First Edition (1799)
WOMEN OF ENGLAND
ON THE INJUSTICE OF
"Born with high Souls, but to assert ourselves?"
PRINTED FOR T.N. LONGMAN, AND O.REES, NO.39,
Custom, from the earliest periods of antiquity, has endeavoured to place the female mind in the subordinate ranks of intellectual sociability. WOMAN has ever been considered as a lovely and fascinating part of the creation, but her claims to mental equality have not only been questioned, by envious and interested sceptics; but, by a barbarous policy in the other sex, considerably depressed, for want of liberal and classical cultivation. I will not expatiate largely on the doctrines of certain philosophical sensualists, who have aided in this destructive oppression, because an illustrious British
female, (whose death has not been sufficiently lamented, but to whose genius posterity will render justice) has already written volumes in vindication of "The Rights of Woman." * But I shall endeavour to prove that, under the present state of mental subordination, universal knowledge is not only benumbed and blighted, but true happiness, originating in enlightened manners, retarded in its progress. Let WOMAN once assert her proper sphere, unshackled by prejudice, and unsophisticated by vanity; and pride, (the noblest species of pride,) will establish her claims to the participation of power, both mentally and corporeally.
In order that this letter may be clearly understood, I shall proceed to prove my assertion in the strongest, but most undecorated language. I shall remind my enlightened country-women that they are not the mere appendages of domestic life, but the partners, the equal associates of man: and, where they excel in intellectual powers, they are no less capable of all that prejudice and custom have united in attributing, exclusively, to the thinking faculties of man. I argue thus, and my assertions are incontrovertible.
Supposing that destiny, or interest, or chance, or what you will, has united a man, confessedly of a weak understanding, and corporeal debility, to a woman strong in all the powers of intellect, and capable of bearing the fatigues of busy life: is it not degrading to humanity that such a woman should be the passive, the obedient slave, of such an husband? Is it not repugnant to all the laws of nature, that her feelings, actions, and opinions,
should be controuled, perverted, and debased, by such an help-mate? Can she look for protection to a being, whom she was formed by the all wise CREATOR, to protect? Impossible, yet, if from prudence, or from pity, if for the security of worldly interest, or worldly happiness, she presumes to take a lead in domestic arrangements, or to screen her wedded shadow from obloquy or ruin, what is she considered by the imperious sex? but an usurper of her husband's rights; a domestic tyrant; a vindictive shrew; a petticoat philosopher; and a disgrace to that race of mortals, known by the degrading appellation of the defenceless sex.
The barbarity of custom's law in this enlightened country, has long been exercised to the prejudice of woman: * and
even the laws of honour have been perverted to oppress her. If a man receive an insult, he is justified in seeking retribution. He may chastise, challenge, and even destroy his adversary. Such a proceeding in MAN is termed honourable; his character is exonerated from the stigma which calumny attached to it; and his courage rises in estimation, in proportion as it exemplifies his revenge. But were a WOMAN to attempt such an expedient, however strong her sense of injury, however invincible her fortitude, or important the preservation of character, she would be deemed a murdress. Thus, custom says, you must be free from error; you must possess an unsullied fame: yet, if a slanderer, or a libertine, even by the most unpardonable falshoods, deprive you of either reputation or repose, you have no remedy. He is received in the most fastidious societies, in the cabinets of nobles, at the toilettes of coquets and prudes, while you must bear your load of obloquy, and sink beneath the uniting
efforts of calumny, ridicule, and malevolence. Indeed we have scarcely seen a single instance where a professed libertine has been either shunned by women, or reprobated by men, for having acted either unfeelingly or dishonorably towards what is denominated the defenceless sex. Females, by this mis-judging lenity, while they give proofs of a degrading triumph, cherish for themselves that anguish, which, in their turn, they will, unpitied, experience.
Man is able to bear the temptations of human existence better than woman, because he is more liberally educated, and more universally acquainted with society. Yet, if he has the temerity to annihilate the bonds of moral and domestic life, he is acquitted; and his enormities are placed to the account of human frailty. But if WOMAN advance beyond the boundaries of decorum,
"Ruin ensues, reproach, and endless shame,
"And one false step, entirely damns her fame."
Such partial discriminations seem to violate all laws, divine and human! If WOMAN be the weaker creature, her frailty should be the more readily forgiven. She is exposed by her personal attractions, to more perils, and yet she is not permitted to bear that shield, which man assumes; she is not allowed the exercise of courage to repulse the enemies of her fame and happiness; though, if she is wounded, -- she is lost for ever!
Supposing that a WOMAN has experienced every insult, every injury, that her vain-boasting, high-bearing associate, man, can inflict: imagine her, driven from society; deserted by her kindred; scoffed at by the world; exposed to poverty; assailed by malice; and consigned to scorn: with no companion but sorrow, no prospect but disgrace; she has no remedy. She appeals to the feeling and reflecting part of mankind; they pity, but they do not seek to redress her: she
flies to her own sex, they not only condemn, but they avoid her. She talks of punishing the villain who has destroyed her: he smiles at the menace, and tells her, she is, a WOMAN.
Let me ask this plain and rational question, -- is not woman a human being, gifted with all the feelings that inhabit the bosom of man? Has not woman affections, susceptibility, fortitude, and an acute sense of injuries received? Does she not shrink at the touch of persecution? Does not her bosom melt with sympathy, throb with pity, glow with resentment, ache with sensibility, and burn with indignation? Why then is she denied the exercise of the nobler feelings, an high consciousness of honour, a lively sense of what is due to dignity of character? Why may not woman resent and punish? Because the long established laws of custom, have decreed her passive! Because she is by nature organized to feel every wrong more
acutely, and yet, by a barbarous policy, denied the power to assert the first of Nature's rights, self-preservation.
How many vices are there that men perpetually indulge in, to which women are rarely addicted. Drinking, in man, is reckoned a proof of good fellowship; and the bon vivant is considered as the best and most desirable of companions. Wine, as far as it is pleasant to the sense of tasting, is as agreeable to woman as to man; but its use to excess will render either brutal. Yet man yields to its influence, because he is the stronger-minded creature; and woman resists its power over the senses, because she is the weaker. How will the superiorly organized sex defend this contradiction? Man will say his passions are stronger than those of women; yet we see women rush not only to ruin, but to death, for objects they love; while men exult in an unmeaning display of caprice, intrigue, and seduction, frequently, without even a zest for the vices they
exhibit. The fact is simply this: the passions of men originate in sensuality; those of women, in sentiment: man loves corporeally, woman mentally: which is the nobler creature?
Gaming is termed, in the modern vocabulary, a masculine vice. Has vice then a sex? Till the passions of the mind in man and woman are separate and distinct, till the sex of vital animation, denominated soul, be ascertained, on what pretext is woman deprived of those amusements which man is permitted to enjoy? If gaming be a vice (though every species of commerce is nearly allied to it), why not condemn it wholly? why suffer man to persevere in the practice of it; and yet in woman execrate its propensity? Man may enjoy the convivial board, indulge the caprices of his nature; he may desert his home, violate his marriage vows, scoff at the moral laws that unite society, and set even religion at defiance, by oppressing the defenceless; while woman is condemned to
bear the drudgery of domestic life, to vegetate in obscurity, to love where she abhors, to honour where she dispises, and to obey, while she shudders at subordination. Why? Let the most cunning sophist, answer me, WHY?
If women sometimes, indeed too frequently, exhibit a frivolous species of character, we should examine the evil in which it originates, and endeavour to find a cure. If the younger branches of some of our nobility are superficially polished, and wholly excluded from essential knowledge, while they are regularly initiated in the mysteries of a gaming table, and the mazes of intrigue, can we feel surprized at their soon discovering an aptitude to evince their hereditary follies? We know that women, like princes, are strangers to the admonitions of truth; and yet we are astonished when we behold them emulous of displaying every thing puerile and unessential; and aiming perpetually at arbitrary power, without one
mental qualification to authorize dominion. From such women, the majority of mankind draw their opinions of sexual imbecility; and, in order that their convenient plea may be sanctioned by example, they continue to debilitate the female mind, for the sole purpose of enforcing subordination.
Yet, the present era has given indisputable proofs, that WOMAN is a thinking and an enlightened being! We have seen a Wollstonecraft, a Macaulay, a Sévigné; and many others, now living, who embelish the sphere of literary splendour, with genius of the first order. The aristocracy of kingdoms will say, that it is absolutely necessary to extort obedience: if all were masters, who then would stoop to serve? By the same rule, man exclaims, if we allow the softer sex to participate in the intellectual rights and privileges we enjoy, who will arrange our domestic drudgery? who will reign (as Stephano says, while we are vice-roys over them)
in our household establishments? who will rear our progeny; obey our commands; be our affianced vassals; the creatures of our pleasures? I answer, women, but they will not be your slaves; they will be your associates, your equals in the extensive scale of civilized society; and in the indisputable rights of nature * .
In the common occurrences and occupations of life, what in man is denominated high-spirit, is in WOMAN termed vindictive. If a man be insulted and inflicts a blow upon his assailant, he is called a brave and noble-minded creature! If WOMAN acts upon the same principle of resistance, she is branded as a Zantippe, though in such a situation she would scarcely meet with a Socrates, even if,
in the scale of comparison, she possessed stronger corporeal, as well as mental, powers, than the object of her resentment.
How comes it, that in this age of reason we do not see statesmen and orators selecting women of superior mental acquirements as their associates? Men allow that women are absolutely necessary to their happiness, and that they "had been brutes" without them. But the poet did not insinuate that none but silly or ignorant women were to be allowed the supreme honour of unbrutifying man, of rendering his life desirable, and of "smoothing the rugged path of care" with their endearments. The ancients were emulous of patronizing, and even of cultivating the friendship of enlightened women. But a British Demosthenes, a Pythagoras, a Leontius, a Eustathius, or a Brutus, would rather pass his hours in dalliance with an unlettered courtezan, than in the conversation of a Theano, a
Themiste, a Cornelia, a Sofipatra, or a Portia. What is this display of mental aristocracy? what but the most inveterate jealousy; the most pernicious and refined species of envy and malevolence?
Let me ask the rational and thinking mortal, why the graces of feminine beauty are to be constituted emblems of a debilitated mind? Does the finest symmetry of form, or the most delicate tint of circulation, exemplify a tame submission to insult or oppression? Is strength of intellect, in woman, bestowed in vain? Has the SUPREME DISPOSER OF EVENTS given to the female soul a distinguished portion of energy and feeling, that the one may remain inactive, and the other be the source of her destruction? Let the moralist think otherwise. Let the contemplative philosopher examine the proportions of human intellect; and let us hope that the immortality of the soul springs from causes that are not merely sexual.
Cicero says, "There was, from the beginning such a thing as Reason; a direct emanation from nature itself, which prompted to good, and averted from evil." Reason may be considered as a part of soul; for, by its powers, we are taught intuitively to hope for a future state. Cicero did not confine the attribute of Reason to sex; such doctrine would have been completely Mahometan!
The most celebrated painters have uniformly represented angels as of no sex. Whether this idea originates in theology, or imagination, I will not pretend to determine; but I will boldly assert that there is something peculiarly unjust in condemning woman to suffer every earthly insult, while she is allowed a sex; and only permitting her to be happy, when she is divested of it. There is also something profane in the opinion, because it implies that an all-wise Creator sends a creature into the world, with a sexual distinction,
which shall authorise the very extent of mortal persecution. If men would be completely happy by obtaining the confidence of women, let them unite in confessing that mental equality, which evinces itself by indubitable proofs that the soul has no sex. If, then, the cause of action be the same, the effects cannot be dissimilar.
In what is woman inferior to man? In some instances, but not always, in corporeal strength: in activity of mind, she is his equal. Then, by this rule, if she is to endure oppression in proportion as she is deficient in muscular power, only, through all the stages of animation the weaker should give precedence to the stronger. Yet we should find a Lord of the Creation with a puny frame, reluctant to confess the superiority of a lusty peasant girl, whom nature had endowed with that bodily strength of which luxury had bereaved him.
The question is simply this: Is woman persecuted and oppressed because she is the weaker creature? Supposing that to be the order of Nature; let me ask these human despots, whether a woman, of strong mental and corporeal powers, is born to yield obedience, merely because she is a woman, to those shadows of mankind who exhibit the effeminacy of women, united with the mischievous foolery of monkies? I remember once, to have heard one of those modern Hannibals confess, that he had changed his regiments three times, because the regimentals were unbecoming!"
If woman be the weaker creature, why is she employed in laborious avocations? why compelled to endure the fatigue of household drudgery; to scrub, to scower, to labour, both late and early, while the powdered lacquey only waits at the chair, or behind the carriage of his employer? Why are women, in many parts of the kingdom, permitted to follow the plough; to perform the laborious business of the
dairy; to work in our manufactories; to wash, to brew, and to bake, while men are employed in measuring lace and ribands; folding gauzes; composing artificial bouquets; fancying feathers, and mixing cosmetics for the preservation of beauty? I have seen, and every inhabitant of the metropolis may, during the summer season, behold strong Welsh girls carrying on their heads strawberries, and other fruits from the vicinity of London to Covent-Garden market, in heavy loads which they repeat three, four, and five times, daily, for a very small pittance; while the male domesticks of our nobility are revelling in luxury, to which even their lords are strangers. Are women thus compelled to labour, because they are of the WEAKER SEX?
In my travels some years since through France and Germany, I often remember having seen stout girls, from the age of seventeen to twenty-five, employed in the most fatiguing and laborious avocations;
such as husbandry, watering horses, and sweeping the public streets. Were they so devoted to toil, because they were the weaker creatures? and would not a modern petit maître have fainted beneath the powerful grasp of one of these rustic or domestic amazons?
Man is said to possess more personal courage than woman. How comes it, then, that he boldly dares insult the helpless sex, whenever he finds an object unprotected? I here beg leave to present a true story, which is related by a polished and impartial traveller.---
"A foreign lady of great distinction, of a family to whom I had the honour to be well known, was appointed to be married to a young gentleman of equal rank: the settlements were all made, the families agreed, and the day was come for the union. The morning of the same day, the ceremony of the marriage being fixed for the same evening, the lover being young,
thoughtless, and lost with passion, when alone with the bride, insinuated, in the softest and most endearing terms, that he was her husband in every sense but a few trifling words, which were to pass that night from the mouth of the priest; and, that if she loved him, as he presumed she did, she certainly would not keep him one moment in anxiety; much less ten or twelve hours, which must be the case, if she waited for the ceremony of the church. The lady, astonished at what she had heard, discovered in her looks not only the warmest resentment, but resolved in her heart to be amply revenged; and having had an excellent education, was well acquainted with the world, and no stranger to the artifices of designing men in affairs of love; after recovering a little her surprise, determined to keep her temper, and promised with a smile, obedience to her lover's will, and begged him to name the place proper for such a design; which, being mutually agreed on for four in the afternoon, the indiscreet lover, ravished at
his expectation, met, agreeable to appointment, the lady, in a garden leading to the house, where they proposed the interview. When walking together, with all seeming tenderness on both sides, the lady, on a sudden, started from her lover, and threw him a pistol, holding another in her right hand, and spoke to him to this effect: 'Remember for what infamous purpose you invited me here: you shall never be a husband of mine; and such vengeance do I seek for the offence, that, on my very soul, I vow, you or I shall die this hour. Take instantly up the pistol, I'll give you leave to defend yourself; though you have no right to deserve it. In this, you see, I have honour; though you have none.'
"The lover, amazed at this unforeseen change, took up the pistol, in obedience to her commands; directing it towards the earth, threw himself at her feet, and was going to say a thousand things in favour of his passion; the lady gave attention a few
minutes, pointing the pistol to his breast; while the lover, with a voice confused, and every other appearance of despair, begged her pity and her pardon; declared his love for her was such, that he was deprived of all power of reflection; that he had no views of offending; that all he said was for want of thought, that his reason was absent, and that her beauty was the cause of all.---'Beauty!' says the lady, interrupting him, 'Thou art a villain! I'll hear no more, for one of us must die this moment. '---The lover perceiving her violent anger, and finding that all his soft phrases had no effect on her, in his distraction raised the pistol then in his hand a little higher; thinking, by its appearance in that situation, to affect his admired lady with some terror, while he continued to pursue his defence; but alas! no sooner did the angry fair perceive the pistol of her lover raised breast high, but, that instant being the crisis of her resentment, she fired upon him, and shot him through the heart. He fell; and in falling, being
deprived of both speech and reason, his pistol went off, and the consequence was, her collar bone was broke, and much blood followed. She clapped her handkerchief to the wound, ran to her coach, which was waiting at the garden door, ordered her servant to take care of the dead body, and directed some others to conduct her with the utmost expedition to her father's house; to whom she related the whole affair. Proper assistance was instantly sent for; and I being that day at table with the physician of the Court, who was also of this family, went with him; saw the wound, and was well instructed in the particulars of this adventure. The lady was never so much as called to a trial for the death of her lover; because all the circumstances proved the truth of what she had related: her promising to marry him that night, was so powerful an argument of her love for the deceased, that no other motive could have produced so dreadful an event. The lady was cured of her wound, threw herself into a con-
vent; and, from despair for the loss of her lover, languished a few weeks, and then followed him, as she hoped, to the other world. The brother of the lover, according to the custom of the country, fought the brother of the lady, and killed his antagonist. He flew to Spain for refuge, where I afterwards saw him a colonel in a regiment of that nation."
