The Improvement of the Mind

3D front of Letters on the Improvement of the Mind Addressed to a Young Lady by Hester ChaponeHester Chapone, friend of Dr Johnson and brother of Gilbert White’s friend John Mulso, was a strong-minded woman, who was notoriously shunned and satirised by Samuel Richardson when she argued (in letters which were not published at the time but were widely circulated) for the right of a woman to refuse an arranged marriage, as against his own strong opinion on the necessity of filial obedience.

Mrs Chapone’s Letters on the Improvement of the Mind, Addressed to a Young Lady (1773) started off, apparently, as genuine letters to her niece, but were published at the suggestion of Elizabeth Montagu, ‘the Queen of the Bluestockings’, to whom the work is dedicated, and in whose circle, which included Mrs Delany and Mrs Carter, the young Hester Mulso was welcomed and encouraged to write.  Of the original two volumes (which we have reissued as one), the first deals primarily with matters of religion and morality, while the second addresses questions of behaviour (there is a letter ‘On the Government of the Temper’) and education.

‘Education’ encompasses the preparation of the young lady for her station in life; and, next to religion, ‘Oeconomy is so important a part of a woman’s character, so necessary to her own happiness, and so essential to her performing properly the duties of a wife and mother, that it ought to have the precedence of all other accomplishments, and take its rank next to the first duties of a wife.’ The many branches of ‘oeconomy’ cannot be treated in detail, but ‘The first and greatest point is to lay out your general plan of living in a just proportion to your fortune and rank: if these two will not coincide, the last must certainly give way…’

But in addition to running a household and managing the servants, the young lady should also speak and read French (and ideally Italian as well, though not the classical languages). ‘To write a free legible had, and to understand common arithmetic, are indispensable requisites.’ Music and drawing should be pursued for private enjoyment, not for public exhibition: ‘your own partial family are perhaps the only persons who would not much rather be entertained by the performance of a professor than by yours’ (a sentiment which Mr Bennet, with his ‘You have delighted us long enough’, would doubtless have agreed).

However, the study of history should be undertaken seriously: ‘I know of nothing equally proper to entertain and improve at the same time, or that is so likely to form and strengthen your judgment’. And in order to study history, the young lady needs also to work on geography and chronology: a whole course of study from ancient to modern times is then laid out – though ‘I shall spare you and myself all trouble about [modern chronology] at present, for, if you follow the course of reading which I shall recommend, it will be some years before you reach modern history.’

‘Natural philosophy … is too wide a field for you to undertake – but the study of nature, as far as may suit your powers and opportunities, you will find a most sublime entertainment.’ This reminds me that we are also reissuing the admirable Mrs Marcet’s two-volume Conversations on Vegetable Physiology of 1829, in which the teacher Mrs B. and her pupils Caroline and Emily are wandering through the Swiss Alps. Emily regrets her ignorance of botany, but Caroline is ‘quite contented to gather a sweet-smelling nosegay of beautiful garden monsters, as botanists denominate them, without troubling myself about their scientific names.’

Wise Mrs B. remarks that ‘I am fully persuaded that no natural science is dry, unless it be dryly treated’, and reveals that she too held the same prejudice against botany, until she had a Damascene moment while attending the lectures of Professor De Candolle in Geneva. And off we go, into Linnaeus, Candolle and Desfontaines, endogenous and exogenous, monocotyledons and dicotyledons. Caroline puts up a slight resistance – ‘These are hard-sounding names, Mrs B.: I hope their explanations will render them intelligible’ – but within a few pages, even she is prattling on about oxygen, stomata and spongioles. So, a generation later than Chapone, natural philosophy at a reasonably serious level had come within the ambit of the educated young lady.

A generation earlier, Sarah Fielding (less well known than her brothers John and Henry, but, according to Henry, the clever one in the family), had published in 1749 The Governess, Or, The Little Female Academy, intended as an educational work, and arguably one of the first novels written expressly for children. This little book barely mentions the curriculum at Mrs Teachum’s school, but is concerned with drawing moral instruction from the behaviour of the nine pupils themselves – unseemly brawling over the fair distribution of apples, reactions to the deaths of a pet cat and of a mother – or from the melodramatic stories which they tell each other.

It is obviously simplistic to see a trajectory from moral instruction, to the urging of the study of languages, history and geography, to a curriculum including the natural sciences, over the space of eighty years, but what is fascinating about all these works is their desire to engage the interest of their pupils: an idea which did not find its way into most formal education in Britain until the late nineteenth century.


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One Response to The Improvement of the Mind

  1. Pingback: The Small Ads | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

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