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Advice Books, Manuals and Journals for Women, 1450-1837

Part 1: Early Womens Journals, c.1700-1832, from the Bodleian Library, Oxford



“All questions relating to Love etc., are desired to be sent in to the Latine-Coffee-House in Ave-Mary-Lane, to the Ladies Society there, and we promise that they shall be weekly answered with all the zeal and softness becoming to the Sex. We likewise desire we may not be troubled with any questions relating to Learning, Religion etc.”

27 February 1693, Ladies Mercury

The eighteenth century represents something of a black hole in the social history of women, a vaguely defined nowhere land between the well-documented nineteenth century and the more exciting seventeenth. To be sure, caricatures of the eighteenth century have served as preludes to accounts of Victorian gender or postscripts to studies of seventeenth-century patriarchy, but sustained research on the years 1700 to 1780 has been comparatively rare. By contrast, scholars of English literature have long been preoccupied with the eighteenth-century rise of the novel, and its implications for Georgian women. Furthermore, a younger generation of feminist literary critics are now concerned to take this project forward, examining the role of eighteenth-century print in the construction of a radically new model of ideal femininity and appropriate behaviour for men and women. And it is this project, leaning heavily on material written notionally by women for women which looks set to unite the preoccupations of historians and literary scholars in the years to come.

In the last few years, feminist literary critics have scoured advice literature of all kinds to produce a picture of the ‘new domestic woman’ who allegedly emerged in the early eighteenth-century and apparently was to triumph against all other female contestants by the nineteenth century. Critics agree that she was a soft and virtuous creature untainted by the world of manual labour, public affairs and business, although there is a certain confusion as to whether the new domestic woman was the epitome of bourgeois personality, or was an ornament shared across land and trade. But whatever her social background, it is agreed that the sweet domesticate was created ‘in and by print’. Kathryn Shevelow’s study of early eighteenth-century periodicals is framed by the argument that ‘during the eighteenth century, as upper and middle-class Englishwomen increasingly began to participate in the public realm of print culture, the representational practices of that print culture were steadily enclosing them within the private sphere of the ‘home’.1 Periodicals are presented as an abundant source of ‘domestic ideology’, convincing women that their true vocation lay with home and family, while the public sphere of opinion, work and politics was properly reserved for men.

The argument that the eighteenth century saw the allocation of women and men to separate private and public domains is rapidly turning into a new orthodoxy. Yet heretical voices can faintly be heard. The first problem to strike historians is the fact that for all the stress on the constitutive power of language in the emergence of domesticated virtue, most of the literary studies take on trust the prior existence of an entirely new breed of bored, housebound, cultural consumers created at a particular historical moment by capitalism.2 However, this unquestioned belief in the economic metamorphosis of the seventeenth-century business woman or diligent housekeeper into the eighteenth and nineteenth-century parasite derives from a touching faith in Alice Clark’s, Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century (1919) – a faith which is not shared by most economic historians of the period. The orthodox chronology of pre-lapsarian golden age followed by female marginalization under capitalism has been widely criticized.3 Consequently historical research in progress is less concerned to assimilate all writing by, for and about women to a gloomy meta-narrative of decline and fall. Instead research is preoccupied with diversity, continuity and the many paths to modernity.

Another issue which deserves exploration is the extent to which periodical literature promulgated ideas about gender roles that were substantially new. To be sure, many scholars have detected a growing emphasis on women’s innate moral superiority and a declining preoccupation with uncontrollable female sexuality in Augustan literature. Backed by an impressive survey of courtesy literature written between 1670 and 1750, Fenela Childs argues that cloying idealization set in from 1700, although she stresses the obvious but important point that visions of female nature had for centuries oscillated between impossibly pure and irredeemably depraved.4 Similarly, Marlene Legates suggests that we should not overestimate the novelty of eighteenth-century views of women. She argues that chastity and obedience were ancient pre-requisites of the ideal woman, that a belief in woman as redeemer was as old as courtly love, that positive views of marriage had coexisted with explicit misogyny in classical and humanist thought, and that even the sentimental themes of love, marriage and virtue under siege had a long pedigree. Legates concludes that the eighteenth century saw not so much a dramatic break with past assumptions about the good woman, as a compelling dramatization of her traditional predicament.5 Evidently, eighteenth-century literature contained much that we might label ‘domestic ideology’, yet these themes were far from revolutionary. The real challenge presented by ‘Women Advising Women: Early Women’s Journals, c1700-1832’ is to address the interplay of the traditional and the innovative in advice to women.

Finally, we might regret the preoccupation with domestic ideology to the exclusion of all else. Periodicals, novels and didactic works undoubtedly contained many other ideological messages besides and were probably subject to multiple and/or selective readings.6 (And moreover we should not assume ipso facto that women, or men, mindlessly absorbed a particular didactic lesson like so many pieces of blotting paper).7 For too long we have presumed that ‘domesticity’ hogged the discursive stage unchallenged. Certainly, the comprehensive analysis of eighteenth-century prescriptive literature is an absolute prerequisite for engagement with current debates about the linguistic construction of eighteenth-century femininity and masculinity, sentimental domesticity and public and private spheres. Yet, periodical literature undoubtedly has many other stories to tell, for those who are prepared to listen.

