Philadelphia: William Spotswood, 1790. First American edition. Contemporary tree sheep, rebacked to style and retaining original morocco label. Slight bowing to front board, but a pleasing and tight copy overall measuring 160 x 95mm (pages). Internally with a bit of toning but less scattered foxing than is typical of the period; early pencil marginalia to page 27 and printing flaw to page 54 of the first volume. Collating , ii, 197, [3, adverts]; , 3-72: complete, including title pages to both. ESTC reports 6 institutionally held copies, making it nearly as scarce as the London first edition of which only one copy survives at the British Library. Neither edition has appeared at auction, and the present is the only copy on the market.
While the School of Virtue first appeared separately in England in 1787 with the byline of A Gentleman of the Temple, its first American edition was expanded to include the first English language edition of the Marchioness de Lambert's novel The Fair Solitary; or Female Hermit (translated from the French). As a pairing, they are striking for their opposite stances on the novel as a genre and as a popular sensation among female readers. At its opening, The School of Virtue purports to be a novel deconstructing novels; for the author believes that "the necessity of reformation in the modern system of novels is obvious to every reader of taste and judgement" because the popular works "provide an artificial colouring , to please the imagination at the expense of common sense." Seeking to attract and reform not only the form but women readers themselves, the Gentleman purports to "counter the foregoing method, being a faithful transcript from the volume of human nature...In this work, the reader may find some digressions, which are intended...for rational instruction." Confident in his mission, he claims "the style will perhaps be found on a different plan to that used by novelists -- but an elevation is attempted." Like many of his contemporaries, the Gentleman expresses distaste for the "depravity" of women's novel-reading wherein "the mistress of a family loses hours over a novel in the parlour while her maids, in emulation of her example, are similarly employed in the kitchen" (Sylph). The result, however, seemed distasteful to both to the women bored by its instruction and the male critics the Gentleman sought to bolster. A contemporary reviewer snarked, "This Gentleman dislikes with some reason the novels which commonly appear; but his new plan is not deserving of our praise...Indeed, good sir, we would rather 'bear the ills we have'" (Thompson and Ahrens).
To this is appended a novel by a successful French feminist writer, deploying a figure that was at the height of its popularity: the hermit. The hermit's popularity in the decade of 1780-1790 could be understood in the context "of an age obsessed by the social contract, by the public sphere, and by sociability itself...with figures of voluntary retirement raising questions concerning the compatibility between individual liberty and collective authority" (Slauter). And Lambert's use of a female hermit -- one discovered by a group of women travelers, to whom she narrates a tale of her and other women's woes from which she has separated herself -- is immediately appealing. Her short novel provides to readers a sweeping romance; it also comments on women's vulnerability within the patriarchal marriage system, which makes women vulnerable to sexual violence, and which even pits women against each other. Indeed, in Lambert's work, "the connection between seduction or attempted rape and seclusion from society is made explicit" and offers an alternative fantasy of self-sufficiency and complete autonomy (Dowdell). (Item #4270)