Duncombe, "Observations on Female Literature"

- from The Westminster Magazine (June 1776): 283-5

[Embelliƒhed with an elegant ENGRAVING of thoƒe LADIES.]

           Happily we do not live in thoƒe days when prejudice condemned our women to ignorance to be deplored. The ridicule which Moliere [1] caƒt on Female Pedantry brought all kinds of Knowledge into ƒuch diƒrepute with the Women of France, that many of them made a merit of murdering their mother-tongue&nbsp: there have been always, however, ƒome Fair-ones, who, detaching themƒelves from the ƒlavery of cuƒtom, have ventured to think, to ƒpeak, and to write with propriety; and there are many Ladies at this time in England who do not bluƒh--who have no reaƒon to be aƒhamed to diƒcover that they are better inƒtructed than the majority of the ƒmart fellows of the age.
          The ingenious Author of the Feminead*[2], or Female Genius, opens his Poem with the following lines, which muƒt be read by every Lady who thinks the "enlargement of her mind, as well as the expanƒion of her head," worth her attention, with particular pleaƒure&nbsp:

Shall lordly Man, the theme of every lay,
Uƒurp the Muƒe's tributary bay;
In kingly ƒtate on Pindus' ƒummit ƒit, [3]
By Salic law the female right deny, [4]
And view their genius with regardleƒs eye ?
Juƒtice forbid ! ------ ------
Long o'er the world did Prejudice maintain,
By ƒounds like theƒe, her undiƒputed reign;
" Woman! (ƒhe cried) to thee indulgent Heav'n
Has all the charms of outward beauty giv'n&nbsp:
Be thine the boaƒt, unrivall'd to enƒlave
The great, the wiƒe, the witty, and the brave&nbsp:
Deck'd with the Paphian roƒe's damaƒk glow, [5]
And the vale-lily's vegetable ƒnow;
Be thine, to move majeƒtic in the dance,
To roll the eye, and aim the tender glance;
Or touch the ƒtrings, and breathe the melting ƒong,
Content to emulate that airy throng,
Who to the ƒun their painted plumes diƒplay,
And gaily glitter on the hawthorn ƒpray;
Or wildly warble in the beachen grove,
Careleƒs of aught but muƒic, joy, and love."
Heavens! could ƒuch artful, ƒlavish ƒounds beguile
The free-born ƒons of Britain's poliƒh'd iƒle ?
Could they, like fam'd Ulyƒƒes' d ƒtand crew,
Attentive liƒten, and enamoured view,

      *The Rev. Mr. Duncombe, of Canterbury
Page 284
           Nor drive the Syren to that dreary plain,
In loathƒome pomp where Eaƒtern tyrants reign;
Where each fair neck the yoke of ƒlav'ry galls,
And in a proud ƒeraglio's gloomy walls
Are taught, that, levell'd with the brutal kind,
Nor ƒenƒe nor ƒouls to Women are aƒƒign'd !

Our British Nymphs with happier omens rove,
At Freedom's call, thro' Wiƒdom's Sacred grove;
And as with laviƒh hand each Siƒter Grace
Shapes the fair form, and regulates the face,
Each ƒiƒter Muƒe, in bliƒsful union join'd,
Adorns, improves, and beautifies the mind.
     *     *     *     *     *     *     *
With various acts our rev'rence they engage,
Some turn the tuneful, ƒome the moral page;
Theƒe, led by Contemplation, ƒoar on high,
And range the heavens with philoƒophic eye;
While thoƒe ƒurrounded by a vocal choir,
The canvaƒs tinge, or touch the warbling lyre.

