WHAT did our grandmothers, the
children of a hundred years ago, read? If the book was of an educational
nature, they had the Legacy for Young Ladies, with its three
hundred pages of Morality, Anatomy, Zoology, Meteorology, Moral
Philosophy, Arithmetic, Poetry and the Drama, Geography, History, Ancient
History, Political Economy, and Scripture Knowledge.
Or there was the Lectures on
Female Education and Manners, the third chapter being particularly
enlivening reading. This chapter explains how they are to acquire certain
virtues and avoid certain defects. The list is formidable, and if the poor
young ladies modelled themselves in accordance with the advice given, it
is little wonder that they grew up colourless and lacking in willpower and
decision. They are to study humility, docility; they are cautioned against
obstinacy, sullenness and self-conceit; they are to acquire a docile
temper by attention, and a seasonable taciturnity and consideration.
The Ladies’ Calling is
a book in which the author thinks "it may be a necessary charity to the
sex, to acquaint them with their own value, animate them to some higher
thoughts of themselves, not to yield their suffrage to those injurious
estimates the world hath made of them, and from a supposed incapacity of
nobler things to neglect the pursuit of them; from which God and Nature
have no more precluded the Feminine than the Masculine part of mankind."
This was an advance, and the writer was expressing, for his day, liberal
For the class-room there were
Mangnall’s Questions, and Lindley Murray’s standard text-books in the
early nineteenth century schools. The popular means of presenting
information was by way of question and answer, viz.
Ques.—Name some of the most
Assyria, China in Asia, and Egypt in Africa. Nimrod, the grandson of
Ham, is supposed to have founded the first of these, B.C. 2221, as
well as the famous cities of Babylon and Nineveh; his kingdom being
within the fertile plains of Chaldea, Chalonitis, and Assynei, was of
small extent compared with the vast empires that afterwards rose from
it, but included several large cities. In the district called
Babylonia were the cities of Babylon, Barsita, Idicarra, and Vologsia.
Poor grandmothers! No wonder infant
mortality was high and so many bright children were cut off young; few
brains could enjoy these mental gymnastics, and yet woe betide the child
who had not mastered his or her daily "portion."
Besides these questions, there were
in Scotland the questions and answers of the Shorter Catechism; they were
known and taught everywhere in all homes—in all schools. The Catechism,
with its 107 questions and answers, is an admirable compound of
theology, but is somewhat profound for children. It was familiarly alluded
to as the "questions." "Have ye gotten your questions? "meant" Have you
mastered the catechism?" It required some mastery; from start to finish it
requires deep thought.
It begins straight away with the profound question:
Ques.—What is the chief end of man?
Ans.—Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to
enjoy Him forever.
So it goes on. One more example :—
Ques.—What benefits do they that are effectually
called partake of in this life?
Ans.—They that are effectually
called do in this life partake of Justification, Adoption, and
Sanctification, and the several benefits which, in this life, do
either accompany or flow from them.
Stiff food for youthful minds, but
the common diet of Scottish children.
The Looking Glass for the Mind,
being an elegant collection of the most delightful little stories and
interesting tales, promised well and made
the young female hope for enjoyment, but alas! like the other books, it
was but a guide for her, something to help her through the dangers that
beset the path of all young females. These works all possessed the gift of
verbal obscurity Endless words, but little pleasure or profit could be
abstracted from them.
For lighter literature our
grandmothers read The Wide, Wide World, The Lamplighter, The Fairchild
Family, Henry and His Bearer, and in Scotland great favourites were
Anna Ross, The Cottagers of Glenburnie, Holiday House, and
Jane and The Cornelian Cross.
