Sunday, May 9, 2010

"What a woman knows is comparatively of little importance to what a woman is."

My readers may have noticed that last weekend I didn’t post an update to the blog. I’m pleased to announce that Tarquin was on hiatus that week for more important matters: proposing! That’s right, my partner and I are now engaged and excitedly looking forward to a beautiful autumn wedding.

For no related reason (I’m sure) and not at all because it is Mother’s Day, my fiancée has suggested that I write this week’s blog posting on Elizabeth Sandford’s Woman, in Her Social and Domestic Character. Part of a long tradition of social conduct manuals designed for women -- married and single -- Sandford’s book combines religious admonition with instructions in etiquette and advice both “psychological” and “domestic” into a study of practical and proper muliebrity. The result is a rather conservative treatise prescribing what the “correct” behavior for women in the first half of the nineteenth century. Unsurprisingly, that behavior is exceedingly deferential to either Protestant teachings, the needs of men, or both.

My copy was published in 1840 by Otis, Broaders & Company of Boston and is the fifth American edition (clearly, this was a popular book); the book was printed in stereotype by George A. & J. Curtis’s Type and Stereotype Foundry, also in Boston. The first edition appeared in London in 1831 and the second in 1832; both were published by Longman et al. In these edition the text was aimed primarily at English women, but by the third edition (Longman, 1833) it was carried across the Atlantic and the publishing firm Leonard C. Bowles, of Boston, issued the first American edition (though the American copyright was issued to the publisher T. H. Carter, also of Boston -- because of a typographic error in the copyright notice, however, the final digit of the date is missing and I can’t tell when in the 1830s this copyright was issued; oddly, this missing digit recurred into at least the fourth American edition, released by Otis, Broaders & Co. in 1842).

This second edition added two new chapters to the book and a brief “Advertisement” by the “authoress” (as she terms herself), which was continued into subsequent editions. The first American edition also offered a publisher’s comment that highlighted the social and cultural divide so prevalent between England and the United States in the early nineteenth century:

The writer is unknown to those who have taken an interest in bringing the book before American readers. It is believed that it will do good, and therefore has been reprinted. The English copy has been followed without the slightest alteration. Some of the remarks are evidently designed for a class of society that can hardly be said to exist among us, but they cannot lessen the value of the work to any one. The freedom from extravagance, the practical wisdom, the religious sentiment, and the elegance of style which mark its pages recommend it to perusal. That elegance has sometimes been sought at the expense of simplicity, or that many important topics are passed in silence, need not prevent its affording pleasure and instruction. (5-6)

Beside the subtle nationalism and the peculiar hint that Sandford did not, in fact, authorize the first American edition (“The writer is unknown...”), a number of the topics touched on this notice speak to some of the qualities of the book that subsequent critics chose to address (see below). I find it odd -- in our own era of vapidly hyperbolic publisher’s rhetoric when promoting a new book -- that Bowles leaves the reader with such an ambivalent sense of the book’s style (“ the expense of simplicity”) and shortcomings (“many important topics are passed in silence”). Again, these are critiques that anticipate what some of the critics who responded to the book would say (below).

The book went through many later editions, both on its own and in tandem with other publications. For example, in 1838 and again in 1843 and 1844, Otis, Broaders & Company issued the text of the fifth London edition (1837) in conjunction (though with separate pagination, indicating that the sheets were merely bound together) with Hubbard Winslow’s sermons-turned-articles Woman as She Should Be (again, the copyright notice is the same as that of the first American edition of Woman, in Her Social and Domestic Character -- the same missing digit in “183 ” and the same text and layout; perhaps the printer was merely recycling the stereotype plate over many years and rather ineptly never caught the glaring error). The fourth London edition appeared in 1834, as noted above, the fifth in 1837, sixth in 1839, and seventh in 1842.