          In the number of ingenious Female Writers who have diƒtinguiƒhed themƒelves in ƒeveral branches of polite literature, the two Ladies whom we have ƒelected for the embelliƒhment of our preƒent Magazine make a very brilliant appearance. With regard to theƒe Ladies, indeed, the Author of this ƒheet cannot, for obvious reaƒons, expatiate on their reƒpective merits in a manner agreeable to his inclination; but he hopes that nothing which he does ƒay concerning them will give the leaƒt offence. He is very ƒure, that he wiƒhes to give them rather pleaƒure than uneaƒineƒs, by his ƒketches of their literary characters.
          Mrs. Montagu [6], with a very pleaƒing perƒon, a liberal mind, a benevolent heart, and a large fortune, appears, in conƒequences of her combined advantages, in a great variety of attractive ƒituations. In her life, as well as in her writings, the ƒolidity of her underƒtanding and the elegance of her taƒte are equally conƒpicuous&nbsp:
By Fortune follow'd, and by Virtue led,
Mrs. CARTER. [7]
She is alƒo
With wit well-natur'd, and with books well bred.
POPE. [8]
With a mind richly cultivated and highly poliƒhed, Mrs. Montagu has favoured the Public with compoƒitions which are truly claƒƒical, and which may be frequently read with renewed ƒatisfaction.--The Three Dialogues of the Dead written by her, and publiƒhed by the late Lord Lyttelton [9] at the end of his own, abound with good ƒenƒe, ƒprightly ƒentiments, and ƒound morality. The firƒt of theƒe is between Cadmus and Hercules, and is calculated to ƒet forth the uƒe and excellence of learning. The next, between Mercury and a modern fine Lady, is a pleaƒant ridicule on the trifling, diƒƒipated manner in which our modiƒh fair ones miƒpend their time. The laƒt, between Plutarch, Charon, and a modern Bookƒeller, is a lively ƒatire on the literary taƒte of the preƒent age, which, to the great diƒgrace of letters, delights in fabulous, obƒcene, and immoral romances.
           Theƒe Dialogues certainly diƒcover the fair Writer's judgment and her taƒte; but they both appear dans tout leur jour [10], in her " Eƒƒay on the Writings and Genius of Shakeƒpeare, compared with the Greek and French Dramatic Poets; with ƒome Remarks upon the Miƒrepreƒentations of M. de Voltaire."--The merits of the Eƒƒay are not, however, confined to a mere defence of Shakeƒpeare [11], or to obƒervations of Voltaire's criticiƒms. It abounds with curious diƒquiƒitions, and will undoubtedly hold a high rank among the moƒt claƒƒical pieces of the ƒame nature in the Engliƒh language. The parallel drawn between the conduct of the two Poets, in reƒpect to the Ghoƒt of Darius, in the Perƒeus of Eƒchylus, and that of Hamlet, as well as the compariƒons made between Shakeƒpeare and the French Dramatic Writers, are attended with a great number of the moƒt judicious and beautiful obƒervations. The charge againƒt Voltaire of miƒrepreƒentations, of not underƒtanding the Engliƒh language, and of his being guilty of the greateƒt abƒurdities in his tranƒlation of the firƒt act of Shakeƒpeare's Julius Cæsar, are abundantly proved.
          Mrs. Barbauld, who, with the name of Aikin, firƒt darted into the poetical world a few years ago, and charmed all thoƒe who have a true reliƒh for the effuƒions of a genius under the immediate inƒpiration of the Muƒes, ƒtill ƒhines with a luƒtre ƒufficient to make the Mob of Gentlemen who write "about it, Goddeƒs, and about it," appear like "little ƒtars hiding their diminiƒhed rays" at the approach of the ƒun in his riƒing ƒplendor. This Lady is not only poetically enchanting, but perƒonally attractive. With a countenance in which every thing agreeable in a woman is ƒtrongly expreƒƒed, ƒhe prepoƒƒeƒƒes you
Page 285
extremely in her favour at firƒt ƒight; and you are doubly pleaƒed with the diƒplay of her intellectual powers in converƒation with her, as ƒhe ƒeems not to be conƒcious of an underƒtanding ƒuperior to the greateƒt part of ther ƒex. "Her eye ƒpeaks ƒenƒe diƒtinct and clear," when ƒhe is ƒilent, and ƒhe never opens her lips to deliver her thoughts with an oracular ƒententiouƒneƒs; nor does ƒhe ever converƒe with an oracular duplicity. She never ƒpeaks as if ƒhe attempted to command admiration; but ƒhe says nothing which does not deƒerve it. With her lettered friends ƒhe opens her mental ƒtores with the leaƒt affectation to be imagined, and is doubly cautious, before the illiterate, to ƒhade her talents with the veil of diffidence, that ƒhe may not force them to feel their inferiority. There is, indeed, a delicacy as well as propriety in her deportment uncommonly pleaƒing; which, joined to the mildneƒs of her manners, and her affability to all kinds of people, throw an inexpreƒƒible charm over her whole perƒon, and induce us to venerate the beauties of her mind.
          With regard to Mrs. Barbauld's poetical compoƒitions, there is a maƒculine force in them, which the moƒt vigorous of our poets has not excelled&nbsp: there is nothing, indeed, feminine belonging to them, but a certain gracefulneƒs of expreƒƒion (in which dignity and beauty are both included) that marks them for the productions of a Female Hand. Her ƒtyle is perfectly Horation [12], elegantly poliƒhed, and harmoniouƒly eaƒy. The curioƒa felicitas dicendi [13], which Genius alone and the ear that Nature has harmonized can produce, is frequently to be found in her beautiful Poems. She has alƒo written ƒome pieces in proƒe, which, in point of elegance, are as much ƒuperior to the laboured Eƒƒays of our ƒturdy Moraliƒt as the easy motions of a fine Gentleman are, in point of grace, to the ƒtiff attitudes of a Dancing-maƒter.


