To a Lady (Dedicatory Epistle to The Female Advocate)

Background to the Dedicatory Epistle

The "Lady" is Mary Steele of Broughton, Scott’s close friend, fellow poet and correspondent, whose first published poem, ‘To Miss Scott, on Reading the Female Advocate’, appeared in The Lady’s Magazine the same year as The Female Advocate. Exactly when Steele encouraged Scott to finish her poem is not known; it may have been during Scott’s extended stay at Broughton from late 1772 through early 1773. Sometime in 1772 a draft of the poem arrived at Broughton and was reviewed by William Steele and probably by Anne Steele as well. In the Huntington Library copy of The Female Advocate, the same copy used by Gae Holladay in her facsimile edition of the poem, Sarah Froud [Frowd, Froude] of Sedhehill, Wiltshire, a distant cousin of Mary Steele, has written ‘Steele’ over the blank line in ‘Dear Miss –-’s request’. Froud added seveal other notations as well and signed the copy "1774." Holladay and Moira Ferguson incorrectly contend that Scott dedicated the poem to Anne Steele, an assertion repeated in the entry on Mary Scott in the ODNB. Marjorie Reeves, however, correctly identifies the recipient of the dedicatory epistle as Mary Steele. See Holladay, The Female Advocate, pp. iii-xii, especially p. iv; Moira Ferguson, ‘Scott, Mary’, A Dictionary of British and American Women Writers 1600-1800, ed. Janet Todd (London: Methuen & Co., 1984), p. 280; Reeves, Pursuing the Muses, p. 51. Titles mentioned in the epistle include John Duncombe, The Feminead or, Female Genius. A Poem. And an Evening Contemplation in a College, being a Parody on the Elegy in a Country Church-yard, 2nd ed. (London: R. and J. Dodsley, 1757); Hestor Chapone (1727-1801), Letters on the Improvement of the Mind Addressed to a Young Lady, 2 vols (London: Printed for H. Hughs for J. Walter, 1773); The Search after Happiness, a pastoral verse drama for young girls and one of the earliest literary compositions by Hannah More (1745-1833); Original Poems, Translations, and Imitations, from the French, &c. By a Lady (London: G. Robinson, 1773); and Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784), Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (London: A. Bell, 1773), the latter a subject of considerable interest within the Steele Circle in late 1773 (see William Steele to Mary Steele, 3 November 1773, in Nonconformist Women Writers, vol. 3). Other than the title by Duncombe, all the works mentioned appeared in print after 1771, which suggest Mary Steele most likely saw a draft of the poem prior to that date and then reviewed the later draft of the poem, along with her father and aunt, during Scott’s visit to Broughton in late 1772 and early 1773. Scott’s mention of the Aikin-Barbauld marriage makes it clear she was still revising up to the last minute before she sent the manuscript to Joseph Johnson.



As it was in compliance with my Dear Miss -----'s request this little Essay was finished, to her alone can it now with propriety be inscribed.

Mr. Duncombe’s Feminead you and I have often read with the most grateful pleasure; and undoubtedly you remember, that we have also regretted that it was only on a small number of Female Geniuses that Gentleman bestowed the wreath of Fame; and have wished to see those celebrated whom he omitted, as well as those who have obliged the world with their literary productions, since the publication of his elegant Poem.

Being too well acquainted with the illiberal sentiments of men in general in regard to our sex, and prompted by the most fervent zeal for their privileges, I took up the pen with an intention of becoming their advocate; but thinking myself unequal to the task, it was quickly laid aside, and probably never would have been resumed, had not your partiality to the Author led you to have been pleased with the specimen which you saw.

It may perhaps be objected that it was unnecessary to write on this subject, as the sentiments of all men of sense relative to female education are now more enlarged than they formerly were. I allow that they are so; but yet those of the generality (of men of sense and learning I mean, for it would be absurd to regard the opinions of those who are not such) are still very contracted. How much has been said, even by writers of distinguished reputation, of the distinction of sexes in souls, of the studies, and even of the virtues proper for women? If they have allowed us to study the imitative arts, have they not prohibited us from cultivating an acquaintance with the sciences? Do they not regard the woman who suffers her faculties to rust in a state of listless indolence, with a more favourable eye, than her who engages in a dispassionate search after truth? And is not an implicit acquiescence in the dictates of their understanding, esteemed by them as the sole criterion of good sense in a woman? I believe I am expressing myself with warmth, but I cannot help it; for when I speak, or write, on this subject, I feel an indignation which I cannot, and which indeed I do not wish to suppress: It has folly and cruelty for its objects, and therefore must be laudable; folly, because if there really are those advantages resulting from a liberal education which it is insinuated they have derived from thence, the wider those advantages are diffused, the more will the happiness of society be promoted: And if the pleasures that flow from knowledge are of all others the most refined and permanent, it surely is extreme barbarity to endeavour to preclude us from enjoying them, when they allow our sensations to be far more exquisite than their own. But I flatter myself a time may come, when men will be as much ashamed to avow their narrow prejudices in regard to the abilities of our sex, as they are now fond to glory in them. A few such changes I have already seen; for facts have a powerful tendency to convince the understanding; and of late, Female Authors have appeared with honour, in almost every walk of literature. Several have started up since the writing of this little piece; the public favour has attested the merit of Mrs. Chapone’s “Letters on the Improvement of the Mind;” and of Miss More’s elegant Pastoral Drama, intituled, “A Search after Happiness.” “Poems by Phillis Wheateley, a Negro Servant to Mr. Wheateley of Boston;” and, “Poems by a Lady,” printed for G. Robinson in Pater-noster-row, lately published, also possess considerable merit.

If I should be thought to have spoken with severity of men in general, I flatter myself I have not suffered one line to escape me, that can give pain to those of a more liberal turn of mind: For such, my heart feels all the esteem due to their exalted worth: They will approve of my design: And did they know how much, years of ill health have impaired every faculty of my mind, it might perhaps lead them to be favourable in their censures on the execution. My ear will I hope ever be attentive to the dictates of the candid Critic; but, I also hope I have spirit enough to despise the sneers of the narrow-minded Pedant.

But zealous as I really am in the cause of my sex, yet I would not be understood to insinuate that every woman is formed for literature: the greatest part of both sexes, are necessarily confined to the business of life. All I contend for is, that it is a duty absolutely incumbent on every woman whom nature hath blest with talents, of what kind soever they may be, to improve them; and that that is much oftener the case than it is usually supposed to be. As to those Ladies whose situation in life will not admit of their engaging very deep in literary researches, it surely is commendable in them, to employ, part at least of, their leisure-hours, in improving their minds in useful knowledge: the advantages of an understanding in any degree cultivated, are too obvious to need pointing out.

I am, with the sincerest regard,

My Dear Miss,

Your most obliged friend,

Mary Scott.

Milbourne Port,

May 10th, 1774.

Text: Mary Scott, The Female Advocate (London: J. Johnson, 1774); reprinted in Nonconformist Women Writers, vol. 4, pp. 29-30.