This short story will prove that the mind of WOMAN, when she feels a correct sense of honour, even though it is blended with the very excess of sensibility, can rise to the most intrepid defence of it. Yet had such a circumstance taken place in Britain, the perpetrator of this heroic act of indignant and insulted virtue, would probably have suffered an ignominious death, or been shut up during the remainder of her days as a confirmed maniac >* ; for HERE woman is placed in
the very front of peril, without being allowed the means of self-preservation, and that very resistance which would secure her from dishonour, would stigmatize her in the world's opinion.
What then is WOMAN to do? Where is she to hope for justice? Man who professes himself her champion, her protector, is the most subtle and unrelenting enemy she has to encounter: yet, if she determines on a life of celibacy and secludes herself wholly from his society, she becomes an object of universal ridicule.
It has lately been the fashion of the time, to laugh at the encreasing consequence of women, in the great scale of human intellect. Why? Because, by their superior lustre, the overweening and ostentatious splendour of some men, is placed in a more obscure point of view. The women of France have been by some popular, though evidently prejudiced writers, denominated little better than she-
devils! And yet we have scarcely heard of one instance, excepting in the person of the vain and trifling Madame Du Barry, in which the females of that country have not displayed almost a Spartan fortitude even at the moment when they ascended the scaffold. If there are political sceptics, who affect to place the genuine strength of soul to a bold but desperate temerity, rather than to a sublime effort of heroism, let them contemplate the last moments of Marie Antoinette; this extraordinary WOMAN, whose days had passed in luxurious splendour; whose will had been little less than law! Behold her hurled from the most towering altitude of power and vanity; insulted, mocked, derided, stigmatized, yet unappalled even at the instant when she was compelled to endure an ignominious death! Let the strength of her mind, the intrepidity of her soul, put to shame the vaunted superiority of man; and at the same time place the female character in a point of view, at once favourable to na-
ture, and worthy of example. France has, amidst its recent tumultuous scenes, exhibited WOMEN whose names will be the glory of posterity. Women who have not only faced the very front of war * , but thereby sustained the heroic energies of their countrymen, by the force of example and the effect of emulation. Even the rash enthusiast, CORDAY, whose poniard annihilated the most sanguinary and atrocious monster that ever disgraced humanity, claimed our pity, (even while religion and nature shuddered), as she ascended the fatal scaffold, to expiate the deed she had accomplished.
Let us take a brief retrospect of events in British history, and let the liberal mind dwell with rapture on the heroic affection evinced by the illustrious Eleonora, consort of Edward the First. Tradition may then point out the learned
Elizabeth, (with all her sexual failings) and then judge whether England ever boasted a more wise or more fortunate sovereign: one, more revered in council; more obeyed in power; or more successful in enterprize. And yet Elizabeth was but a woman! A woman with all her sex's frailties * .
"The glories of a part of the reign of Anne, rise thick as the beauties of a constellation; this, the plain of Blenheim, and the field of Ramilies can witness."
It may not be amiss, for the advantage of my unlettered readers, here to introduce an extract from the learned VOSSIUS, in his treatise de philologia, concerning illustrious WOMEN who had excelled in
polite literature. It consists chiefly of such female names as he had not before celebrated, among his poets and historians: and the list might have been very much enlarged, since the time that Vossius wrote * .
"It is wrong," says this learned and liberal author, "to deny that the fair sex are capable of literature; all the old philosophers thought better of them * . Pythagoras instructed not men only, but WOMEN; and among them Theano, whom Laertius makes to be his wife, and St. Clement calls the first of women; declaring that she both philosophized and wrote poems. The Stoics, Epicureans, and even the Academicks, delivered their lessons freely to both sexes, and all conditions. Themiste, the wife of Leontius, to whom there is extant, an epistle of
Epicurus, was a disciple of this philosopher.
"Atossa queen of Persia, is said to be the first who taught the art of writing epistles.
"In the time of Alexander the Great, flourished Hipparchia, the sister of Metroples the Cynic, and wife of Crates. She wrote of philosophical arguments, essays and questions to Theodorus, surnamed the Deist.
"Pamphila, the Egyptian, who lived in the time of Nero, wrote eight books of Historical Miscellanies.
"Agallis, of Corcyra, is celebrated for her skill in grammar. She ascribes the invention of the play at ball, to her countrywoman Nausicaa; who is the only one, of all his heroines, which Homer introduces at this diversion.
"Quintilian, celebrated three Roman WOMEN, in words to this effect. Cornelia the mother of the Gracchi, contributed much to the eloquence of her sons; and her learned stile is handed down to posterity in her letters. The daughter of Lælius expressed in her conversation the eloquence of her father. There is an oration of the daughter of Quintus Hortensius, delivered before Triumvirs, which will ever be read to the honour of her sex. Quintilian has omitted the learned wife of Varus, and Cornificia the poetess, who left behind her most exquisite epigrams. This WOMAN, who flourished in the reign of Octavius Cæsar, used to say that ' learning alone was free, as being entirely out of the reach of fortune * '.
"Catherine of Alexandria was a learned
WOMAN; she is said to have disputed with fifty philosophers, at the age of eighteen, and so far to have overcome them by the subtlety of her discourse, as to have converted them to the christian religion.
"Who was more learned than Zenobia, queen of Palmyra, by religion a Jew? We have the testimony of her conqueror himself, the emperor Aurelian, to her character in his letters to the Roman senate. Trebellius Pollio says, 'she spoke Egyptian, read Latin into Greek, and wrote an abridgement both of Alexandrine and Oriental history. Her master, in the Greek, was Dionysius Longinus, who was called a living library, and a walking museum.
"Sofipatra, wife of the famous Eustathius remembered all the finest passages, of all the poets, philosophers, and orators; and had an almost inimitable talent of explaining them. Though her hus-
band was a man of high celebrity in learning, yet she so far out-shone him, as to obscure his glory * ; and after his death she took upon her the education of youth.
"What shall we say of Eustochium, daughter of Paulla the Roman, who was learned in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew; and most assiduous in the study of the sacred scriptures? St. Jerom speaks many things in her praise; there are epistles of the same father, extant, to several illustrious WOMEN, as Paulla, Læta, Fabrilla, Marcella, Furia, Demetrias Salvia and Gerontia. Why should we mention others to whom we have letters extant of Am-
brose, Augustin, and Fulgentius? The compliments of the fathers are testimonies of their learning * .
"Hypatia was the daughter of that Theon of Alexandria, whose writings now remain. She was a vast proficient in astronomy. This woman was murdered, through religious frenzy, by the Alexandrine mob; because she made frequent visits to Orestes, the philosopher.
"At the same time flourished Eudocia, whose name before was Athenais, daughter of Leontius the philosopher, and wife of the emperor Theodosius the younger. She was deep read both in Greek and Latin
learning; skilled in poetry, mathematics, and all the philosophical sciences.
"About the year of Christ, 500, Amalasuenta, the daughter of Theodoric king of the Goths, and wife of Eutharic who was made consul by the emperor Justin, was celebrated both for her learning and her wisdom. PRINCES are said to come and advise with her, and admire her understanding * . She took upon her the administration of affairs, in the name of her son, Athalaric, who was left king, at eight years of age; and whom she instructed in all the polite learning before unknown to the Goths * .
"Helpis, the learned wife of the learned Boethius flourished in 530. She left behind her hymns to the apostles.
"Bandonia, the scholar of St. Radegundis, wrote the life of her holy mistress. She died in 530.
"About 650 lived Hilda, an ENGLISH abbess, celebrated by Pits among English writers, and Bede in his ecclesiastical history. She was daughter of Hereric, prince of Deira, and aunt of Aldulph, king of the East Saxons * .
"About 770 Rictrude, a noble virgin,
made great proficiency in literature under her master Alcuin; after whose departure out of England, she shut herself up to her studies in the monastery of Saint Bennet at Canterbury, where she produced many writings.
"About two centuries lower down, under the emperors Otho I. and II. lived the nun Rhosoitar, skilled both in the Latin and Greek languages. She wrote a panegyrick upon the deeds of the Othos; six comedies, the praises of the Blessed Virgin, and St. Dennis in elegiac verse, with other works.
"In the year of Christ 1140, flourished Anna Comnena, daughter of Alexius Comnenus, emperor of Constantinople. This WOMAN, in the fifteen books of her Alexiad, which she wrote upon the deeds of her father, displayed equally her eloquence and her learning.
"St. Hildegard of Mentz, was famous about eight years after, and at the same time flourished St. Elizabeth of Schonua, sister of king Ecbert. The monkish writers celebrate them for their visions, which received the sanction of pope Eugenius III. But we mention them for their historical, didactical and epistolary writings, a collection of which has been published. St. Catherine Senensis also wrote epistles, and various treatises in the dialogue manner, which are now extant, as well as her life, written by Raimund her confessor, a Dominican friar. Whatever was the sanctity of these women, of their learning we have certain monuments.
"In the year 1484, under Charles VIII. king of France, flourished Gabriele de Bourbon, princess Trimouille. Catalogues of her various writings are preserved in French authors. About three years after, Cassandra Fidele, a Venetian girl, acquired great applause, by an excellent
oration delivered publicly, in the UNIVERSITIES of PADUA * , in behalf of Betruri Lamberti, her relation. She won the SUPREME CROWN in PHILOSOPHY! This oration was afterwards printed at Modena.
"Alike for her own learning, and her patronage of the learned, Margaret of Valois queen of Navarre, merited of mankind. Joan, the daughter of this princess, had by Anthony of Bourbon, Henry the Fourth, king of France, founder of the family now reigning.
"Bologna boasts several learned WOMEN; among which were Joanna Blanchetta, and Novella Andrea, and the learned Catherina Landa, we read of in Bambo's epistles.
"What shall we say of Joanna married to Philip archduke of Austria, duke of Burgundy, and, by his wife, king of Spain. She answered extempore, in Latin, the orations made to her through the several towns and cities, after her accession * .
"Sir Thomas More, chancellor of England, had three daughters, Margaret, Elizabeth, and Cæcilia; of whom their father took care that they were not only very chaste but very learned. Because he rightly judged that their chastity would be, by this means, the more secure * .
"The learning of Fulvia Olympia Morata, daughter of Perigrine Moratus, is evident from writings she has left: and
that Hippolita Taurellas was equal, appears from her writings, collected together with those of Morata.
"It is needless, in England, to quote Queen Elizabeth, or the lady Jane Grey, as eminent instances of the kind; because our historians are full of their praises upon the subject."
Vossius mentions farther only Anne Schurman, a noble WOMAN, whose Latin poetry recommends her to this day. He thinks, that if this catalogue were added to those he had given separately, of the FEMALE POETS and HISTORIANS, sufficient examples would appear in behalf of women, that they were equally capable of fine literature with the other sex.
We might add to these, says another author "the two Le Fevres, among the French: one of them married to Monsieur Dacier; and the other to the famous Le Clerc: and among ourselves, Mrs. Cathe-
rine Phillips, Mrs. Cenlivre, Mrs. Behn, and Mrs. Elizabeth Singer, (afterwards Mrs. Rowe), as in no degree, according to their several walks of literature, inferior to any that have been mentioned."
The name of the Grecian poetess, Sappho, is probably known to almost every reader. Some anecdotes of this celebrated WOMAN, who lived near 600 years before Christ, may be found in the Abbé Barthelimi's Travels of Anacharsis the Younger: and in the account of this poetess, preceding Mrs. Robinson's legitimate sonnets.
Since the beginning of the present century, we have seen many examples, not only of natural genius, but of enthusiastic resolution, even in unlearned women; prompted by the purest and most feminine passion of the human soul * . We have
known WOMEN desert their peaceful homes, the indolence of obscure retirement, and the indulgence of feminine amusements, to brave the very heat of battle, stand to their gun, amidst the smoak and din of a naval engagement * ; conceal the anguish of their wounds; and, from the very heroism of love, repeatedly hazard their existence. How few men have we seen so nobly uniting the softest passion of the soul, with the enthusiasm of valour. When man exposes his person in the front of battle, he is actuated either by interest or ambition: woman, with neither to impel her, has braved the cannons thunder; stood firmly glorious amidst the din of desolation; 'begrimed and sooted in the smoak of war * ;' and yet she is, by the undiscriminating or preju-
diced part of mankind, denominated the weaker creature.
As another striking example of female excellence, of invincible resolution, of attachment, marking a sublimity of character which will put to shame those puerile cavillers who attempt to depreciate the mental strength of woman, even where it is blended with the most exquisite sensibility, I transcribe the following events, in the words of a brave and liberal British officer; whose feelings and manners, enlightened by philanthropy and polished by learning, will be long remembered with regret and admiration * .
"Lady Harriet Ackland had accompanied her husband to Canada, in the beginning of the year 1776. In the course of the campaign, she traversed a vast space of country, in different extremities of season, and with difficulties that an European
traveller will not easily conceive, to attend in a poor hut at Chamblee upon his sick bed.
"In the opening of the campaign of 1777, she was restrained from offering herself to a share of the fatigue and hazard expected before Ticonderago, by the positive injunctions of her husband. The day after the conquest of that place, he was badly wounded, and she crossed the Lake Champlain to join him.
"As soon as he recovered, Lady Harriet proceeded to follow his fortunes through the campaign; and at Fort Edward, or at the next camp, she acquired a two-wheeled tumbrel, which had been constructed by the artificers of artillery, something similar to the carriage used for the mail in the great roads of England. Major Ackland commanded the British grenadiers which were attached to Frazer's corps; and consequently were always the most advanced post of the army; their si-
tuations were often so alert, that no person slept out of their clothes.
"In one of these situations, a tent, in which the Major and Lady Harriet were asleep, suddenly took fire. An orderly serjeant of grenadiers, with great hazard of suffocation, dragged out the first person he caught hold of; it proved the Major. It happened in the same instant, that Lady Harriet had, unknowing what she did, and perhaps not perfectly awake, providentially made her escape, by creeping under the walls of the back part of the tent. The first object she saw, on the recovery of her senses, was the Major, on the other side; and, in the same instant, again in the fire, in search of her. The serjeant again saved him; but not without the Major being very severely burned in the face, and different parts of the body: every thing they had with them in the tent was consumed.
"This accident happened a little before the army passed Hudson's river. It neither altered the RESOLUTION nor the chearfulness of Lady Harriet; and she continued her progress, a partaker of the fatigues of the advanced corps.
"The next call upon her FORTITUDE was of a different nature; and more distressing, as of longer suspense. On the march of the 19th of September, the grenadiers being liable to action every step, she had been directed by the Major to follow the route of the artillery and baggage, which was not exposed. At the time the action began, she found herself near a small uninhabited hut, where she alighted.
"When it was found that the action was becoming general and bloody, the surgeons of the hospital took possession of the same place, as the most convenient for the care of the wounded. Thus was this lady, in hearing of one continued fire
of cannon and musketry for four hours together, with the presumption, from the post of her husband at the head of the grenadiers, that he was in the most exposed part of the action. She had three FEMALE companions; the Baroness of Reidefel, and the wives of two British officers, Major Harnage, and Lieutenant Reynell: but in the event, their presence served but little for comfort. Major Harnage was soon brought to the surgeons, very badly wounded; and a little after came intelligence, that Lieutenant Reynell was shot, dead. Imagination will want no help to figure the state of the whole group.
"From the date of that action, to the 7th of October, Lady Harriet, with her usual serenity, stood prepared for new trials! And it was her lot, that their severity increased with their numbers. She was again exposed to the hearing of the whole action; and at last received the shock of her individual misfortune, mixed
with the intelligence of the general calamity, that the troops were defeated, and that Major Ackland, desperately wounded, was a prisoner.
"The day of the 8th was passed by Lady Harriet and her companions in inexpressible anxiety: not a tent, not a shed was standing, except what belonged to the hospital: their refuge was among the wounded and the dying. The night of the 8th the army retreated; and at day-break on the 9th, reached very advantageous ground. A halt was necessary to refresh the troops, and to give time to the batteaux loaded with provisions, to come a-breast.