1. The pen name of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (1622-73), playwright, actor, and theatre manager known for his farces and comedies of manners. His plays about art and nature, Les Précieuses ridicules (1659) and especially Les Femmes savantes (1672), might be in mind here. It should be noted that the reviewer seems to be giving a selective view of Molière's attitudes; in other plays, in particular L'École des femmes (1662), he satirizes men who wish to keep women ignorant.
Return to text.

2. John Duncombe, a friend of Elizabeth Carter, wrote The Feminead: or, Female Genius, a Poem, which circulated in manuscript before being published in 1754 (2nd ed. 1757). The poem is a celebration of virtuous learned women and was meant to encourage women writers.
Return to text.

3. Pindus' Summit: A mountain range in central and northwestern Greece whose highest peak is 8,650 feet.
Return to text.

4. Salic Law: A law thought to derive from the code of laws of the ancient Salic Franks which prohibits a woman from succession to the throne.
Return to text.

5. Paphian roses are related to Paphos, a city near the southwest coast of Cyprus, where Aphrodite, the goddess of love, was said to have been born from the sea-foam. A temple to the goddess was built at Paphos in the 12th century B.C.
Return to text.

6. Elizabeth Montagu (1720-1800) was an essayist, letter writer, patron, and bluestocking hostess. Montagu was a friend of Elizabeth Carter, Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, Lord Lyttleton, and Sir Joshua Reynolds, and a patron to James Beattie, Anna Barbauld, Frances Burney, and Hannah More. She contributed three essays to Lyttleton's Dialogues of the Dead (1760) and published An Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespeare in 1769. Her four volumes of letters were published in 1809 and 1813. Source: Schnorrenberg, Barbara Brandon. A Dictionary of British and American Women Writers, 1660-1800. Ed. Janet Todd. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1987. 221-2.
Return to text.

7. "By fortune follow'd, and by Virtue led," "To _____" (52) from Poems on Several Occasions (1762), page 14.

Elizabeth Carter (1717-1806), poet, essayist, translator, and letter writer, was a close friend of Catherine Talbot and Elizabeth Montagu. She wrote Poems on Particular Occasions (1738), two papers for the Rambler (Nos. 44 and 106) and Poems on Several Occasions (1762). Her best-known work was a translation of Epictetus (1758). Her letters to Montagu were published in three volumes (1817) and letters between Carter and Talbot appeared in four volumes in 1809. Source: Schnorrenberg, Barbara Brandon. A Dictionary of British and American Women Writers, 1660-1800. Ed. Janet Todd. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1987. 75-6.
Return to text.

8. "Epistle to Miss Blount, With the Works of Voiture" (1712), line 8.
Return to text.

9. George Lyttleton, first baron Lyttleton (1709-73) was a patron of literature and friend of Pope and Fielding and an opponent of Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole. He is addressed by Thomson in The Seasons. He published poems and a history of Henry II (1767-71) and co-authored Dialogues of the Dead (1760) with Elizabeth Montagu who wrote three of the eighteen essays in the collection. Source: The Oxford Companion to English Literature. 5th ed. Ed. Margaret Drabble. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1985.
Return to text.

10. In their best light, to advantage.
Return to text.

11. A refutation of criticisms by Voltaire and published in 1769.
Return to text.

12. Characteristic of the Latin poet Horace (65-8 B.C.) whose writing is known for its formal rigor, succinctness, and elegance.
Return to text.

13. Thoughtful felicity of expression.
Return to text.