When looking for something to post for Women’s Day this year we thought we’d have a browse through some of our older, rarer books – and we stumbled upon this gem – The Ladies’ Library, in 3 volumes, 1716 – written by ‘a Lady’ (attributed to Lady Mary Wray.) We felt sure we were the target audience for this. So, we sat down, in the best spot in the library (with a clear view of the sea) and began reading volume one – looking rather like the lady in the frontispiece (we, too, have a few cherubs scattered around.)
The Ladies’ Library turned out to be a kind of ‘how-to’ guide on being a proper, well-bred, and devout Christian lady – with chapters including instruction on ‘Wit and Delicacy’, ‘Dress’ and ‘Meekness’. (We won’t lie, we’re often in dire need of instruction on all those things – though our confidence in being the target audience was beginning to waver.)
Its author is clearly a product of her time (that ubiquitous defence of historical works) – of its stifling gender prescriptions. And her need to be desirable, and to conform to a purely patriarchal model of woman, is palpable. There are countless encouragements to be modest, deferential, and chaste. Along with constant references to the weaker sex (her italics). But we can’t help feeling some of this is a placation, a version of prefacing something insightful with ‘of course, I know nothing about this, but’ – something women often learn to do, in having to ask permission to speak.
“A young lady should never speak, but for necessity, and even then with diffidence and deference” but nonetheless this lady does speak, very eloquently, and some of the things she has to say are surprising. We were particularly taken with the first chapter on ’employment’ where she urges women not to be idle, and to educate themselves beyond the traditionally ‘feminine’ subjects – to learn arithmetic, law, and even latin. She’s especially fond of history – and of reading in general which she assures will give “solidity to our thoughts, sweetness to our discourse” – we couldn’t agree more!
The chapter on ‘dress’ is lengthy and very much informed by Christian and patriarchal ideologies (not entirely separate.) It can largely be summarised as ‘cover yourself up ladies!’ or risk seduction, sin and eternal damnation (well, that told us.) But she particularly emphasises just how much time women waste on the “dressing up box”, on making oneself attractive for men, when there are far more productive things one could be doing – we suspect Naomi Wolf, in The Beauty Myth, would agree.
At this point, the cherubs started to get restless and we’ve had to take a break to placate them – though we look forward to delving into volume two in future. The Ladies’ Library is by no means a feminist work but reading it has reminded us of the complexity – and suppression – of women’s voices in history, and the absolute importance of listening to them. It’s with a sigh of relief, too, that we write this – educated, indelicate, bold, wearing what we like, saying what we like, and working for a library absolutely full of exceptionally brilliant women (staff, volunteers and members.) We feel immense gratitude to the incredible women, and the feminist movements, that have made that possible – and reflect on the work still to be done.