Aristocratic Feminism, the Learned Governess, and the Republic of Letters
This essay will explore some of the prescriptive advice given to women from the aristocratic elites. These were the eighteenth century women Mary Wollstonecraft was to dismiss in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) as beyond reform, addressing herself to the middling sort instead.1 She had given up on aristocratic women because she was disenchanted by her experience of working for the Kingsborough family, and had come to agree with a more thoroughgoing social and political critique of England’s ancien régime, based on a discourse of natural rights.2 But I think it behoves us as historians to avoid doing the same, and thereby read the century backwards from a critique that begins to prefigure the modern world of equal rights feminism. There was a tradition of the literary, if not the learned, governess in the 18th century, who operated within aristocratic and royal circles, and which lay behind Wollstonecraft’s appeal as a published authoress to Lady Kingsborough, and this is what I want to sketch in broad outline.
KeywordsEighteenth Century Polite Society Young Lady Conduct Literature Political Critique
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