A Celebration of Women Writers

"Some English Women of the Eighteenth Century." by Mrs. Caroline Fuller Fairbanks.
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 503-507.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

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There is nothing especially to be said of the women of the eighteenth century, except to emphasize what they have done for us. We are heirs of all the ages, but the inheritance bequeathed to us by the women of the eighteenth century is vastly richer then that of any preceding age.

What the women of the eighteenth century did for the emancipation and education of women is like what the anti-slavery agitation in the early part of the century did for the emancipation of the slave. They created possibilities for us. They give us strength and courage where these elements are wanting. They pushed their way gently through opposition and difficulties, until the women of today have nothing to do but to enter in and possess the land.

We boast that this is the "woman's century," and well we may; but let us do honor to the women who gave the impetus to the great movement which has opened to us every avenue of work and study.

It seems strange, indeed, that in a world where there was so much learning only a few could possess it. Up to the eighteenth century it was only for the upper and more polished classes, and even among the upper classes women were not expected, yea, were not permitted, to obtain an education.

We have a good illustration of this in the career of Lady Mary Wortly Montague, one of the most notable and brilliant women of the early part of the eighteenth century. She tells us that she was obliged to study by herself and work very hard that she might obtain a little masculine knowledge, as it was called. Education for girls was most unpopular. Her father, the Duke of Kingston, had apparently no desire to give his daughter an education beyond what was thought proper in that day for the daughter of a nobleman. She was taught to read and to write; beyond that her education was self-acquired. She could read books from the well furnished library in her father's house, works of fiction and entertainment, and the old courtly romances fashionable at that time. But she desired graver subjects, and by the help of an uncommon memory and indefatigable labor, she taught herself the Latin language and in time became known among her friends for her acquirements and her attachment to learning.

Education for girls was discouraged then for the same reason existing in our own country half a century ago. A learned lady was unfitted for the duties of a household, it was thought. Yet Lady Mary was not neglectful of such duties. After the death of her mother, Mary being the eldest daughter, the honors of the table devolved upon her. This was no small task, for she had not only to urge her guests to eat more than they could well swallow, but she had to carve every dish with her own hands. Every [Page 504]  joint was carried up to her in turn to be operated upon by her alone. No peer or knight could offer his assistance, and the master of the house had to husband his strength that he might push the bottle after dinner. Though she could not have a teacher in Latin, she was provided with a professional master in carving. She took lessons three times a week that she might be perfect on her father's great days. No doubt her carving master found her a more docile pupil because of her self-acquired Latin.

If Lady Montague excelled her master in the manipulation of a joint, she also excelled Walpole, Cowper and Pope, and other men who stood highest in literary circles. She excelled them in vivacity, ease, sarcasm, elegance and other traits that distinguished letters from essays. While Lady Montague's writings make a valuable addition to English literature, what she did toward making the medical profession possible for women of the nineteenth century is of greatest value to us. While in the East she discovered the Turkish method of inoculation for small-pox. She studied the method carefully, and on her return to England introduced it to her countrymen. What a furore this created! Statesmen forgot for the time the graver matter of legislation to criticise and censure a woman for usurping the rights of men. Lawyers doubted the wisdom of such an innovation. Doctors shook their wise heads and gave warning against such a heathenish practice. Ministers preached against Lady Montague and her method of warding off disease, her boldness and wickedness in taking such matters from the hand of God. But she persevered, though she declared she could never have undertaken it could she have foreseen the vexation, the oppression, the obliquy even, that it brought upon her. She opened the way into the medical profession for women, and made it possible for her to practice therein without molestation. We cherish her memory, and place her name high among the notable women of the eighteenth century.

Before the eighteenth century, as has been said, education was for the titled classes. Jane Austen was fortunate in being born at the right time. She did not come of a noble family, but she was well born and well connected. She was accustomed from youth to meeting people of distinction and eminence, and she had reason always to feel that her kindred played a real part in the world. She was well educated according to the requirements of that time, though she could not have passed an examination to enter any lady's college, or had the remotest chance with the Harvard Annex or the University of Chicago. But she is a fine example of the cultivation and refinement attainable before women's colleges were thought of. She grew to womanhood in gentle obscurity, her individual existence lost in the noisy claims of her brothers. But the germ of great thought was in her, and she gave expression to her thoughts in story as beautiful as was ever written or told. She was a girl that never had a love story to tell in which she was the heroine. As free from sentimentality as anyone could be, yet she was a born novelist, and a remarkably sweet and loving and lovable woman. She was not a story-teller merely–she was an artist. She painted pictures as wonderful in unity and completeness as many of the great masters. What real pleasure and satisfaction we have in the books today. And yet she did her work so quietly. Her books steal into notice. They brought her but little money, and a modicum of praise while she lived, but today they have become classic, and it is the duty of every student of English literature to be more or less acquainted with her works. With all her brilliant parts as a writer, she was false to no instinct of womanhood. She was an accomplished needle-woman, great in satin stitch, giving her friends pretty presents of her own handiwork, and she could carry on the merriest and most interesting conversation over her embroidery or dressmaking. How often is her portrait reproduced in the remarkable women of our day. The possibility of womanly work going hand in hand with genius obtains today, though it is no new thing. Genius and work! How well they harmonized in Jane Austen, and how well in scores of women who are carrying forward this great Exposition. Jane Austen has been an inspiration to many a woman of the nineteenth century. Her spirit is with us. [Page 505] 

