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Chapone, Hester

Hester Chapone

18th century British writer Hester Chapone (1727-1801) defied the social standards of Georgian England by speaking up for a woman's right to a quality education. Childhood, Interrupted

Hester Mulso was born October 27, 1727 in Twywell of Northamptonshire, England. She was the only surviving female child of country gentleman Thomas Mulso and his wife, Hester (Thomas) Mulso. She had three brothers, all of whom eventually lived out careers in the ministry. Carol Brennan's Women in World History biography reveals how as a girl, Chapone earned the nicknames “Hecky” and “linnet”—after the British songbird—for her beautiful voice. She displayed an early aptitude for writing, composing a romance at the age of nine that she called The Loves of Amoret and Melissan. Sources suggest that her mother disapproved of the accomplishment and speculate that the maternal reproach might have been borne of jealousy because the young girl was clearly gifted.

Jeannine Dobbs's 1976 Frontiers article titled The Blue-Stockings: Getting It Together explained that eighteenth-century English women from the working class “received little if any education … [while] Daughters of wealthy and/or aristocratic families were educated at the whims of their fathers.” Indeed, Chapone's brothers enjoyed quality educations from an early age, and although Chapone's mother discouraged her at first, when her mother passed away Chapone was free to pursue an edification of her own design. The young Chapone managed her father's estate and took on a curriculum for her own intellectual development with his blessing, during which she taught herself Latin, Italian, and French as well as music, drawing, and dancing.

In Sickness and in Health, Until Death …

In 1754, Hester Mulso and John Chapone—an attorney who was part of naturalist and epistolary novelist Samuel Richardson's (1689–1761) social set—began a long courtship. John Chapone was no stranger to smart, strong women. His mother, Sarah Chapone (1699–1764), was a celebrated feminist writer of her own time. Hester Mulso remained engaged to John Chapone for six years, during which time they struggled to obtain her father's approval. In 1760 they were married, and in a cruel stroke of fate nine or ten months later—in 1761—John Chapone died. Some sources claim their marriage was unhappy, while others argue that the affectionate content of their personal letters and the fact that the couple struggled so long and with such determination to gain approval for their union suggest a deep devotion, and Chapone keenly mourned its loss. Her husband's death left Chapone in dire economic circumstances. Unable to afford a home of her own, Chapone moved frequently, living in the homes of various friends as well as the estate of her uncle, the Bishop of Winchester.

Befit as a Bluestocking

Chapone never let her tenuous personal situation stand in the way of her evolution as a professional writer. She translated poetry as well as composed it, and chose to interpret verse on traditional subjects like the splendor of nature, the pleasures of solitude, and the perfection of friendship. Her own poetry also tended to celebrate the conventional, like her piece To Stella—written for British poet Susanna Highmore (1690–1750)—that champions the joys of female camaraderie over romantic relationships. Chapone's first poem was written in 1745—an ode to harmony titled To Peace: Written During the Late Rebellion. In her role as occasional literary critic, Chapone also extolled the novels Evelina (1778), Cecilia (1782) and Camilla (1796) written by Frances Burney d'Arblay, known as Fanny Burney (1752–1840)—praise that reportedly thrilled the celebrated author.

Chapone was quickly welcomed into the circle of female minds known as the “bluestockings” along with linguist Elizabeth Carter (1717–1806), feminist author Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) and social reformer and critic Elizabeth Montagu (1718–1800), all of whom she admired and befriended. Women in World History's Carol Brennan described the Bluestocking Circle as “one of London's most celebrated societies for members of the leisured gentry … [that] began during the 1750s and 1760s as a conversation among friends, both women and men, who were interested in literature and other intellectual pursuits.” The group earned their names when one of the initial gentry members began wearing the blue stockings normally seen only on the legs of peasants. Their discussions, which focused on literature instead of politics, became the seat for the most celebrated female society in London.

Chapone was first published in a 1750 issue of Samuel Johnson's The Rambler—a gentleman's magazine—to which she contributed an epistolary story in fictional letters. In 1753 she published The Story of Fidelia—the cautionary tale of a woman's descent into free-thinking and eventual salvation by religion—in Hawkesworth's The Adventurer. It was her Letters on the Improvement of the Mind: Addressed to a Young Lady, however—published anonymously in 1773—that secured her place in social and literary history.

