Fashioning the Ideal Female Student in the Eighteenth Century: Catharine Macaulay on Reading Novels

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Catharine Macaulay (1731-1791) has been called the first female British historian. Her eight-volume history of England, which had great popularity during her lifetime, inaugurated her influential career as a radical political thinker and historian. She published a number of highly regarded political and philosophical works, including challenges to Edmund Burke and support for the French Revolution. She cultivated relationships with the leaders of the American Revolution, visited George Washington and his family in 1785, and corresponded with him throughout the rest of her life. Less well-known are her writings on the ideally educated woman. In Letters on Education with Observations on Religious and Metaphysical Subjects, (1) Macaulay argued that the weakness of the typical eighteenth-century Englishwoman was due to her mis-education, which she gained in part by reading popular novels. Novel reading was often decried as immoral and wasteful, but it became the reading choice of many women in the British Isles and the newly established Republic of America. According to Macaulay, most of these novels expressed narrowly traditional, often gender-biased, public sentiments that represented a counter-productive, often dangerous public voice antithetical to the development of the ideal student. However, she acknowledged the pedagogical potential of novels by Miguel de Cervantes and Henry Fielding. She believed that their works made a positive contribution to the ideal curriculum for the eighteenth century female student, not only by fulfilling her special requirements for good fiction, but also by buttressing the educational aim of producing a virtuous and complete person--female or male.

Literature was a central component of Macaulay's curriculum. In Letters on Education with Observations on Religious and Metaphysical Subjects, she included reviews of Samuel Richardson's Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded, and Clarissa: Or the History of a Young Lady, as well as Frances Burney's Cecilia: Or Memoirs of an Heiress. (2) She expressed serious reservations about the inclusion of such novels in her proposed curriculum. She wanted female students to learn to recognize and critique the voice of the novel rather than accept its opinions uncritically. Her assessment is strikingly similar to those of many contemporary scholars of British literature. Paul G. Bator, for example, writes that "the fear of the professors was the common fear that persisted as the ranks of novelists grew: that young men and women would be unable to dissociate their own passionate identities from those of the characters whose lives they were following." (3)

The young men and women Macaulay envisioned were aged ten through twenty-one, males and females, of all social classes. The curriculum for these youths was intended to prevent crime and increase happiness. She explained that students between the ages of twelve and nineteen would move from non-reading to reading standard texts and writing in four languages. She believed they should be isolated from voices of authority, including those of novels, until they were ready. Her curriculum was designed to produce the ideal adult of either gender whose mind had been brought to "such a height of perfection as shall induce the practice of the best morals." (4) By contrast, the typical education for girls in England at the time consisted of governesses instructing girls in the reading of fairy tales, romances, and the Bible. (5) Many girls and young women also read novels in their spare time. Macaulay believed that too often these writings failed to dramatize actions she believed to be of the highest moral character. Yet she did not reject all fictional narrative. She acknowledged the pedagogical potential, which she called the beauties, (6) in some fictional works. Two that garnered her unwavering approval were Cervantes' Don Quixote and Fielding's Joseph Andrews. (7) Cervantes' and Fielding's works made a positive contribution to Macaulay's curriculum not only by fulfilling special requirements for good fiction, but also by buttressing her educational aim of producing a virtuous and complete person who thought critically and creatively, and could critique the public voice of the novel? …