What is true of Jane Austen is also true of Mary Mitford. Both were notable women; both have helped in the education and the emancipation of the women of the nineteenth century. Let us add luster to what they have given us, and pass it on to the twentieth century.

What has the Quakeress of the eighteenth century done for the women of the nineteenth? Not even the great founder of the society could have reached so many needy women.

Elizabeth Fry had a special vocation for the office she undertook, and she is worthily called the mother of the philanthropic work of the nineteenth century. She had extreme opinions against capital punishment, yet it was these very extreme opinions that contributed largely to the change in the general tone of thought and feeling which resulted in a very marked abatement in our criminal code. How unspeakably wretched was the condition of women prisoners before the day of Elizabeth Fry! Surely, if the complete abandonment of self to the well-being of a class, and that class the lowest and the most wicked, could render one worthy a crown, Elizabeth Fry wears a crown radiant with numberless stars. Yet she was bitterly opposed by men of learning and influence, simply because she turned aside from the common custom of women to do a great work for her sex.

Maria Edgeworth was another notable woman of the eighteenth century. She won the praise of great men in her own day, even of Sir Walter Scott and Lord Jeffries. The former admired her rich humor and her admirable tact in the delineation of her Irish characters, so much so that he was led to do the same work for his own people, and so came into existence the "Waverly Novels," wholly suggested, as the author himself asserts and insists, by Maria Edgeworth. Lord Jeffries bestows upon her the highest raise when he speaks of her tales as works of more serious importance than much of the true history and solemn philosophy that comes daily under our inspection These notable women write with a high purpose in view, that of making all mankind better. Many of them were novelists, and it would seem that they outstripped the men in this department.

I can not pause to more than mention Mrs. Annie Radcliffe, whose works were translated into French and were very popular in France, as well as in England and in America. And Sarah Siddons, who transformed herself into the great creations of Shakespeare, and introduced "Lady Macbeth" to the world. She made the dramatic profession worthy the best of women. Or Caroline Herschel, who brought great light into the world by the seven comets she discovered, without the aid of her brother, and won the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society. She opened for women the way to scientific study. Or Mary Somerville, who shows us the mechanism of the heavens, and makes the most abstruse subjects interesting to the most unscientific reader. Her life was an inspiration to our own Maria Mitchell, and to many another, no doubt, who never would have dreamed of the possibility of reaching such heights as have been gained but for the example of the women of the eighteenth century.

There is one other woman, it seems to me, whose history has never been fully written, who stands high above the rest in greatness. I speak of Hannah More. Indeed, if the appellation "notable" can be applied to any human being, history can furnish no name more truly deserving than hers. The greatness of the eighteenth century women culminates in Hannah More. The possibilities of the human soul and intellect are more strikingly manifested in her than in any other character that has appeared to us in centuries. She was the daughter of an humble schoolmaster, and yet by her own industry and merit she elevated herself to be the favored and caressed associate of all the distinguished in contemporary rank and literature. Her ambition to be of benefit to her generation was unbounded. Her benefactions were limited to no class and to no country. The influence of her writings will be felt for generations to come. During her own lifetime they effected a moral revolution, not only on the surface, but upon aristocrats and middle life. They were extensively influential in calming the passions and correcting the delusions of a misguided populace in times [Page 506]  of turbulence and discontent. They were read in almost every language of the globe, from the shores of the Atlantic to those of the Indian Ocean, and from the Mississippi to the Ganges. Her personal exertions changed the moral conduct of the laboring classes within their influence, and almost annihilated the popular prejudice of the times against the religious education of the poor. Hannah More sacrificed every variety of personal gratification to the object she continually kept in view. She was persecuted in early life because she dared put forth an effort to secure for women a better education. She overcome this, and was soon recognized as one of the foremost women of the age; and received, and deserved to receive, as great a share of admiration as was ever accorded to any woman. She created for herself a most delightful atmosphere, and she was not indifferent to the praise of those whose names are immortal. Yet when she saw a great work to be done for and among people from whom she could expect nothing but opposition and persecution, she did not hesitate in her decision. She endured personal labor, exhaustion and indignity, and all this in pursuance of the welfare of mankind. Her aims were universal and eternal. Although she was a woman, she surrendered admiration, resigned the endearments of friendship and relinquished the pleasures of literature. Such qualifications constitute greatness of the most exalted type. Her father, as has been said, was a schoolmaster. He desired to give his five daughters, all bright girls, an education. Hannah very early showed marked talent. At eight years of age she began to study Latin, and her father was so alarmed at the way she outstripped the boys of his school that he feared the reputation of "learned lady" might be a disadvantage to her. Mr. More was not without his horror of "learned ladies," but his good sense and paternal pride controlled him, and when Hannah's great talents became manifest, he did on the sly combine some elementary instruction in mathematics with that of Latin.

