Young ladies of the Regency era were inundated with advice and conduct books, which overflowed with prohibitions, threats and denunciations, all delivered with a high moral tone. It must have been hard work for a young lady, freshly launched into polite society, to navigate the myriad recommendations and comport herself with the appropriate demeanour.
One common theme in all the advice books is the importance of modesty; no young lady will shine in society if she is vain, foolish or self-indulgent. Introducing her best-selling guide, The Mirror of the Graces (1811), the anonymous author, ‘A Lady of Distinction’ opines: “Much is said in the body of this work on the attractive grace and powerful charm of modesty. … Unlimited indulgence in any of the pleasures of sense produces satiety, robs imagination of her power and her charms, and destroys the spring of our enjoyments.”
Thomas Gisborne, who wrote An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex in 1793, is scathing on the perils of female vanity, which he feels is greatly encouraged by the tendency to ‘launch’ young ladies into the glamour of the beau monde where they can expect to be the objects of eager attention and flattery (especially if they can offer a substantial dowry):
“Pains are taken, as it were to contrive, that when the dazzled stranger shall step from the nursery and the lecture-room, she shall plunge at once into a flood of vanity and dissipation. Mewed up from every prying gaze, taught to believe that her first appearance is the subject of universal expectation… she burns with impatience for the hour of displaying her perfections; till at length, intoxicated beforehand with anticipated flatteries, she is launched…and from that time forward thinks by day and dreams by night of amusements, and of dress, and of compliments, and of admirers.”
The ‘Lady of Distinction’ has some firm opinions on the subject of dress. Needless to say, she is very disapproving of the fashion of revealing too much flesh, which she fears leaves nothing to the onlooker’s imagination. She also repudiates the fashionable folly of going out underdressed in cold weather – a very modern concern, familiar to the parents of teenagers.
She is also extremely dismissive of the tendency to dress ostentatiously, and to overload the person with gewgaws and trinkets: “The best chosen dress is that which so harmonises with the figure as to make the raiment pass unobserved.”
“To the exposure of the bosom and back, as some ladies display those parts of their person, what shall we say: This mode (like every other which is carried to excess and indiscriminately followed) is not only repugnant to decency, but most exceedingly disadvantageous to the charms of nine women out of ten….”
“Fine taste in apparel I have ever seen the companion of pure morals, while a licentious style of dress is as certainly the token of the like laxity in manners and conduct”.
“Elegant dressing is not found in expense; money without judgement may load, but never can adorn. …you may cover a neck with pearls, a head with jewels, hands and arms with rings bracelets and trinkets , and yet produce no effect, but having emptied some merchant’s counter upon your person.”
“To wear gossamer dresses, with bare necks and naked arms, in a hard frost, has been the mode in this country… the utter wretchedness of them who, so arraying their youth, lay themselves open to the untimely ravages of rheumatisms, palsies, consumptions and death.”
Young ladies are repeatedly reminded that beauty and fine dress are not enough for them to succeed in society. They must also display high moral sense, a fine mind and a graceful demeanour.
The ‘Lady of Distinction’ opines that “It is perfection of fine breeding to know your place, to be acquainted with that of others; and to fall gracefully into your station accordingly.”
In A Father’s Legacy to his Daughters (1797) Dr Gregory hands out plentiful advice about how ladies should conduct themselves in conversation, which is a fine balancing act. They should display humour (though never indelicacy), which will make them likeable, but be cautious of wit, which may well create enemies. They should also be careful about displaying their cleverness in society, as it will be looked upon with jealousy and suspicion. Here are some of his recommendations:
“Wit is the most dangerous talent you can possess. It must be guarded with great discretion and good-nature, otherwise it will create you many enemies… Wit is so flattering to vanity, that they who possess it become intoxicated, and lose all self-command.”
“Humour is a different quality. It will make your company much solicited; but be cautious how you indulge it…It may sometimes gain you applause, but will never procure you respect.”
“Be ever cautious in displaying your good sense. It will be thought you assume a superiority over the rest of the company. But if you happen to have any learning, keep it a profound secret, especially from the men, who generally look with a jealous and malignant eye on a woman of great parts, and a cultivated understanding.”
“Consider every species of indelicacy in conversation, as shameful in itself…The dissoluteness of men’s education allows them to be diverted with a kind of wit, which yet they have delicacy enough to be shocked at, when it comes from your mouths, or even when you hear it without pain and contempt.”
Ladies must steer a careful pathway through the complexities of courtship. They must be friendly towards gentlemen, but not too familiar – the ‘Lady of Distinction’ is very shocked by the tendency towards over-familiarity: “The present familiarity between the sexes is both shocking to delicacy and to the interests of women. Woman is now treated by the generality of men with a freedom that levels her with the commonest and most vulgar objects of their amusements.”
While ladies should not appear cold or unapproachable, they must also be careful not to distribute their favours too freely – no gentleman will be enamoured of a lady who has already dallied with his fellow-suitors.
A lady must never lead any non-favoured suitor up the garden path – she must treat him “honourably and humanely” and put him out of his misery. If, on the other hand, she should look favourably upon him, it behoves her to make pragmatic enquiries as to his character, fortune and reputation, before making any commitment to him. Dr Gregory has the last words:
“There is a native dignity in ingenuous modesty to be expected in your sex, which is your natural protection from the familiarities of the men…. The many nameless charms and endearments of beauty should be reserved to bless the arms of the happy man to whom you give your heart, but who, if he has the least delicacy, will despise them if he knows that they have been prostituted to fifty men before him.”
“A man of taste and delicacy marries a woman because he loves her more than any other. A woman of equal taste and delicacy marries him because she esteems him, and because he gives her that preference.”
“If you see evident proofs of a gentleman’s attachment, and are determined to shut your heart against him... treat him honourably and humanely. Do not let him linger in a miserable suspense, but be anxious to let him know your sentiments with regard to him.”
“If a gentleman makes his addresses to you, or gives you reason to believe he will do so, before you allow your affections to be engaged, endeavour, in the most prudent and secret manner, to procure from your friends every necessary piece of information concerning him; such as his character for sense, his morals, his temper, fortune, and family; whether it is distinguished for parts and worth, or for folly, knavery, and loathsome hereditary diseases.”
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