Chapone, Hester (1727–1801)

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Chapone, Hester (1727–1801)

Literary figure in Georgian England. Name variations: Hester Mulso. Born Hester Mulso on October 27, 1727, in Twywell, Northamptonshire, England; died on December 25, 1801, in Hadley, Middlesex, England; daughter of Thomas Mulso (a farmer and landowner) and Hester (Thomas) Mulso; married John Chapone (an attorney), in 1760 (he died ten months later); no children.

Published first poem, "To Peace: Written During the Late Rebellion" (1745); began writing for The Rambler (1750); widowed (c. 1761); wrote educational treatise for young women (1773).

Selected writings:

Letters on the Improvement of the Mind (1773); Miscellanies in Verse and Prose (1775); A Letter to a New-Married Lady (1777).

Hester Mulso challenged conventions of her time to earn recognition as a writer and advocate educational opportunities for women in Georgian England. She was born in 1727 in Northamptonshire (where her father was a prosperous farmer) and was the only daughter among the four Mulso offspring. Known as a precocious child, Hester, familiarly called Hecky, wrote a romance entitled The Loves of Amoret and Melissan at the age of nine. Her beautiful voice earned her the name of the "linnet."

Her brothers, who all entered the ministry as adults, were educated from an early age, and Mulso also displayed an interest in learning, which her mother strongly discouraged. But when her mother died, Chapone was able to study—apparently unimpeded by her father—literature and languages; by her early adulthood, she was versed in French, Italian, and Latin. At the age of just 18, she wrote the poem "To Peace: Written During the Late Rebellion," which established her as a literary figure of the day. Beginning in 1750, she penned fiction for The Rambler, a well-known journal published by Samuel Johnson, the respected novelist, essayist and author of the first Dictionary of the English Language.

Chapone was a contemporary and friend of Mary Wollstonecraft , author of On the Vindication of the Rights of Women, as well as of the writer Elizabeth Montagu ; Samuel Richardson, a popular novelist of the era with whom she corresponded on the subject of "filial obedience," was also an influential acquaintance of hers. Though she signed her letters as his "ever obliged and affectionate child," Chapone's biographer indicates that "her letters show with what dignity, tempered with proper humility, she could maintain her own well-grounded opinion," as she admired Richardson's views with discrimination.

Chapone was esteemed for her spirited conversational skills among the literati with whom she socialized. She—along with Elizabeth Carter , Elizabeth Montagu and Catherine Talbot —was among the first generation of Bluestockings. Destined to span roughly two generations, the Bluestocking Circle became one of London's most celebrated societies for members of the leisured gentry. The circle began during the 1750s and 1760s as a conversation among friends, both women and men, who were interested in literature and other intellectual pursuits. Rather than wear the white silk stockings then worn by London's fashion-conscious gentry, one member of the circle, Benjamin Stillingfleet, started to attend their evening meetings dressed in blue worsted stockings, ordinarily worn only by peasants. From Stillingfleet's provocative choice, Montagu, an early member, coined the society's name.

A "bluestocking philosophy," concerned with literature rather than politics, emerged as a means of what members called "rational entertainment" for women, and the circle evolved into London's most famous women-only society. In addition to their meetings, members communicated through letters, discussing their personal and professional activities and ideas at length. Eventually, as political turmoil in Europe of the late 1790s destabilized society, conservatives openly scorned the accomplishments of intellectual women, and "bluestocking" became a term of ridicule.

Against her father's wishes, Hester wed lawyer John Chapone in 1760, but it may have been an unhappy marriage. When he died less than a year later, she was devastated and mourned his passing deeply. For the rest of her life, Chapone earned a living as a writer; her most famous work had similarities to Wollstonecraft's later Vindication, published in 1792: in Chapone's 1773 work, Letters on the Improvement of the Mind, she argued for a self-education course for young women and presented a general curriculum that included science, history, and philosophy. She had written it for her niece, and the book remained popular in Britain, the United States, and even France well into the next century; its 25th edition was issued more than 70 years later in 1844. Chapone also wrote Miscellanies in Verse and Prose (1775) and A Letter to a New-Married Lady (1777). She died in 1801, and her collected writings were published in the four-volume Works in 1807 and the two-volume Posthumous Works, also in 1807; her descendants later wrote a biography of her, Memoirs of Mrs. J. Chapone, from Various Authentic Sources (1839).

Carol Brennan , Grosse Pointe, Michigan