Elizabeth Hays Lanfear: Letters to Young Ladies and Sketches (1824)

Letters to Young Ladies on Their Entrance into the World;

to which are added Sketches from Real Life.

By Mrs. Lanfear,

Author of ‘Fatal Errors,’ &c.

Seek to be good, but aim not to be great:

A woman’s noblest station is retreat;

Her fairest virtues fly from public sight –

Domestic worth, – that shuns too strong a light.



Published by J. Robins and Co. Ivy Lane,

Paternoster Row.


Part 1: Letters.

Introductory Letter.

Lanfear argues that female education and female actions in the home designed solely to please men is not a sufficient reason for acquiring an education. Young girls should acquire some useful knowledge as well that will “regulate their hearts, their understandings, their tempers, and their duties, by fixed and steady principles of religion and morality” (5). She reminds them to study the Bible, especially the Old Testament for what it tells us of the Jews, “a people chosen and set apart by God, not for any peculiar deserts of their own, but to preserve the knowledge of the Divine Unity in times of great ignorance” (6) and through whom God “made known by promise his benevolent designs to all mankind,” later revealed by Jesus Christ, the Messiah, “whose message of grace and favour was not confined to any particular people or nation, but was sent to the whole human race without exception, among whom it is to spread and be received, without distinction of kindred or tongue, ere time shall be no more” (6). She reveals her Unitarianism here without question.

She believes young women can get more benefit from the Gospels than the epistles of the New Testament, and from some biblical commentary, but in choosing a particular sect among which to worship, she hopes that “every sect, whether its creed be simple and rational or metaphysical and redundant, retains all that is fundamental in religion, or, in other words, all that is essential to salvation” (8). They should avoid “party spirit,” and seek to “emancipate themselves from the errors and prejudices of education. It is certainly the duty of all persons, in matters of conscience or religion, to inquire for themselves, and, divested of prejudice, form their own conclusions” (9).

After religion, young ladies should read history and literature. “Poetry and novels may be read occasionally, but not indiscriminately or too frequently. Indulging too often in works of fancy, or what is commonly called light reading, vitiates the taste, promotes indolence, and deters young persons from pursuing graver and more important studies” (9). [So what about Fatal Errors? listed on her title page?]

Letter II. On the Motives for Female Improvement.

The chief motive for improving our minds is to make ourselves fitter subjects for a future existence (11), but youth is more interested in the present life, it seems.

Attention to looks is important, but “to please the man of taste, to charm the sense and touch the soul, the features must be illumined by intelligence, the complexion varied by sensibility, and the fine figure rendered interesting by unaffected simplicity and grace” (12). Mind is ultimately more important than outward physical features. Instead of sleeping so much, she thinks young girls can steal one or two hours from the pillow or the toilette “for the acquisition of much useful knowledge and real learning” (13).

In what seems a subtle critique of her sister Mary Hays and her outspokenness, Elizabeth writes:

...she who is more careful to be well informed than anxious to be thought learned, more desirous of gaining instruction from others than solicitous to show off her own acquirements, thoughtless of pleasing, often pleases the most: well grounded in those accomplishments which are wont to be exhibited in genteel society, and not ignorant of those topics which are usually and frequently discussed by the intelligent and the polite, she feels perfectly at her ease, prepared either to speak or to listen, as occasion shall demand. No affectation, no flutter, no undue anxiety concerning the place she shall claim in the circle, the impression she shall make on her hearers is apparent: modest, sensible, attentive to others, occupied by what is going on, she forgets that too often obtrusive and important individual – self: absorbed in the subject discussed, all that she feels is real, all that she says natural and spontaneous: when no impression is made on her imagination, no enthusiasm excited in her feelings, she attempts not to supply their places by affected sensibility, artificial phrases, or silly and unmeaning exclamations. (14)

Aside from improving one’s mind to become a good marriage partner and distinguished in society, mental improvement is also important in helping one cope with life’s disappointments and solitude (15).

Letter III. On the Motives for Female Improvement (continued).

Here she talks about making good decisions and having a good understanding based upon sound principles. Happiness, she contends, is based upon “the mind and the disposition of the individuals, rather than on the station in which they are placed, or on the eminence on which they stand” (17).