"When the army was upon the point of moving after the halt, I received a message from Lady Harriet, submitting to my decision a proposal of passing to the camp of the enemy, and requesting General Gates' permission to attend her husband! Lady Harriet expressed an earnest solici-
tude to execute her intentions, if not interfering with my designs.
"Though I was ready to believe, for I had experienced, that patience and fortitude, in a supreme degree, were to be found, as well as every other virtue, under the most tender forms, I was astonished at the proposal, after so long an agitation of spirits; exhausted not only for want of rest, but absolutely for want of food; drenched by rains for twelve hours together; that a woman should be capable of such an undertaking as delivering herself to the enemy, probably in the night, and uncertain of what hands she might fall into, appeared an effort, above human nature!
"The assistance I was enabled to give, was small indeed. I had not even a cup of wine to offer her; but I was told she had found, from some kind and fortunate hand, a little rum and dirty water. All I could furnish to her was an open boat, and a few lines, written upon dirty and wet
paper, to General Gates, recommending her to his protection.
"Mr. Brudenell, the chaplain to the artillery, the same gentleman that had officiated so signally at General Frazer's funeral, readily undertook to accompany her; and with one female servant and the Major's valet de chambre, who had a ball, which he had received in the late action, then in his shoulder, she moved down the river, to meet the enemy! But her distresses were not yet at an end.
"The night was advanced before the boat reached the enemy's outposts; and the centinel would not let it pass, nor even come on shore. In vain Mr. Brudenell offered the flag of truce; and represented the state of the extraordinary passenger. The guard, apprehensive of treachery, and punctilious to his orders, threatened to fire into the boat, if she stirred before day-light. Her anxiety and suffering were thus protracted through
seven or eight dark and cold hours, and her reflections upon that first reception could not give her very encouraging ideas of the treatment she was afterwards to expect. But it is due to justice, at the close of this adventure, to say, that she was received and accommodated by General Gates with all the humanity and respect that her rank, her merits, and her fortunes deserved * .
"Let such as are affected by these circumstances of alarm, hardship, and danger, recollect, that the subject of them was A WOMAN! of the most tender and delicate frame; of the gentlest manners; habituated to all the soft elegancies and refined enjoyments that attend high birth and fortune; and far advanced in a state in which the tender cares, always due to the sex, become indispensably necessary.
Her mind, alone, was formed for such trials * ."
The most argumentative theorists cannot pretend to estimate mental by corporeal powers. If strength or weakness are not allowed to orginate in the faculty of thought, Charles Fox, or William Pitt, labouring under the debilitating ravages of a fever, is a weaker animal than the thrice-essenced poppinjay, who mounts his feathered helmet, when he should be learning his Greek alphabet. If strength of body is to take the lead of strength of mind, the pugilist is greater than the most experienced patriot; the uncultivated plough-boy surpasses the man of letters; and the felicity of kingdoms would be as safe in the hands of a savage Patagonian ruler, as under the
stronger faculties of the most accomplished Statesman. By this rule, monarchs should select their cabinets by the standard of measurement; and while the first minister could say with Sir Andrew Ague-cheek, "I am as tall a man as any in Illyria," he may laugh to scorn the most gigantic talents.
This question does not admit of argument; it is self-evident. And yet, though it be readily allowed that the primary requisites for the ruling powers of man, are strong mental faculties; woman is to be denied the exercise of that intuitive privilege, and to remain inactive, as though she were the least enlightened of rational and thinking beings. What first established, and then ratified this oppressive, this inhuman law? The tyranny of man; who saw the necessity of subjugating a being, whose natural gifts were equal, if not superior to his own. Let these mental despots recollect, that education cannot unsex a woman; that tenderness of soul, and a love of social intercourse, will still
be her's; even though she become a rational friend, and an intellectual companion. She will not, by education, be less tenacious of an husband's honour; though she may be rendered more capable of defending her own.
A man would be greatly shocked, as well as offended, were he told that his son was an idiot; and yet he would care but little, if every action proved that his wife were one. Tell a modern husband that his son has a strong understanding, and he will feel gratified. Say that his wife has a masculine mind, and he will feel the information as rather humbling than pleasing to his self-love. There are but three classes of women desirable associates in the eyes of men: handsome women; licentious women; and good sort of women. --- The first for his vanity; the second for his amusement; and the last for the arrangement of his domestic drudgery. A thinking woman does not entertain him; a learned woman does not flatter his self-love, by confessing inferiority; and a wo-
man of real genius, eclipses him by her brilliancy.
Not many centuries past, the use of books was wholly unknown to the commonality of females; and scarcely any but superior nuns, then denominated "learned women" could either read or write. Wives were then considered as household idols, created for the labour of domestic life, and born to yield obedience. To brew, to bake, and to spin, were then deemed indispensably necessary qualifications: but to think, to acquire knowledge, or to interfere either in theological or political opinions, would have been the very climax of presumption! Hence arose the evils of bigotry and religious imposition. The reign of credulity, respecting supernatural warnings and appearances, was then in its full vigour. The idle tales of ghosts and goblins, and the no less degrading and inhuman persecutions of age and infirmity, under the idea of witchcraft, were not only countenanced, but daily put in prac-
tice. We do not read in history of any act of cruelty practiced towards a male bewitcher; though we have authentic records to prove, that many a weak and defenceless woman has been tortured, and even murdered by a people professing Christianity, merely because a pampered priest, or a superstitious idiot, sanctioned such oppression. The witcheries of mankind will ever be tolerated, though the frenzy of fanaticism and the blindness of bigotry sink into oblivion.
In or about the year 1759, were published some excellent lines, from the pen of a British woman * , addressed to Mr. Pope, whose cynical asperity towards the enlightened sex was not one of his least imperfections. I shall only give an extract:
"In education all the difference lies,
WOMEN, if taught, would be as brave, as wise,
As haughty man, improv'd by arts and rules;
Where GOD makes one, neglect makes twenty fools,
Can women, left to weaker women's care,
Misled by CUSTOM, Folly's fruitful heir,
Told that their charms a monarch may enslave,
That beauty, like the gods, can kill and save;
And taught the wily and mysterious arts,
By ambush'd dress, to catch unwary hearts;
If wealthy born, taught to lisp French, and dance,
Their morals left, Lucretius like, to chance;
Strangers to Reason and Reflection made;
Left to their passions, and by them betray'd;
Untaught the noble end of glorious Truth,
Bred to deceive, e'en from their earliest youth;
Unus'd to books, nor Virtue taught to prize,
Whose mind, a savage waste, all desart lies;
Can these, with aught but trifles, fill the void,
Still idly busy, to no end employ'd:
Can these, from such a school, with virtue glow,
Or tempting vice, treat like a dang'rous foe?
Can these resist when soothing Pleasure woos,
Preserve their virtue, when their fame they lose?
Can these, on other themes, converse or write,
Than what they hear all day, and dream all night?
Not so the Roman female fame was spread,
Not so was CLELIA or LUCRETIA bred!
Not so such heroines true glory sought,
Not so was PORTIA or CORNELIA taught.
PORTIA, the glory of the female race;
PORTIA, more lovely in her mind than face;
Early inform'd by Truth's unerring beam,
What to reject, what justly to esteem.
Taught by Philosophy, all moral good;
How to repel, in youth, th'impetuous blood:
How ev'ry daring passion to subdue;
And Fame, through Reason's avenues, pursue,
Of Cato born; to noble Brutus join'd;
Supreme in beauty, with a ROMAN MIND!"
The women, the Sévignés, the Daciers, the Rolands, and the Genlis's of France, were the first, of modern times, to shake off the yoke of sexual tyranny. The widow of Scarron, (afterwards Madame de Maintenon,) was an ornament to her sex, till she became the dupe of a profligate monarch, and the instrument of bigot persecution. The freezing restraint which custom placed on the manners of other
nations, and which is as far removed from true delicacy as the earth is from the heavens, in France, threw no chilling impediment on the progress of intellect. Men soon found by experience, that society was embellished, conversation enlivened, and emulation excited, by an intercourse of ideas. The younger branches of male nobility in France, were given to the care of female preceptors; and the rising generations of women, by habit, were considered as the rational associates of man. Both reason and society benefited by the change; for though the monasteries had less living victims, though monks had fewer proselytes, the republic of letters had more ornaments of genius and imagination.
Women soon became the idols of a polished people. They were admitted into the councils of statesmen, the cabinets of princes. The influence they obtained contributed greatly towards that urbanity of manners which marked the
reign of Louis the Sixteenth. The tyrants of France, at the toilettes of enlightened WOMEN, were taught to shudder at the horrors of a Bastille: which was never more crowded with victims, than when bigotry and priestcraft were in their most exulting zenith. I will not attempt to philosophize how far the influence of reason actuated on more recent events. That hypothesis can only be defined by posterity.
It is an indisputable fact that a woman, (excepting in some cases of supposed witchcraft) if thrown into the water, has, as Falstaffe says, 'a strange alacrity at sinking.' And yet a woman must not be taught to swim; it is not feminine! though it is perfectly masculine to let a woman drown merely because she is a woman, and denied the knowledge of preserving her existence. In this art the savages of Oreehoua and Tahoora are initiated from their infancy; the females of those islands are early taught the ne-
cessary faculty of self-defence. They are familiarized to the limpid element at so early a period that a child of four years old, dropped into the sea, not only betrays no symptoms of fear, but seems to enjoy its situation. The women consider swimming as one of their favourite diversions; in which they amuse themselves when the impetuosity of the dreadful surf that breaks upon their coast, is encreased to its utmost fury, in a manner equally perilous and extraordinary. And yet these courageous females are denominated of the weaker sex.
A celebrated geographer * remarks, that "the best test of civilization, is the respect that is shewn to women."
The little regard shewn to the talents of women in this country, strongly characterizes the manners of the people. The Areopagites , once put a boy to death
for putting out the eyes of a bird: and they argued thus, says an elegant writer, il ne s'agit point lá d'une condamnation pour crime, mais d'un jugement de moeurs, dans une republique fondée sur les moeurs.
Heaven forbid that the criterion of this national and necessary good, should be drawn from the conduct of mankind towards British women. There is no country, at this epocha, on the habitable globe, which can produce so many exalted and illustrious women (I mean mentally) as England. And yet we see many of them living in obscurity; known only by their writings; neither at the tables of women of rank; nor in the studies of men of genius; we hear of no national honours, no public marks of popular applause, no rank, no title, no liberal and splendid recompense bestowed on British literary women! They must fly to foreign countries for celebrity, where talents are admitted to be of no SEX, where genius, whether it be concealed beneath
the form of a Grecian Venus * , or that of a Parnese Hercules, is still honoured as GENIUS, one of the best and noblest gifts of THE CREATOR.
Here, the arts and the sciences have exhibited their accomplished female votaries. We have seen the graces of poetry, painting, and sculpture, rising to unperishable fame from the pen, the pencil, and the chissel of our women. History has lent her classic lore to adorn the annals of female literature; while the manners of the age have been refined and polished by the wit, and fancy of dramatic writers. I remember hearing a man of education, an orator, a legislator, and a superficial admirer of the persecuted sex, declare, that "the greatest plague which
society could meet with, was a literary woman!"
I agree that, according to the long established rule of custom, domestic occupations, such as household management, the education of children, the exercise of rational affection, should devolve on woman. But let the partner of her cares consider her zeal as the effect of reason, temporizing sensibility, and prompting the exertions of mutual interest; not as the constrained obsequiousness of inferior organization. Let man confess that a wife, (I do not mean an idiot), is a thinking and a discriminating helpmate; not a bondswoman, whom custom subjects to his power, and subdues to his convenience. A wife is bound, by the laws of nature and religion, to participate in all the various vicissitudes of fortune, which her husband may, through life, be compelled to experience. She is to combat all the storms of an adverse destiny; to share the sorrows of adversity, imprisonment, sick-
ness, and disgrace. She is obliged to labour for their mutual support, to watch in the chamber of contagious disease; to endure patiently, the peevish inquietude of a weary spirit; to bear, with tacit resignation, reproach, neglect, and scorn; or, by resisting, to be stigmatized as a violator of domestic peace, an enemy to decorum, an undutiful wife, and an unworthy member of society. Hapless woman! Why is she condemned to bear this load of persecution, this Herculean mental toil, this labour of Syssiphus; this more than Ixion's sufferings, as fabled by heathen mythologists? Because she is of the weaker sex!
Tradition tells us that the Laura of Petrarch, whose name was immortalized by the Genius of her lover during twenty years of unabating fondness, could neither read nor write! Petrarch was a poet and a scholar; I will not so far stigmatize his memory, as to attribute his excessive idolatry to the intellectual obscurity of his
idol. Yet from the conduct of some learned modern philosophers, (in every thing but love), the spirit of cynical observation might trace something like jealousy and envy, or a dread of rivalry in mental acquirements. We have seen living husbands, as well as lovers, who will agree with the author of some whimsical stanzas, printed in the year 1739, of which I remember the following lines,
"Now all philosophers agree,
That WOMEN should not LEARNED be * :
For fear that, as they wiser grow,
More than their husbands they should know.
For if we look we soon shall find,
Women are of a tyrant kind;
They love to govern and controul,
Their bodies lodge a mighty soul!
The sex, like horses, could they tell
Their equal strength, would soon rebel;
They would usurp and ne'er submit,
To bear the yoke, and champ the bit."
Constrained obedience is the poison of domestic joy: hence we may date the disgust and hatred which too frequently embitter the scenes of wedded life. And I should not be surprized, if the present system of mental subordination continues to gain strength, if, in a few years, European husbands were to imitate those beyond the Ganges. There, wives are to be purchased like slaves, and every man has as many as he pleases. The husbands and even fathers are so far from being jealous, that they frequently offer their wives and daughters to foreigners * .
However contradictory it may seem, to contracted minds, I firmly believe that the strongest spell which can be placed upon the human affections, is a consciousness of freedom. Let the husband assume the complacency of the friend, and he will, if his wife be not naturally depraved, possess not only her faith but her affection. There is a resisting nerve in the heart of both man and woman, which repels compulsion. Constraint and attachment, are incompatible: the mind of woman is not more softened by sensibility than sustained by pride; and every violation of moral propriety, every instance of domestic infidelity, every divorce which puts asunder 'those whom God has joined,' is a proof of that maxim being a false, I may say a ludicrous one, which declares that MAN was born to command, and WOMAN to obey! excepting in proportion as the
intellectual power devolves on the husband.
If a woman receives an insult, she has no tribunal of honour to which she can appeal; and by which she would be sanctioned in punishing her enemy. What in man, is laudable; in woman is deemed reprehensible, if not preposterous * . What in man is noble daring, in woman is considered as the most vindictive persecution. Supposing a woman is calumniated, robbed at a gaming table, falsely accused of mean or dishonourable actions, if she appeals to a stranger; "it is no business of his! such things happen every day! the world has nothing to do with the quarrels
of individuals!" If she involves a dear friend, or a relation in her defence; she is "a dangerous person; a promoter of mischief; a revengeful fury." She has therefore no remedy but that of exposing the infamy of her enemy; (for sexual prejudices will not allow her to fight him honourably), even then, all that she asserts, however disgraceful to her opponent, is placed to the account of womanish revenge. The dastardly offender triumphs with impunity, because he is the noble creature man, and she a defenceless, persecuted woman.
Prejudice (or policy) has endeavoured, and indeed too successfully, to cast an odium on what is called a masculine woman; or, to explain the meaning of the word, a woman of enlightened understanding. Such a being is too formidable in the circle of society to be endured, much less sanctioned. Man is a despot by nature; he can bear no equal, he dreads the power
of woman; because he
knows that already half the felicities of life depend on her; and that if she be permitted to
demand an equal share in the regulations of social order, she will become omnipotent.
I again recur to the prominent subject of my letter, viz. that woman is denied the first privilege of nature, the power of SELF-DEFENCE. There are lords of the creation, who would not hesitate to rob a credulous woman of fortune, happiness, and reputation, yet they would deem themselves justified in punishing a petty thief, who took from them a watch or a pocket handkerchief. Man is not to be deprived of his property; he is not to be pilfered of the most trifling article, which custom has told him is necessary to his ideas of luxury. But WOMAN is to be robbed of that peace of mind which depended on the purity of her character; she is to be duped out of all the proud consolations of independence; defrauded
of her repose, wounded in the sensibilities of her heart; and, because she is of the weaker sex, she is to bear her injuries with fortitude.
