Between the Savage and the Civil: Dr John Gregory’s Natural History of Femininity

  • Mary Catherine Moran


Dr John Gregory’s A Father’s Legacy to His Daughters was easily the best-selling female conduct book of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, both in Britain and America. First published posthumously in March 1774, the work was an immediate and enduring success, selling 6000 copies between 1774 and 1776 alone,2 and running through scores of reprints well into the nineteenth century, with an edition published as late as 1877. It was frequently excerpted in periodicals and miscellanies, was often published alongside Hester Chapone’s Letters on the Improvement of the Mind (1773), and sometimes served as a companion piece to Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to His Son (1774). The Legacy also ran through dozens of American editions and was translated into French, Italian and Russian. It is little wonder, then, that the London-based (but Scottish-born) printer William Strahan might view the success of the work as something of a standard, against which it would be unreasonable to hold everything that he and his partners published: commenting on the disappointing sales of another book, Strahan reminded his Edinburgh partner William Creech that, ‘We cannot expect everything to fly like Gregory’s Legacy’.3 Nor is it surprising, given this enormous popularity, that the Legacy is now seen as the paradigmatic eighteenth-century female conduct book: Gregory is frequently mentioned in passing as a typical eighteenth-century moralist, while his Legacy is often cited briefly or parenthetically as an obvious example of the period’s conventional pieties surrounding women and gender.


Civil Society Human Nature Eighteenth Century Female Conduct Comparative View 
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  1. 2.
    Gregory’s Legacy was one of the most successful of all Strahan’s publications. Sandra Naiman, ‘William Strahan’, in James K. Bracken and Joel Silver, ed., Dictionary of Literary Biography: British Literary Book Trade, ([0-9]+)–([0-9]+) (Detroit: Gale Research, 1995), 275.Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    Janet Todd, Introduction, Female Education in the Age of Enlightenment, Vol. 1 (London: William Pickering, 1996), xviii.Google Scholar
  3. 8.
    Margaret Hunt, The Middling Sort: Commerce, Gender and the Family in England, ([0-9]+)–([0-9]+) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 247–8, note 8.Google Scholar
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    Kathryn Shevelow, ‘Fathers and Daughters: Women as Readers of the Tatler’, in Gender and Reading, ed. Elizabeth A. Flynn and Patricinio Schweickart (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 107.Google Scholar
  5. 14.
    Betty Rizzo, Companions Without Vows: Relationships Among Eighteenth-Century British Women (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1994), 13. Chapter 6 of this book, entitled ‘Parent and Child: Montagu and Gregory’, offers a fascinating account of the fraught relationship between Gregory’s eldest daughter Dorothea and the Bluestocking Elizabeth Montagu.Google Scholar
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    Vivien Jones, ‘The Seductions of Conduct: Pleasure and Conduct Literature’, in Pleasure in the Eighteenth Century, eds. Roy Porter and Marie Mulvey Roberts (New York: New York University Press, 1996), 109.Google Scholar
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  8. 21.
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    See Lewis H. Ulman, The Minutes of the Aberdeen Philosophical Society (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1990).Google Scholar
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    Ibid., I: v-vi. For Ossian as a’ sentimental savage’ see John Dwyer, ‘The Sentimental Savage: a Re-appraisal of the Poems of Ossian’, in his The Age of the Passions (East Lothian: Tuckwell Press, 1998).Google Scholar

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© Mary Catherine Moran 2005

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  • Mary Catherine Moran

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