Letter IV. On the Filial and Various Other Domestic Duties.

She criticizes current female boarding schools for being “disposed to undervalue and think lightly of the less splendid, though more solid and useful, acquirements of their mothers . . . [They] are apt to be unduly vain of their school learning, and frequently fancy themselves superior to those who are not only older, but better informed on every subject of importance, than themselves” (20). She may have a brilliant education, yet be unable “to regulate her own mind, or restrain within proper bounds either her vanity, her temper, or her feelings” (27).

Young girls should do for themselves whenever possible. “Energy of mind, activity of body, and personal independence, are the pride and the glory of youth” (29). They must become “useful” members of society (30). “Young ladies who are engage din a variety of pursuits, and take delight in improving their minds, seldom complain of listlessness and ennui; and are not subject to the usual attendants on indolence – the vapours and the spleen” (33). Don’t pay too much attention to fashionable dress either. It should be appropriate. “To be truly agreeable in her manners, a young lady should be easy, natural, unaffected, and obliging” (35). She closes this chapter with a sobering passage on the illusions of romantic love in youth, in what seems directed at the 1790s!

The days of sentiment, with those of chivalry, are gone by with us: England is no longer young; nations, like human beings, have their infancy, their maturity, and their old age. Increase of knowledge and of luxury instates tends to check those high-wrought feelings in individuals, which originate in illusion, and exist but in the imagination. Experience and improving reason rectify the mistakes of youth; while revolving years and the real events of life but too soon dispel the light visions of fancy, which irradiate and enchant us while the world to us is new and untried. (38)

Letter V. On Friendship and Fraternal Affection.

“Exclusive pretensions,” she writes, “let them consist in what they may, are sure to disgust, even where they do not offend” (43). “Knowledge, and knowledge only, by freeing the mind from prejudice, can dispel the mists of superstition, pride, and bigotry, which a too-contracted education in either sex must necessarily produce” (45). Women can thus, as effective mothers, assist in bringing in the Millennium! (46).

Letter VI. On Matrimonial Engagements.

She argues that most marriages are accidents, often the result of “fancy, dignified by the name of love” (47), not the result of deliberate choice, not even on the part of men, who supposedly possess the power to choose (women, it seems, did not). She thinks people should marry within the same ranks of age, wealth, and class. Marriages “entered into rashly, or at an early period of life, before either the taste or the judgment are sufficiently matured, mutual disappointment is too frequently the result” (49). Women should first evaluate the “personal character, moral qualities, and mental endowments” of a future husband before any other considerations (51). Young girls need to be careful not to “connect their ideas of happiness with the chaste and pure affections of the heart” (52). Women should not risk all for love, but rather seek duty at times. Young women “should guard their hearts with all diligence, and beware of too rashly forming what maybe justly termed . . . a romantic and imprudent attachment” (53).

Letter VII. On the Single Life.

She extols the reign of Elizabeth as a time of equality in instruction for women, including science and languages, and after the Civil War, women lost considerable ground in that regard as a result of the excesses of the Restoration and the moral rigidity of the Puritans and Nonconformists (54), following an age that had produced such examples of female ability in Lady Jane Grey, Lady Rachel Russell, and “British females in general” (55). Women became like “slaves, who, by their charms, their graces, and their allurements, were to adorn society, and give zest to pleasure” (55). Women were degraded and have never regained that “elevated station” they previously had (55). In 1820, those consequences were more noticeable for single than married women.

She now expatiates on the situation of the elderly single female, like her sister Mary. This woman wakes one day “as from a morning dream, and reluctantly exchanges the gay, the delusive, visions of her early years, for the more sober and dull realities of maturer age” (56). Often with a limited income, she fights off depression and disappointment, can become “peevish in temper, and vainly seeks for sympathy or friendship” (56).

