To give an account, however concise or general, of every woman who, either by her virtues, her talents, or the peculiarities of her fortune, has rendered herself illustrious or distinguished, would, notwithstanding the disadvantages civil and moral under which the sex has laboured, embrace an extent, and require sources of information, which few individuals, however patient in labour or indefatigable in research, could compass or command. Yet no character of eminence will, in the following work, I trust, be found omitted, except among those who have come nearer to our own times; of whom, for reasons unnecessary to be detailed, but few have been brought forward.
My pen has been taken up in the cause, and for the benefit, of my own sex. For their improvement, and to [iv] their entertainment, my labours have been devoted. Women, unsophisticated by the pedantry of the schools, read not for dry information, to load their memories with uninteresting facts, or to make a display of a vain erudition. A skeleton biography would afford to them but little gratification: they require pleasure to be mingled with instruction, lively images, the graces of sentiment, and the polish of language. Their understandings are principally accessible through their affections: they delight in minute delineation of character; nor must the truths which impress them be either cold or unadorned. I have at heart the happiness of my sex, and their advancement in the grand scale of rational and social existence. I perceive, with mingled concern and indignation, the follies and vices by which they suffer themselves to be degraded. If, through prudence or policy, the generous contention between the sexes for intellectual equality must be waved, be not, my amiable country-women, poorly content with the destination of the slaves of an Eastern haram, with whom the season of youth forms the whole of life! A woman [v] who, to the graces and gentleness of her own sex, adds the knowledge and fortitude of the other, exhibits the most perfect combination of human excellence. Let not the cold sarcasms of the pedant stifle your generous ardour in the pursuit of what is praise-worthy: substitute, as they fade, for the evanescent graces of youth, the more durable attractions of a cultivated mind; that, to the intoxicating homage of admiration and love, may succeed the calmer and not less gratifying tribute of friendship and esteem. To her who, sacrificing at the shrine of fashion, wastes her bloom in frivolity; who, trained but for the purposes of vanity and voluptuousness, and contemning the characteristic delicacy of her sex, dauntless obtrudes her charms on the public eye, the jest of the licentious, and the contempt of the severe; dreadful must be the approach of age, that season of collected thought and of repose to the passions, that will rob her of her only claim to distinction and regard.
To excite a worthier emulation, the following memorial of those women, whose [vi] endowments, or whose conduct, have reflected lustre upon the sex is presented more especially to the rising generation, who have not grown old in folly, whose hearts have not been seared by fashion, and whose minds prejudice has not yet warped.
Unconnected with any party, and disdaining every species of bigotry, I have endeavoured, in general, to serve the cause of truth and of virtue. Every character has been judged upon its own principles; the reflections, sparingly interwoven, have been such as naturally arose out of the subject; nor have I ever gone out of my way in favour of sects or systems.
For the life of Catherine II. some apology, on account of its disproportionate length, is probably due. The interesting nature of the subjects it embraced, and the copiousness of the materials, insensibly led me beyond the purposed limits. The lives of our own Elizabeth, of whom English-women may justly boast, and of the unfortunate Mary of Scotland, her rival and sister queen, are also of considerable length. But let it be remembered, that the reign of an absolute monarch is strictly biographical, and that the character of the sovereign [vii] is read in the history of his times. The life of madame de Maintenon, so full of amusing anecdote, secures me the indulgence of my readers. In that of madame Roland, the progress and delineation of a most extraordinary and admirable mind, placed in circumstances wholly unparalleled, abounds in so much instruction, and excites so lively an interest, that further to have abridged it would have been almost a crime.
By the well-informed critic, it may be alleged, that but little new is brought forward in this work. Yet that novelty is more rare than the vulgar imagine, it is unnecessary to hint to the learned. Suffice it to observe, that my book is intended for women, and not for scholars; that my design was, not to surprise by fiction, or to astonish by profound research, but to collect and concentrate, in one interesting point of view, those engaging pictures, instructive narrations, and striking circumstances, that may answer a better purpose than the gratification of a vain curiosity.
In the progress of my work, I have had occasion to feel the truth of an observation [viii] made by Bayle, That to abridge with judgment, is of literary labours one of the most difficult. And this task is rendered still more arduous to a writer who, disdaining mere compilation, is solicitous for uniformity of language and sentiment. If, in aiming at a clear, correct, and even harmonious style, I have failed of attaining my purpose, I shall receive with patience, nay more, with thankfulness, the corrections of the candid and experienced critic, whose art I equally reverence and esteem. From such critics, who know how to compute the labours of the mind, and the weariness of a voluminous work, pursued and completed wholly without assistance, I need not demand allowances for those smaller defects and errors which, in papers passing again and again through the same hands, it would be scarcely possible wholly to avoid.