Fordyce on Women

Fordyce on Women

When Mr. Collins reads from Fordyce’s Sermons in Pride and Prejudice, I always figured he was reading something dry and preachy. What I didn’t figure was that he was also reading something incredibly sexist.

Fordyce wrote several books of sermons, but his Sermons for Young Women was the most popular of his books, extremely popular during Austen’s adolescence. Belonging to the genre of conduct books, the sermons were widely read during the late Eighteenth Century, but fell out of favor toward the Nineteenth Century. Records from the time indicate that Jane Austen’s family had this book in their family library.

Sermons for Young Women is available online for free on Google Books, and you can click here to access it.

The sermons are arranged as follows:

  • On the Importance of the Female Sex, Especially the Younger Part.
  • On Modesty of Apparel
  • On Female Reserve
  • On Female Virtue
  • On Female Virtue, Friendship and Conversation
  • On Female Virtue with Domestic and Elegant Accomplishment
  • On Female Meekness

Since Mr. Collins seems to be Fordyce’s Sermons for Young Women personified, you might be surprised at how familiar the sermons sound. Like him, they’re wordy and full of both contradiction and flattery.

For example, Fordyce begins his first sermon by quoting scriptures that discourage women from spending too much money and effort on their personal appearance. Then he seems to contradict himself, saying God will be disappointed if young women don’t make themselves as beautiful as possible:

Indeed, none but  the most contracted, or the most prejudiced, may deny that women may avail themselves of every decent attraction, that can lead to a state for which they are manifestly formed; and that, should they by any neglect of their persons render themselves less amiable than God has made them, they would so far disappoint the design of their creation.

I also found an echo of Mr. Collins in the following quotation (thinking of the situation with Lydia and Wickham):

The world, I know not how, overlooks in our sex a thousand irregularities, which it never forgives in yours; so that the honour and peace of a family are, in this view, much more dependant on the conduct of daughters than of sons; and one young lady going astray shall subject her relations to such discredit and distress, as the united good conduct of all her brothers and sisters, supposing them numerous, shall scarce ever be able to repair.

Fordyce seems to lay the blame for many of society’s ills upon women, so that though men are the “protectors” of women, women are also responsible for leading young men astray:

I must take the liberty to say that amongst a number of your sex who are not sunk so low, there is a forwardness, a levity of look, conversation and demeanour unspeakably hurtful to young men.

Fordyce also suggests that women are to blame when a husband neglects his wife:

I am astonished at the folly of many women who are still reproaching their husbands for leaving them alone, for preferring this or that company to theirs, when, to speak the truth, they have themselves in great measure to blame. Had you behaved to them with more respectful observance studying their humours, overlooking their mistakes, submitting to their opinions in matters indifferent, giving soft answers to hasty words, complaining as little as possible your house might be the abode of domestic bliss.

He also made a point of frowning upon a women’s intelligence in general, reminding women that they were created mostly as objects of beauty:

Nature appears to have formed the (mental) faculties of your sex, for the most part, with less vigour than those of ours, observing the same distinction here as in the more delicate frames of your bodies.

I can see why Jane Austen was eager to poke fun at Fordyce’s Sermons. They are not only ridiculous, they enforce false beliefs about women that could lead to exploitation. It’s horrifying that parents read these sermons aloud to their girls. However, I can just picture young Jane and Cassandra snickering about them and then quoting them to each other in jest.

Which of the quotes do you find most horrifying or, perhaps, the most ridiculous?



13 Responses to Fordyce on Women

  1. Wollstonecraft’s position was undermined by her baby out of wedlock, her affair, and her suicide attempt.Men and women knew capable, intelligent women– but many thought those were the exception. . just as Victoria was deemed fit to be queen at 18 but other 18 year old females weren’t considered smart enough to choose a husband. .Hannah More, Wollstonecraft, and Austen all agreed that education was the first step. Female education was set up to make them frivolous; yet as soon as they were married they were expected to be mature, sensible and efficient managers of children and houses. Music, art, and dancing could be set aside by the married woman once they had worked to lure a husband into her trap.

  2. I’m in total agreement with Jane Austen. Collins was ridiculous and so was Fordyce. How dare he blame a roaming husband on his wife. How many women were in arranged marriages where the husband had been promiscuous for years and just continued on after his marriage regardless of how his wife comported herself? And for implying that women have less brains, a pox on him. 🙂 And he has the gall to mention nature instead of acknowledging that our heavenly Father is the creator. And Fordyce was a clergyman! Tsk, tsk. Good for Jane Austen for poking fun at him. Thanks for the interesting post, Rebecca.

  3. I cringed over the part … stating that women are to blame when a husband neglects his wife… that it was her fault… ??? Oh, and I loved … ‘Had you behaved to them with more respectful observance studying their humours,…’ What the crap??? I assume that is the study of the four humors set forth by the Greek physician Hippocrates. So, a woman had to not only check the sky to see what the weather was going to be, but to also check the humors of her husband to determine what kind of mood he was in??? Dang!! I’ll take my time period any day. I could not… would not survive in the Regency era. Nope… nada!!

    Thanks for this post… most excellent. As I read the text… I could really hear Collins’ voice. I always thought his manner of speech was so strange. Now I see where he acquired it. He was trying to emulate Fordyce. Dang!!!

    • What, you’ve never encountered a woman who was bitchy and miserable to her husband? Would you not agree that it’s impolite and counterproductive to be oblivious to the moods of your significant other? Wouldn’t you expect your own husband to “check your humours”? (which simply means, be aware of what his mood is, btw). For example, if you were feeling sad, would you want him to be fussing at you about something? Yes, it’s a two way street, but what’s wrong with suggesting that you be mindful of making home a pleasant place to be?

    • Thanks, J. W.. It is a very odd way of speaking, isn’t it? I’m mindful of my husband’s moods, but he’s also mindful of mine. I guess that’s the difference between today’s philosophy and Fordyce’s.

  4. The insult that nature has formed our brains with “less vigour”. eye roll Seriously. I’ve met men with the mental faculties of a fence post and women as well. I’ve also met women who could take apart said fence post on a molecular level and then study the genus to form synthetic strands (and of course brilliant men as well). Such balderdash. It’s no wonder that women with any sense of their own intelligence were considered bluestockings or willful and poor marriage material. God forbid they think for themselves. LOL Makes for great fiction writing though. 😉

  5. What got me was the part that said women should be more respectful of their husbands. Respect is a two way street!

  6. I didn’t realize they were sexist but am not at all surprised. I especially was horrified with the quote blaming wives for their husband’s neglectful behavior.

    • Thanks, Deanna, for your comment. It was the norm, to a certain extent, but by the time Austen published her books, Mary Wollstonecraft had published her “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”, which criticized Fordyce. I believe a lot of people were beginning to rethink this mindset.

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