She writes of literary women:

Learned ladies and female authors have long ceased to be regarded either as objects of curiosity or aversion; and the epithet blue-stocking lady, as a term of reproach or ridicule, is no longer applied to any but the affected, superficial, and half-witted female, whose pretensions to learning or science are not justified by her attainments. (58)

She continues this theme:

The progress of civilization, which is daily advancing both in the old world and in the new; the more general diffusion of literature both in town and country, by the means of libraries, book-clubs, reading-societies, &c.; the greater attention paid to female education than formerly; and, above all, the splendid talents which, of late years, have been displayed, and the lofty energies which, in various ways, have been exerted by women, have redeemed their character as a sex from the charges of imbecility and frivolity – charges by which they have been too often and too long both cruelly and unjustly insulted by those who are incompetent to judge of female ability, and who, from mistaken notions of its real value, still wish to debar woman from free access to the tree of knowledge. (58)

She says that present England has just as many older unmarried women as the previous century, and their situation “is no longer considered as an anomaly in society” (59). She thinks that “self-love” must eventually be absorbed “in the social affections” (60), but that is not easy for the single female to do. All too often, the “self” becomes “the central point to which her cares, her anxieties, all tend, and in which, at last, her pains and her pleasures alike terminate” (60).

In what might be a comment on Mary Hays, Elizabeth writes:

Has she sisters or early friends settled in her vicinity, let her not, because they have no longer undivided affections or unappropriated time to bestow, fancy herself slighted or neglected, and, in consequence of that suspicion, give up their society: on the contrary, she should endeavour to secure their friendship, and evince the sincerity of her own, by taking a kind and affectionate interest in their concerns, being ready at all times to offer them assistance when needful, to visit them in sickness or affliction, to sooth them in the hour of nature’s sorrow, to share with them, in a degree, the care and the attention due to their offspring. By persevering in this conduct, she will gradually lose the sense of her own loneliness, secure the respect and esteem of all rational persons, and gain the affections of the rising generation. (61)

Her final statement seems another shot at Hays:

The less we think of ourselves the more we enjoy existence, which can never be barren of felicity to those whose time and talents are engaged in any laudable pursuit; and, after all we can either hope for or imagine of good in this sublunary world, the greatest portion of real happiness will ever be found in a steady course of virtuous actions, and in the habitual exercise of the benevolent affections. (63)

Letter VIII. On the Conjugal Duties.

Men ought to be the “friend, the guide, the protector, of his wife” (64), but all too often they are not (cp. Mary-Anne in the novel). She embraces a common motif about men, however, by setting them as bound to the world of action and not the domestic world, and the wife must understand that and prepare for it wisely and tactfully (65). Women must make sacrifices when they marry, she opines, but they “will not cost her very dear,” she contends (68). Women possess “by far a greater share of disinterested qualities”(72). Lanfear is very traditional here: Keep the peace at all costs, if necessary, even forgiving infidelity and be willing to emigrate to other lands if necessary (75).

Letter IX. On Maternal Affection.

Very traditional notions here of motherhood. Most poignant, however, is the passage on the death of a son or daughter, which happened to Lanfear in August 1817, when her son, John Hays Lanfear, died at the age of 12, possibly of consumption, for this is what she depicts in this chapter.

Letter X. On Education.

She begins with a veiled reference to Helvetius’s philosophy of first impressions forming one’s character (87), though she says whether it be true or false she will leave to “those who are fond of nice and curious disquisitions to determine” (87). Nevertheless, she is convinced that early education has much to do with shaping a child’s future, though it cannot overcome what nature has not bestowed (88). She stresses the development of the passions, reason, and character (88). She is very much a sensationalist as far as how our minds are shaped by experience of the external world (92). Children learn best when they are engaged and interested in learning, not when they are browbeaten into rote lessons.

Letter XI. On Education. (Continued.)

She writes that at the current time many young mothers having received far superior educations than their mothers are now instructing their daughters at home for the early years. She also notes the increasing advantages of sending young girls to day schools, not boarding schools. She warns against excessive sensibility or using sensibility as a character trait, when all people have sensibility, she says. “No one,” she writes, “should pride themselves on their sensibility, obtrude their own particular feelings on those who are not interested about them, nor make [104] a vain and troublesome display of their sympathy on every trifling occasion. The feelings, to be respectable, must be restricted by reason ...” (103-04).

Letter XII. On Sabbatical Institutions.

She believes only two ordinances are to be observed, baptism upon “acknowledging the truth of Christianity, and partaking of [111] the Lord’s supper in commemoration of his death” (110-11). The first comment implies she does attend at Worship Street and has remained a Baptist Unitarian since the 1790s. No card playing on Sundays either! (115).

Letter XIII. On Order.