Grace Kennedy, the authoress of
Anna Ross and many other books popular in their day, especially on the
Continent, was born in 1782 at Pinmore House, Ayrshire. She was the fourth
daughter of Robert Kennedy of Pinmore, and Robina, daughter of John Vans
Agnew, from the county of Galloway. Early in life her parents removed to
Edinburgh, where she spent the remainder of her days. When young she was
fond of reading and learnt all that was put before her; she studied
foreign languages and had some talent for drawing. She was both unassuming
and modest; her books—the first was The Decision—were published
anonymously, as befitted the age in which she wrote. It was only when ill
and about to die that she divulged the secret of her authorship. She was a
deeply religious character, as is shown in all her works. Father
Clement was a celebrated story that dealt with the Roman Catholic
doctrines. Dunallan, a long story of a
young girl married by her father’s wish and against her will to her
cousin. The marriage, in spite of the bridegroom’s indifference and the
bride’s reluctance, turned out well, and after many adventures, the happy
couple settle down to enjoy the good things of this world, while
confidently looking forward to still greater blessings in another world.
It is gratifying to learn from her
biographer "that, though female authors have frequently been accused of
neglecting those duties which are considered as more particularly
belonging to their own department in life, when they enter on the higher
ground of literary pursuits, she was entirely free from any fault of this
kind." Indeed, so completely was this the case "that even in the minute
niceties of ladies’ works, she excelled as much as in the higher
endowments of her mind. Her retired and deeper studies, and her writing,
never interfered with other duties and occupations. She never for one
moment discovered the slightest literary parade, and had no hours set
apart in which she was not to be intruded upon." Indeed, we can picture
her as one of these humble, busy creatures whose chief concern is to pass
through life without causing a ripple on the surface. Yet she had
something in her that compelled her to write.
a story for the young;
Jessy Allan, or The Lame Girl, Andrew Campbell’s Visit to his Irish
Cousins, The Word of God and The Word of Man,
and Anna Ross followed each other in quick
succession, and all were popular amongst a large number of readers.
Anna Ross was perhaps the favourite.
"Surely," it began, "there is no
British boy nor girl who has not heard of the Battle of Waterloo !" That
battle lost Anna a brave and godly father, and soon the fond and equally
pious mother followed her husband to the grave, and left Anna the orphan,
first to the care of her rich and worldly Uncle and Aunt Ross for six
months, then to the poor but godly Aunt and Uncle Murray, in their
Perthshire manse; at the end of the year Anna was to choose "in which
family she would reside as her future home." Aunt Ross, kind but worldly,
was determined to do her best for Anna as far as worldly advantages were
An amusing if pathetic picture of
Miss Palmer, the governess, and her cousins, George, Louisa, Jane and
Marianne follows. The long lessons, the back board, the pianoforte
instruction, the dancing, the high chair on which poor Marianne sat, "the
back of which was so made as to oblige her to hold her head and shoulders
properly; and her poor little feet were placed in stocks, because her
Mamma said she turned her toes in when she walked." Comfort was always
sacrificed to elegance. The children were called at six-thirty a.m. and
were at lessons before and after breakfast; dinner followed the lessons,
an hour’s walk followed dinner, "during which the children were directed
how to sit, and how to eat, and how to be graceful, and how to be polite,
and Louisa looked tired and cross—and Jane looked stupid—and little
Marianne cried two or three times."
As Anna, busy all day in gaining
accomplishments, had no time to study the Bible, she asked her uncle for
permission and obtained it to rise half an hour earlier than the others
for this purpose; this after a little hesitation, and in memory of his
dead brother, he agreed to, so Anna had a long and full day.
On her first appearance in deep
mourning in the drawing-room where Aunt Ross is receiving company, she was
told to watch attentively the manners of anyone to whom she was
introduced. "If I do not introduce you to any visitor, Anna," said Aunt
Ross, "you may suppose that I do not wish you to imitate the manners of
that person, and you may just go on with your lesson." Soon Anna learned
that it was only the ladies of position and rank that she was to imitate,
no matter how innately vulgar they might be. Even the church was chosen
because the fashionable attended it and the minister was well connected,
and, alack and alas! at the end of six months, Anna had forgotten that she
was a child of Grace and had become puffed up and vain.