If a man is stopped on the highway, he may shoot the depredator: and he will receive the thanks of society. If a WOMAN were to act upon the same principle, respecting the more atrocious robber who has deprived her of all that rendered life desirable, she would be punished as a murderer. Because the highwayman only takes that which the traveller can afford to lose, and the loss of which he will scarcely feel; and the WOMAN is rendered a complete bankrupt of all that rendered life supportable. The swindler and the cheat are shut out from society; but the avowed libertine, the very worst of defrauders, is tolerated and countenanced by our most fastidious British females. This is one of the causes why the manners of the age are so unblushingly licen-
tious: men will be profligate, as long as women uphold them in the practice of seduction.
If, in the common affairs of life, a man be guilty of perjury, on conviction he is sentenced to undergo the penalty of his crime, even though the motive for committing it, were unimportant to the community at large, and only acting against the plea of individual interest. But if a man takes an oath, knowing and premeditatedly resolved to break it, at the altar of the Divinity, his crime is tolerated, and he pleads the force of example, in extenuation of his apostacy. Man swears to love and to cherish his wife, never to forsake her in sickness, or in health, in poverty or wealth, and to keep to her alone so long as they both shall live. Let me ask these law makers, and these law breakers, these sacriligious oath takers, whether nine out of ten, are not conscious of committing perjury at the moment when they make a vow so universally broken?
But man is permitted to forswear himself, even at the altar dedicated to the SUPREME BEING! He is allowed, even there, to consider the most sacred of ceremonies as merely a political institution, of which he may exclusively avail himself as far as it tends to the promotion of his interest, while neither the publicity, nor the number of his infidelities, attach the badge of worldly censure to his conduct. He is still the lordly reveller; the master of his pleasures; the tolerated breaker of his oath: he pleads the frailty of human nature, though he, as the stronger creature, is supposed to possess an omnipotent source of mental power; he urges the sovereignty of the passions, the dominion of the senses, the sanction of long established custom. He is a man of universal gallantry; he is consequently courted and idolized by the generality of women, though all his days and all his actions prove, that woman is the victim of his falsehood.
Now examine the destiny of the weaker sex, under similar circumstances. WOMAN is to endure neglect, infidelity, and scorn: she is to endure them patiently. She is not allowed to plead the frailty of human nature; she is to have no passions, no affections; and if she chance to overstep the boundaries of chastity, (whatever witcheries and machinations are employed to mislead her;) if she violates that oath, which, perhaps the pride of her kindred, family interest, ambition, or compulsion, extorted from her, CUSTOM, that pliant and convenient friend to man, declares her infamous. While women, who are accessaries to her disgrace, by countenancing her husband's infidelities, condemn the wife with all the vehemence of indignation; because woman is the weaker creature, and most subjected to temptation! because man errs voluntarily; and woman is seduced, by art and by persecution, from the paths of Virtue.
There is scarcely an event in human existence, in which the oppression of woman is not tolerated. The laws are made by man; and self-preservation is, by them, deemed the primary law of nature. Hence, woman is destined to be the passive creature; she is to yield obedience, and to depend for support upon a being who is perpetually authorised to deceive her. If a woman be married, her property becomes her husband's; and yet she is amenable to the laws, if she contracts debts beyond what that husband and those laws pronounce the necessaries of existence. If the comforts, or even the conveniences of woman's life rest on the mercy of her ruler, they will be limited indeed. We have seen innumerable instances, in cases of divorce, where the weaker, the defenceless partner is allotted a scanty pittance, upon which she is expected to live honourably; while the husband, the lord of the creation, in the very plenitude of wealth, in the very zenith of
splendour, is permitted openly to indulge in every dishonourable propensity. Yet, he is commiserated as the injured party; and she is branded with the name of infamous: though he is deemed the stronger, and she the weaker creature.
Frailty, through all the stages of social intercourse, appears to be most enormous in those who are supposed to have least fortitude to sustain the powers of self-resistance. Yet, such is the force of prejudice, the law of custom, against woman, that she is expected to act like a philosopher, though she is not allowed to think like one. If she pleads the weakness of her sex, her plea is not admitted; if she professes an equal portion of mental strength with man, she is condemned for arrogance. Yet, if a General be sent into the field of battle with a force inferior to that of the enemy, and is vanquished, the plea of inequality in resisting powers is admitted, and his honour is exonerated from every imputation: WOMAN encounters an all-
commanding enemy; she is subdued;--- and she is eternally dishonoured!
The laws of man have long since decreed, that the jewel, Chastity, and the purity of uncontaminated morals, are the brightest ornaments of the female sex. Yet, the framers of those laws are indefatigable in promoting their violation. Man says to woman, without chastity you are declared infamous; and at the same moment, by a subtle and gradual process, he undermines the purity of her heart, by a bold defiance of all that tends to the support of religion and morality. Man thus commits a kind of mental suicide; while he levels that image to the lowest debasement, which he has ostentatiously set up for universal idolatry.
It is not by precept, but by example, that conviction strikes deeply into the thinking mind. Man is supposed to be the more wise and more rational creature; his faculties are more liberally expanded
by classical education: he is supposed to be more enlightened by an unlimited intercourse with society. He is permitted to assert the dignity of his character; to punish those who assail his reputation; and to assume a superiority over all his fellow creatures. He is not accountable to any mortal for the actions of his life; he may revel in the follies, indulge the vices of his superior nature. He pursues the pleasures or the eccentricities of his imagination, with an avidity insatiable: and he perpetually proves that human passions subjugate him to the degradations of human frailty; while woman, the weaker animal, she whose enjoyments are limited, whose education, knowledge, and actions are circumscribed by the potent rule of prejudice, she is expected to resist temptation; to be invincible in fortitude; strong in prescient and reflecting powers; subtle in the defence of her own honour; and forbearing under all the conflicts of the passions. Man first degrades, and then deserts her. Yet, if driven by fa-
mine, insult, shame, and persecution, she rushes forth like the wolf for prey; if, like Milwood, she finds it "necessary to be rich" in this sordid, selfish world, she is shunned, abhorred, condemned to the very lowest scenes of vile debasement; to exist in misery, or to perish unlamented. No kindred breast will pity her misfortunes; no pious tear embalm her ashes: she rushes into the arms of death, as her last, her only asylum from the monsters who have destroyed her.
Woman is destined to pursue no path in which she does not find an enemy. If she is liberal, generous, careless of wealth, friendly to the unfortunate, and bountiful to persecuted merit, she is deemed prodigal, and over-much profuse; all the good she does, every tear she steals from the downcast eye of modest worth, every sigh she converts into a throb of joy, in grateful bosoms, is, by the world, forgotten; while the ingenuous liberality of her soul excites the imputation of folly and ex-
travagance. If, on the contrary, she is wary, shrewd, thrifty, economical, and eager to procure and to preserve the advantages of independence; she is condemned as narrow-minded, mean, unfeeling, artful, mercenary, and base: in either case she is exposed to censure. If liberal, unpitied; if sordid, execrated! In a few words, a generous woman is termed a fool; a prudent one, a prodigal.
If WOMAN is not permitted to assert a majesty of mind, why fatigue her faculties with the labours of any species of education? why give her books, if she is not to profit by the wisdom they inculcate? The parent, or the preceptress, who enlightened her understanding, like the dark lantern, to spread its rays internally only, puts into her grasp a weapon of defence against the perils of existence; and at the same moment commands her not to use it. Man says you may read, and you will think, but you shall not evince your knowledge, or employ your thoughts,
beyond the boundaries which we have set up around you. Then wherefore burthen the young mind with a gaudy outline which man darkens with shades indelible? why expand the female heart, merely to render it more conscious that it is, by the tyranny of custom, rendered vulnerable? Let man remember, that
"A little learning is a dangerous thing."
Let him not hope for a luxurious mental harvest, where the sun of cultivation is obscured by impenetrable prejudice; that cloud which has too long spread over the mind of woman a desolating darkness. So situated, woman is taught to discriminate just sufficiently to know her own unhappiness. She, like Tantalus, is placed in a situation where the intellectual blessing she sighs for is within her view; but she is not permitted to attain it: she is conscious of possessing equally strong mental powers; but she is obliged to yield, as the weaker creature. Man says, "you shall be initiated in all the arts of pleasing; but
you shall, in vain, hope that we will contribute to your happiness one iota beyond the principle which constitutes our own." Sensual Egotists! woman is absolutely necessary to your felicity; nay, even to your existence: yet she must not arrogate to herself the power to interest your actions. You idolize her personal attractions, as long as they influence your senses; when they begin to pall, the magick is dissolved; and prejudice is ever eager to condemn what passion has degraded.
A French author *, who wrote in the early part of the present century, says, "The empire we exercise over the fair sex is usurped; and that which they obtain over us is by nature. Our submission very often costs them no more than a glance of the eye; the most stern and
fierce of mankind grow gentle at the sight of them * . What a whimsical conduct it is to dispute with women the right of managing their own estates, while we give up our liberties at so cheap a rate."
The same author, in the same work, says, "It rarely happens, that we share with women the shame of their errors, though we are either the authors, or the accomplices of them. On the other hand, how many follies have we, that are peculiar to ourselves; how many occasions are there where their modesty conceals more merit, than we can shew, with all our vanity!"
Supposing women were to act upon the same principle of egotism, consulting their own inclinations, interest, and amusement only, (and there is no law of
Nature which forbids them; none of any species but that which is framed by man;) what would be the consequences? The annihilation of all moral and religious order. So that every good which cements the bonds of civilized society, originates wholly in the forbearance, and conscientiousness of woman.
I wish not to advise the sex against cultivating what modern writers term, the GRACES * . I would have woman highly, eminently polished; she should dance, if her form be well proportioned; she should sing, if nature has endowed her with the power of conveying that harmony so soothing to the senses. She should draw, paint, and perform fanciful tasks with her needle; particularly if her frame be delicate, her intellects feminine. But if nature has given her strong mental powers, half her
hours of study should be devoted to more important acquirements. She should likewise, if strong and active, be indulged in minor sports; such as swimming, the use of the ball, and foot racing, &c. We should then see British Atalantas, as well as female Nimrods.
However singular it may appear to a reflecting mind, hunting, certainly one of the most barbarous of masculine sports is, in Europe, tolerated as an amusement for the softer sex! There again, weakness is, by the humane ordinance of man, devoted to persecution. The harmless stag and timid hare are hunted to destruction, even by women! --- Why, in this single instance, does man agree in the propriety of masculine pursuits? Why does the husband, without apprehension or disgust, permit the tender, weak and delicate partner of his cares to leap a quarry or a five-barred gate, at the same time that he would deem it the excess of arrogance, to offer an opinion, on any subject which
MAN considers as exclusively adapted to his discussion. I can only conclude that a wife has full permission to break her neck; though she is forbid to think or speak like a rational creature * .
Why are women excluded from the auditory part of the British senate? The welfare of their country, cannot fail to interest their feelings; and eloquence both exalts and refines the understanding * . Man makes woman a frivolous creature, and then condemns her for the folly he inculcates. He tells her, that beauty is her first and most powerful attraction; her second complacency of temper, and
softness of manners. She therefore dedicates half her hours to the embellishment of her person, and the other half to the practice of soft, languishing, sentimental insipidity. She disdains to be strong minded, because she fears being accounted masculine; she trembles at every breeze, faints at every peril, and yields to every assailant, because it would be unwomanly to defend herself. She sees no resemblance of her own character in the Portias and Cornelias of antiquity; she is content to be the epitome of her celebrated archetype, the good woman of St. Giles's * !
The embargo upon words, the enforcement of tacit submission, has been productive of consequences highly honourable to the women of the present age. Since the sex have been condemned for exercising the powers of speech, they
have successfully taken up the pen: and their writings exemplify both energy of mind, and capability of acquiring the most extensive knowledge. The press will be the monuments [sic] from which the genius of British women will rise to immortal celebrity: their works will, in proportion as their educations are liberal, from year to year, challenge an equal portion of fame, with the labours of their classical male contemporaries.
In proportion as women are acquainted with the languages they will become citizens of the world. The laws, customs and inhabitants of different nations will be their kindred in the propinquity of nature. Prejudice will be palsied, if not receive its death blow, by the expansion of intellect: and woman being permitted to feel her own importance in the scale of society, will be tenacious of maintaining it. She will know that she was created for something beyond the mere amusement of man; that she is capable of men-
tal energies, and worthy of the most unbounded confidence. Such a system of mental equality, would, while it stigmatized the trifling vain and pernicious race of high fashioned Messalinas, produce such British women, as would equal the Portias and Arrias of antiquity * .
Had fortune enabled me, I would build an UNIVERSITY FOR WOMEN; where they should be politely, and at the same time classically educated; the depth of their studies, should be proportioned to their mental powers; and those who were incompetent to the labours of knowledge, should be dismissed after a fair trial of their capabilities, and allotted to the more humble paths of life; such as domestic and use-
ful occupations. The wealthy part of the community who neglected to educate their female offspring, at this seminary of learning, should pay a fine, which should be appropriated to the maintenance of the unportioned scholars. In half a century there would be a sufficient number of learned women to fill all the departments of the university, and those who excelled in an eminent degree should receive honorary medals, which they should wear as an ORDER of LITERARY MERIT.
O! my unenlightened country-women! read, and profit, by the admonition of Reason. Shake off the trifling, glittering shackles, which debase you. Resist those fascinating spells which, like the petrifying torpedo, fasten on your mental faculties. Be less the slaves of vanity, and more the converts of Reflection. Nature has endowed you with personal attractions: she has also given you the mind capable of expansion. Seek not the visi-
onary triumph of universal conquest; know yourselves equal to greater, nobler, acquirements: and by prudence, temperance, firmness, and reflection, subdue that prejudice which has, for ages past, been your inveterate enemy. Let your daughters be liberally, classically, philosophically * , and usefully educated; let them speak and write their opinions freely; let them read and think like rational creatures; adapt their studies to their strength of intellect; expand their minds, and purify their hearts, by teaching them to feel their mental equality with their imperious rulers. By such laudable exertions, you will excite the noblest emulation; you will explode the superstitious tenets of bigotry and fanaticism; confirm the intuitive immortality of the soul, and give
them that genuine glow of conscious virtue which will grace them to posterity.
There are men who affect, to think lightly of the literary productions of women: and yet no works of the present day are so universally read as theirs. The best novels that have been written, since those of Smollet, Richardson, and Fielding, have been produced by women: and their pages have not only been embellished with the interesting events of domestic life, portrayed with all the elegance of phraseology, and all the refinement of sentiment, but with forcible and eloquent, political, theological, and philosophical reasoning. To the genius and labours of some enlightened British women posterity will also be indebted for the purest and best translations from the French and German languages. I need not mention Mrs. Dobson, Mrs. Inchbald, Miss Plumptree, &c. &c. Of the more profound researches in the dead languages, we have many female classicks of the first celebrity: Mrs. Carter, Mrs.
Thomas, (late Miss Parkhurst;) Mrs. Francis, the Hon. Mrs. Damer, &c. &c.
Of the Drama, the wreath of fame has crowned the brows of Mrs. Cowley, Mrs. Inchbald, Miss Lee, Miss Hannah More, and others of less celebrity. Of Biography, Mrs. Dobson, Mrs. Thickness, Mrs. Piozzi, Mrs. Montagu, Miss Helen Williams, have given specimens highly honourable to their talents. Poetry has unquestionably risen high in British literature from the productions of female pens; for many English women have produced such original and beautiful compositions, that the first critics and scholars of the age have wondered, while they applauded. But in order to direct the attention of my fair and liberal country-women to the natural genius and mental acquirements of their illustrious contemporaries, I conclude my Letter with a list of names, which, while they silence the tongue of prejudice, will not fail TO EXCITE EMULATION.
P.S. Should this Letter be the means of influencing the minds of those to whom it is addressed, so far as to benefit the rising generation, my end and aim will be accomplished. I am well assured, that it will meet with little serious attention from the MALE disciples of MODERN PHILOSOPHY. The critics, though they have liberally patronized the works of British women, will perhaps condemn that doctrine which inculcates mental equality; lest, by the intellectual labours of the sex, they should claim an equal portion of power in the TRIBUNAL of BRITISH LITERATURE. By the profound scholar, and the unprejudiced critic, this Letter will be read with candour; while, I trust, its purpose will be deemed beneficial to society.
Exeter, Nov. 7, 1798
[This list is Robinson's own, found in both the first and second editions, and includes many prominent bluestockings, novelists, and poets, as well as writers who had also written essays on women's issues such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Hannah More, Mary Hays, and Catherine Macaulay. The coral-colored entries are handwritten additions made by Elizabeth Rose in her personal edition of the text.]
Anspach, Margravine of --- Tour to the Crimea, and Dramatic Pieces.
