The Young Ladies Instructor

What does it mean to be educated? How much knowledge, in what areas, are you required to have? The question changes drastically depending on time period, geographic location, gender and class. With such variable answers, books that are meant to give their intended readers a complete education can also provide a window in what being learned meant to certain times, places, and situations.

A small, brown volume here at Burns Library, to which some prior owner carefully affixed the label “Ladies Instructor 1778,” gives one answer to the question of what comprises an education.  Bound in this volume are two books: Mentoria, or, The Young Ladies Instructor in Familiar Conversations on Moral and Entertaining Subjects Calculated to Improve Young Minds, in the Essential, as well as Ornamental parts of Female Education, and its sequel, The sequel to Mentoria or, The Young Ladies Instructor: In Familiar Conversations, on a Variety of Interesting Subjects, in which are introduced, Lectures on Astronomy and Natural Philosophy, expressed in terms suited to the comprehension of Juvenile Readers.

Small, brown volume with label

Burns Library’s copy of Mentoria, or the Young Ladies Instructor … and its sequel.

Mentoria, published in 1778, was written by Ann Murray, who was concerned with the proper course of female instruction. Murray, after publishing this book, opened a girls boarding school on the strength of her reputation of an educator. Mentoria covers academic subjects as well as morality and etiquette for wealthy young women. Lessons are presented as a dialogue between two young women, Lady Louisa and Lady Mary, and the character Mentoria, an idealized female instructor. This private instruction, rather than an education in a remote school or seminary, indicates the wealth of the intended audience for this book.  Mentoria, in fact, is dedicated to the most pre-eminent wealthy young woman of the time, the Princess Royal.

Dedication beginning To Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal

The dedication of Mentoria to “Her Royal Highness, the Princess Royal”

Whether or not Murray had ambitions of influencing royal women along with her other pupils, Mentoria is a snapshot of the lessons believed to be important to young women in the 1770s. Murray places equal weight on forming the minds and the behavior of her young pupils.  Lessons on “Industry, Truth and Sincerity” and “On Politeness, Civility and Gratitude” are interspersed with lessons on grammar, geography, and history. As in other genteel, educational texts of the time, the lessons themselves are set out as dialogues between pupils, Lady Louisa and Lady Mary, and the instructor, Mentoria. Murray justifies her approach to these lessons in the preface, writing: “Dialogue and fable are in general esteemed the best vehicles to convey instruction, as they lure the mind into knowledge, and imperceptibly conduct it to the goal of wisdom. This mode of practice often succeeds, where formal precept fails, and might produce a happy effect, if it were more frequently adopted.” [xi]

As one may expect in a book focusing on elite female education in the 18th century, etiquette is a central focus. Mentoria gives Lady Louisa and Lady Mary advice on a wide variety of social situations.  A few that particularly caught my eye include:

  • You should never, my dear, suppose yourself the person pointed at in any general observation, as it is a maxim of true politeness to exempt the present company
  • Whenever you give anyone a gift, first say it is nothing but a trifle and not worthy of the person’s notice
  • When reading out loud “you should always endeavour to express the sense of the Author, and deliver his sentiments with as much ease and feeling, as if they were your own” [62]

However, Mentoria covers far more than than etiquette. Diagrams and maps are included to introduce the principles of geometry, geography and astronomy.  Murray’s second book, The sequel to Mentoria or, The Young Ladies Instructor: In Familiar Conversations, on a Variety of Interesting Subjects, in which are introduced, Lectures on Astronomy and Natural Philosophy, expressed in terms suited to the comprehension of Juvenile Readers, spends the majority of the text introducing astronomical and scientific concepts.  The basics of astronomy, electricity, magnetism, composition of the atmosphere, and tides are all given time and explanation to Lady Louisa and Lady Mary.

astronmical chart

Astronomical chart included in The sequel to Mentoria

While Murray clearly believes that educated young women should have diverse scientific knowledge, she also argues that doesn’t mean one should flaunt this knowledge.  Murray discourages young women from showing off their knowledge, saying “If you excelled in any art or science, you should not make it the subject of your discourse, or in the common conversation express your sentiments in the terms of art belonging to it, as it would make you appear pedantic and ostentatious.” [186] Indeed, in the first volume of Mentoria, there is almost as much space dedicated to how young women should speak and act as it has space for history, geography and mathematical concepts.

Murray might also argue that an equal attention to virtue and the academic disciplines is appropriate for men as well as women.  A few pages after Mentoria tells her young pupils to refrain from showing off their knowledge, she relates a piece of advice she gave to a man going to Eton.  When one of her young pupils objects that advice for a man could not possibly apply to them, Mentoria immediately says that the advice has a “tendency of general use to both sexes”. [188]

Mentoria and its sequel are interesting research subjects not only for the state of late 18th century scientific knowledge  but also because of its status as an instructional tool. It reveals what was considered appropriate topics for educating young women during this period, as well as methods to teach them.  The use of Socratic dialogues expresses one view of pedagogical techniques. The topics themselves– elocution, geography, science, math, and morality- provide a diverse set of skills. This volume certainly invites further study, which all are welcome to visit our reading room and conduct.

–Kathleen Monahan, Reference, Instruction & Digital Services Librarian, John J. Burns Library

Works Consulted:

Murry, Ann. Mentoria : Or, The Young Ladies Instructor, in Familiar Conversations on Moral and Entertaining Subjects, Calculated to Improve Young Minds in the Essential as Well as Ornamental Parts of Female Education. London: Printed by J. Fry, for Edward and Charles Dilly, in the Poultry, 1778.

Murry, Ann. The Sequel to Mentoria : Or, The Young Ladies Instructor, in Familiar Conversations, on a Variety of Interesting Subjects, in Which Are Introduced, Lectures on Astronomy and Natural Philosophy, Expressed in Terms Suited to the Comprehension of Juvenile Readers. London: Printed for C. Dilly …, 1799.

Miller, P.J. “Women’s Education, ‘Self-Improvement’ and Social Mobility- A Late Eighteenth Century Debate.” British Journal of Educational Studies 20, no. 3 (1972): 302-14.

Rauch, Alan. “Mentoria: Women, Children and the Structures of Science.” Nineteenth-Century Contexts 27, no. 4 (2005): 335-351.

Walters, Alice N. “Conversation Pieces: Science and Politeness in Eighteenth-Century England.” History of Science 35, no. 2 (June 1997): 121–54.

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

Located in the original Bapst Library building on Boston College's Chestnut Hill campus, the John J. Burns Library offers students, scholars, and the general public opportunities to engage with rare books, special collections, and archives.
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