But six months with Aunt and Uncle
Murray and her good cousins, Norman and Kenneth, and the little boys cure
her of her vanity and show her that if the heart is right nothing else
matters. She learns simple household duties and grows strong and well.
When the great day of the final choice comes, Aunt Ross does not find her
as awkward as she feared. All is excitement, and Uncle Ross told the
ten-year-old Anna that she may choose with whom she will live; he promised
her a fortune equal to his daughters, whereas Uncle Murray, who has no
worldly advantages to bestow, can only offer to save Anna’s soul, and show
her how she may live to inherit eternal life.
All listen eagerly to what Anna had
to say: she had no hesitation. "I have chosen," exclaimed Anna. "I will
never leave you, Uncle Murray. You shall teach me: You have taught me how
I shall again meet my own dear Mamma—how I shall go to heaven. Uncle
Murray, I choose to remain with you."
So Anna returned to the manse, and
Kenneth, the good elder cousin, met her with tears of joy in his eyes and
she is kissed and embraced by all, and the orphan Anna found a father and
mother and brothers, and Mrs. Murray found a daughter, and Anna often
spoke of her "Papa and Mamma, who lay far away, near the field of
Waterloo." In this quiet, orderly, affectionate household Anna would
blossom and bloom, and to aid her in her piety and patience there was
always Kenneth in the background, the good cousin who was waiting to make
her his bride. Anna desired nothing but some strong man to lean upon; hers
was not a nature to rebel successfully against convention. Kenneth and
then a comfortable manse would make Anna happy, and so we leave her.
The leaves, yellowed with age, shew
signs of much reading. Anna Ross was a
much-loved friend in our grandmother’s days. Poor Anna, the book makes the
twentieth-century child rejoice that she is born in this epoch, not a
century earlier. Lessons, deportment, style, in the one house; lessons in
self-effacement and self-depreciation in the other, are a complete
contrast to the free development and self-consciousness of Miss 1930.
A much more lively story is The
Cottagers of Glenburnie. Mrs. MacClarty, with her inevitable "I canna
be fash’d," is still a character of interest to Scottish readers.
Elizabeth Hamilton, the author, was born in Belfast in 1758: she was of
Scottish descent. When nine years old Elizabeth was brought to Scotland
and was taken by her aunt, Mrs. Marshall, to her husband’s farm in
Stirling. The worthy couple were proud of Elizabeth and educated her well,
for the period in which she lived, though they seemed to have been
somewhat bewildered by her studious character. She was one of those people
who sop up information as a sponge sops up water.
She wrote a good many ambitious
books, also a historical novel in the form of Letters, with Arabella
Stuart for heroine and no less a man than Shakespeare as a subordinate
character. She wrote letters on education, and Memoirs of Agrippina, in
three volumes, and an Epitome of Roman Laws, Customs and Manners. She was
a woman who exercised a good deal of influence in her day, and she was a
true philanthropist; her desire to improve the Scottish people made her
write The Cottagers of Glenburnie.
Woven into the narrative are various reminiscences
of her early days in Stirling, where life had been primitive. The
easy-going farmer, with his " I thocht it would do weel eneugh," and the
"I canna be fash’d" of his better half, give a picture of the dirt and
mismanagement hard to beat.
Mrs. Mason, a tidy high-minded woman
indifferently supplied with worldly goods, had come to live with her
cousins at Glenburnie. As they approached the house, the cart in which
they were proceeding struck the dilapidated broken bridge; with difficulty
the bridge was temporarily put right and Mr. Stewart (the steward),
foreseeing the consequences of its remaining in this unfinished state,
urged the farmer to complete the job on that same evening, at the same
time promising to reimburse him for any outlay he might incur. The only
answer he could obtain was, "Ay, ay, we’ll do ‘t in time ; but I’se
warrant it’ll do weel eneugh."