Barbauld, Mrs. --- Poems and Moral Writings.
Brooke, Mrs. --- Novels and Dramatic Pieces.
Bennet, Mrs. --- Novelist
Carter, Mrs. --- Greek and Hebrew Classic, Poetess, &c. &c.
Cowley, Mrs. --- Poems, Comedies, Tragedies, &c. &c. &c. &c.
Crespigny, Mrs. --- Novelist.
Cosway, Mrs. --- Paintress.
[Chapone Mrs. Letters on the Mind &ca]
Dobson, Mrs. --- Life of Petrarch, from the Italian.
D'Arblæy, Mrs. --- Novels, Edwy and Elgiva, a Tragedy, &c. &c. &c.
Damer, Hon. Mrs. --- Sculptor, and Greek Classic.
[Edgeworth (Miss) Education--Novels--Tales]
Francis, Mrs. --- Greek and Latin Classic.
Gunning, Mrs. --- Novelist.
Gunning, Miss --- Novelist, and Translator from the French.
Hayes[sic], Miss --- Novels, Philosophical and Metaphysical Disquisitions. [& Female Biography]
Hanway, Mrs. --- Novelist.
[Hunter Mrs. Novels]
Inchbald, Mrs. --- Novels, Comedies, and Translations from the French and German.
Linwood, Miss --- Artist.
Lee, Misses --- Romances, Comedies, Canterbury Tales, a Tragedy, &c. &c. [The Recess]
Lennox, Mrs. --- Novelist.
Macauley[sic] Graham, Mrs. --- History of England, and other works.
Montagu, Mrs. --- Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespeare; being a Defence of him from the Slander of Voltaire.
More, Miss Hannah. --- Poems, Sacred Dramas, a Tragedy, and other moral pieces.
Piozzi, Mrs. --- Biography, Poetry, British Synonymy, Travels, &c. &c. &c.
Plumptree, Miss --- Translations from the German, a Novel, &c.
Parsons, Mrs. --- Novelist.
[Porter (Miss) Novels--]
Ratcliffe[sic], Mrs. --- Romances, Travels, &c. &c.
Robinson, Mrs. --- Poems, Romances, Novels, a Tragedy, Satires, &c. &c.
Reeve, Miss --- Romances and Novels.
Robinson, Miss --- Novelist.
[Randall--Letter to Women]
[Anna Maria Roche--Novels]
Seward, Miss --- Poems, a Poetical Novel, and various other works.
Smith, Mrs. Charlotte --- Novels, Sonnets, Moral Pieces, for the Instruction of Youth; and other works. [History of England]
Sheridan, late Mrs. --- Sidney Biddulph, a Novel.
[Smith--Miss F: Translations of Klopstock--Letters]
Thomas, Mrs. late Miss Parkhurst --- Greek and Hebrew Classic
Thickness, Mrs. --- Biography, Letters, &c.
[Talbot Mrs. Essays, Reflections, Poems]
Wolstonecraft[sic], Mrs. --- A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Novels, Philosophical Disquisitions, Travels, &c.
Williams, Miss Helen Maria --- Poems, Travels, a Novel, and other miscellaneous pieces.
West, Mrs. --- Novels, Poetry, &c. &c [Letters to a Young Man, Letters to Young Lady]
Yearsley, Mrs. --- Poems, a Novel, a Tragedy, &c. &c.
There are various degrees of merit in the compositions of the female writers mentioned in the preceding list. Of their several claims to the wreath of Fame, the Public and the critics are left to decide. Most of them have been highly distinguished at the tribunal of literature.
[Omitted Mrs. Opie--Poetry & Novels
Mrs. Truman Scripture History
Lady Manners Poems--]
Editorial NotesEl. Rose: Elizabeth Rose (1747-1815) was the 19th Clan Chief of the powerful Clan Rose. The Clan Rose inhabited Kilravock Castle in Nairnshire, Scotland, from the fifteenth century when it was built to the present day (when once again, and for only the second time, the Clan Chief is a woman). Rose married her cousin Hugh Rose (1746-1780) in June 1779 but retained her status as Clan Chief until she died. A son, also named Hugh Rose, was born February 8, 1780, and became the 20th Clan Chief. In her personal copy of Robinson's Letter, Elizabeth Rose made significant additions to Robinson's List of British Female Literary Characters at the end of this Letter, indicated in coral-colored text in this hypertext edition. Our thanks to George Rose for information on Elizabeth Rose's genealogy.
Anne Frances Randall: This is one of numerous pseudonyms under which Robinson wrote. She tended to use different names to suit different voices or personas in her writing; other pseudonyms include Perdita, Laura, Laura Maria, M.R., Oberon, Tabitha Bramble, Portia, Sappho, the Sylphid, and Titania (Curran 34). In her acting career, Robinson also used a number of stage names.
"wherefore are we...": This passage is part of Calista’s proto-feminist speech in Nicholas Rowe’s The Fair Penitent. A Tragedy, published in London in 1703, which along with his Tragedy of Jane Shore, was one of the most popular tragedies, after Shakespeare, performed throughout the eighteenth century. Both plays are particularly notable for their rebellious and outspoken (and ultimately defeated) female protagonists: see note on Jane Shore. Calista's speech reads:
"How hard is the condition of our sex,
Thro' ev'ry state of life the slaves of man!
In all the dear delightful days of youth
A rigid father dictates to our wills,
And deals out pleasure with a scanty hand.
To his, the tyrant husband's reign succeeds;
Proud with opinion of superior reason,
He holds domestick bus'ness and devotion
All we are capable to know, and shuts us,
Like cloyster'd ideots, from the world's acquaintance,
And all the joys of freedom. Wherefore are we
Born with high souls, but to assert our selves,
Shake off this vile obedience they exact,
And claim an equal empire o'er the world?" (The Fair Penitent (1791 edition) III.i.40-53)
philosophical sensualists: Probably a reference to Jean Jacques Rousseau, who argued in Emile and other influential works that women and men were essentially different, and specifically that women were intellectually inferior to men. As Robinson notes in this sentence, Rousseau was one of Wollstonecraft’s chief targets in Rights of Woman, where she consistently characterized him as a philosopher led more by "his voluptuous reveries" than his reason (133). Catharine Macaulay similarly described Rousseau, "[a]mong the most strenuous asserters of a sexual difference in character" (205), as a sensualist and "licentious pedant": "it is not reason, it is not wit; it is pride and sensuality that speak in Rousseau, and, in this instance, has lowered the man of genius to the licentious pedant" (Letters on Education, Part I, Letter XXII ("No characteristic Difference in Sex"), 206).
illustrious British female,: Probably the best-known and most influential feminist of the eighteenth century, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) was a contemporary of Robinson’s. The two women were acquainted through Wollstonecraft's husband, William Godwin. Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), a feminist manifesto arguing in favor of equality between the sexes and women’s cultivation of reason through education, deeply influenced Robinson (link to Vindication). Robinson obviously intends her Letter to speak to the same issues as Wollstonecraft's Vindications, though from a different angle. Robinson may have also intended this publication to help vindicate her friend's reputation and ideas when, after her death in 1797, Wollstonecraft's reputation declined due to the publication of Memoirs (written by Godwin) which provided the "scandalous" details of her affair with Gilbert Imlay and her suicide attempts.
honour: Eighteenth-century notions of honor were very much linked to one’s reputation and rank. It is interesting that Dr. Johnson defines honor as both "high rank" and "publick mark of respect." As it related to women, the notion of honor specifically referred to chastity.
"Ruin ensues": Spoken by Jane Shore in Nicholas Rowe’s The Tragedy of Jane Shore, published in London in 1714; Robinson played Alicia, the royal mistress gone mad who betrays the heroine (herself a mistress of royalty), in The Tragedy of Jane Shore on 27 January 1783 at Covent Garden, and again in Edinburgh in 1787. Beyond its theme of a strong and outspoken woman seduced and victimized by powerful men, this play holds particular significance for Robinson because it was her recitation from it that first drew the actor Thomas Hull’s attention to her as a potential actress, when she was 15. Sarah Siddons and Mary Ann Yates, two of the most highly regarded tragic actresses of the eighteenth century, were renowned for their portrayal of Jane Shore, who was a historical figure seduced by King Edward IV, and carried off as his mistress; she then became Hastings’ mistress, and was a pawn in the power struggles of Richard, Duke of Gloucester (Richard III), which after a series of betrayals resulted in her death: see note to Rowe’s The Fair Penitent. Jane Shore’s speech in full reads:
"Mark by what partial Justice we are judg'd;
Such is the Fate unhappy Women find,
And such the Curse intail'd upon our kind,
That Man, the lawless Libertine may rove,
Free and unquestion'd through the Wilds of Love;
While Woman, Sense and Nature's easy Fool,
If poor weak Woman swerve from Virtue's Rule,
If strongly charm'd, she leave the thorny way,
And in the softer Paths of Pleasure stray;
Ruin ensues, Reproach and endless Shame,
And one false Step entirely damns her Fame.
In vain with Tears the Loss she may deplore,
In vain look back to what she was before,
She sets, like Stars that fall, to rise no more." (I.ii).
sentiment: Robinson is implying that men act on carnal desires, while women act on intellect, thought, and reason. The answer to her rhetorical question is implicit in this observation.
to love, where she abhors: This condemnation of the sexual inequalities of marriage laws echoes Maria's letter to the judge in Wollstonecraft's The Wrongs of Woman, or Maria. A Fragment (1798). Maria, who has suffered cruelly at the hands of her husband, complains about the "dogs of law" and pleads for a divorce:
"'Married when scarcely able to distinguish the nature of the engagement, I yet submitted to the rigid laws which enslave women, and obeyed the man whom I could no longer love. . .I exclaim against the laws which throw the whole weight of the yoke on the weaker shoulders, and force women, when they claim protectorship as mothers, to sign a contract, which renders them dependent on the caprice of a tyrant, whom choice or necessity has appointed to reign over them" (194, 195).
women, like princes: Robinson's complaint here is similar to Wollstonecraft's comparison of women, soldiers, and aristocratic men in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: all possess a superficial education that neglects the cultivation of their Reason:
"As a proof that education gives this appearience of weakness to females, we may instance the example of military men, who are, like them, sent into the world before their minds have been stored with knowledge or fortified by principles. . .soldiers, as well as women, practise the minor virtues with punctilious politeness. Where is the the sexual difference, when the education has been the same? All the difference that I can discern, arises from the superior advantage of liiberty, which enables the former to see more of life" (131).
"In short, women, in general, as well as the rich of both sexes, have acquired all the follies and vices of civilization, and missed the useful fruit" (177).
Catherine Macaulay (1731-1791) was a notable eighteenth-century historian whose most famous work was her eight-volume History of England from the Accession of James I, published between 1763 and 1783. Thomas Gray called it "the most sensible, unaffected and best history of England that we have had yet" (DNB). Macaulay was also an early critic of Burke’s Reflections with her Observations on the Reflections. Unfortunately, her marriage at age 47 to a man 26 years her junior caused a scandal which resulted in much public criticism and the loss of many close friends. Macaulay’s Letters on Education (1790) deeply influenced Wollstonecraft, who described her as "the woman of the greatest abilities, undoubtedly, that this country has ever produced " in A Vindication on the Rights of Woman (231).
Stephano: Alonso’s drunken and conspiratorialbutler in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Robinson compares the position of women with that of a domestic servant who fantasizes about ruling over his master.
Zantippe: Xantippe was the wife of Socrates. She was known for her peevish disposition and ill humor. According to Lempriere, "some suggest that the philosopher was acquainted with her moroseness and insolence before he married her, and that he took her for his wife to try his patience, and inure himself to the malevolent reflections of mankind" (LCD).
"smoothing the rugged path of care": The exact source of this quote is unknown, although Robinson may be adapting the lines "Lest Philomel will daign a Song/ In her sweetest, saddest plight,/ Smoothing the rugged brow of night" from Milton’s Il Penseroso (56-58). This may also be an adaptation of lines from James Beattie’s poem "The Minstrel" (1776), in which the poet praises pastoral bards: "Your voice each rugged path of life can smooth;/ For well I know, where-ever ye reside,/ There harmony, and peace, and innocence abide" (Book I, 376-78).
mental aristocracy: This concept of an "Aristocracy of Genius," as she calls it in her Monody on the Death of the Late Queen of France, is found throughout Robinson’s works. In the preface to Sappho and Phaon, Robinson writes at length on how women should "ennoble themselves by the unperishable lustre of MENTAL PRE-EMINENCE!"
immortality of the soul: Women's spiritual equality to men remained a touchstone of feminism in the eighteenth century and earlier, found in Mary Astell's A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, Priscilla Wakefield's Reflections on the Present Condition of the Female Sex (1798), and Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman (pages 112, 131, 154-5, 176): see note on women, like princes.
corporeal strength: The nature of man’s domination over women was often seen by eighteenth century feminists such as Priscilla Wakefield, Catherine Macaulay, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Robinson as derived from men’s superior physical strength. Wollstonecraft’s Rights of Woman discusses at length the nature of corporeal and mental strength, and the connection between them, and declares that "I wish to persuade women to endeavour to acquire strength, both in mind and in body" (VRW 111); see in particular chapters 2 and 3. These feminist thinkers advocated increased physical exercise for girls and women: see note on sports.
effeminacy: Robinson is using a strategy similar to Wollstonecraft’s in Rights of Woman and Rights of Men, where Wollstonecraft urged both men and women to aspire to "a manly spirit of independence" (Rights of Men 46); see also Robinson’s note to page 36. Both Robinson and Wollstonecraft in effect sever sex from gender, and desire that women have access to types of virtue, strength, and honor that were typically gendered masculine. For an excellent discussion of Wollstonecraft, gender, and effeminacy, see Claudia Johnson, Equivocal Beings, chapters 1-3.
modern Hannibals: Hannibal was a celebrated Carthaginian general who posed a long-time threat to Rome in the second century B.C., fighting in battles ranging from Spain to Italy to Africa. Robinson characterizes him negatively here, though he was considered one of the most meritorious and virtuous generals of his age. (LCD)
my travels: The high point of Robinson’s travels abroad occurred when she visited France in 1781. The Prince of Wales had deserted her earlier that year, and she went to Paris to "amuse her mind and beguile her thoughts from the recollection of past scenes" (Perdita: The Memoirs of Mary Robinson, p. 121). While in Paris she was "fêted by Parisian aristocracy" (Memoirs, p. xii). Her conquests included the profligate D’uc D’Orléans, Louis XVI’s cousin, as well as Marie Antoinette: see note on Marie Antoinette. Unfortunately, her subsequent trips to the Continent during the next decade were decidedly less glamorous: Plagued by a series of severe misfortunes which included financial problems, partial paralysis and a possible miscarriage, Robinson followed her then lover Colonel Banstre Tarleton into "Continental exile" for four years in 1784. Her last trip to France was in 1792 when she decided to take her mother and daughter on another Continental tour. However, when she arrived in Calais the war in France prevented them from proceeding any further, and she returned to England a few months later.
A foreign lady of great distinction: Robinson’s "true story" here, in which a continental woman responds to her seducer by claiming the right to a duel, hence to a "heroic act," and dies in a convent, serves as a contrast to the very different fate of "Miss [Ann] Broderick" in Britain, whose heroism condemned her to spend "the remainder of her days as a confirmed maniac." Broderick shot her lover in 1794, and was found not guilty by reason of insanity. The judge instructed the jury that while passion or jealousy were not sufficient grounds for declaring her insane, the fact that she laughed aloud after shooting him, "was a striking, and almost infallible symptom of insanity" (The Trial of Miss Broderick, for the Wilful Murder of George Errington, Esq. (Edinburgh: J. Robertson, 1795) 13).
subtle and unrelenting enemy: This allusion to the "subtle serpent" in Milton’s Paradise Lost is yet another pointed reminder from Robinson that Satan is not the only cause of women’s misfortunes -- that men as well must take the blame for the persecution and suffering of women.
when they ascended the scaffold: Helen Maria Williams’s influential Letters from France served as a monument to women’s bravery when facing the guillotine, particularly Madame Roland and Charlotte Corday. Williams gives a lengthy and positive description of Corday as an "extraordinary woman" (129), and adds that "it is difficult to conceive the kind of heroism which she displayed in the way to execution" (133); Robinson echoes Williams’ statement that "She [Corday] ascended the scaffold with undaunted firmness, and, knowing that she had only to die, was resolved to die with dignity " (Williams, Letters Containing a Sketch of the Politics of France (1795) 134-135).