Hannah, in conjunction with her sisters, established a boarding school vastly superior in every respect to any before established. Indeed, this was the bold beginning of a broader education for women. The great moral and educational revolution which we find going on from this time was due largely to this school, combined, of course, with the influential writings of its founders.

At seventeen years of age Hannah More composed her first drama, "The Search after Happiness," the literary merits of which are astonishing for a girl of her age, even to this day. Her school became the most celebrated in the kingdom; its fame reached Land's End and the Highlands of Scotland. Her writings had gotten abroad, and she was becoming famous. She wrote several sacred dramas, as they were called. Garrick took delight in Miss More's dramas and poems, and used to read them aloud to select audiences with all the effect of perfect elocution.

Her book, "The Importance of the Manners of the Great to General Society," created a moral revolution. She saw that reformation and purification of national morals must begin with this class Their example was in England a hundred years ago similar to that of the higher classes in America today, the fountain whence the more ignorant draw their habits, actions and character. This book had an immense influence. Seven large editions were sold in a few months. She was the admired and beloved friend of all the great men and women of that most brilliant period of English history, and yet she was willing to abandon this society and make her home among the most lawless and savage people. She applied her great powers to the educating and the uplifting of this class. Though she was persecuted in her most unselfish, her wonderfully benevolent attempts; though she endured the worst abuse and insult, she persevered until she gained the concurrence of those people, and at length established schools for great numbers. Girls and boys alike received just that education which would be the most useful to them, and at length the mothers were brought in the evening, and the fathers on Sunday. Her theory of education proved suitable for each and Christian for all. Miss More's personal labors in this direction seem incredible. She organized women's clubs and held annual show-days and festivities, which had a great, good influence on all. The effect was marvelous [Page 507] 

With all this she carried on her literary work, and some of her writings were tremendously popular, especially "Village Politics, by Will Chip;" and who has not read "The Shepherd of Saulsbury Plain?" Wilberforce said he would rather present himself before heaven with that book than with "Peveril of the Peak." Scores of the most scholarly men and women of the time read and admired these works. She wrote a book of advice on the education of the little Princess Charlotte of Wales, by request of the queen. Bishop Foster, who was employed as tutor to the young princess, says that he gained more information on the subject of his duties from this book than from all his other reading. She wrote novels which to the mere novel reader would, no doubt, seem like a dialogue of Plato. I can not speak at any length of her "Practical Piety," her "Christian Morals," or of her wonderful essay on the character and writings of St. Paul. How well she used her ten talents intrusted to her!

Hannah More's influence was almost world-wide. It was felt in America, in Germany and in France, in Persia, in Iceland and in far off Ceylon. I can not help but think we are indebted to Hannah More in some degree for what we have in this Exposition from these distant countries and from the islands of the East. Who can tell? It is a rich legacy that she has bequeathed to us of what one woman could be and do. She raised the standard of womanhood for all time. The great and expansive principle of love was the soul of all she did and wrote. It was from this that she reaped the reward of a celebrity commensurate with all future time.

Let us raise a monument of praise to her greatness.

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Mrs. Caroline Fuller Fairbanks is a native of Maine. Her parents were Benjamin and Theodate Fuller of Puritan New England stock. She received her education at Worcester, Mass., and at Bridgewater, Mass., State Normal School She has devoted much time to elocution and vocal culture. She married J. E. Fairbanks, of Dubuque, Iowa. Mrs. Fairbanks is a Protestant, and is a member of the Congregational Church. Her postoffice address is Dubuque, Iowa.

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* The full title of the address as delivered before the Congress was "A Few Notable English Women of the Eighteenth Century."


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Mary Hitchcock.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom