In this season of New Year resolutions, there is usually an explosion of self-help books, instructing us how to keep fit, healthy and happy. It so happens that I have just started to peruse a self-help book from the 18th century, having reached the appropriate date in my ‘shitty first draft’ .
One of the earliest family artefacts in my possession, it is a leather-bound book, 3 X 5 inches, inscribed by hand ‘Th Casson With C Botham’s Love Oct 22nd 1815’ and it contains two works: Letters on the Improvement of the Mind by Mrs Chapone and A Father’s Legacy to his Daughters by the Late Dr Gregory. I have no idea who ‘C Botham’ was, but the recipient of this little book was my ancestor, Thomas Casson. It was not a birthday present, so perhaps the gift was made in response to a conversation about bringing up daughters. Thomas’s two daughters were only nine and six years old in 1815; the fact that the book has remained in the family for so long suggests that he took its advice very seriously.
Mrs Hannah Chapone (1727 – 1801) was a highly educated, intelligent woman, a member of the Bluestockings, the group of intellectual woman who centred round Elizabeth Montagu; her writing was admired by Fanny Burney and Mary Wollstonecraft. My book, published in 1812, was actually written in 1773 for her 15-year-old niece. It became one of the most popular books on conduct published in this period, running into over 16 editions by 1800. It makes stern reading now, consisting of Chapters on The First Principles of Religion, The Study of Holy Scriptures, The Heart and Affections, The Regulation of the Affections, The Government of The Temper, before we get to Economy, Politeness and Accomplishments, Geography and Chronology, Reading History.
While advocating a thorough education for her niece, Mrs Chapone has no doubt that its purpose is to fit her for the role of virtuous gentlewoman. She is to avoid ‘intimacy with those of low birth and education’ ; she should be ‘amiable and faithful in friendship, except when it goes against your judgment.’ For example, she would have to dissuade a friend from ‘a marriage unsanctioned by parental approbation’, even to the extent of telling the parents if necessary. The chapter on The Government of The Temper is typical:
The principal virtues or vices of a woman must be of a private and domestic kind. Within the circle of her own family and dependants lies her sphere of action; the scene of almost all those talks and trials, which must determine her character, and her fate, here and hereafter. Reflect, for a moment, how much the happiness of her husband, children and servants, must depend on her temper, and you will see that the greatest good, or evil, which she may ever have in her power to do, may arise from her correcting or indulging its infirmities.’
Ironically, at the very time Thomas Casson received this book, his wife was offering invaluable advice well outside the domestic sphere, about the management of the slate quarry, so perhaps these ‘conduct’ books were followed as little in practice as the self-help books of today.
© Diana Devlin