Popular periodicals and conduct books lay bare the conventions surrounding social behaviour in all its aspects. Then as now, they provided a key means of understanding established roles and patterns of authority in the home, the market-place, the assembly room and even the bedchamber. Early women’s journals furnish us with insight into eighteenth-century codes of gentility, politeness, domestic and social ritual, appropriate consumerism and fashionable material culture. They can be used to reconstruct the different strategies available to men and women in their dealings with each other, with friends and with kin. Standard expectations of courtship, marriage, parenthood and childhood are all delineated in the journals, as are received reviews about the organization of the ideal household, the administrative responsibilities of its mistress and the sexual division of labour among servants. Beyond the confines of home and family, we can also glimpse new vistas: sociability, conversation and debate, cultivated taste and aesthetic shifts, the rival claims of metropolitan and provincial culture, urban institutions, commercial life and economic developments, visions of continental Europe and the wider world, and prescriptive responses to religious and political change. Of course, the list could go on and on and doubtless these journals will themselves provoke questions as yet unthought of. Most importantly, however, the unprecedented opportunity provided by ‘Women Advising Women’ to address the long-run of data from 1700 to 1837, will ensure that the eighteenth-century woman will take her rightful place beside her more famous seventeenth and nineteenth-century sisters in the new history of women that emerges.

Lecturer in Modern British Women’s History
Royal Holloway, London University


1. K Shevelow, Women and Print Culture: The Construction of Femininity in the Early Periodical (1989), p 5 and 1.

2. N Armstrong, ‘The rise of the domestic woman’, in idem, Desire and Domestic Fiction: a Political History of the Novel (1987), pp 59-95; V Jones (ed), Women in the eighteenth century: constructions of femininity (1900), pp 10-11; R Ballaster, M Beetham, E Frazer and S Hebron, ‘Eighteenth-century women’s magazines’, in idem. Women’s worlds; Ideology, Femininity and the Women’s Magazine (1991), pp 43-74; Shevelow, Women and Print, pp 53-7.

3. O Hufton, ‘Women in history: early modern Europe’, Past and Present, 101 (1983), p126; J Bennett, ‘History that stands still: women’s work in the European past’, Feminist Studies, 14 (1988), pp 269-83; J Thomas, ‘Women and capitalism: oppression or emancipation? a review article’, Comparative Studies in Social History, 30 (1990), pp 534-49; A J Vickery, The neglected century: writing the history of eighteenth-century women’, Gender and History, 3 (1991), pp 211-9; P Thane, ‘The History of the gender division of labour in Britain: reflections on ‘herstory’ in accounting: the first eighty years’, Accounting, Organizations and Society, 17 (1992), pp 299-312; K Honeyman and J Goodman, ‘Women’s work, gender conflict and labour markets in Europe, 1500-1900’, Economic History Review, 44 (1991), 608-628.

4. F Childs, ‘Prescriptions for manners in English courtesy literature, 1690-1760, and their social implications’ (unpublished D.Phil. thesis, Oxford University, 1984), 285-7.

5. M Legates, ‘The cult of womanhood in eighteenth-century thought’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, I (1976), pp 21-39.

6. The neglected fact that individual texts are rarely unambiguous or one dimensional is ably demonstrated in a recent article by Naomi Tadmor. Even a work so burdened with sentimental (and historiographical) significance as Richardson’s Pamela can be seen to offer conceptions of relationships, responsibility and authority supposedly long outdated. See N Tadmor, ‘Family and friend in Richardson’s Pamela: a case study in the history of the family in eighteenth-century England’, Social History, 13 (1989), pp 289-306.

7. A salutary development in this context is the attempt to recover the history of the reader herself. Two essays which contest the conventional image of the leisured reader passively ingesting eighteenth-century texts in private are N Tadmor, ‘Household reading and eighteenth century novels’, and J Brewer, ‘Anna Larpent: representing the reader’, both in J Raven, N Tadmor and H Small (eds), The Practice and Representation of Reading in Britain: Essays in History and Literature (Forthcoming).

Further Reading:

A Adburgham, Women in Print: Writing Women and Women’s Magazines from the Restoration to the Accession of Victoria (1972)

C White, Women’s Magazines, 1693-1968 (1970)

K Shevelow, Women and Print Culture: the Construction of Femininity in the Early Periodical (1989)

R Ballaster, M Beetham, E Frazer and S Hebron, ‘Eighteenth-century women’s magazines’, in idem, Women’s Worlds: Ideology, Femininity and the Women’s Magazine (1991), pp 43-74

N Armstrong, ‘The rise of the domestic woman’, in idem, Desire and domestic fiction: a political history of the novel (1987), pp 59-95.

V Jones (ed), Women in the Eighteenth Century: Constructions of Femininity (1990)

M Legates, ‘The cult of womanhood in eighteenth-century thought’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, I (1976), pp 21-39

Jean Hunter, ‘The lady’s magazine and the study of Englishwomen in the eighteenth century’, in Donovan Bond & W Reynolds McLeod (eds), Newsletters to Newspapers: Eighteenth Century Journalism (Morgantown: West Virginia University, 1977), pp 103-17.

S M Bennett, ‘Changing images of woman in late eighteenth-century England: The Lady’s Magazine 1770-1810’, Arts Magazine (May 1981), pp 138-41.

Rae Blanchard, ‘Richard Steele and the status of women’, Studies in Philology, 26 (1929), pp 325-55.

David Doughan, ‘Periodicals by, for and about women in Britain’, Women’s Studies International Forum, Vol 10, pp 261-73.

James Hodges, ‘The Female Spectator: a courtesy periodical’, in Richmond Bond (ed), Studies in the Early English Periodical (1957), pp 151-82.

Jan Fergus, ‘Women, class and growth of magazine readership in the provinces, 1746-80’, Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, 16 (1986), pp 41-56.

Peter Miller, ‘Eighteenth-century periodicals for women’, History of Education Quarterly, 11 (1971), pp 279-86.



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