“that retiring grace, which awes whilst it enchants”

ABIGAIL ADAMS finishes her long letter to her sister Mary Cranch in which she described their experiences and the impressions she had of the places they stopped at and the people they met. The map of Devon shows these towns they visited: Axbridge, Exeter, Plymouth, and Kingsbridge. I have included Abigail’s description of members of the Cranch family because of the comments she makes about their place in British society and because she compares the class system in England to social status in the United States. Note Abigail’s comments on women: she was very critical of the behavior of upper class women in England and thought it appropriate that women affect a “retiring grace.”

Our next movement was to Kingsbridge. . . . the chief resort of the Cranch family. We arrived at the inn about six o’clock on Saturday evening. About eight, we were saluted with a ringing of bells, a circumstance we little expected. Very soon we were visited by the various branches of the Cranch family, both male and female, amounting to fifteen persons ; but, as they made a strange jumble in my head, I persuaded my fellow traveller to make me out a genealogical table, which I send you. Mr. and Mrs. Burnell, and Mr. and Mrs. Trathan, both offered us beds and accommodations at their houses; but we were too numerous to accept their kind invitations, though we engaged ourselves to dine with Mr. Burnell, and to drink tea with Mr. Trathan, the next dav. Mrs. Burnell has a strong resemblance to Mrs. Palmer. She is a genteel woman, and easy and polite. We dined at a very pretty dinner, and after meeting drank tea at the other house, Mr. Trathan’s. Their houses are very small, but every thing neat and comfortable. Mr. Burnell is a shoemaker, worth five thousand pounds; and Mr. Trathan a grocer, in good circumstances. The rest of the families joined us at the two houses. They are all serious, industrious, good people, amongst whom the greatest family harmony appears to subsist.

The people of this county appear more like our New England people than any I have met with in this country before; but the distinction between tradesmen and gentry, as they are termed, is widely different from that distinction in our country. With us, in point of education and manners, the learned professions, and many merchants, farmers and tradesmen, are upon an equality with the gentry of this country. It would be degrading to compare them with many of the nobility here.

As to the ladies of this country, their manners appear to be totally depraved. It is in the middle ranks of society, that virtue and morality are yet to be found. Nothing does more injury to the female character than frequenting public places; and the rage which prevails now for the watering-places, and the increased number of them, are become a national evil, as they promote and encourage dissipation, mix all characters promiscuously, and are the resort of the most unprincipled female characters, who are not ashamed to show their faces wherever men dare to go. Modesty and diffidence are called ill-breeding and ignorance of the world; an impudent stare is substituted in lieu of that modest deportment, and that retiring grace, which awes whilst it enchants. I have never seen a female model here of such unaffected, modest, and sweetly amiable manners as Mrs. Guild, Mrs. Russell, and many other American females exhibit.
Having filled eight pages, I think it is near time to hasten to a close. Cushing and Folger are both arrived; by each I have received letters from you. A new sheet of paper must contain a reply to them. This little space shall assure you of what is not confined to time or place, the ardent affection of your sister,
A. A.

Abigail’s letter is from the volume Letters of Mrs. Adams, The Wife of John Adams With an Introductory Memoir by Her Grandson, Charles Francis Adams, Volume II, 1840.

posted August 15th, 2016 by Janet, CATEGORIES: Adams, Abigail, Americans Abroad, Britain, Cranch, Mary, Travel


2 comments »
  1. Hmmm Their manners are depraved! What was she implying??

    Comment by Elizabeth — August 16, 2016 @ 3:24 pm

  2. The women were probably flirting or engaging in conversations with men on subjects not considered appropriate for women. That sort of thing.

    Comment by Janet — August 17, 2016 @ 12:36 pm

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