My copy is bound in dark brown cloth with a gilded title on the cover; the edges of the boards and the spine are bumped and in places a bit torn from use. The pages measure 10.5cm x 17cm and are of a machined stock that has foxed a great deal throughout the text-block. It was printed in duodecimo and bears alphabetic signatures on every eighth leaf and a numeric sequence signed on every first and third leaf of each gathering. The contents include the title page and copyright, the “Advertisement” (blank verso), and then the book proper, with the following chapters: Chapter 1, “Causes of Female Influence”, first part ([5]-14); Chapter 2, “Causes of Female Influence”, second part ([15]-22); Chapter 3, “The Value of Letters to Woman” ([23]-34); Chapter 4, “Importance of Religion to Woman” ([35]-45); Chapter 5, “Christianity the Source of Female Excellence” ([46]-63); Chapter 6, “Scripture Illustrative of Female Character” ([64]-77); Chapter 7, “Female Influence on Religion” ([78]-89); Chapter 8, “Female Defects”, first part ([90]-103); Chapter 9, “Female Defects”, second part ([104]-110); Chapter 10, “On Female Romance”, first part ([111]-124); Chapter 11, “On Female Romance”, second part ([125]-133); Chapter 12, “Female Education” ([134]-151); Chapter 13, “Female Duties” ([152]-175). There is no table of contents and there are no flyleaves.

An owner’s inscription -- originally in pencil but then penned over in brown ink -- adorns the title page: “Priscilla B Robinson”. Another name, in much poorer handwriting, is scrawled in pencil on the front pastedown (“Parker Gail”?). Also penciled on the pastedown is “Price 75 cents”, which suggests a second-hand resale of the book at some point early in its life. Some pages have been dog-eared at the corners, suggesting a careful read-through. Also, a scrupulous reader has jotted occasional crosses, x-marks, brackets, and vertical lines next to passages of particular interest or importance (often dealing explicitly with religious matters and conduct in accordance with the Christian faith). Most of the photos in this posting are of some of these marked passages; I encourage my readers to examine the text in these images, however, for some of Sandford’s more choice observations about the “Social and Domestic Character” of women.

Elizabeth Sandford (1797/8-1853) was the niece of Thomas Poole, a friend of Coleridge (it is worth noting that, while other poets are mentioned in passing, Coleridge is the only poet from whom Sandford quotes in her book [p. 81]) and spent much of her adult life living at Chillingham with her husband John Sandford, an Anglican vicar (on the title page of her book, Sandford identifies herself only as “Mrs. John Sandford” -- this disappearing act, in which the woman writer has vanished beneath the name of the husband non-writer, has resulted in some confusion amongst the less astute dealers and catalogers out there, a number of whom erroneously list the book as belonging to John Sandford). The most thorough biographical description of her life is Rosemary Mitchell’s brief write-up for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which also offers some useful insight into the nature of the book’s contents:

Sandford [née Poole], Elizabeth (1797/8–1853), domestic moralist, was the daughter of Richard Poole. In the early 1820s she married John Sandford (1801–1873), who became archdeacon of Coventry in 1851. They had at least five sons, the eldest of whom was Henry Ryder Poole Sandford (1826–1883), an inspector of schools. Elizabeth Sandford died on 15 September 1853 at the rectory at Dunchurch, near Rugby, where her husband was then vicar.