Marie Antoinette: Marie Antoinette (1755-93) was Louis XVI's Austrian-born queen. She was at first popular in France, but was later vilified for her rash expenditures, ostentatiosness, and public flirtations. Robinson herself met Marie Antoinette and was extremely impressed by her, as she shows in this passage from her Memoirs:
"A small space divided the Queen from Mrs. Robinson, whom the constant observation and loudly whispered encomiums of her Majesty most oppressively flattered. She appeared to survey, with peculiar attention, a miniature of the Prince of Wales, which Mrs. Robinson wore on her bosom, and of which, on the ensuing day, she commissioned the Duke of Orleans to request the loan. Perceiving Mrs. Robinson gaze with admiration on her white and polished arms, as she drew on her gloves, the Queen again uncovered them, and leaned for a few moments on her hand. The Duke, on returning the picture, gave to the fair owner a purse, netted by the hand of Antoinette, and which she had commissioned him to present, from her, to la belle Angloise"(123).
Like Robinson, Marie Antoinette was the subject of pornographic satires. Robinson, who was associated with republican politics in the eyes of her contemporaries, also wrote several poems lamenting the fate of Marie Antoinette: A Monody on the Death of the Late Queen of France (1793), "Marie Antoinette’s Lamentation..": see note on Louis the Sixteenth.
CORDAY: One of Robinson's many examples of women's public, often physical, heroism. Charlotte Corday, a Girondin republican from Normandy, assassinated the Jacobin Jean-Paul Marat on July 13, 1793 by stabbing him to death in his bath. Corday was put on trial and guillotined a few days later; both events received wide coverage in the British press and were the subjects of popular prints. Helen Maria Williams's influential Letters from France celebrated Corday's action as heroic and inspired. Corday's assassination of Marat was instrumental in precipitating the violent reaction of the Jacobin government against women, including Jacobin women. The guillotining of Marie Antoinette, Olympe de Gouges (a monarchist and a feminist) and Madame Roland (a Girondin) followed in the next few months, and the Jacobins also banned all women's political associations, such as the well-known Society of Revolutionary Republican Women.
VOSSIUS: Gerardus Joannes Vossius (1577-1649), German scholar and theologian, was one of the first scholars to use an historical perspective in his treatment of theological dogmas, including the religions of antiquity. Vossius’s work was known through out western Europe, and he sojourned at several foreign universities, including a stint at Oxford as LL.D from 1629-1632. In Chapter Two of De Philologia, which we have been able to find only in Latin editions, Vossius includes a lengthy numbered list of eminent women, which Robinson here includes almost entirely. In her Memoirs, Robinson does mention that she was schooled by Meribah Lorrington in Latin, but because she does not again allude to her ability to read Latin, her fluency in that language is open to some speculation.
"the two Le Fevres": Anne Lefevre (1654-1720), wife of editor Andre Dacier, was known as "the greatest French woman Hellenist" of her era. She translated and edited well-known versions of the Iliad (1711) and the Odyssey (1716) in addition to other classics including works by Sappho and Aristophanes (Oxford). The other "Le Fevre" to whom Robinson refers is unidentified, though she was likely the wife of Jean Leclerc, a political activist in post-revolutionary France who succeeded Marat after his assasination by Charlotte Corday.
Katherine Phillips (1632-64), or "Orinda," as she calls herself in her poems, was best known for writing poems in which she exalts Platonic friendships between women. The poetic figures "Rosania" and "Lucasia" both represent Phillips’s close friends in real life. Phillips represented a refined and sensitive femininity which was in opposition to the perceived coarseness of Aphra Behn (Greer).
Susannah Centlivre (1667?-1723) was a successful actress and playwright in the early eighteenth century. Known for her " sprightly" comedies, Centlivre published a total of 19 plays in her lifetime, including The Busy Body (1709) and The Platonic Lady (1707). In about 1706 she married Joseph Centlivre, principal cook to Queen Anne and George I. Due to the numerous plays which she presented and performed at court, Centlivre became quite beloved in royal and aristocratic circles. (DNB)
Aphra Behn: Very little is known about the life of Aphra Behn (1640-1689), poet, novelist, and playwright. Her novel Ooronoko is based on her experiences in the West Indies, where she lived for a time during her youth. She briefly worked as a spy for Charles II, then married, but was soon left penniless by her husband. According to the DNB, Behn was the first female writer to "live by the pen, " but other accounts suggest a long history of debt and borrowing (Greer 242). Behn also endured much public criticism due to her support of the Stuart cause as well as to her friendships with numerous men. Nevertheless, she enjoyed fame as a writer and has been commended as "the George Sand of the Restoration," receiving the commendations of and befriending contemporary writers such as Dryden, Otway, and Southerne (DNB).
Elizabeth Singer Rowe (1674-1737) enjoyed widespread admiration as a writer of great piety and virtue; she was considered by Dr. Johnson the first English writer to successfully employ "the ornaments of romance in the decoration of religion" (DNB). Singer is best known for her volume of poetry, Poems on Several Occasions by Philomela (1696), as well as her devotional prose. Her elegy to her husband was Pope’s inspiration for "Eloisa and Abelard" (1720) and is printed as an appendix to that poem (Greer).
Sappho: Sappho (c.610-c.580 B.C.), the most famous female poet of classical times, was greatly admired by Mary Robinson. Born on the island of Lesbos, Sappho was famous for her beauty, her lyrical poems, and her passions for both men and women. Although it was rumored that her unrequited love for the youth Phaon made her commit suicide by leaping into the sea from Mount Leucas, there is no evidence to support this theory. Robinson writes of the ill-fated romance in Sappho and Phaon, casting Sappho as the supreme example of the heightened sensibility that is born with poetic genius, and attributing her amoral reputation to the envy of little minds. Jerome McGann notes how Robinson conflates her troubled life and poetic genius with that of Sappho: "Throughout Sappho and Phaon Robinson builds a shrewd retort to the facile slanders regularly directed at herself. Robinson’s and Sappho’s histories come to reflect each other because (and as) their poetries are made reflective through Sappho and Phaon. It is the poetic sensibility that exposes these relations, according to Robinson, and the poetry of sensibility that puts them into most effective (social) action." McGann goes on to suggest that not only does Robinson become the "avatar" of Sappho, but she also makes the point in Sappho and Phaon that it is poets like themselves, and not polemicists like Wollstonecraft, who have "the power to wed the longest kind of philosophical view . . . with full, intense and immediate awareness." (The Poetics of Sensibility, p.116) See Robinson's Sappho and Phaon
Mrs Robinson’s legitimate sonnets: In Sappho and Phaon, Robinson’s fervent discourse on the nature of the "legitimate sonnet" is the cornerstone of her discussion of the poetics of sensibility, and helps to establish her claim for Sappho as the exemplar of strong poetic feeling. According to Robinson, the difference between the sonnets of her day (known as English or Shakespearean sonnets) and sonnets in the "legitimate" or Petrarchan mode, is that the modern sonnet is a self-contained unit which "confines the poet’s fancy," and the legitimate sonnet is one link in a chain of poems that tells a story. Robinson’s "little wreath" of sonnets is patterned on the legitimate sonnet, a form that she believes only Milton of all the British poets has used with any success. In The Poetics of Sensibility, Jerome McGann points out that her alignment with Milton is deliberate: "Her claim here establishes the importance of ‘major form,’ a poetic vehicle capable of dealing with matters that transcend the merely personal"(105). By appropriating a form that was typically gendered masculine, Robinson elevates the poetry of sensibility to a place normally reserved for the work of the major poets. See Robinson's Sappho and Phaon for more of her ideas concerning legitimate sonnets.
We have known WOMEN: Soldier heroines were a very popular phenomenon in the second half of the eighteenth century when Britain experienced a wave of patriotism primarily during its wars with America and France. Popular ballads and musical revues featured the motif of the Woman Warrior, and Hannah Snell (1723-1792) captured the public’s imagination as a real-life Woman Warrior. At age 20, she married a Dutch sailor who disappeared seven months after their marriage. Determined to find her husband, Snell borrowed the name and a suit of her brother-in-law, and enlisted as a foot soldier in the army. Still disguised as a man, she became a sailor, sailing to the East Indies as the assistant steward and cook for the officers. She was involved in several skirmishes, and was wounded in the groin. Not wanting her sex to be discovered by the army doctors, Snell found a black woman who was willing to extract the bullet and keep her secret. She spent seven years in the service until she heard that her husband had been executed in Genoa. At age 27, she abandoned her disguise and became an instant celebrity. Her story was published as "The Female Soldier: or the Surprising Adventures of Hannah Snell " by R. Walker in 1750. She appeared on stage in uniform. Because of the wound she had received in the line of duty, she received an annuity. She also supplemented her income by purchasing a tavern, and calling it the "Female Warrior." By the end of her colorful life, she had married three times, and died insane at the age of 69. See Diane Dugaw’s Warrior Women and Popular Balladry.
Lady Harriet Ackland: The account of Lady Harriet Ackland’s adventures is a true one. Lady Harriet (1750-1815) did indeed follow her husband to Canada in 1776. According to the Gentleman’s Magazine (1815, pt. ii. p. 186), the episode where she stood in the boat pleading with the sentinel to give her permission to join her husband who had been taken prisoner was the subject of a famous painting exhibited at the Royal Academy.
a two-wheeled tumbrel: According to the OED, a tumbrel is a cart constructed so that the body tilts backwards to empty out the load, such as a dung-cart.
Charles Fox or William Pitt: Charles Fox (1749-1806) and William Pitt (1708-1778) were both brilliant orators and statesmen. Pitt was prime minister from 1783-1801 and 1804-1806, and Fox was the leader of the Opposition. Robinson probably had an affair in 1782 with Fox, who had helped arrange her settlement with the Prince of Wales, but she despised the politics of Pitt, especially his endorsement of the long and arduous war with France.
pugilist: According to the OED, a pugilist is one who practices the art of boxing -- a boxeror a fighter.
Sir Andrew Ague-cheek: Sir Andrew Ague-cheek was the cowardly and simple drinking companion of Sir Toby in Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night. When Sir Toby suggests him as a potential suitor of Olivia to her maid Maria, he defends his friend’s suit by claiming that "He’s as tall a man as any’s in Illyria." Although Sir Toby used the word "tall" to mean brave, Maria takes him literally when she asks, "What’s that to the purpose? " (Twelfth Night, 1.3) Like Maria, it appears that Robinson took Sir Toby literally as well.
unsex a woman: Robinson was named as one of the "unsexed" women writer's in Richard Polwhele's The Unsex'd Females (1798), along with Wollstonecraft, Mary Hays, Helen Maria Williams, Anna Barbauld, and others. Polwhele thus described Robinson:
"Robinson to Gaul her Fancy gave,
And trac'd the picture of a Deist's grave."
The Deist referred to may be a character in her novel Walzingham, which had been attacked by conservatives for its support of the French Revolution.
In a note, Polwhele praises Robinson's poetry, but criticizes her novels, philosophy, and lifestyle:
"Would that, for the sake of herself and her beautiful daughter. . .would that for the sake of public morality, Mrs. Robinson were persuaded to dismiss the gloomy phantom of annihilation; to think seriously of a future rebribution; and to communicate to the world a recantation of errors that originated in levity, and have been nursed by pleasure."
witchcraft: Robinson argues that the persecution of women as witches stemmed from the bigotry and fear of men as women attempted to leave their allotted sphere through books and learning. Although the last trial in England for witchcraft was in 1712, trials and executions of witches did not finally cease until the end of the eighteenth-century. The total number of women who were persecuted and tried as witches has been estimated from 100,000 to as much as several million.
some excellent lines, from the pen of a British woman: Although Mary Robinson claims that this poem is written by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762), it is not found in her extant works. Montagu did wage a very acrimonious battle of words with Alexander Pope, including her infamous response to Pope in 1733 titled VERSES Addressed to the IMITATOR of the FIRST SATIRE of the Second Book of Horace. Although he began as a potential suitor, the relationship between Pope and Montagu ended abruptly in 1722. It was rumored that this took place when Pope finally confessed his love to Lady Montagu, and she laughed at him. Pope retaliated by referring to her in a couplet in his satire of Horace:
"From furious Sappho scarce a milder Fate (than poison or hanging),
P-x’d her Love, or libell’d by her Hate."
In her response, VERSES Addressed to the IMITATOR, Lady Montagu showed herself to be more than equal to the task of ridiculing her former suitor. As Carol Barash points out in her article on Lady Montague in the Dictionary of Literary Biography(DLB 95, 145-55), she turned his deformity (Pope was a hunchback) into a symbol of what she viewed as his own twisted humanity:
"Thine is just such and Image of (Horace's) Pen,
As thou thy self art of the Sons of Men:
Where our own Species in Burlesque we trace,
A Sign-Post Likeness of the noble Race;
That is at once Resemblance and Disgrace."
[See Lady Montague's Essays and Poems, p. 265-270.]
daring: Robinson's text reads darling, probably a printer's error.
Madame de Sévigné (1626- 1696)carried on a correspondence with her daughter that lasted twenty-five years, and her letters were known for their colorful and lively descriptions of court life.
Anne Dacier (1654-1720) translated several classical texts including a French edition of Sappho in which she argues for Sappho’s heterosexuality despite Sappho’s reputation for bisexuality. In Passions Between Women, Emma Donoghue discusses the similarities between Dacier and Robinson’s sanitized versions of Sappho’s sexuality, pointing out that Robinson’s conservative treatment of Sappho’s attachments to women echoes that of Dacier’s (see note on Sappho). Donoghue argues that it was easier for men to discuss Sappho’s possible bisexuality in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but that "a literary woman could not be seen to defend something that could damage her own status" (Passions Between Women, p. 250).
Marie-Jeanne Philipon Roland de la Platière (1754-1793)was a writer and an important political figure in the French Revolution. A fervent admirer of the works of Rousseau, she was executed in 1793.
Félicité de Genlis (1746-1830)wrote poetry and prose, and was extremely influential in Britain as an educator. According to her pupil Louis-Philippe, the one-time mistress and tutor for many years of the children of the Duc D’Orleans was the first woman to use a man’s desk to write at instead of the "secrétaires" that other literary women used.
Madame de Maintenon: Using the example of Madame de Maintenon, Robinson again underscores her point that women are made the scapegoats of men’s own degenerate natures. Madame de Maintenon (1635-1719) was the secret wife of Louis XIV. Although a very pious and private woman, she was accused of having both the king and France completely under her control. This rumor was somewhat exaggerated: Although it was true that the ministers discussed all their state business with her before they met with the king, he did not consult her on the most important issues. Robinson has an extended passage praising Madame de Maintenon in Ainsi va le Monde.
freezing restraint: The "other nations" which Robinson suggests impeded intellectual progress through this freezing restraint implicitly refers to Great Britain. Robinson made a similar point regarding Britain’s "freezing restraint" compared to the greater tolerance in continental Europe for women’s intellectual and sensual expression in Sappho and Phaon.
The influence they obtained: Robinson here counters the widespread British characterization of ancien regime French culture and politics as dominated by a corrupt "reign of beauty," or a "mistress system, " in which women ruled men, and by extension the nation, through the sexual power they held over them. Robinson’s portrayal of these women’s influence as civilizing and enlightening is very different from Wollstonecraft’s portrayal of the French court in her An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution (1794), where she described Marie Antoinette as "absolute mistress" ruling "the court of the passive Louis" and holding "messalinian feasts" at the Trianon (Political Writings, 314, 315).
Louis the Sixteenth: Robinson’s meeting with Louis XVI did not excite her imagination as much as her introduction to his wife, Marie Antoinette. In her memoirs, Robinson does mention his appetite at the "grand couvert" where "the King acquitted himself with more alacrity than grace" (Memoirs, p. 123) These words might describe his political career as well. Louis XVI (1754-1793) became king at age 20. At first, his reign appeared to be successful. His minister Turgot, the great statesman, attempted to solve France’s severe financial problems by a series of reforms. However, these measures made Turgot very unpopular, and eventually led to his dismissal. His successor, Necker, tried to continue his reforms but he too was dismissed in 1781. The country’s financial crisis began at this point, when Louis XVI’s wife, Marie Antoinette, began to assert her influence over her husband. Throughout his life, Louis XVI was reported to be a weak-minded man. His diary shows that he cared little for the business of running a country: The entry in his diary on July 14, 1789 was "nothing." He was executed on January 21, 1793.
a Bastille: The Bastille was the fortress-prison in Paris, seized by a crowd on July 14, 1789, the date that marks the beginning of the French Revolution. Since the reign of Louis XIV, it had become a state prison where the king could incarcerate any of his subjects with a lettre de cachet, without a trial or jury, for as long as he chose. In 1789, the Bastille contained only seven prisoners, but it had become the symbol for royal repression and despotism.