Mrs. Mason’s heart sank when she saw
her new home, and we can well sympathize with her. "The walls were
substantial . . . . but they were blackened by the mud which the
cart-wheels had spattered from the ruts in winter and on one side of the
dor completely covered from view by the contents of a great dunghill. On
the other, and directly under the window, was a squashy pool, formed by
the dirty water thrown from the house, and in it about twenty young ducks
were at this time dabbling."
Poor Mrs. Mason spent a sleepless
night in her new room, what with the dirt and the fleas and the want of
ventilation. Next morning she emerged to seek a hand-basin and water, for,
of course, her room boasted no such refinements. She found Meg and Jean,
the daughters of the house, Meg standing by the table, where had just
stood the porridge dishes, and Jean killing flies at the window. Mrs.
Mason asks where she would find a handbasin. "I dinna ken," said Meg,
drawing her finger through the milk that had been spilled upon the table.
"Where is your mother? " asked Mrs. Mason. "I dinna ken," returned Meg,
dabbling her fingers through the remains of the feast. Mrs. Mason then
courteously offers to assist her to clean the table and tidy the room, to
which she gives the characteristic reply, " I’ll no be at the fash," and
then goes off
to school, but Jean continues to catch flies at the
window, in spite of her mother’s efforts to get her away.
"Dear me!" said the mother, "what’s
the matter wi’ the bairn ! What for winna ye gang, when Meg’s gane? Rin,
and yell be after her or she wins to the end o’ the loan." "I’m no’ ga’an
the day," says Jean. "And what for are ye no’ ga’an, my dear?" says her
mother. "‘Cause I hinna gotten my questions," retorted Jean.
"O, but ye may gang for a’ that,"
said her mother; "the maister will no’ be angry. Gang, like a gude bairn."
"Na," said Jean, "but he will be angry, for I didna get them the last time
either." "And what for didna ye get them, my dear? " said Mrs. MacClarty
in a soothing tone. " ‘Cause ‘twas unco kittle, an’ I cou’dna be fash’d,"
replied the hopeful girl, catching as she spoke another handful of
flies. The questions here refer to the Shorter Catechism.
Jean was evidently not familiar with
Ques.—What is required in the
Commandment requireth the preserving the honour, and performing the
duties belonging to every one in their several places, and relations,
as Superiors, Inferiors or Equals.
Mrs. Mason endeavoured to show her
cousin that obedience in the young, coupled with orderliness and
cleanliness, are virtues calculated to advance people in the world, but
Mrs. MacClarty likes no advice or criticism about her young people. "If my
bairns do as weel as I ha’e done, they’ll do weel eneugh," was her
Mrs. Mason’s cleansing operations,
in the small bedroom allotted to her, amazed her cousin, who resented them
and thought them uncalled for.
