Elizabeth Hays Lanfear, Letters to Young Ladies, Letter II (1824)

For a short summary of the life of Elizabeth Hays Lanfear, click here for her entry in the Biographical Summaries. For a more complete introduction to Lanfear, along with a new edition of Fatal Errors, selections from Lanfear's Letters to Young Ladies on their Entrance into the World (1824), her contributions to Mary Hays's Letters and Essays, Moral and Miscellaneous (1793), and her two surviving letters to Mary Hays, see Fatal Errors: or, Poor Mary-Anne, a Tale of the Last Century, ed. Timothy Whelan and Felicity James (London: Routledge, 2019).



Entrance into the World;





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.








Having acquired fixed and steady principles of religion and morality, rectitude of judgment on every subject connected with social life will necessarily follow. From the neglecting to form clear ideas and determinate principles on important subjects in early youth arise that vacillation of sentiment, that inconsistency of conduct, and that feebleness of character in riper years, which are conspicuous in but too many individuals, who, in other respects, are sufficiently amiable.

In science a few simple axioms form the foundation on which is erected the whole superstructure of mathematics and mechanics; so, in morals, a few simple principles, constantly resorted to, may be made to embrace the whole circle of human duties. An enumeration of those minor virtues and more particular duties which the female sex are called to practise in their various and relative situations in life shall be reserved for the subject of some future letter: in this I shall confine myself to enforcing the advice already given by such motives as observation and experience may furnish.

The first and grand motive to improvement, and which ought to operate on both sexes as a stimulus to the attainment of both moral and intellectual excellence, is the hope that, by improving the talents intrusted to us in this life, we shall be rendered more meet, and fitter subjects, for that higher, purer, state of existence, which is promised in the Gospel to the good and faithful servant.

Though all that this life can either give or promise is less than nothing, and vanity, when compared with those joys which await the good and the virtuous realms beyond the grave, motives arising out of the present state of things may have a better chance of gaining the attention of the young than those which originate in the expectation of things to come. In the imagination of youth, the world, with all its fascinating charms, stands gaudily portrayed; while death and futurity, placed in the back ground of the picture, are but scarcely perceived, and seldom dwelt on with a steady or willing eye.

Mental acquirements and moral excellence, even were this life the whole of existence, would enhance the attractions of youth, give respectability to age, and afford resources and consolation amid disappointment, affliction, and adversity. Mere personal charms, though not without their value, are too common, and in this country, famed for female beauty, too frequently exhibited to public view, to excite any very strong or permanent sensation in the beholder. Regular features, a delicate complexion, or a fine figure, adorned by the hand of fashion, may attract the transient gaze and gain the prize of vulgar admiration; 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.

In a large or mixed party, it is not the most beautiful, the most fashionable, or the richest-dressed female, who will be generally found to attract the greatest share of homage and attention from the other sex, but she whose manners and conversation are the most elegant and agreeable. It is true that, for the mere purpose of being admired in company, very superficial acquirements will frequently suffice; but the fair maiden whose higher ambition and better feeling may lead her to wish to gain more solid esteem, more permanent admiration, than that of the passing hour, must lay the foundation of her fame a little deeper, and store her mind with useful knowledge, as well as embellish her fancy with ornamental literature.

Novels, poetry, reviews, and the publications of pamphlets of the day, with which book-clubs at present amply supply the reading world, may afford sufficient materials for the purposes of entertainment and conversation; but those who wish to improve their minds must not permit light reading to interfere with, much less to supersede, graver pursuits and more important studies, such as theology, history, philosophy, &c.

There are in every library authors whose fame and value time has sanctioned: with these every person who makes any pretension to literature ought to be acquainted; and perhaps the earlier many of them are read the better. Young persons, who put off reading what may be called the English classics from the common and idle excuse of want of time, very seldom read them at all. If youth will not afford leisure, can we expect or hope to obtain it in riper years? The fact is, those who complain of want of time are, generally speaking, those who do the least. It is not want of time, but want of inclination—want of vigour of mind, or order and arrangement in our pursuits and occupations, added to a trifling or indolent disposition—which gives rise to this excuse: one or two hours every day, stolen from the pillow or the toilette, would be sufficient for the acquisition of much useful knowledge and real learning.

The youthful female whose heart beats but for vanity, and whose first or only wish is to shine, sometimes mistakes the road, and, by too much effort to please, too elaborate a display of her own accomplishments, and too frequent demands on the attention and flattery of her associates, defeats her own purpose. On the contrary, 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 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.

Venus, the goddess of beauty, is represented by the poets as possessed of a cestus, by which she effected and secured her conquests over gods and men; intimating by this that beauty, though perfect and divine, requires something beyond mere external show to render it truly fascinating and irresistible. Juno, the fabled queen of Heaven, having a boon to ask of her husband, Jupiter, borrowed of Venus this alluring cestus before she ventured to offer her petition. This fiction shows that, even in the earliest periods of society, men looked for and expected to find in women other and more seductive attractions than those which belong to mere personal charms.

Having urged the necessity and the advantage of adding mental cultivation to external graces for the purpose of attracting the other sex and being distinguished in society, with equal truth, though probably with less chance of being attended to, might be portrayed the necessity of improving the mind, in order to enable women to support, with resignation and dignity, disappointment and solitude. The gay spring of youth gone by, the world and all its intoxicating vanities shut out from us perhaps for ever, no brilliant circle to dazzle the imagination, no social party to cheer the drooping spirits, no obsequious admirers to flatter and adore, no partial friend to sustain or sooth the sinking heart: it is then, in that lone hour, unsupported by extraneous or external objects, the mind recoils on itself, learns to estimate its powers, appreciate its resources, and either rejoice in its own strength, or, benumbed, and wanting courage to exert its energies, sinks into lassitude, imbecility, and wretchedness.

1 Lanfear, Elizabeth Hays. Letters to Young Ladies on Their Entrance into the World; to which are added Sketches from Real Life (London: J. Robins and Co., 1824; 2nd ed., 1828), pp. 10-15; for an annotated edition of the text, see Timothy Whelan and Felicity James, eds., Fatal Errors; or, Poor Mary-Anne, a Tale of the Last Century, by Elizabeth Hays Lanfear (London: Routledge, 2019), pp. 88-91. A notice of the publication of Elizabeth Hays Lanfear's Letters to Young Ladies appeared in the Scots Magazine in June 1824. It was reviewed in the Gentleman's Magazine 94 (October 1824): "Mrs. Lanfear's Letters to Young Ladies may not only be fully recommended to those for whom they are written but also to the other sex, as the best source from which they can learn properly to appreciate female society" (55).