Friday, January 14, 2011

The Female Mentor
On Gentleness and Affability

"How much more attractive must a young woman appear, who is content to tread the path which Nature has prescribed, than one, who, by overleaping the barrier which divides the sexes, seems to defy opinion, and oppose constraint!"
The sentiments above sound Victorian to me; in fact, I want them to be Victorian. But they appeared in the Ladies' Monthly Museum in 1801 under the column title The Female Mentor with no author attribution. The writer of the piece must have been a man. I would hate to think that another woman would write such oppressive and offensive advice to young women.
"...the evil [loss of softness and sensibility], alas! is of a more dreadful nature, and aims at the subversion of domestic peace; for we no longer behold that pliancy of temper which cemented the bonds of connubial love."
I had rather thought that sentiments like those expressed in this article were born of the Victorian temperament, and if I had not seen the date 1801 would have placed this article in the 1830's or even later. The fact that they were published just after the turn of the century, I find sobering. After the excesses and openness of the eighteenth century, I rather thought that women had some degree of freedom, at least of thought, if not of person. To find them already oppressed by convention, and repressed by false morality, I find utterly depressing.

"What man of delicacy or refinement would wish to unite himself to a female whose happiness was derived from controversy and debate, and who, instead of discharging her domestic duties, thought them beneath the dignity of an enlightened mind?"
 Readers and writers of Regency fiction must be aware of this early infiltration of fierce propriety and enforced decorum. Free thinking young women--independent, lively and confident--were even early in the nineteenth century under attack. Of course unconventional souls existed, as they have in every age, and we write about them and read about them with relish. But only a few of the female characters created by an author in a work of fiction can be original thinkers; the rest cannot deny the paths that were being proscribed for them. Attitudes in Georgette Heyer's work that are sometimes descried as Victorian or Edwardian may, after all, have been Regency attitudes.
"How essential, then, to the happiness of society in general, is the practice of affability, gentleness, and ease; and how peculiarly unamiable is the female character which has lost the relish to delight and please!"
Thank heaven for Mrs. Wollstonecraft and her 'Vindication of the Rights of Women'. In light of this article, she takes on the aura of a voice crying in the wilderness. The Female Mentor says of her "...instead of endeavouring to destroy all distinction between the sexes, [she should have] recommended those virtues which peculiarly adorn her own." At least, young women--if they could get their hands on her work--had a point of view to contradict the appalling sentiments of this article.

"Controversy and disputation seem such unamiable propensities in beings whom Nature designed to engage, that we could hardly believe it possible they could so far forget their station, as blindly to follow such mistaken advice."

Heroines of Regency fiction must tread a delicate balance. They must be aware of the divergent opinions around them, from Wollstonecraft to The Female Mentor, and they must be true to themselves. But always they must be believable people of the period they inhabit. The Regency period is diminished in my eyes by articles such as this.

I hope to recover my spirits by next week,

'Til then,


Anne Gallagher said...

It sounds to me as if the author of this diatribe was an older man who had either, married a woman he thought was biddable and wasn't, or was not married and bitter because most of the women he met were NOT what he wanted.

Don't let the article get you down. I'm sure most of the women who read it, pooh-poohed it as rubbish. If they could do it, so can you.

Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

Thanks, Anne. I believe in the Women's Movement, and when I read rubbish like this I overreact :) It's the only time I'm glad I didn't live in the 19th century. (Well, that, and when I'm sick!)