In 1831 Sandford published Woman in her Social and Domestic Character, an advice book ‘written exclusively for her own sex’ (Woman, advertisement). Believing that ‘domestic comfort’ was the chief source of female influence, Sandford argued that women, inferior by nature to men, should devote themselves to the duties of the domestic sphere, fortifying themselves with religion and the cultivation of an elegant mind. The book was reviewed in the London Evangelical Magazine and the Christian Examiner and sold well, reaching a sixth edition by 1839. Her next work, Female Worthies (1833), was intended to be the first of a series of volumes containing biographies of virtuous women from English history who exemplified Sandford's ideal of womanhood. However, only the first volume, which contained the lives of Lady Jane Grey and Lucy Hutchinson, ever appeared. Female Improvement (1836), another advice book, was an expanded version of her first work: Sandford not only included chapters on subjects such as temper, taste, and study but also reflections on stages in women's domestic lives, including courtship, early marriage, and motherhood. The critic of The Spectator viewed the work with cool approbation, commenting that Sandford's observations appeared to be ‘the result of experience and mature reflection, and [were] distinguished by amiability and good sense, pervaded by strong religious feeling’ (The Spectator, 636). Elizabeth Sandford's advocacy of a primarily domestic role for women and her support for the ideology of the separate spheres makes her a significant precursor of Sarah Stickney Ellis and other female writers of advice works in the 1830s and 1840s.

I’ve linked to the review in the Christian Examiner above, but some of the more choice observations from the reviews of this book -- those didactic works of misogynistic religio-cultural proselytization -- bear noting. Often reading reviews of books, in addition to the books themselves, can teach volumes about their reception in the cultural context in which they appeared. It can also be edifying to see which publications bothered to review certain books; for example, the unusually long critique of Woman, in Her Social and Domestic Character in volume 7 of The Phrenological Journal (410-27) suggests that some in that bizarre pseudo-science saw numerous resonances between their own field and Sanford’s book.

From the Christian Examiner: “If there any ladies, therefore, who are determined to find their chief happiness, or any very large proportion of it, elsewhere than at home, they had better not read this book, for it cannot please them; -- or rather let them read it, and its soft words may win their way into their hearts, and prevail on them to change their determination” (167). I find it particularly striking (but not at all surprising) that the anonymous reviewer (a man, no doubt) seems to use a completely different set of critical standards and criteria for judging Sandford’s writing as is used for some of the male writers in the same magazine; often, these standards speak more to the reviewer’s assumptions about how a woman “should” write, rather than how a writer should write. For example, “Mrs. Sandford’s style is studied, and, though never pedantic or turgid, is, perhaps, a little too ambitious” (167). The first part of this pedantic and turgid sentence could no doubt be used in a critique of any writer and, indeed, the same exact terms turn up in other reviews in the publication (though not this issue); the only time the accusation of excessive ambition in a writer’s style appears in any issue of the Christian Examiner that I can access, however, is in this review of a noted “authoress”. (In fact, in this same issue, another writer observes that “no space is too large for man’s ambition” [317].)

Some critics link both style and content in praising Sandford’s book; for example, John James, in his Female Piety (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1853) lauds Woman, in Her Social and Domestic Character as “a work so judicious, so Christian, and so elegant, that it can not be too strongly recommended” (148). This praise of Sandford’s style was not shared unanimously with other critics. For example, in its review of the first American edition, The American Monthly Review (Vol. 3), complained: “It is, indeed, often elegant and often ambitiously fine and learned; but it has not in general that ease and gracefulness, and that winning simplicity, which are qualities most attractive in a female writer, and most to be expected. It is too often stiff, antithetical, monotonous; and we cannot recommend it to our accomplished country women as a safe model” (167, emphasis added). First, this reviewer clearly broadcasts the fact that he is working from a double standard for reviewing (hence my italics). I find it amusing that he singles out for praise the “ambitiously fine and learned” nature of the book -- that term, “ambition”, once again haunting the reviewer of the female writer, though this time in a positive sense. Instead, however, this reviewer conflates those qualities considered at the time desirable in female conduct with how female writing should sound (“ease...gracefulness...simplicity”); the critic for the Edinburgh Review (Vol. 73) likewise charges Sandford for lacking the “felicity of style” (189). What seems clear, particularly in the final part of the quotation from The American Monthly, is that the critic (like many others, in fact) is reviewing the book not just as a book written by a woman, but more explicitly as a book written by an English woman; as such, these critics often juxtapose what they presume to be the proper conduct of women in old-fashioned England (as defined by Sandford) with that of women in America (as defined by these [male] critics).

