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?