God is a God of order, and those who “in thought, word, and deed” are “most orderly” come the closest to imitating God (117). Young people are prone to give themselves over to a single impression, whether in love or religion, the latter usually extinguishing “the steady light of reason”

and leading to all sorts of disorder (118). This is the result of an “overheated imagination,” which can “blind the judgment, and sometimes mislead the heart” (118). Her language here seems apropos to both Mary and herself in the 1780s in regard to their parents:

... when the pursuit of knowledge or the fervour of devotion leads a young woman into any peculiar line of conduct, or to a pertinacious and bigoted attachment to any particular system of faith not held by her parents, let her beware lest she mistake pride or pedantry for religion, and intolerance for zeal; and let her not [120] take offence should she be reminded tat modesty is a female virtue, and humility a Christian grace. (119-20)

She warns her young readers about too much sensibility after marriage: “Sensibility, however real or however properly excited, should not be too much [123] indulged, and should never be displayed at the expense of prudence, decency, or good manners” (122-23). She closes with this statement of young womanhood c. 1825, in which the virtuous woman is she,

who, with an enlightened mind, a steady faith, and a pure heart, without vanity, without bigotry, does all things in order, performing, to the best of her power, with singleness of heart and simplicity of mind, all the various duties of her station: satisfied with a peaceful conscience and an approving God, she looks not to man for her reward; whatever may be her lot in this life, where the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, she rests in humble hope and with perfect confidence in the Being who will, in his own time, receive her into that world where sin and sorrow enter not, and where all will be order, harmony, and love. (125)

Part II. Sketches from Real Life.

Sketch 1. Louisa the Indulged.

This story is about a mother whose only daughter, Louisa, is a sickly child and terribly overindulged by her mother, which only keeps the child in a weak state. The Randalls move to Clapham where the mother thinks the air will improve her daughter’s health. She grows up pampered and vain, early prepared, Lanfear writes, “to become one of those helpless useless beings termed fine ladies, and grew every day more and more capricious, fanciful, and affected” (132). Mr. Randall wants to send her away to a boarding school but Mrs. Randall says no, so they get her a governess and hire teachers and she becomes accomplished in music, drawing, and French! (133). At sixteen she was thoroughly trained in vanity and pride and was ready, according to Mrs. Randall, for her coming out (134). At 21 she is introduced to Mr. Batson, a young friend of her father’s, to be pursued in marriage. She rejects him because he is a tradesman, and then meets a lawyer, Mr. Frederic Irving (140). They marry after a short period of courtship. They live in town, but she wants to spend more time in Clapham with her mother, which he allows. She complains of his house and many things, all evidence of her being spoiled. She also becomes more debilitated. He then takes a house in Clapham which he thinks will improve her health (145). She continues as peevish as ever, and does little to amuse herself or improve her mind (“reading, as the mean of acquiring knowledge, she had no notion of” [147]). Mr. Randall’s son, James, Louisa’s brother, uses the firm’s money for poor investments and much of their fortune is lost, and thus Louisa’s husband realizes he must reduce his expenses, which she is not pleased with (149-50). “Unmindful of the cares, the sorrows, and the severe trials, to which but too many of her sex re exposed, she called herself the most unfortunate of women; forgetting that no individual, however prosperous or however deserving, is born with any charter which can exempt him or her from adversity” (150). Irving gets an offer of more money in India with a judge and he wants to go; Louisa says yes initially but eventually says no (152). Irving leaves for India alone; she writes to him to return, but he refuses to give up his situation. He remains there and she ends up alone, “a widowed wife, [to pine] out the remainder of her days in retirement and solitude, a prey to ennui, discontent, regret, mortification, and disappointment” (154).

Sketch II. Harriot the Active.

