Letters to a Young Lady on a Variety of Subjects: Calculated to Improve the Heart, to Inform the Manners, and Enlighten the Understanding
Hartford [CT]: Hudson & Goodwin, 1791.
Hartford [CT]: Hudson & Goodwin, 1791. First American edition. Two volumes bound in one. Contemporary calf rebacked to style with morocco spine label. A tight, square copy. Contemporary ownership signature of Mary L. Hurd to header of first title page; pencil equations to the rear pastedown. Light scattered foxing and toning throughout, as is common in American imprints of this period; closed tear to the inner margin of 17-18 not affecting text. In all, pleasing and unmarked. Collating xii, 142; , 155, : complete, including half and full titles for both. A scarce and early work on women's education, predating the American release of Bennett's Strictures on Female Education by one year, it was one of the earliest and most progressive titles on the subject to be printed in the young Republic. ESTC reports 8 institutions with copies worldwide (and only 2 of the London first edition of 1789). It appears only twice in the modern auction record, in 1986 and 2002. The present is the only copy on the market.
The American seminary movement, establishing rigorous institutions for women's higher education, would not begin until 1821. Three decades before, only 15 years into the founding of the Republic, the American release of John Bennett's Letters to a Young Lady Bennett's Letters to a Young Lady helped initiate a conversation about how the new nation would approach the education of its girls. Epistolary in form, the book contains a series of letters from a gentleman to a young woman Lucy after the loss of her mother, to whose care her education would have fallen. The gentleman acknowledges that she likely has plenty of guidance in religion, but that more worldly knowledge is more difficult for women to acquire because of the lack of structures provided to them. Much of what they learn is derived, problematically, from their society. "The education of women is unfortunately directed rather to such accomplishments as will enable them to make noise and sparkle in the world, than to those qualities which might ensure their comfort here." Boarding schools reinforce this problem, he claims, taking away domestic context and failing to ground their pupils in piety, virtue, and intelligence. Across his letters, he directs Lucy to learn more substantial lessons from the works of the humanists. "The immortal Locke analysed the powers of the human understanding," he tells her at one point."Mason on self-knowledge is the anatomist of the heart. If you would see yourself in your true colors, you must daily be conversant with these books." Indeed, throughout he guides her on the types of books to read (Locke and Cicero) and those to avoid (Sterne) to take her education into her own hands. One year later, Bennett's more structured Strictures on Female Education would follow up the present title; and it would push readers to see that women could not take on sole responsibility for their learning, but should be provided rigorous, standardized schools designed for that end.
ESTC W13575. (Item #3932)