke heavy and severe indeed. She had hitherto been groaning under the weight of imaginary evils; misery too real now awaited her; the sun-shine was past, though past without enjoyment, and the gathering storm burst with horror on her devoted head.
Clermont returning rather late one evening to their country retreat, was attacked by two highwaymen. He surrendered his purse; but one of the villains not content with the booty, and suspecting himself to be known, fired a pistol at his head; the ball pierced his temple: – he fell. – The hour passed over, in which he was accustomed to return; the children inquired for their father, and went to bed with reluctance. – Josepha stood gazing with anxious solicitude at a window, which commanded the prospect of the London road. Their house was situated at the foot of a bridge, through the arches of which the river M–– fell with a murmuring noise. The wind whistled hollow among the bending willows that hung over the stream, and the pale moon beamed a shadowy light on the surrounding prospect. She looked with wild uncertainty on every object, and mistook the mingled sounds for distant carriages; every moment increased her terror. At last the clock struck twelve, when a post-chaise came rolling slowly along the dreary road; breathless with agitation, she ran with an almost phrensied impatience to the outward gate; when, what were her sensations at beholding! – but I forbear to paint the soul-harrowing scene. Suffice it to say, that Josepha was for a while deprived of reason; time restored her senses and bitter anguish was succeeded by dark and languid melancholy: undisciplined by early adversity, and unfortified by education, – she struggled not with her feelings, but remained in all the lassitude of unavailing sorrow. A prey to ungoverned sensibility and childish caprice, unsteady in her conduct, and peevish in her temper, she neither gained the affections, nor secured the respect of her family and dependants. Her constitution originally delicate, grew still more sickly: she seldom now quitted her chamber, and yet seldomer the house: her children whom she had neither spirits to instruct, nor resolution to control, lived in a state of continual discord. The sons wild and impetuous, gave way to all the levity of youth, and entered with avidity into every species of extravagant dissipation which the town afforded: her daughter, a girl of high spirit and violent passions, weary of the dull life she passed at home, eloped at sixteen with a young officer of profligate character, who allured by the report of a large fortune, contrived secretly to pay his addresses to her. – Such were the fatal effects of wrong, or neglected education. – May it be a lesson to those whole talk it is
----------“To rear the tender thought,
And teach the young idea how to shoot,
To pour the fresh instruction o’er the mind,
To breathe th’ enlivening spirit, and to fix
The generous purpose in the glowing breast.”5
Though we cannot by the utmost care and diligence bestow talents, where nature has denied capacity, the mind may be always in some measure improved by cultivation; and the moral character depends much, if not altogether, on early associations. It has been urged as an argument against the power of education, that many brought up under the same roof, with equal advantages both of precept and example, have proved very opposite characters on the stage of life. But, may not this objection be in a measure obviated, by replying, that as some individuals differ materially from others in point of capacity, natural temperament, &c. so they of course require a contrary treatment? and likewise by observing the negligence and inattention of parents in general with regard to the culture of the mind! – If a father provide for the fortune, and a mother takes care of the health, and exterior of their offspring, they are supposed to have done their duty; boarding-school it is falsely imagined will supply the rest: thus sent into the world to take their chance, on adventitious circumstances their future fate entirely depends.
For young women this tale and these observations are principally intended: many, my contemporaries, have been the times, and various the ways, in which you have been addressed: the grave divine, the sober matron, and the anxious parent have alternately taken up the pen for your instruction. May I flatter to the words of advice which come from your equal, your friend? I am young like yourselves, and the sentiments which I write, are neither dictated by spleen, nor rendered gloomy by misfortune. I mean not to satirize your foibles, I wish not to restrain your vivacity; it is not ill humour; it is not affected singularity: no! it is benevolence, – it is virtue, that stimulate me to take up my pen. I blush for the folly, the frivolity in which we have consumed so many of our best days; too long have we been slaves to vanity and giddy flutterers of the hour: it is fit we should now rise superior to this empty trifling. Poor is the praise and ignoble the ambition which aspires no higher than to be first in a new fashion, or most admired in a circle of petit maitres (whose very flattery is satire). In this age of light and liberty, may our bosoms be fired with a more worthy emulation! and in the reformation of manners so much talked about, and so loudly called for, let us catch the glorious enthusiasm, and take the lead! – If we would but unite in intention, great would be our power, and extensive our influence; the character of one sex has ever been found to affect that of the other: for the confirmation of this we need not refer to the days of chivalry, we need but observe on the present times. Ask an impertinent coxcomb, Why he dresses, dances, and, in short, loses the man in the monkey? He will tell you, to please the ladies. And, are we pleased with this foolery? I leave the question unresolved; I dare not answer it: but this I will venture to affirm, – if there were no fine ladies, we should not long be offended by fine speeches, and fine gentlemen, both equally useless and insipid.