Wollstonecraft famously linked the Bastille with women's imprisonment--political, economic, and intellectual--in The Wrongs of Woman, or Maria, where Maria declares, "marriage had bastilled me for life" (154-5). Helen Maria Williams also wrote an important poem on the subject in her 1790 novel Julia: "The Bastille: A Vision," and Robinson’s 1790 poem "Ainsi va le Monde," dedicated to her fellow Della Cruscan Robert Merry, celebrated the French Revolution as well, with a lengthy passage on the Bastille.
‘a strange alacrity at sinking’: As Robinson notes, this quote is from Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, Act III, Scene V. The full quote reads:
"The rogues slighted me into the river with as little remorse as they would have drowned a blind bitch’s puppies, fifteen I’ the litter! And you may know by my size that I have a kind of alacrity in sinking; if the bottom were as deep as hell, I should down." (Note: to "down" is to sink).
The Areopagites: The similarity between the methods of the Areopagites and those of the Spanish Inquisitors would be obvious to the readers of Robinson’s Letter who were schooled in the atrocities of the Inquisition through Gothic novels such as Radcliffe’s The Italian.
The Areopagites were an Athenian assembly of judges who were responsible for punishing people who blasphemed against the gods, murdered, or transgressed any of the laws of their city. These judges conducted their enquiries against individuals in the open air because murderers and their accusers were not at that time permitted to be under the same roof. Furthermore, all trials and hearings took place at night so that the judges would not be swayed by seeing either the accused or the accuser. This determination not to take sides was taken so seriously that it was a law that each side of the case must be stated in plain and simple language so that the judges could not be swayed by persuasive rhetoric. As one can imagine, their authority and power were so absolute that the assembly easily lent itself to corruption.
"il ne s'agit point": Source unknown. Roughly translates as "it is therefore not a matter of condemning a crime, but of a moral judgement, in a republic founded on morality."
to share the sorrows of adversity, imprisonment: It was Robinson’s misfortune to have had just such an "adverse destiny." Before their marriage, Robinson’s husband had contracted a large debt, and when they set up their household as a wedded couple he continued his extravagant spending habits which eventually landed him, his wife, and baby daughter in debtor’s prison where they lived for nine months. During their interment, her husband continued to amuse himself -- with racquet-ball and other women -- while Mary tended to her little girl and wrote poetry.
Robinson’s account of those months is exceedingly poignant: "What I suffered during this tedious captivity!--My little volume of Poems sold but indifferently: my health was considerably impaired; and the trifling income which Mr. Robinson received from his father was scarcely sufficient to support him. I will not enter into a tedious detail of vulgar sorrows, of vulgar scenes; I seldom quitted my apartment, and never till the evening, when for air and exercise I walked on the racquet-ground with my husband" (Memoirs, p. 79).
Laura of Petrarch: The sixteenth century saw a revival of the sonnet form fathered by Italian Renaissance poet Petrarch; by the eighteenth century, the form was again revived and revised, this time serving as "the ground on which male and female Romantic poets met" (Daniel Robinson 99). Women poets like Anna Seward, Charlotte Smith, and Helen Maria Williams "deliberately claimed [the sonnet form] in order to legitimize themselves as poets" (99). However, whereas these women tended to hide their gender by taking on male names like Petrarch and Werther, Mary Robinson" apparently sees no reason to hide her gender from the Renaissance tradition; so, instead of writing as Petrarch, she reaches back farther to an even more golden age of literature to adopt the persona of Sappho, the Lesbian Muser, while maintaining her own modern voice" (117). In keeping with this deliberate revision of the traditionally male-voiced sonnet, Robinson writes several poems from the perspective of Laura, the subject of Petrarch’s most famous series of sonnets.
Cataline: Catalina L. Sergius was a Roman officer under Claudius. After being refused the consulship of Rome Cataline orchestrated a conspiracy to break up the senate, plunder the treasury, and set the city on fire. Among his other infamous deeds are the rape of a vestal virgin, the murder of his own brother, and the drinking of human blood previous to his attack on Rome. He was killed in battle with Roman soldiers in 63 B.C. (LCD).
to command and WOMAN to obey!: This is a reference to the punishment Eve receives from God in Paradise Lost after she and Adam eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil:
". . . and to thy husband's will
Thine shall submit, he over thee shall rule."
a masculine woman: This was a commom charge (like that of being "unsexed") leveled against women, such as Robinson, who challenged notions of proper middle-class femininity, especially by advocating women’s equal access to education, and even physical exercise. Cf. Wollstonecraft: "from every quarter I have heard exclamations against masculine women; but where are they to be found? If by this appellation men mean to inveigh against their ardour in hunting, shooting, and gaming, I shall most cordially join in the cry; but if it be against the imitation of manly virtues, or, more properly speaking, the attainment of those talents and virtues, the exercise of which ennobles the human character, and which raise females in the scale of animal being, when they are comprehensively termed mankind;-- all those who view them with a philosophic eye must, I should think, wish with me, that they may every day grow more and more masculine" (Rights of Woman, 110); see also her comments on "male spirits" in female bodies, p. 145. See also Mary Hays: "If therefore we are to understand by a masculine woman, one who emulates those virtues and accomplishments, which as common to human nature, are common to both sexes; the attempt is natural, amiable, and highly honorable to that woman, under whatever name her conduct may be disguised or censured" (Appeal to the Men of Great Britain in Behalf of Women (1798) 173-174; see also p 179-181).
the power of SELF-DEFENCE: In this passage, Robinson applies Wollstonecraft's ideas about self-preservation in A Vindication of the Rights of Men to women:
"self-preservation is, literally speaking, the first law of nature; and that the care necessary to support and guard the body is the first step to unfold the mind, and inspire a manly spirit of independence" (46).
neglect, infidelity, and scorn: The neglet and infidelities of her husband were the source of much of Robinson’s unhappiness. Her portrait of him in her memoirs is that of a dissolute and unfeeling man who flaunted his mistresses, and only returned her affection when it was in his best interest to do so. Although there is a thread of sadness and melancholy that runs throughout her memoirs, Robinson avoids blaming her husband directly except in the most trying of times when she cannot help but mourn her fate:
"Alas! I never knew the sweet soothing solace of wedded sympathy; I never was beloved by him whom destiny allotted to be the legal ruler of my actions. I do not condemn Mr. Robinson; I but too well know that we cannot command our affections. I only lament that he did not observe some decency in his infidelities; and that, while he gratified his own caprice, he forgot how much he exposed his wife to the most degrading mortifications" (Memoirs, p. 91)
Robinson’s poem, "Lines to Him Who Will Understand Them," also addresses her unhappy marriage.
"A little learning is a dangerous thing.": This quote is from Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism (1711):
"A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pieran spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again" (2.15)
the GRACES: Robinson’s allusion here is to the three goddesses in Greek mythology who personified grace and charm, both in nature and moral action. The Charites were named Aglaia (brightness), Euphrosyne (joyfulness), and Thalia (bloom). Daughters of Zeus and Hera, they are depicted in art as beautiful, usually nude, maidens with their arms gracefully intertwined. Their attributes are myrtle, the rose and musical instruments.
minor sports: Wollstonecraft suggested, "Let us then, by being allowed to take the same exercise as boys, not only during infancy, but youth, arrive at perfection of body, that we may know how far the natural superiority of man extends" (Rights of Woman 208). Cf. Priscilla Wakefield: "There is no reason for maintaining any sexual distinctions in the bodily exercises of children; if it is right to give both sexes all the corporeal advantages, which nature has formed them to enjoy, let them both partake of the same rational means of obtaining a flow of health and animal spirits, to enable them to perform the stations of life. Let girls be no longer confined to sedentary employments in a nursery, or at best permitted to take a gentle walk in the garden, as an apology for more vigorous exertions" (Reflections on the Present Condition of the Female Sex (1798): 20-21). See also note on corporeal strength.
masculine sports: When Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Hays praised women who were labeled "masculine women", because of their intellectual and political aspirations, they specifically did not want women to take on what they considered the vices of masculinity, including physical aggression and violence, as expressed both in hunting and war. Cf. Hays: "if on the other hand we mean by a masculine woman, one who apes the exercises, the attributes, the unrestrained passions, and the numberless improprieties, which men fondly chuse [sic] to think suitable enough for their own sex-- [...] I must say that knowldege has no tendency whatever to produce such awkward imitations; and I must confess, that such are masculine in the worst sense of the word, and as we should imagine consequently disagreeable" " (Appeal to the Men of Great Britain in Behalf of Women (1798) 179-180). Hays, like Wollstonecraft and Macaulay, singles out women hunting (as opposed to women merely riding horses for exercise) as an undesirable effect of women taking up such "masculine" vices: "be it man or woman who indulges in it [hunting], [it] can only be regarded as the sport of savages, who have scarcely reflection enough to consider, that the inferior animals have perhaps sensations of pain, and the desire of self-preservation.... Let women then leave to the other sex, such barbarous amusements, as that of hunting poor innnocent creatures to death!" (Appeal to the Men of Great Britain in Behalf of Women (1798) 181). On the connections between sensibility and opposition to hunting, see Barker- Benfield, The Culture of Sensibility, 97-98, 231-247.
women excluded from the auditory part of the British senate: Women were excluded from listening to debates in the House of Commons in 1778, and the 1832 Reform Bill officially excluded women from the vote for the first time, even as it increased male suffrage. Women gained the right to vote in Britain in 1918.
an ARRIA or a PORTIA: Arria was the wife of Paetus Caecina, one of the participants in the Cataline conspiracy to ruin Rome. On the way to her husband’s trial, Arria stabbed herself to show Paetus that it did not hurt; Paetus followed her example and killed himself before going to trial (LCD). Portia, the wife of Brutus, was another Roman woman with a high tolerance for pain. She gave herself a severe wound in the thigh in order to display her bravery, thus proving herself worthy of being included in Brutus’s conspiracy against Julius Caesar. Not wishing to live on after Brutus’s death, she swallowed burning coals and died in about 42 B.C. (LCD).
UNIVERSITY FOR WOMEN: In addition to Wollstonecraft, numerous women writers in this era argued in favor of education for women. Most notable is Mary Astell’s A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694), in which Astell suggests the establishment of a female community where "celibate women could lead fulfilling lives and girls could be educated until they were ready for marriage" (Rogers 72). Astell emphasizes the need for close friendships between women and based her arguments for education "more on self-development than on their usefulness to others" (Rogers 74). The most extended vision of an such an educational female utopia is Sarah Robinson Scott’s Millennium Hall (1762). Other women who published on the issue of education include Elizabeth Dormer Cellier, Hannah Wooley Chalinor, Mary Hays, Bathusa Pell Makin, Hannah More, and Mary Ann Radcliffe.
petrifying torpedo: In Johnson’s Dictionary, a torpedo is "a fish which while alive, if touched even with a long stick, benumbs the hand that so touches it."
rational creatures: The idea of promoting women as rational creatures was popular among eighteenth-century feminists. Wollstonecraft attributes the debased position of women to "men who, considering females rather as women than human creatures, have been more anxious to make them alluring mistresses than affectionate wives and rational mothers" (VRW 109). Wollstonecraft feels that women are intentionally given superficial educations. She gives more credit to her fellow women:
"My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone. I earnestly wish to point out in what true dignity and human happiness consists--I wish to persuade women to endeavor to acquire strength, both of mind and body" (VRW 111).
Emma, protagonist of Hays's Memoirs of Emma Courtney, subscribes to Mr. Francis's (a Godwin figure) notion that women, like men, should be educated rationally:
"Our duties, then, are obvious--If selfish and violent passions have been generated by the inequalities of society, we must labour to counteract them, by endeavouring to combat prejudice, to expand the mind, to give comprehensive views, to teach mankind their true interest, and to lead them to habits of goodness and greatness" (51).
Smollet, Richardson, and Fielding: Tobias Smollet (1721-1771), Samuel Richardson (1689-1761), and Henry Fielding (1707-1754) were celebrated as three of the most influential novelists of the eighteenth century. Smollet is chiefly remembered for his novels The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748) and The Adventures of Humphry Clinker (1771); Richardson is best known for Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1748-9), novels of sensibility; and Fielding is honored for his comic novels Shamela (1741), Joseph Andrews (1742), and Tom Jones (1749).
Mrs. Dobson: Susannah Dobson (d. 1795) is chiefly known for her Life of Petrarch (1775), translated from de Sade's French, which reached six editions. She also translated Sainte-Palaye's Literary History of the Troubadours (1779) and Memoirs of Ancient Chivalry (1784), and Petrarch's View of Human Life (1791).
Mrs. Inchbald: Elizabeth Inchbald (1753-1821) was a novelist, dramatist, and actress who left her parents' home to seek her fortune at eighteen. After her husband's death, she successfully earned her living as a playwright, composing original material and translating from French. Among her adaptations are The Widow's Vow (1786) from Patrat's L'heureuse Erreur and The Married Man (1789) from Destouches's Le Philosophe Marié.
Robinson also champions Inchbald as an original playwright (page 96 of the Letter). Inchbald was a prolific actress and dramatist: her major successes as an author include The Mogul Tale, or the Descent of the Balloon (1784) and I'll Tell You What (1785). Other dramas include Appearance is Against Them (1787) and her translations. She is also known for her novel A Simple Story (1791), which is said to have inspired Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.
Miss Plumptree: Anne Plumptre (1760-1818) is credited with introducing German plays in London. Her French and German translations include many works by Kotzebue, histories (such as Historical Relation of the Plague of Marseilles in 1720 from Bertrand (1805)), and travels (like Travels in Southern Africa from H. Lichtenstein in 1812). She is also known for her novels, primarily Something New, which questions the assumption that literary heroines must be beautiful.
Mrs. Carter: Elizabeth Carter (1717-1806), a prominent Bluestocking and close friend of Samuel Johnson, Elizabeth Montagu, Hannah More, and Samuel Richardson, knew Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, Italian, Spanish, German, Portuguese, and Arabic. Although she wrote for the Gentleman's Magazine and published Poems on several Occasions (1762), she is chiefly known for her translation of Epicetus, which was published by subscription in 1758 and earned her the fortune of one thousand pounds.
Mrs. Thomas: Possibly Ann Thomas (dates unknown) or Elizabeth Thomas (1675-1731), although neither woman is reputed as a great classics scholar. Ann Thomas published Poems on Various Subjects (1784) and Adolphus de Biron, A Novel. Founded on the French Revolution (1795) with the help of naval and aristocratic subscribers. Few other details of her life have survived. More is known about Elizabeth Thomas, close friend of John Dryden, who praised her poetry and suggested she adopt the pen name "Corinna." She never married (though she was rumored to be Henry Cromwell's mistress), and was sent to debtor's prison near the end of her life. She published Miscellany Poems (1722), Codrus, or, The Dunciad Dissected (1727), and The Metamorphosis of the Town: Or, a View of the Present Fashions (1730).
Mrs. Francis: Anne Francis (1738-1800) was educated by her father in the classics and Hebrew. Her publications include "A Poetical Translation of the Song of Solomon" from Hebrew and Miscellaneous Poems (1790).
Mrs. Damer: Anne Seymour Damer (1749-1828) was a classical sculptress learned in Latin and Greek and a publicly acknowledged lesbian. After her husband's suicide, she devoted herself to sculpture (mainly busts), continued her friendship with Horace Walpole, and met Josephine, who invited her to Paris to meet Napoleon, to whom she presented a sculpture. Damer, who enjoyed wearing men's clothing and had a long relationship with Mary Berry, is mocked in the anonymous A Sapphic Epistle (1782).
Mrs. Cowley: Hannah Cowley (1743-1809) began her successful career as a playwright on a dare, after her husband doubted she could write as well as other popular dramatists. Her plays The Runaway (1776), Who's the Dupe? (1779), The School for Eloquence (1780), and many more, were extremely popular; Mary Robinson played Victoria in Cowley's comedy, A Bold Stroke for a Husband in 1783. Cowley's anxiety about the originality of her plays prompted her to accuse Hannah More of plagiarism in a "newspaper war." Cowley was also known for her Della Cruscan poetry, which she wrote under the name of "Anna Matilda". Robinson was also closely associated with the Della Cruscan circle of Robert Merry.
Miss Lee: Sophia Lee (1750-1824) combatted her family's poverty by devoting the profits of her successful opera The Chapter of Accidents (1780) to the foundation of a school for young ladies at Belvidere House, Bath, where she and her sisters could teach. She also published an important Gothic novel, The Recess, or a Tale of other Times (1785), and other less successful plays.