Harriot Pearson was the eldest of twelve children. Mr. Pearson was a good provider and Mrs. Pearson an excellent homemaker. Harriot, who did not attend a boarding school, becomes efficient in her domestic duties as well, but also takes time to read and improve her mind, including a knowledge of literature (156), all approved by her “rational” mother (157). A Mrs. F. invites her to a party at her house, and Harriot goes, even though her gown is not particularly gay. She meets a Mr. Graham, who dances with her and is enamored of her (161). He asks her to marry him and she accepts, and he asks for nothing in return. They settle in a nice estate but his tastes are more extravagant than hers, yet she, Lanfear notes, was “possessed of a stronger intellect than her husband” (167). His firm suffers some financial losses, he goes to Hamburg to see about some of them, and tells her to reduce their expenses by taking a smaller house (169-70). He sees her wisdom and prudence and allows her to control all domestic spending and he will be more alert to his business deals and partners (174). He begins to understand the virtues of simplicity vs. ostentatious displays of wealth. “Simple pleasures are ever the most durable; and by propriety of conduct we ensure the esteem of the wise and the good, though we may incur for a time the censure of the weak, the thoughtless, and the idle” (175). They become a successful and happy family, and the story closes with lines from Proverbs 30 on “the virtuous woman” (175).

Sketch III. Myra the Unstable.

Myra Selwyn was an orphan at 15 with a fortune of £40,000. She had two guardians at that time. She had attended a boarding school, and after that was instructed by various masters in her home. She lives half her time in London with Mr. Edwards and his second wife, who is very nice to Myra and whom Myra likes. The other half with her uncle Mr. Harcourt in the country, but whose wife, her aunt, she does not like so well. Mrs. Edwards wanted Myra to learn drawing and music but also to attain a “general knowledge of history, natural philosophy, and the belles-lettres” (179), which Myra was somewhat hesitant to do. Mr. Edwards thinks she is already educated enough to be a good wife, but Mrs. Edwards believes that “cultivating her understanding, and rectifying her judgment” would make her an even better wife (180). Mrs. Edwards’s only son, Philip Errington, arrives home from college and he and Myra become friends. Myra begins to apply herself more to her education, which Philip considers important. He agrees to assist her in learning some of the harder subjects (182). Mrs. Edwards notices the two becoming interested in each other and warns her son, who says he will be more careful. Myra suspects something has happened, and confronts him about it and essentially proposes to him!!! [Cp. with Emma Courtney]. “Answer me sincerely, do you love me, or do you not? and, if I were disposed to offer to your acceptance my hand and my fortune, would you be such a savage as to refuse them?” (185). He professes his love to her but also the fact that an engagement would be unwise on her part and rejected by her guardians, since he has no fortune of his own (186-87). They agree to leave matters as they are and wait. But Mr. Harcourt claims his due that she spend the remaining three years of her minority (18-21) with him in the country. She does not want to leave, confesses her love to Mrs. Edwards and to her son, and Mrs. Edwards says that when she turns 21, she can do as she pleases. “[I]f you should retain your present sentiments in favour of my son, no one will have a right to control your choice” (189). During her time in the country, Philip begins to have second thoughts and notices changes in Myra, and he tries to put her out of his mind (193). But she professes her love to him once again, and he presses on in his studies and profession to become able to marry her. Then a letter arrives informing the Edwardses that Myra was to be married to Sir H— W—!! (194). Philip is devastated, as is Mr and Mrs Edwards. Myra had been exposed to “the world,” and it had left its mark upon her. Myra, “weak and unstable,” was unable to resist the attentions of the young nobleman (a baronet), even though it was against her “better judgment” (197). They marry but within two years her husband begins to show bad traits to the degree that Myra rues the day of her marriage and thinks now of Philip (198). Sir H—begins to neglect Myra, who was growing more melancholy each day. Philip eventually marries and lives a happy life; Myra gets a divorce but is dumped by her lover and ends up living alone in the north of England, where she died “unlamented,” except for some of the poor whom she helped (199). Lanfear warns her readers not to be too critical of Myra but to have “charity” towards her, for moments of weakness can come to anyone. Earlier she had said this about Myra’s situation and its applicability to young women in general, a kind of two-edged sword:

Women, differently constituted by nature, and differently situated in society, are, by law and custom, more dependent upon others for their support, for their advancement in the world, and for their happiness. Early disappointment in love is too frequently, in the bosom of the soft and pensive fair one, the canker-worm which, though concealed, secretly gnaws the heart, fades the cheek, and undermines peace, usefulness, health, and life; while, in marriage, an error in judgment, or a mistake in their choice, is not only fatal to their happiness, but, in some cases, dangerous to virtue, and destructive to fortune. (196)

Sketch IV. Cecilia the Discreet.