With us also are intrusted the morals of the rising generation: many of you, my young friends, may one day become mothers: think of the importance of the character: reflect likewise on the day of final retribution, which every passing moment hastens on. Will it avail us in the solemn hour, that we have not been guilty of any intentional evil? Alas! I fear not. We shall surely be called to account both for what we have done, and what we have left undone, “and even ignorance when voluntary is criminal.”6 – Let us then while we are in possession of health, of youth, of life, those precarious blessings which to-morrow may deprive us of, exert our faculties, and awake to virtue. “Be watchful, be diligent;”7 my country women! forego the empty gewgaw and ignoble praise, and aspire after rationality here, and immortality hereafter; leave it to fops and beaux to determine who is the fairest, and the best drest; let our subject of debate be who have most improved their understandings, best performed their active duties, and appeared with the greatest advantage in the respective capacities of daughter, sister, friend, &c. &c.
1 Letters and Essays, Moral, and Miscellaneous, 138-59.
2 Taken from Ch. XXV of Samuel Johnson’s prose tale, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia(1759). Nekayah was Rasselas’s sister who accompanies him on his travels from the Happy Valley to Cairo.
3 Original text has “conduct; Gay …”
4 Josepha confessing her love to Clermont foreshadows Mary Hays’s declaration to William Frend in 1795 and Emma Courtney’s letter to Harley in Hays’s first novel, The Memoirs of Emma Courtney(1796) (199-203). Not long after her affair with Frend had come to an abrupt and, for her, an unexpected end, she confessed to Godwin, “My heart was unreservedly open before him [Frend] I coverd my paper with its emotions & transmitted them to him” (Hays to Godwin, 2-5 February 1796, MH 0012, Pforzheimer Collection, NYPL). Mary Hays had expressed similarly frank sentiments more than a decade earlier to her fiance John Eccles, confessing to him on November 5, 1779, that “if it is indelicate to avow an attachment so warm, so animated, yet so pure – of what indecorum have I been guilty! – But it is not! – it cannot be so! ... I never yet have had cause to repent my frankness – nor do I think I ever shall ....” (MH 0028 PC, Pforzheimer Collection, New York Public Library). Hays was not alone among Dissenting women writers in questioning established roles of mena and women during courtship. Having committed herself to feminist ideals inThe Female Advocate(1774), the West Country poet Mary Scott brought similar ideals to her courtship with the Presbyterian minister John Taylor. ‘Decorum prescribes a Thousand absurd modes of conduct to our Sex’, she explained to Taylor on 26 May 1777, ‘from which you are happily exempted; one of these is that a Woman ought not to acknowledge her affection for a Man, whatever his merit or attachment to her may be, till she is married to him’. Under normal conditions, she should have told him ‘a Thousand falsehoods, & endeavor’d to inspire yeWorld with a belief of my thinking lightly of yo.’ The ‘claims of honor, truth & humanity’, however, are ‘infinitely superior to yerules of Decorum’, a stance that links Scott and the Hays sisters in their common quest for ‘artless simplicity’ and ‘virtuous love’ (Whelan, Nonconformist Women Writers, 4.275).
5 These lines appear near the end of “Spring,” from James Thomson’s popular poem, The Seasons (1730).
6 Line is by Imlac the poet, from Ch. XXX of Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas.
7 Phrase is loosely taken from I Peter 5:8.