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Novel Reading, A Cause of Female Depravity,

From the Monthly Mirror November 1797

"The traveller, if he chance to stray,
May turn uncensur’d to his way ;
Polluted streams again are pure,
And deepest wounds admit a cure ;
But woman no redemption knows--
The wounds of honour never close !
Pity may mourn, but not restore--
And woman falls to rise no more.” 

Mr. Editor

I NOW begin to hope I shall see good old days come round again--that moderately stiff stays, covered elbows, and concealed bosoms, will soon be prevailing fashions ;  and, what is of far greater importance, that chastity--pure and spotless CHASTITY !--will once more be the darling attribute of women.  Had fashionable depravity been confined to the higher circles of life, I think I should hardly have troubled you with these my sentiments ;  I should have concluded it the offspring of idleness and voluptuousness, and have despaired of effectually deprecating a vice which not the happy example of conjugal virtue held forth from the throne could discountenance.  But, like every other fashion, a little day hands it down to the million, and woman is now but another name for infamy.

 I have been at some trouble to trace to its source this great calamity, in the middling orders of society--for fashion of itself, even if it was introduced by a prince, and his dulcinea’s trains were held up by every peeress at court, could never have so unhappily corrupted the female world--and I find those who first made novel-reading an indispensible branch in forming the minds of young women, have a great deal to answer for.  Without this poison instilled, as it were, into the blood, females in ordinary life would never have been so much the slaves of vice.  The plain food, wholesome air, and exercise they enjoy, would have exempted them from the tyranny of lawless passions and, like their virtuous grandmothers, they would have pointed the finger of shame at the impure and licentious.  But those generous sentiments, those liberal opinions, those tender tales abounding with fine feeling, soft ideas, facinating gentleness, and warm descriptions, have been the ruin of us.  A girl with her intellectual powers enervated by such a course of reading, falls an easy prey to the first boy who assumes the languishing lover.  He has only to stuff a piece of dirty paper into the crevice of her window, full of thous and thees and thys and mellifluous compounds, hyeroglyphically spelled, perhaps, and Miss is not long in finding out that "many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it ;" so as Master is yet in his apprenticeship, and friends would disapprove of an early marriage, they agree to dispense with the ceremony.  Nay, even when brooding over a helpless base-born infant, and surrounded by a once respectable and happy family, now dejected and dishonoured, too often does the infatuated fair one take pleasure in the misery she has created, and fancy floods of sorrow sweetly graceful, because, forsooth, she is just in the same point of view as the hapless, the distressed, the love-lorn Sappho of some novel or other.

 And yet this, bad as it is, is not the worst result of such pernicious reading.  It is no uncommon thing for a young lady who has attended her dearest friend to the altar, a few months after a marriage which, perhaps, but for her, had been a happy one, to fix her affections on her friend’s husband, and by artful blandishments allure him to herself.  Be not staggered, moral reader, at the recital !  such serpents are really in existence ;  such daemons in the form of women are now too often to be found !  Three instances, in as many years, have occurred in the little circle I move in.  I have seen two poor disconsolate parents drop into premature graves, miserable victims to their daughter’s dishonour, and the peace of several relative families wounded, never to be healed again in this world.

 "And was novel-reading the cause of this ?"  inquires some gentle fair one, who, deprived of such an amusement, could hardly exist ;  "was novel-reading the foundation of such frail conduct ?"  I answer yes !  It is in that school the poor deluded female imbibes erroneous principles, and from thence pursues a flagrantly vicious line of conduct ;  it is there she is told that love is involuntary, and that attachments of the heart are decreed by fate.  Impious reasoning !   As if a Power infinitely wise and beneficent would ordain atrocity !  The first idle prepossession, therefore, such a person feels, if it happens to be for the husband of her most intimate friend, instead of calling herself to a severe account for the illegal preference, she sets to work to reconcile it to nature--"There is a fatality in it," argues she ;  "it is the will of Heaven our souls should be united in the silken bonds of reciprocal love, and there is no striving against fate."  This once settled, criminality soon follows ;  the gentle, the sympathizing, the faithful friend, undauntedly plants a dagger in the bosom of the mother, and ruthlessly tears from the innocent children the parent stem on which their support and comfort depends.  And yet this very female has cried, oh how she has cried !  over relations of fictitious distress--has railed at hard-hearted fathers, cruel mothers, barbarous uncles, and treacherous friends, till her tongue denied its office, and she sunk beneath the weight of sympathy, for misery far short of that she herself is creating.

 If good spirits in the other world are sensible of what is done in this, how will the Spartan and Roman dames of antiquity bless themselves that they were not doomed to breathe on earth in the eighteenth century ;  how will the cheeks of many a British matron be suffused with shame for her polluted descendants !  You may think me warm, Mr. Editor, and your readers may think me illiberal ;  but let me beg of the female part of them to cast their eye into the world for a moment--let them count the disgraceful, and number the dishonoured, and if they do not find reason to blush for expiring virtue, I am content to be reckoned a peevish old maid, or a disappointed old bachelor, as long as I live.  Generosityliberal judgment, and a refined way of thinking, have done enough for us ;  for after ages will read in our annals, that when philosophy and humanity were objects of every one’s pretension, from the night-man to the minister of state, the rights of nature were never more violated, nor the rights of religion more trampled on.  What is refined sophistication ;  what is lenity, when they tend to corrupt our nature ?  Surely reprehensible !  and as such let them give way to the more severe, but infinitely more beneficial, dictates of truth.  Why are we endowed with so noble a power as reason ?  Why do we boast of a will to control our passions ?  if we suffer the one to be degraded by a vicious course of life, and the other to abet lascivious enormity.


From the "Education" section of The New England Quarterly Magazine;  comprehending Literature, Morals, and Amusement.  Number I.  For April, May & June.  (Boston, 1802)  Pages 172-174.

 A scanned text of the essay may be read online at


This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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