All entries for Monday 24 October 2011

October 24, 2011

Hester Chapone

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While reading Charlotte Smith's Emmeline, we will begin to look in more detail at the conduct literature surrounding Smith's female readers. Hester Chapone [neé Mulso] (1727-1801) is one such writer who informed Smith's novels. Although aware of the fact that women could not aspire to more than a domestic role, she nevertheless believed that women could improve this situation through education. She championed female friendship and companionate marriage, and did not exclude passion and desire. Letters on the Improvement of the Mind (1773), Chapone's most celebrated work, responded directly to the flurry of conduct manuals written by men that flooded the public sphere during this period. As Mary Wollstonecraft would famously argue five years later in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Chapone's Letters refuted the notion that women should keep their learning a profound secret, and instead insisted that women should endeavour to improve their education. As described in the Dictionary of National Biography, her epistolary instruction 'allows her to exclude and nullify male nay-saying [...] neutralizing aspects of familiar male advice that demean women's role in marriage [and] voicing her direct criticisms of Jonathan Swift and John Gregory by the device of unmediated conversation between women.'1 

Extract from Chapone's Letters, 'On Politeness and Accomplishments':

'With regard to accomplishments, the chief of these is a competent share of reading, well-chosen and properly regulated; and of this I shall speak more largely thereafter. Dancing and the knowledge of the French tongue are now so universal that they cannot be dispensed with in the education of a gentlewoman; and indeed they are both so useful as well as ornamental [...] I believe that there are more agreeable books of female literature in French that in any other language [...] To write in a free and legible hand, and to understand common arithmetic, are indispensable requisites. [...] As to music and drawing, I would only wish you to follow as Genius leads: you have some turn for the first, and I should be sorry to see you neglect a talent, which will at least afford you an innocent amusement, though it should not enable you to give much pleasure to your friends; I think the use of both of these arts is more for yourself that for others: it is but seldom that a private person has leisure or application enough to gain any high degree of excellence in them [...] The principal study, I recommend is history. I know of nothing more proper to entertain and improve at the same time, or that is so likely to form and strengthen your judgement, and, by giving you a liberal and comprehensive view of human nature, in some measure to supply the defect of that experience, which is usually attained too late to be of much service to us.'2



2 Hester Chapone, 'On Politeness and Accomplishments', Letters on the Improvement on the Improvement of the Mind, from Appendix B: Women Marriage, Work, Emmeline, ed. by Lorraine Fletcher (Canada; Ont.: Broadview Lit Texts, 2003), pp.489-90


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