Mrs. MacClarty’s methods of
butter-making scarcely come up to modern standards, and filled Mrs. Mason
with horror. " Mistress," haloed the voice of Grizzel the servant, "I wish
ye wad come and speak to Meg. She winna be hinder’d putting her fingers in
the kirn, and licking the cream." " If I were at you," said Mrs. MacClarty,
"I’d gar ye . . . Go, ye idle whippy!" she continued, "and let me see how
weel ye’ll ca’ the kirn." "I winna kirn the day," returned Meg; "I’m ga’an
to milk the kye; Jean may kirn; she has naething else to do." "I’m aye set
to kirn," says Jean, whimpering. "I never saw sic wark. I tell ye, I winna
kirn mair than Meg. Grizzel can milk the cows hersel’ : She doesna want
her help." Here Mrs. Mason spoke about children’s duties, ending with
"Young people ought to obey and not to dictate." " Hear ye that! " said
Mrs. MacClarty. "But Jean will gang to the kirn, I ken, like a good bairn;
and she sal get a dad o’ butter to her bread." "But I winna hae’t frae the
hairin’ knife," said ean, " for the last I got stack i’ my throat." "Bless
me," cried Mrs. Mason, in amazement, "how does your butter come to be so
full of hair? Where do they come from? " "O, they are a’ frae the cows,"
returned Mrs. MacClarty. "There has lang been a hole in the milksyth, and
I have never been at the fash to get it mended; but as I tak’ aye care to
syth the milk through my fingers, I wonder how sae mony hairs win in." "Ye
needna wonder at that," observed Grizzel, "for the hoose canna be soopit
but the dirt flies into the kirn." "But do you not clean the churn before
you put in the cream? " asked Mrs. Mason, more and more astonished. "Na,
na," returned Mrs. MacClarty, "that wadna be canny, ye ken. Naebody
hereabouts would clean their kirn for ony consideration. I never heard o’
sic a thing i’ my life." Mrs. Mason watched while Jean was slowly turning
the churn with unwilling hands; her mother was preparing the rest of the
milk for cheese; she took down a bottle of rennet, or "earning," as she
called it, poured some in, tucked up the sleeve of her gown and, dashing
in her arm, stirred the infusion with care and speed. "I believe, cousin,"
said Mrs. Mason, hesitatingly, "I believe—you forgot to wash your hands."
"Hoot!" returned the good wife, "my hands do weel eneugh. I canna be
fash’d to clean them at ilka turn." Mrs. Mason again expostulated, ending
with, "I believe that, in the management of a dairy, cleanliness is the
first, the last, the one art needful." "Cleanly!" repeated Mrs. MacClarty,
"nae ane ever said that I wasna cleanly. There’s no’ a mair cleanly person
i’ the parish. Cleanly indeed! ane wad think ye was speaking to a bairn!"
The good-natured, slack, untidy
farmer’s wife with the dour, careless husband and their unmannerly,
slatternly, disobedient family, soon drove Mrs. Mason from their roof; she
moved to a decent family in the village, and there, with better material
to work upon, raised the general standard of comfort and beauty in those
The Cottagers of Glenburnie,
a classic, was read and re-read when it first was
published, and it must have done something to attract attention to the
natural slackness prevalent in those days. Elizabeth Hamilton wrote other
books, but none attained so much popularity.
She wrote Popular Essays on the
Elementary Principles of the Human Mind and Hints addressed to the
Patrons and Directors of Public Schools. She died in Harrogate, and
was buried there. In her life-time she had many warm admirers and friends.
Maria Edgeworth, the novelist, wrote an eulogistic notice when she died.
Mrs. Grant of Laggan praises the value of her essays, and alludes to her
social work, and her qualities as a friend. Even at this date, so many
years after her death, The Cottagers of Glenburnie is read.
Catherine Sinclair, novelist and
story-teller, was slightly later than Elizabeth Hamilton and Grace
Kennedy. She was born in 1800, and was the fourth daughter of Sir John
Sinclair. She was a lively girl and early developed. The daughters were
all very tall, and Sir John Sinclair’s "thirty-six feet of daughters" made
a standing joke in Edinburgh society; and when a new pavement was laid
down in front of his house, it was humorously nicknamed "The Giants’
Causeway." Catherine became her father’s secretary from the age of
fourteen, and continued to act in that capacity till his death in 1835.
She then began authorship on her own account, by writing children’s
stories for her nephew, the Hon. G. F. Boyle, son of the Earl of Glasgow.