The American Monthly Review critic makes another comment that bears noting:

Many ladies and some of the other sex, will doubtless think that the author has not done justice to female intellect; that she has too readily given up its claims to equality with the intellectual rank of that part of the species, which performs the higher functions in the social state; but we shall not be so uncourteous as to dispute this point with the accomplished author of the work before us. (167)

The rhetorical moves in this passage are typical of patriarchal discourse (in any period) that appropriates the words of women into the service of the further objectification of women while disingenuously proclaiming its own innocence in the act. The unsubtle privileging of men’s “utility” (“the higher functions in the social state”) is reinforced by the deferential description of Sandford as “the accomplished author”. I’m also fascinated by the way in which this reviewer has managed to write about male privilege without ever actually using the words “men” or “males” -- instead, the privileged sex of the reviewer becomes “the other sex”, “that part of the species”, and, through the conventions of review-writing typical at the time, “we” and “us”. The sense created is one of coded writing: the (male) critic writes to “us”, the (male) magazine-readers, with a wink about the “tolerable” book written by the (female) author.

Other reviews speak to the divided nature of public perception of Sandford’s topic. For example, the anonymous critic who reviewed the book for the Scottish arts and fashion journal The Day (1832, Vol. 1, p. 48) effusively praises both its style (“pure”, “precious”, “elegant”) and the practical usefulness of its contents for mothers, daughters, and wives of all ages.

The (male) reviewer for The Athenaeum (5 May 1832) vociferously disagreed, however, and deployed his critique of Woman... (a critique that makes no effort to conceal the fact that it judges Sandford explicitly as a woman writer) as part of his publication’s ongoing efforts to relegate women writers as a whole to a default literary rank inferior to men writers. This is a long passage, but it bears quoting in full because it registers so remarkably clearly the intense anxiety so many men of the period felt about women expressing themselves in print (even women who, like Sandford, were expressing the view that women must be obedient and submissive to men):

The perusal of this little volume has deepened our conviction in the truth of a remark made in a former Athenaeum, that, in books, women rarely make good Mentors to women. Any real insight into the heart and opinions of the sex -- any high estimate of their duties must not be sought in the ethical writings of women. Even those who have the power, seldom go lower than the surface of their subject, and admitting that they see, they rarely expound the whole truth: and why? because they indite moralities concerning themselves, under a paralyzing fear of man; because all that they decry, and all that they inculcate, is subservient to the opinions and tastes of man.... We must re-assert, that, whatever else they can do, they hardly ever advise the sex in print, without injuring the great and holy cause of female improvement. They are timid, and temporize from complaisance; or they have not the comprehensive minds, and temporize from weakness; or they sigh under the conventionalities that environ them, and temporize from policy: but in all cases they temporize. (282)

This vein continues for several more paragraphs. As with the reviewer from The American Monthly, a pose of progressivism is adopted by denigrating the (woman) writer for writing an anti-feminist (though that term did not exist then) tract. But that pose is itself couched in misogynistic generalizations about women “in print” and their failure to rationally understand their subject because they are the subject. Of course, one wonders if this critic would also suggest that books about men could only be written by women -- the logical result of his flailing argument.

Conversely, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, editor of The Lady’s Book (which reviewed Woman... in a single sentence: “some good sense, much mawkish sentiment, and a little really excellent advice” [Jan. 1838, 191]), in her book Woman’s Record (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1858) slammed Sandford from the other direction:

Mrs. Sandford keeps religion constantly in view, and thus inculcates moral goodness as the cardinal quality of worth for the sex. So far, her work is excellent; but she falls into the grave error which every English writer has done in making reason and physical power superior to moral goodness. She constantly describes woman as inferior to man. While such is the tone of the British writers their works will do little for the cause of Christianity. That the Saviour’s precepts are more generally and perfectly obeyed by women than by men, no person will question; if to be a Christian and do good is the highest glory of humanity, above physical strength, which is held in common with animals, above mental power, which, without this moral goodness, is used in the service of devils, then women’s nature is the superior; and those who teach otherwise are really promoting the kingdom of darkness -- the reign of licentiousness and infidelity. (849)

