Friday, September 13, 2013

The Female Instructor

There were dozens of them--dozens of books telling women (married and unmarried) how to behave, what to think, how to improve their minds, their household, their conversation. They bore titles such as "The Female Preceptor", "Mentoria", "Advice to Young Ladies", and "The Matrimonial Miscellany".

One of the longest-lived of such tomes was "The Female Instructor, or Young Woman's Companion". I believe it was first published in 1811.

In 1834, it was still being published then as "The New Female Instructor" subtitled "Young Woman's Guide to Domestic Happiness".

These books all revolved around a single premise, that a young woman's only goals were matrimony, and the happiness of the men in her life.

The frontispiece of the original 1811 volume shows the 'perfect woman', with her sewing, her symbols of music and her improving books, and her air of humble serenity.
The preface of the 1811 edition advises that "Domestic employments, particularly after marriage, will be found to be the source of unnumbered pleasures." And the chapter on matrimonial duty--which I personally find infuriating--comes with an illustration:

I cannot think that the cloying advice was the reason for the success and longevity of this volume. It must be the practical advice that caused it to be reprinted through the years. Indeed, the 'index' or table of contents cannot be read without a smile. Everything from 'frying in general' to 'Dr. Hawe's method of returning Drowned persons to life' plus 'How to clean Gold and Silver lace' and 'Sentiments of divine love' is covered. 'Parental duties considered' is listed next to 'Cleaning paper Hangings'. The 'necessity for Religious instruction' is next to 'to stop Retching'.

The most practical instructions are clear and concise. 'Management of poultry', 'puddings baked and boiled', 'how to roast game' are juxtaposed with useful illustrations:
I was interested to see the word 'dessert' used below, even if the spelling is, to our eyes, eccentric.
It bothers me to think of these paternalistic texts with their personality-destroying sentiments being read by generations of young women. I do hope that some women handed the books to their daughters with the words, "Never mind the advice, dear, the recipes are excellent".

'Til next time,


N.B. The Female Instructor is available for download from Google Books.


Anne Gallagher said...

I remember reading an article about Helen Gurley Brown and all the sage advice she had passed on through the years. From how to smoke a cigarette and when it was appropriate, to how to greet your man when he came home from work (with a martini and wearing a short skirt. ugh)

I guess these people thinking women are too stupid to live without all their wisdom.

Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

And that of course is the whole problem with the patriarchy. Women are regarded as stupid.

The good thing is we know that that notion is wrong!

Miss K said...

I agree! There are so many little "sentiments" from these 19th century texts that will leave us modern women astounded! I laugh when I read them aloud, and my fiancee would like the "dispute not with him at all" part!

We must also keep in mind to wear our 19th century glasses, so to speak, when examining primary sources. While they do support that patriarchal system that we giggle at today, this guide was key for many young ladies wishing to elevate their social status.

To be quite honest, some of the advice is not too far off from what we'd see in the typical relationship advice guide today: have a positive outlook throughout the day, only argue occasionally, find happiness in your partner's love, and use that darn ring as a reminder when you feel improper!