Cecilia Fielder was the only surviving child of her parents, both of whom were in poor health. A neighbor’s son, a distant relation, named Albert, is her admirer, but he is very gay and wants to be soldier. He first must attend Oxford, and though he tries to get her engaged to him before he leaves (she refuses at that time to commit), he goes thinking she will later. Cecilia was very prudent and discreet and was not overly persuaded by Albert’s pledge of love. Mrs. Fielder dies and Mr. Fielder goes with his daughter to the Continent for a lengthy stay there (two and a half years) (206). She still thinks of Albert during her absence. Upon their return, they winter at Bath, and one day while walking on the Parade, they meet Albert, on vacation from Oxford (211). She tells him not to call on Sunday because they attend the chapel in “morning and evening” (212). He calls each that week and then leaves for Oxford, unreconciled with his father who wants him to become a minister, not a soldier. Ceclilia stays home on Sunday evening from chapel and Albert returns with a gun, bent on getting money from a bureau in her father’s room. He will not tell her why he needs the money and when she refuses to help him, takes a gun. She tries to wrest the gun from him but it goes off in his breast (219). Albert survives, and Mr. Fielder takes care of him in an adjoining apartment. Cecelia nurses him back to health, and Mr. Fielder tries to get to the bottom of his problem. He had gotten in debt at Oxford and came to Bath to gamble his way to a full purse, which he did, only to lose it all in one last night’s gaming (226). He thought that taking Mr. Fielder’s money was his only recourse to pay his debts, since he could not ask his father. Mr. Fielder intervenes with his father and procures monies for the debts and gets Albert a commission in the Army. He leaves for the Continent and Cecilia and her father return to the home. She refuses several offers of marriage, while Albert learns that life in the army is not so good. He eventually dies of disease, his remains brought home for burial, to which Cecilia attended. She never married, but took care of her father until his death and after that devoted herself to charity, founding a school for young girls, over which she presided, serving as a fitting model for the youth of the next generation (233).

Sketch V. Polidore and Cleanthe the Selfish.

Polidore is a successful bachelor and at 35 does not feel any need to create problems for himself through marriage. Yet he does worry about old age, infirmity, and loneliness. Thus, he begins to contemplate eligible partners. One woman is purported to be a Methodist, and Lanfear shows no hesitation in presenting her in a bad light, noting that though Polidore “had no objection to religion in a wife, a sense of which he justly thought the best guarantee for female virtue, he had no penchant for a bigot; nor did he wish to wed a lady who might, possibly, bore him with grave lectures, or be running to chapel and missionary societies when she ought to be at home and attending to domestic duties” (238-39). The other sisters in her family are all paraded before him as well, and none suit him. All the women are described in ways that make them somewhat emblematic, or stereotypes of single women at that time. He does not like overly delicate women either (the fainting kind) (242). At times Lanfear is a bit sarcastic regarding her descriptions of the women Polidore might be seeking, many of whom, she writes, “were lively, pretty, good-natured girls, very fashionable and very accomplished, but nothing more; --and who, in this polite age, but an old bachelor, could wish for any thing more in females under twenty-five?” (244). He meets Cleanthe and he begins to think she might be the one (246). She was from Devonshire and soon returns there from London. Nevertheless, he offers her his hand in marriage before she leaves, and she accepts (247). They are happy for two months, and then some discontent sets in. Lanfear writes: “[D]omestic habits and economy, even in a wife, may be carried too far; and honey moons will not last for ever: the cup of matrimony, like the cup of life, has its acids as well as its sweets; and, sometimes, the deeper we drink of it the more crabbed odes it become” (248). They begin to quarrel about who should rule in the house, and they quarrel over his decision to go hunting with his old friends. They both had very different notions of the duties in marriage of both the husband and the wife (252). He begins to relent, however, and sees that most of her objections are for his own good. But when he becomes sick, he discovers she cannot act the part of nurse, and the mutual recriminations destroy their marriage. As Lanfear notes, such an end is usually the result “of those connexions which are formed from selfish rather than from social motives; and such the termination of what is called love in those hearts which, incapable of a generous and disinterested attachment, seek their own advantage or gratification in preference to the comfort of happiness of the object of their choice and nominal affection” (254).