“Thus … the qualities … are left to moulder in ruin”

A Girl’s Life Eighty Years Ago: Selections from the Letters of Eliza Southgate Bowne is a delightful collection of letters Eliza Southgate Bowne (1783-1809) wrote to family and friends during her lifetime. The daughter of a well-to-do physician and and his wife Mary King, whose brother Rufus King was a lawyer, politician and diplomat, Eliza received an excellent education, having attended Susannah Rowson’s Young Ladies Academy in Medford. See other posts on Eliza Southgate Bowne here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Eliza’s letters to her cousin Moses Porter, the son of one of her mother’s sisters, are among the most thoughtful and interesting. While her letters illustrate the domestic life of the country, their chief value, as Clarence Cook, who has written the introduction to the book, says “lies in the picture they give of the writer”—a young woman who defends a woman’s right to think for herself, reflecting the beginnings of a change in attitude about the abilities of women and their right to engage in activities hitherto thought to be within the sphere of men. Referring to this miniature, which is the frontispiece of the book by a noted painter of the day Edward Greene Malbone (1777-1807), Cook penned this verse.
“A hair-brained, sentimental trace
Was strongly marked in her face;
A wildly witty, rustic grace
Shone full upon her;
Her eye, even turned on empty space.
Beamed keen with honour.”

Scarborough, June 1st, 1801As to the qualities of mind peculiar to each sex, I agree with you that sprightliness is in favor of females and profundity of males. Their education, their pursuits would create such a quality even tho’ nature had not implanted it. The business and pursuits of men require deep thinking, judgment, and moderation, while, on the other hand, females are under no necessity of dipping deep, but merely “skim the surface,” and we too commonly spare ourselves the exertion which deep researches require, unless they are absolutely necessary to our pursuits in life. We rarely find one giving themselves up to profound investigation for amusement merely. Necessity is the nurse of all the great qualities of the mind; it explores all the hidden treasures and by its stimulating power they are “polished into brightness.” Women who have no such incentives to action suffer all the strong energetic qualities of the mind to sleep in obscurity; sometimes a ray of genius gleams through the thick clouds with which it is enveloped, and irradiates for a moment the darkness of the mental night; yet, like a comet that shoots wildly from its sphere, it excites our wonder, and we place it among the phenomenons of nature, without searching for a natural cause. Thus it is the qualities with which nature has endowed us, as a support amid the misfortunes of life and a shield from the allurements of vice, are left to moulder in ruin. In this dormant state they become enervated and impaired, and at last die for want of exercise. The little airy qualities which produce sprightliness are left to flutter about like feathers in the wind, the sport of every breeze.

More of Eliza’s letter in the next post.

A Girl’s Life Eighty Years Ago: Selections from the Letters of Eliza Southgate Bowne With an Introduction by Clarence Cook (New York: Scribner’s sons, 1887), pages 58-61. The miniature is by Edward Greene Malone (1777-1809).

posted April 13th, 2015 by Janet, CATEGORIES: Bowne, Eliza Southgate, Education, Letter-writing, Women's Rights


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