Hale’s conclusion -- essentially charging Sandford of promoting “licentiousness and infidelity” -- is a tremendous leap away from the anemic review-writing I’ve pointed out thus far. By one-upping Sandford’s claims to the Christian faith, Hale effectively argues that women are superior to men but in a way that still locks them into traditional social roles and stereotypes: they are superior because of their “moral goodness”, but they cannot equate with men for “physical power” or “reason”. It can be hard to tell -- from our perspective way out here in the twenty-first century -- if this is really progress at all, but in its day it was a slap in the faces of the winking chauvinists writing reviews at The American Monthly Review, Athenaeum, and Christian Examiner. Finally, it is worth noting once again the reviewer’s passing mention of nationality as an issue coloring Sandford’s depiction of the ideal of woman; Hale (an American) generalizes “every English writer” as being guilty of Sandford’s anti-women (and hence anti-Christian) sins. This trans-Atlantic wrestling match over proper feminine conduct was actually part of a larger struggle in the early nineteenth century as America attempted to create a distinctive social and cultural character and environment that could not only be differentiated from the often over-bearing cultural empire of its former colonial motherland but that actually stood in stark contrast to it.

To wrap-up this lengthy excursion into the world of early nineteenth-century women’s domestic moralism and its discontents, I’ll let Sandford herself have the last word. And since marriage and mothers are both on my mind, let’s take a look at two of her thoughts on those specific subjects -- both of which are passages that speak particularly well to some of the reviews (both positive and negative) noted above.

On marriage:

Obedience is a very small part of conjugal duty, and in most cases easily performed. Women have, indeed, not much cause to complain of their subjection.... Much of the comfort of married life depends upon the lady; a great deal more, perhaps, than she is aware of....

To acquire and retain such influence, she must, however, make her conjugal duties her first object. She must not think that any thing will do for her husband, that any room is good enough for her husband, that it is not worth while to be agreeable when there is only her husband, that she may close her piano, or lay aside her brush, for why should she play or paint merely to amuse her husband? No: she must consider all these little arts of pleasing chiefly valuable on his account, -- as means of perpetuating her attractions and giving permanence to his affection. (166-7)

This is then followed by a section on the importance of women keeping a clean and orderly house and of the necessity of excelling in “the culinary department”. Again -- all in the service of pleasing the husband and sustaining his interest.

On mothers:

The most anxious, however, if not the most important duty of married life, is that which is due to children, and which in their early years principally devolves [!] upon the mother. None can supply her place, none can feel her interest; and as in infancy a mother is the best nurse, so in childhood she is the best guardian and instructress. Let her take what help she may, nothing can supersede her own exertions. She must give the tone to character; she must infuse the principle; she must communicate those first lessons which are never forgotten, and which bring forth fruit, good or evil, according as the seed may be....

And well is her care repaid. On whom does the infant smile so sweetly as on its mother? To whom do the little boy and girl fly so naturally for sympathy as to their mother? And often, in after-life, does not youth repose its confidence securely on a mother, and seek the counsel of a mother’s faithful heart, and hide its griefs in a mother’s tender bosom? It is a delightful relationship; and if mothers would secure the love and respect of their children, they must not grudge their attentions to them in their earliest years. They must be willing to sacrifice a little amusement, or a little company, or a little repose, for the sake of nursing their infants, or teaching their children, or fulfilling themselves offices which too frequently they devolve on servants.

To accomplish, however, these duties, a woman must be domestic. Her heart must be at home. She must not be on the look-out for excitement of any kind, but must find her pleasure as well as her occupation in the sphere which is assigned to her. (171-3)

To Sandford, as she makes clear throughout her book, that sphere, of course, was always and exclusively the domestic.

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