Today is International Women’s Day, and we are celebrating the women who form parts of the stories of our three male explorers. This year we are celebrating Hester Chapone, writer, critic and bluestocking.
Hester Chapone was the sister of John Mulso, Gilbert White’s lifelong friend, Gilbert & John met at Oxford, and Gilbert was quickly welcomed into the Mulso circle in 1745. He became a favourite of the whole family including, Hester (Hecky), who was just about to turn eighteen. John writes to Gilbert ‘Heck likes your hair, she confesses so already. It was a very neat compliment you sent her. She can’t answer it so She says nothing.’
Gilbert and Hester continued to correspond over the years, Hester referring to Gilbert as Busser-White his Oxford nickname, meaning buss, to kiss. She also coined the nickname Whitibus. John remarked in a letter. ‘You best know ye meaning of your new Name & whether it is a fond abbreviation of your Oxford Title Busser.’ Hester was keenly intelligent and largely self-taught as education for women was so limited. She was a keen literary critic, openly criticised Gilbert’s early poetic attempts, she criticised his translation of Horace, and in 1750 John writes ‘she would not always have you translate & imitate, but give your own invention scope, & I hope you observe what she says!’
Hester met Elizabeth Carter in 1749, Carter was a writer, poet, classicist and translator. Elizabeth had been luckier than Hester in that Elizabeth’s father had supported her education and supported her choice not to marry. Elizabeth was already and established writer who wrote regularly for The Gentleman’s Magazine and even Samuel John’s The Rambler. She and Hester became friends instantly both recognising in the other the same fierce intelligence and shared opinions.
By this time Hester was living in London and meeting with many of the most influential writers of the age. In 1749 Hester wrote an Horatian ode celebrating the poet Thomas Edwards, a friend of Samuel Richardson, one of the most famous and influential writers of the day. Edwards was delighted with the poem, and wrote a response back referring to Hester as Linnet, a reference to her singing voice. Richardson responded, calling Hester a nightingale. Of all the people Hester met during this time, Samuel Richardson would prove the most influential.
Richardson published Clarissa in 1747, the novel was a phenomenal success, and tells the tale of Clarissa Harlowe and her misfortunes. The novel centres on the idea that as Clarissa has defied her parents to marry the man she loves, her becomes nothing but misery and suffering. Hester wrote to Richardson challenging his ideas and John writes to Gilbert of the tennis match that ensued. ‘The first letter was long, Mr Richardson’s answer 13 close pages, Heck’s reply 17: & Mr R-s 3.’ Richardson writes to Lady Bradshaigh ‘I am at present engaged with most admirable young lady of little more than twenty, Miss Mulso, on the subject of Filial Obedience and Paternal Authority.’ . Hester writes to Elizabeth Carter’ I have been engaged in a kind of amicable controversy with my honoured friend Mr Richardson, […] Does it not sound strange, my dear Miss Carter, that a girl like me should have dared to engage in a dispute with such a man? Indeed I have often wondered at my own assurance; but the pleasure and improvement I expected from his letters were motives too strong to be resisted, and the kind encouragement he gave me got the better if my fear of exposing myself.’
Hester’s objections were that Clarissa was too passive when it came to her parents, where in other situations she was far more rationally minded. She had highlighted Richardson’s problematic view of women, he believed that they should be encouraged intellectually, but still saw them as vulnerable and in need of parental protection. Although Hester had written and published her works before, it was in this friendly but heated discussion with Richardson that proved to Hester that she was a writer. Even Gilbert benefitted from the friendship as in a letter between the two, Hester offers to show Gilbert’s Invitation to Selborne to Richardson!
Through Richardson Hester met attorney John Chapone, it was love at first sight and the two were married in 1760, unfortunately John was to die soon afterwards leaving Hester a widow. She continued to write and belonged to the Bluestocking Circle, a society of exceptional women, led by Elizabeth Montagu and Elizabeth Versey.
However what Hester is best known for is her Letters on the Improvement of the Mind and Miscellanies written in 1773 for her fifteen year old niece. Conduct books were extremely popular, a guide for the education of young women. Hester’s stood out as it focussed on rational understanding. She advised girls to avoid the sentimental novels she had been forced to read growing up, but to read history, The Bible and more serious literature. It was an immediate success going through many editions. Mary Wollstonecraft complimented it as one of the only works for young women that deserved praise. It became a staple of any young girl’s education in the late eighteenth century early nineteenth century; and Mrs Chapone became a household name.
In Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair, the protagonist’s school mistress is described as a correspondent of Mrs Chapone. Hester Chapone was also an influence of many of the great nineteenth century women writers we know today; Chapone’s epistolary writing style influenced Elizabeth Gaskell, and she reffered to in Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey. It is reported she also had an influence on our literary neighbour Jane Austen.
To learn more about Hester Chapone, we recommend ‘Yes, Papa! Mrs Chapone and the Bluestocking Circle’ by Barbra Eaton, from which much of this blog was informed!