Rochester: Printed for the author by Gillman and Etherington, 1793. First edition. Issued by subscription, with the list at the rear of volume II. Contemporary tree calf with morocco and gilt to spines. Measuring 173 x 100mm and collating complete: viii, 233, [1, errata]; vii, [1, additional subscribers], 267, [11, errata and subscriber's list]. Joints cracked but holding well, with a bit of rubbing to spines. Internally an exceptionally fresh copy, unmarked throughout; occasional paper flaws to volume II with text remaining legible. Contemporary ownership signatures of Elizabeth Barton to front endpaper of each. Housed in a custom slipcase with the bookplate of Peter Stewart Young Tillingham. Issued more widely later in the same year -- notably by the same publisher as Mary Wollstonecraft's Thoughts on the Education of Daughters -- this first privately printed edition is quite scarce. ESTC locates only 10 institutionally held copies, only two copies have appeared at auction since 1909, and the present is the only example in trade.
Despite his rather traditional views on the social spheres and assigned duties belonging to women, the schoolmaster John Burton nevertheless recognized that expanded access to print books was revolutionizing women's education. "Since the invention of Printing, Books have increased and, in consequence, knowledge has been more diffusive. You can, therefore, no longer plead, as an excuse for mental deficiency, that the Male Sex are desirous of keeping you in ignorance and are the monopolizers of learning." Certainly he does not promote the idea of taking learning to action much beyond the home -- politics and political action, for example, are discouraged (with the key exception being philanthropy and the cause of abolition, as outlined in volume II). But as an educator he realizes the great abilities of women which should not be confined solely to useful domestic arts but should also include learned and modern languages as well as Arts and Sciences. "It is an illiberal prejudice to say that Women should be kept in ignorance in order to render them more docile"; rather, "Books and Conversation" will help women avoid manner of the social and sexual dangers that men may set for them, may help them dodge folly and vanity, and will assist them in feeling more engaged with those around them.
While more progressive books on women's education existed in the period, thanks to the work of education activists such as Wollstonecraft, Hannah More, and Maria Edgeworth, the existence of and content within a text like this speaks to how mainstream culture was shifting. Girls in schools, women reading and driving book markets, and women engaging with fields of innovation had become realities that even conservative male authors needed to address.
ESTC T116565. (Item #5174)