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The Brontës and Hester Chapone
Guest Post by Samantha Ellis
Despite best efforts, no one really knows exactly what the Brontës read, and you can tie yourself in knots trying to find out. But we do know that the curriculum at Roe Head School, where all three sisters studied, and where Charlotte taught, was based on a 1773 conduct book by Hester Chapone called Letters on the Improvement of the Mind. So when I started writing Take Courage, my book about Anne Brontë, I knew I had to read it too.
The book is based on a series of letters Chapone wrote to her fifteen-year-old niece, lecturing her on everything from how to study history (by reading Homer, Plutarch and “do not forget my darling Shakespeare”) to how to make and keep friends. Some of Chapone’s readers found her fusty and dull—but worthy. In Richard Sheridan’s 1775 play The Rivals, flighty Lydia Languish hears her aunt coming and orders her maid to “hide these books. Quick, quick!—Fling Peregrine Pickle under the toilet—throw Roderick Random into the closet—put The Innocent Adultery into The Whole Duty of Man—thrust Lord Aimworth under the sofa—cram Ovid behind the bolster—there—put The Man of Feeling into your pocket” and, finally, with all the naughty books squirrelled away, sighs “now lay Mrs Chapone in sight”.
Yet Chapone had her fans. Mary Wollstonecraft eviscerates conduct books in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, but admits that “Mrs Chapone’s Letters are written with such good sense, and unaffected humility, and contain so many useful observations, that I only mention them to pay the worthy writer this tribute of respect.”
Chapone won me over with some letters she wrote when she was still Miss Hester Mulso, a 22-year-old bluestocking. She wrote to Samuel Richardson, then a literary heavyweight forty years her senior, to complain about his novel Clarissa. She thought he was wrong to argue that women should marry whoever their parents told them to, and that “neither reason nor religion condemn[ed]” women who defied their parents, especially when those parents didn’t have their daughters’ best interests at heart. As for herself, she wrote, “if ever I marry, I ought to give the man I marry a sincere preference to all other men; and I should think myself at liberty to reject any man to whom I could not give such a preference.” Enraged, Richardson called her a “little spitfire”.
Chapone did marry, in 1760, but was widowed soon afterwards. By the time she died in 1801, her Letters had been through at least sixteen editions. A few years later came a parody, The Anti-Chapone, where an aunt advises her niece to study heathen mythology (so she can get the chance to draw nudes) and tells her that if she is strays from her marriage, “do not imagine that you will be scorned or rejected by all society, and be doomed to sigh in solitude severe,—O No! those are the highly ridiculous ways of old. If...you are but rich, titled, and handsome, you...will be received.”
Chapone talks more sense than this, and she also refuses to write only for readers who are “rich, titled, and handsome”. She is scathing about vanity and pride. She urges her readers to read seriously, to seize any opportunity to learn, and to study nature as well as books, because “If you survey the earth, every leaf that trembles in the breeze, every blade of grass beneath your feet, is a wonder.”
Yet I am fairly sure Charlotte didn’t enjoy teaching from the Letters. While at Roe Head School, Charlotte was tormented by thwarted passions, wishing she could give up the “wretched bondage” of teaching and lose herself in writing Angrian fantasies. Charlotte’s whole oeuvre can be read as a rebuttal of Chapone’s statement that “It is plain, from experience, that the most passionate people can command themselves.”
Meanwhile, Anne was writing Gondal poems but was also moving towards a sense that too much passion might not be entirely wise. She might have found Chapone reassuring, particularly her views on marriage. Chapone refreshingly advised her niece, “do not be afraid of a single life”, especially if the alternative is marrying for money, which she calls “detestable prostitution”. You can trace a line from this to Rosalie’s rich but miserable marriage in Agnes Grey. Most of all, I think Chapone confirmed the teenage Anne’s growing belief that if she could “honestly search into all the dark recesses of the heart”, she would might write better and live a more considered, happier life.
Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis is published by Chatto & Windus on January 12th.
Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall are published in new editions by Vintage Classics on January 12th.