Genre: Female Conduct Literature

The following excerpts were selected for their representation of the female conduct literature satirized by Barbauld in her “Letter From Grimalkin to Selima”.  The pieces by Gregory and Pennington are specifically interesting because of their parent-daughter letter format that Barbauld mimics in her work.  The other authors included represent some of the most famous and influential conduct book authors of the time period.

Sarah Pennington, excerpt from An Unfortunate Mother’s Advice to Her Absent Daughters (1761)

The Morning being always thus advantageously engaged, the latter Part of the Day may, as I before said, be given to Relaxation and Amusement; some of these Hours may be very agreeably, and not unusefully, employed entertaining Books; a few of which, together with some of a religious and instructive Kind, are annexed as a Specimen of the Sort I would recommend to your Persual. (38)


Aim at Perfection, or you will never reach to an attainable Height of Virtue.  Be Religious without Hypocrisy, Pious without Enthusiasm, Endeavour to merit the Favour of God, by sincere and uniform Obedience to whatever you know, or believe, to be his Will (89)


Your affectionate Mother, (96)

James Fordyce, excerpt from Sermons to Young Women “Sermon VIII on Female Virtue with Intellectual Accomplishments” (1767)

With regard to yours, my beloved sisters, I am willing to impute much of the folly and misery that involve multitudes of women, not to their being altogether unacquainted with the main outlines of their duty, traced by the hand of God on every heart a little more or a little less clearly; but to their want to that relish for knowledge, and of those attainments in it, which certainly tend to exclude many temptations, and to fortify against the influence of others.  On this account, I must again and again urge the Culture of your minds.  Your Virtue, your Sobriety is intimately concerned in it.  That shall be my first argument: its connexion with your dignity or figure in life shall be my second; and my third shall turn on its usefulness to promote your comfort and felicity: considerations surely that merit your attention.  I pray God to bless them for you improvement.  I begin with showing, that the Intellectual Accomplishments briefly delineated in the preceding discourse will have a tendency to exclude many temptations.  That what dangerous resources are the generality of young women driven by the love of pleasure and amusement, ill directed!  Having formed no taste for those that arise from reading, writing, agreeable reflexions, and rational conversation, their passions, naturally ardent, fly without previous examination to every object with flatters that ardour by promising all the vivacity of joy.  In this career, it is not difficult to conceive what snare may entrap Beauty, and what habits may corrupt Innocence. (4-5)

John Gregory, excerpt from A Father’s Legacy to His Daughters “Conduct and Behaviour” (1774)

One of the chief beauties in a female characters, is that modest reserve, that retiring delicacy, which avoids the public eye, and is disconcerted even at the gaze of admiration.  I do not wish you to be insensible to applause.  If you were, you must become, it not worse, at least less amiable women.  But you may avoid being dazzled by that admiration, which yet rejoices your hearts.

When a girl ceases to blush, she has lost the most powerful charm of beauty.  That extreme sensibility which it indicates, may be a weakness and incumbrance in our sex, as I have too often felt; but in yours it is peculiarly engaging.  Pendants who think themselves philosophers, ask why a woman should blush when she is conscious of no crime.  It is a sufficient answer, that Nature have made you to blush when you are guilty of no fault, and has forced us to love you because you do so.  Blushing is far from being necessary an attendant to guilt, that it is the usual companion of innocence.

This modesty, which I think so essential in you sex, will naturally dispose you to be rather silent in company, especially in a large one. (16-17)

Hannah More, excerpt from On the Modern System of Female Education “The Benefits of Restraint” (1799)

An early habitual restraint is peculiarly important to the future character and happiness of women. They should when very young be inured to contradiction.  Instead of hearing their bon-mots treasured up and repeated to the guests till they begin to think it dull, when they themselves are not the little heroine of the theme, they should be accustomed to receive but little praise for their vivacity and their wit, though they should receive just commendation for their patience, their industry, their humility, and other qualities which have more worth than splendour.  They should be led to distrust their own judgment; they should learn not to murmur to expostulation; but should be accustomed to expect and to endure opposition.  It is a lesson with which the world will not fail to furnish them; and they will not practice it the worse for having learnt it sooner.  It is of the last importance to their happiness in life that they should early acquire a submissive temper and a forbearing spirit.  They must even endure to be thought wrong sometimes, when they cannot but feel they are right.  And while they should be anxiously aspiring to do well, they must not expect always to obtain the praise of having done so.  But while a gentle demeanour is inculcated, let them not be instructed to practise gentleness merely on the low ground of its being decorous and feminine, and pleasing, and calculated to attract human favour; but let them be carefully taught to cultivate it on the high principle of obedience to Christ.