Miss Sinclair, like Elizabeth
Hamilton, was a philanthropist; she worked in Edinburgh. Amongst other
activities, she was instrumental in securing seats in crowded
thoroughfares, one of which bears her name. She was a bright and witty
writer, and showed skill in characterization and description. She was
interested in the beginnings of the demand for education for women, a
subject beginning to rouse thought amongst the more advanced minds of the
time. She wrote Modern Accomplishments, or
the March of Intellect, a study of female
education, in 1832. She also wrote many novels, amongst which were
Modern Flirtations, or a Month at Harrogate, Scotch Courtiers and The
Court, Sir Edward Graham, or Railway Speculators, Sketches and Short
Stories of Scotland and the Scotch. One book, Scotland and the
Scotch, or the Western Circuit, was re-published in America and
translated into various languages. Holiday House was the most
popular of all her books, and it is probably the one that will be longest
read. Indeed, it is probably the only book of hers that anyone knows
It is a story about two little
pickles, Harry and Laura Graham, and if allowance is made for a different
age, the doings of Harry and Laura will not be found out of date. The
children’s scrapes, the austere Mrs. Crabtree, their governess, their
indulgent grandmother, and the children’s friends are all depicted so
naturally and mirthfully that Holiday House still continues to be a
favourite with the children of the twentieth century. In the original
preface Miss Sinclair tells why she wrote the book; it was a revolt
against the tendency of over-instruction in books written for the young.
She says:—"It was a remark of Sir Walter Scott’s many years ago to the
author herself, that in the rising generation there would be no poets,
writers or orators, because all play of the imagination is now carefully
discouraged, and books written for young persons are generally a mere dry
record of facts, unenlivened by any appeal to the heart or any excitement
to the fancy.
"The catalogue of a child’s library
would contain Conversations on Natural Philosophy, on Chemistry, on
Botany, on Arts and Sciences, Chronological records of History, and
Travels as dry as a road book, but nothing on the habits or ways of
thinking, natural and suitable to the taste of children; therefore, while
such books are delightful to the parents and teachers who select them, the
younger community are fed with strong meat instead of milk, and the
reading which might be a relaxation from study becomes a study in itself."
"In these pages," she goes on, the
author has endeavoured to paint that species of noisy, frolicsome,
mischievous children," etc. She succeeded, for succeeding generations have
laughed and sighed over the mixture of good fun and earnest feeling of
The Grand Feast, when Henry and
Laura in their grandmother’s absence, unbeknown to and without the
authority of Mrs. Crabtree, invite their young friends to tea, ends in
failure, for Mrs. Crabtree will not give "one morsel of cake or anything
else for the party; no, not so much as a crust of bread, or a thimbleful
of tea." Alack and alas! it was a dismal party. The young ladies arrive in
best frocks, pink sashes and best shoes, and the boys in holiday attire,
with well-brushed hair. Disaster follows; the butler, kind soul, although
he cannot supply food, does his best : he set the table with fine china,
but that, however pretty, does not satisfy the guests. They grow
impatient, a riot ensues; the cups are broken, the guests depart; Harry
and Laura, caught by Mrs. Crabtree, are whipped and put to bed, while she
grumbled and scolded, saying "she must do her duty and make them good
children, though she were to flay them alive first." And Harry and Laura
both believe she would willingly perform this act.
Their kind grandmother, when she
returned, took pity upon them and issued an invitation to their young
friends, this time for a real feast—a feast long remembered by all who sat
down to the cakes and good things provided.
The escapades are endless; the fire
when Harry set the curtains on fire; the occasion upon which Laura, in
anticipation of the shingled head, cut her curls off. Mrs. Crabtree, with
her prodigious bunch of keys, who, if Laura and Harry left any breakfast,
kept it carefully for them till dinner time, when they were obliged to
finish the whole before tasting meat; and if they refused it at dinner,
the remains were kept for supper. Mrs. Crabtree, who always informed them
she did it for their good, though this Harry doubted, is a picture of a
past age when severity, not love, ruled the nursery.
Certainly, from a perusal of these
old books, the conclusion seems obvious, that human nature is much the
same in all ages. Boys and girls do not change in succeeding generations;
methods and fashions change, but the human being remains much the same. In
those old books the days of our ancestors are shown, and by the books they
read we can reconstruct their youth.