Chapone's Letters on the Improvement of the Mind was one of the first of many such conduct books that followed in its wake. Linda Troost's biographical sketch in the Encyclopedia of British Women Writers describes the work as one that “presents a detailed plan for educating girls and includes a list of recommended books [in history, philosophy, poetry, geography and chronology as well as advice on] reading the Bible, controlling one's temper, managing finances, and acquiring accomplishments.” The manuscript evolved over many editions in multiple countries before arriving in its final form in the 1851 edition, and was addressed to her niece, Elizabeth Montagu (named in honor of the elder bluestocking critic)—becoming a significantly influential handbook or primer on female comportment and education. Troost's biography told how “The queen revealed to [Chapone] in 1778 (both were visiting [Chapone's] uncle, the Bishop of Winchester) that even the Princess Royal's education had been guided by the Letters.” The popular classic was still in print in 1840—reprinted often, with three editions released within just a year of publication. It even appeared in the fiction of the time when, in Irish playwright Richard Sheridan's (1751–1816) comedy of manners, The Rivals (1775), one character named Lydia Languish hides a stack of inappropriate novels she has been reading and pretends to be reading Chapone's Letters. While Letters on the Improvement of the Mind undoubtedly made Chapone famous, its release did not make her wealthy. She sold the copyright for a mere fifty pounds.

A Lifetime in Letters

In Letters—quoted extensively in the Chambers's Cyclopaedia of English Literature—Chapone stresses the importance of a young woman being “introduced into life on a respectable footing, and to converse with those whose manners and style of life may polish her behaviour, refine her sentiments, and give her consequence in the eye of the world.” She advises intimacy between those equal in rank and suggests that one place oneself among one's “superiors” without becoming proud. She also warns against “intimacy with those of low birth and education,” claiming that thinking of such connections as humble is, in fact, “the meanest kind of pride.” Chapone suggests that the lower classes be treat[ed] “always with affability” and “an affectionate interest” but advises against allowing them to become “familiar.”

In 1775 Chapone released Miscellanies in Prose and Verse and received two hundred and fifty pounds for the rights. It included her early poetry, some moral treatises and a reprint of The Story of Fidelia. Two years later, in 1777, she published what would be her final work, A Letter to a New-Married Lady. Chapone's combination of modesty and reason also inspired and motivated her contemporaries. In 1783, friends of the Earl of Carlisle asked for Chapone's help to influence Samuel Johnson to read and critique a tragedy the Earl had written, and Troost claimed that “Richardson used [Chapone] as a model for some of the ‘genteel characters’ in [his novel] Sir Charles Grandison (most likely Harriet Byron).”

Literary Legacy

Chapone died on December 25, 1801 in Hadley, Middlesex near London, England. Nothing beyond the date and place of death is recorded in most sources, suggesting how little was known about her personal life outside the details recorded by her correspondence. Chapone's relatives collected her work posthumously and put out a two-volume collection titled Posthumous Works and a four-volume collection simply titled, Works and Life in 1807. These collections showcased, among other things, the correspondence between Chapone and Samuel Richardson.

In the early 1750s, Chapone and Richardson used their correspondence to argue the merits of Richardson's 1748 novel Clarissa. Troost explained how Chapone felt that “a daughter should not marry without the consent of the parents but could refuse anyone the parents might propose” while Richardson claimed that “children must obey parents in all things and accept their choices of spouses.” Scholar Julie Straight noted how Chapone used her writing to stand up for a woman's right to develop their rational minds by engaging in religious study and debate—a belief she supported in relation to all areas of study. Chapone's Feminist Companion to Literature in English biography noted that Richardson called her both “a spitfire and rebel,” but admired the poise and modesty with which she maintained her own opinions. Johnson later shared that this friendship between Chapone and Richardson eventually faded because she let her poetry be read publicly and gained notariety—characteristics that Richardson supposedly found unbecoming.

Memoirs of Mrs. J. Chapone, from Various Authentic Sources—a biography written by descendants some time after her death—was published in 1839. Brennan explained how the term ‘bluestocking’ eventually developed into an insulting slight in the late 1790s, yet as recently as 1977 Harvard's Houghton Library underwent a renovation to establish an 18th-century enclave dedicated to England's Bluestockings. Chapone maintained that women were fully capable of rational thought, and did not have to relinquish morality or sentiment to achieve it. In her masterwork, Letters on the Improvement of the Mind Troost records how Chapone encouraged her niece and other young ladies to make choices by “listening to both heart and mind, but not to be ‘afraid of a single life.’ ”—sound advice for anyone, regardless of their time or gender and the remarkable legacy of an extraordinary woman.


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Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, Vol. 1, No. 3. Winter 1976.

The New York Times, November 27, 1977.

Nineteenth-Century Contexts, December 2005.

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