Miss Hannah More: Hannah More (1745-1833) is chiefly known for her moral and religious writings. She worked with her sisters at a boarding school they established in Trinity Street, Bristol (which Robinson attended for a short period), and where More learned Italian, Spanish, and Latin. Her plays include The Search for Happiness (1762), which she intended as a piece of enough moral worth for schoolchildren to memorize, Percy (1777), the play which aroused Hannah Cowley's accusal of plagiarism, and The Fatal Falsehood (1779). A fierce abolitionist and anti-Jacobin, More also published political pieces, educational tracts (including Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education, with a View of the Principles and Conduct prevalent among Women of Rank and Fortune in 1799), and poems. She was a close friend of Samuel Johnson, and was the patron of the poet Anne Yearsley.
Mrs. Dobson: Robinson probably mentions Dobson's talents as a biographer in reference to her successful Life of Petrarch.
Mrs. Thickness: Ann Thickness (1737-1824), was an accomplished author and musician. As a young woman, she left home in defiance of her father's command that she not sing in public; she went on to hold several lucrative subscription concerts. After her husband's death, she was imprisoned during the Reign of Terror while visiting France. She is best known for Sketches of the Lives and Writings of the Ladies of France (1778-81) and The School for Fashion (1800).
Mrs. Piozzi: Hester Lynch Piozzi (1741-1821), close friend of Samuel Johnson, was learned in Latin and modern languages. She had a rich and varied romantic life: after the death of her first husband, Henry Thrale, whom she married to please her family, she married the Italian musician Gabriel Piozzi in 1784, in spite of her daughters' disapproval; when an eighty-year-old widow, she took a fancy to the young actor William Conway. Her major publications include Anecdotes of the late Samuel Johnson (1788), and Observations and Reflections made in the course of a Journey through France, Italy, and Germany (1789).
Mrs. Montagu: Elizabeth Montagu (1720-1800) founded an intellectual and social group that conducted regular meetings and events, later called the "blue-stockings"; its members included Elizabeth Carter, Hester Thrale, Hannah More, Fanny Burney, and others. Montagu's publications include her pieces in George Lyttleton's Dialogues of the Dead (1760) and her famous "Essay on the Writing and Genius of Shakespeare compared with the Greek and French Dramatic Poets, with some Remarks upon the Misrepresentations of Monsieur de Voltaire" (1761). Her letters were published after her death. Also see note on Mary Wortley Montagu.
Miss Helen Williams: Helen Maria Williams (1762-1827), staunch republican and friend to Madame Roland, was imprisoned by Robespierre and was one of the few Britons to continue to support the French Revolution after the Terror. She was one of the most influential chroniclers of the French Revolution in her series of Letters from France. Moreover, her loyalty to France and her cohabitation with John Hurford Stone aroused the contempt of many of her compatriots, though her salon in Paris was visited by many leading British writers, as well as the leading political figures of France. Other publications include Poems (1786) and Julia, a Novel (1790).
legion of Wollstonecrafts: see note on Mary Wollstonecraft, page 2 of Robinson's letter.
Mahometans: Robinson's misconception--that, in Islam, women do not have souls--was a common one. Wollstonecraft also made reference to this stereotype:
"Thus Milton describes our first frail mother; though when he tells us that women are formed for softness and sweet attractive grace, I cannot comprehend his meaning, unless, in the true Mahometan strain, he meant to deprive us of souls, and insinuate that we were beings only designed by sweet attractive grace, and docile blind obedience" (Rights of Woman 126).
The Demoiselles Fernig: These two sisters from Montagne served as aides-de-camp to General Dumourier in 1792 and 1793, accompanying him on the field of battle.
female genius: Here and in many other works Robinson vigorously defends woman’s right to genius: see her preface to Sappho and Phaon.
gothic eccentricities: Gothic suggested barbaric, ancient, passé; throughout A Vindication of the Rights of Men, Wollstonecraft denigrates Edmund Burke's evocation of tradition as "Gothic" trappings:
"Even in France, Sir, before the revolution, literary celebrity procured a man the treatment of a gentleman; but you are going back for your credentials of politeness to more distant times. --Gothic affability is the mode you think proper to adopt, the condescension of a Baron, not the civility of a liberal man" (47). (See also 38, 70, 71, 83, and 84).
effeminate foibles: See editors' note on effeminacy.
female philosopher: Although Wollstonecraft has become the best-known feminist of this era, the latter eighteenth century saw the development of a feminist movement based on numerous feminist tracts. Mary Hays’s An Appeal to the Men of Great Britain in Behalf of Women (1798) is a strong argument encouraging ambition rather than passiveness in women. Other contributions to this movement include Woman Not Inferior to Man and Woman’s Superior Excellence Over Man (1740) by "Sophia"; Priscilla Bell Wakefield’s Reflections on the Present Condition of the Female Sex System of Female Education (1799).
In Mary Hays's The Memoirs of Emma Courtney,Emma, who prides herself on her rational thinking, learning, and frankness, sighs,
"I am neither a philosopher, nor a heroine--but a woman, to whom education has given a sexual character" (117).
Pringle: Sophia Pringle, a young working class woman, was convicted of forgery in 1789, refused to name her lover/accomplice, and was executed. Thanks to Donna Andrew for her help with this source.
General Burgoyne: Lieutenant-General John Burgoyne (d.1792) was a successful playwright (author of The Heiress, A Comedy) and one of Robinson’s admirers; his tributory poem to Robinson was included by her daughter in the 1806 Poetical Works.
an ARRIA or a PORTIA: Arria was the wife of Paetus Caecina, one of the participants in the Cataline conspiracy to ruin Rome. On the way to her husband’s trial, Arria stabbed herself to show Paetus that it did not hurt; Paetus followed her example and killed himself before going to trial (LCD). Portia, the wife of Brutus, was another Roman woman with a high tolerance for pain. She gave herself a severe wound in the thigh in order to display her bravery, thus proving herself worthy of being included in Brutus’s conspiracy against Julius Caesar. Not wishing to live on after Brutus’s death, she swallowed burning coals and died in about 42 B.C. (LCD).
Lady Mary Wortley Montague: Not only was Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) known for her published letters and poems, but she was responsible for bringing the practice of inoculation to England. When her husband was made ambassador to Turkey in 1716, she accompanied him to Constaninople where she observed the success of inoculation on the inhabitants of that country. Lady Montagu, like so many others in the eighteenth-century had suffered the ravages of that disease, and it had killed her brother as well. After she returned to England, during a smallpox epidemic in 1721, she had her own daughter inoculated. Despite the presence of four doctors, this radical treatment was widely condemned: "The faculty all rose in arms to a man, foretelling failure and the most disastrous consequences; the clergy descanted from their pulpits on the impiety of thus seeking to take events out of the hand of Providence; the common people were taught to hoot at her as an unnatural mother, who had risked the lives of her own children" (Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: Essays and Poems, pp. 35-35). However, she did have a few supporters such as Princess Caroline who had her own children inoculated, and despite the controversy, the practice of inoculation became widespread.
Robinson, who had lost her sister Elizabeth to small pox when she was very young, was a strong supporter of the practice of inoculation, and had her own daughter inoculated. Robinson wrote a poem about her daughter’s recovery from inoculation, "Invocation to Oberon." In her poem, inoculation is performed by Oberon who gathers all kinds of magical ingredients to ease her daughter Maria’s recovery.
Salmon: Thomas Salmon (1679-1767) was an historical and geographical writer who wrote a very popular book, Modern History, or the Present State of all Nations (1739), which detailed the cultures and customs of people throughout the world in the eighteenth century.
Lady Hamilton, and Helen Maria Williams: As Robinson indicates, both women were better appreciated in Europe than in Britain; their revolutionary sympathies and their emigration to France rendered them unpopular after the French Revolution became unpopular among most British. Lady Mary Hamilton (1739-1816) was born in Edinburgh, married twice, and settled with her second husband in France before the Revolution. She is best remembered for her novel Munster Village (1798), an all-female utopia.
sposos, Italian cecisbeos: " Sposos" is Italian for "husbands," or "bridegrooms"; a "cicisbeo" is the recognized gallant of a married woman. It is probable that Robinson was recalling the lines in her friend Richard Sheridan’s play, The School for Scandal, in which Joseph Surface proposes himself as "a mere Platonic cicisbeo" to Lady Teazle (1777, II, iii).
Madame D’Eon: The French Chevalier D’Eon (1728-1810) came to England in 1752 and began to dress as a woman in the 1760s, which generated widespread popular interest in his "true" sex, with newspapers such as The Morning Post even offering money for the "truth." A Court case in 1777 which attempted to decide D’Eon’s true sex, for the sake of the many gambling bets at stake, ruled that he was female. In the 1790s D’Eon fenced, in women’s clothing, before large crowds in England. A medical exam after D’Eon’s death in 1810 declared that he was male. Wollstonecraft includes D'Eon in her Rights of Woman as one of the exceptional women, along with the likes of Sappho and Macaulay, who transcend the limitations of their gender and therefore do not serve as models for what she terms women closest to "nature," in her mind middle-class women (Rights of Woman 197). These "exceptional women" are preciely the kind of woman with which Robinson’s Letter is concerned. See Gary Kates, "D'Eon Returns to France: Gender and Power in 1777," Body Guards: The Cultural Politics of Gender Ambiguity, eds. Julia Epstein and Kristina Straub (New York and London: Routledge, 1991).
power of guardianship: Robinson is likely referring to the practice of couverture, which severely restricted women’s legal rights. According to Davidoff’s and Hall’s Family Fortunes, "a married woman only existed under her husband’s protection, within his personality. She could not sign Bills of Exchange, make contracts, sue or be sued, collect debts or stand surety and therefore she could not act as a partner, since for all practical purposes, on marriage a woman died a kind of civil death" (200).
The ancient Britons: The convention of the "free Britons" was well established by Robinson’s time and commonly used to contrast Britain’s tradition of constitutional monarchy to French absolute monarchy and then republicanism; here Robinson uses the concept of the "ancient Britons" to support feminist reform, as anti-abolitionists used the concept from the 1780s onward to oppose Britain’s involvement in the slave trade, and Chartists used it later for their program of political reform (see Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837).
Page 2. The writer of this letter, though avowedly of the same school, disdains the drudgery of servile imitation. The same subject may be argued in a variety of ways; and though this letter may not display the philosophical reasoning with which "The Rights of Woman" abounded; it is not less suited to the purpose. For it requires a legion of Wollstonecrafts to undermine the poisons of prejudice and malevolence.
Page 4. The ancient Romans were more liberal, even during the reigns of their most atrocious tyrants: and it is to be presumed that the intellectual powers of British women, were they properly expanded, are, at least, equal to those of the Roman ladies.
Page 13. The Mahometans are said to be of opinion that WOMEN have no souls! Some British husbands would wish to evince that they have no SENSES, or at least not the privilege of using them: for a modern wife, I mean to say that which is denominated a good one, should neither hear, see, speak, nor feel, if she would wish to enjoy any tolerable portion of tranquillity.
Page 25. The fate of Miss Broderick is still recent in the memory of those who either condemned her rashness, or commiserated her misfortunes.
Page 28. The Demoiselles FERNIG, who followed, and shared the perils of Dumourier's army.
Page 29. An historical writer in his account of Russia, speaking of the Czarina Elizabeth, says "her reign was most uncommonly glorious. She abolished all capital punishments, and introduced a species of lenity in the operations of government, before unknown in Russia."
Page 30. About a century and half ago.
Page 30. It was reserved for modern Englishmen to question their capability.
Page 32. Cornificia, happily, did not live in Britain, where learning, and even moderate mental expansion, are not thought necessary to female education; at least in the eighteenth century!
Page 34. The fear that emulation may, in some instances, produce superiority, probably occasions that illiberal neglect of female genius, and that perseverance in affording British women the contracted and trivial educations which stigmatize the present era. Yet were the youth of the eighteenth century committed to the care of some living females, both manners and morals would greatly be benefited.
Page 35. Men of modern education suppose that women are only worthy of receiving billet doux, because the extent of their own literary acquirements is that of writing them. And it is to be lamented, that our classical scholars, and men of extensive observation, scarcely condescend to acknowledge that there can be such a thing as a WOMAN of genius.
Page 36. If the great men of the present day paid more attention to the genius and good sense of some British women, they would be considerable gainers by the experiment.
Page 36. Query. Might not the society of some living English women, if properly appreciated, tend to the reformation of certain gothic eccentricities; as well as, by comparison, produce more masculine energies? Men would be shamed out of their effeminate foibles, when they beheld the masculine virtues dignifying the mind of woman.
Page 37. This was at a period when English women, (excepting those devoted to celibacy), were rarely taught either to read or write. It cannot be therefore a matter of surprize, that their minds were enervated by the monkish superstition; the origin of those idle tales respecting ghosts, witches, &c.
Page 40. A Cassandra in the universities of England, at the present period, would be considered as one of those literary bugbears, a female philosopher, and would consequently be treated with ridicule and contempt.
Page 41. Our English sovereign Elizabeth, gave similar proofs of learning on several occasions.
Page 41. Read this, ye English fathers and husbands, and retract your erroneous opinions, respecting female education.
Page 43 A memorable instance of genuine and invincible attachment appeared in the conduct of the misguided and unfortunate Sophia Pringle: and though justice condemned her crime, pity will never refuse a sigh to the memory of her heroic affection.
Page 44. Hannah Snell, and several others, equally brave and romantic.
Page 45. The late General Burgoyne.
Page 53. The writer of this letter once knew General Gates, and believes him capable of every thing liberal and humane, which General Burgoyne's statement attributes to his character.
Page 54. The enlightened and liberal writer of this pathetic story, confesses, that the subject of it was not masculinely educated. Yet she displayed the glorious energy of Roman constancy, mingled with affections the most pure, and sentiments the most exalted! An ARRIA or a PORTIA could have done no more.
Page 58. I believe Lady Mary Wortley Montague, the same WOMAN, whose name should be immortalized, for having first introduced to Europe the blessing of INOCULATION.
Page 63. Salmon.
Page 65. Lady Hamilton, and Helen Maria Williams, are existing proofs, that an English woman, like a prophet, is never valued in her own country. In Britain they were neglected, and scarcely known; on the continent, they have been nearly IDOLIZED!
Page 68. Should modern preceptors object to the classics through fear that the minds of English women would be corrupted by the writings of an Ovid, a Martial, or a Tibullus: let them recollect, that there lived also a Virgil, a Terence, a Lucan, and a Propertius. They should also remember that their native language presents the works of Wycherly, Vanbrugg, Prior, and Rochester; and that they cannot so contaminate, as those of Shakespeare, Denham, Steel, Cowley, Waller, Addison, Shenstone, and many more, can purify.
Page 69. We have some British sposos who already advance half way in this liberal system of participation, stepping somewhat beyond the polished track of Italian cecisbeos: it may be said of such husbands as it was of Cataline, that he was alieni appetens, sui profusus: greedy after the goods of others, and lavish of his own.
Page 71. We have a living proof of this observation in the person of Madame D'Eon . When this extraordinary female filled the arduous occupations of a soldier and an embassador, her talents, enterprize, and resolution, procured for her distinguished honours. But alas! when she was discovered to be a WOMAN, the highest terms of praise were converted into, "eccentricity, absurd and masculine temerity, at once ridiculous and disgusting."
Page 85. Monsieur Tourriel, author of an Examination whether it was wisely done to abolish that law of the Romans, by which women were kept under the power of guardianship all their lives.
Page 86. If this remark were true, it is to be lamented that they do not grow liberal and unprejudiced also.
Page 87. The mind of woman, in proportion as it is expanded by education, will become refined. Mental emulation would be the best safeguard against the vanity of sensual conquest.
Page 89. A husband infers from this conduct, that he permits his wife to act like a mad-woman, but he does not allow her to think like a wise one.
Page 89. Many of the American tribes admit women into their public councils, and allow them the privileges of giving their opinions, first, on every subject of deliberation. The ancient Britons allowed the female sex the same right: but in modern Britain women are scarcely allowed to express any opinions at all!
Page 90. This elegant and estimable female, is represented headless; --- and I believe almost the only female in the kingdom universally allowed to be a good woman.
Page 92. Pætus being commanded by the emperor Nero, to die by his own hands, his wife, an illustrious Roman woman, was permitted to take leave of him. She felt the impossibility of surviving him, and plunging the poniard into her bosom, exclaimed "Pætus it is not much," and instantly expired. This anecdote I relate for the information of my unlearned readers.
Page 94. By Philosophy, the writer of this Letter means rational wisdom; neither the flimsy cobwebs of pretended metaphysical and logical mysteries; nor the unbridled liberty which would lead to the boldness of licentious usurpation. A truly enlightened woman never will forget that conscious dignity of character which ennobles and sustains, but never can DEBASE her.
Page 99. In order to escape the imputation of partiality, the names are arranged alphabetically.