Another novelist much read in her
day was Mrs. Mary Brunton, born in 1775, in the Island of Barra, in
Orkney. Her father was a distinguished man, Colonel Thomas Balfour of
Elwick, and her mother was Frances Ligonier. Mary had a good head but an
indifferent education, though her mother taught her some little French and
Italian, and further, before she was sixteen years old, she spent a short
time at a boarding-school in Edinburgh acquiring accomplishments and
Before she was twenty she was the
wife of the Rev. Alexander Brunton, and settled with him in the manse of
Bolton, in East Lothian. Mr. Brunton was a scholarly man, and he
encouraged his wife to develop and improve her mind, and with his help she
went through "a course of reading in history, philosophy, and criticism,
and what was called the belles lettres."
The Bruntons’ next move was to
Edinburgh, and they soon knew many literary people, and it is particularly
noted that, though Mary became "a well-informed woman, she remained a
perfectly unpretending female." This doubtless means that she never
entered upon an opinion of her own, or contradicted a statement made by
the other sex, and may be considered as high praise. The Rev. Mr. Brunton
was far in advance of his day, for not only did he encourage his wife to
train her mind, but when trained he had no fear of the use to which she
would put it.
They were proud of each other, and
Mary spent much time in urging her husband to write a book. One day an
intimate friend was present, and she asked him, "If my husband writes a
book, will you publish it?" He at once agreed, and added he would be
pleased to do the same service to her. This struck her very much, and
seems to have given her the desire to write. She set to work and composed
volume one of her first novel before her husband had the faintest
suspicion that she was so occupied. Self-Control was the inspiring
title of her novel. The book appeared in two volumes, and of course, as
befitted an unpretending female, the book was published anonymously.
Strange as it may seem, it had an instantaneous success. The poor heroine
is for ever struggling to preserve her honour, no easy achievement in an
age when girls were the prey, men the hunters, and for a girl to preserve
her chastity in the face of untold dangers was indeed an achievement. Four
years later she published a second book. This time she needed three
volumes to unfold her story, Discipline, it was a highly moral book
and about as great a favourite as Self-Control. A third novel,
Emmeline, was commenced, but she died before it was completed. Joanna
Baillie wrote a tribute to her memory in verse, in which she describes her
good heart, good conversation, social gifts, and her fame as a novelist.
Emmeline was published after her death by her husband, along with a
little memoir of her uneventful, useful, unpretending life. Her husband
ended his days as Professor of Oriental Languages in Edinburgh University.
The authors quoted were women of
different minds, but alike in desiring to write for the improvement and
amusement of the generation they lived in, but with the bias strong
towards the improvement. They succeeded; they were women of note, and that
in a time when few women wrote at all, and when the general position of
women was a low one ; when in fiction the heroine was far from learned,
given to tears and emotions—the prey always of the other sex. These women
lived in an age which presented few openings. Matrimony was almost the
only road that led to freedom, and it, of course, did not invariably do
so. Sometimes it was merely an exchange of one form of slavery for
another, but with luck it was the preliminary step to almost every
independent undertaking. In writing at all, even anonymously, they showed
courage, the courage that breaks down tradition, that reaches out to grasp
and welcome the future. They were born in the mouldy atmosphere of
precedent, the precedent of its being unladylike to acquire knowledge and
infinitely worse to make use of it if acquired. It was an age which hated
change, at least change for women; although they were not consciously
rebels against conventions, yet they were torch-bearers, they were women
who felt the injustice of dull surroundings and empty lives, and they did
something towards ushering in better days.
Few men in their day had any opinion
of feminine learning or ability. Lord Chesterfield tells us that he had
never known a woman of "solid reasoning, good sense, or one who reasoned
or acted consequentially for twenty-four hours together." A man of sense
played with, humoured and flattered women as he would a forward child, but
would never consult or trust them in serious matters, though he would
often make them believe he did.
Lord Lyttleton wrote :—
"Make not the dangerous wit a vain pretence,
But wisely rest content with modest sense;
For wit like wine, intoxicates the brain,
Too strong for feeble women to sustain."