Oldalképek
PDF
ePub

ART. VIII.- FEMALE BIOGRAPHY.

1.-Female Biography; or, Memoirs of Illustrious and Ce

lebrated Women, of all Ages and Countries. By MARY

Hays. Philadelphia, from the London edition. 2.-Histoire de Christine, Reine de Suede, par J. P. CATTEAU

CALLEVILLE. Two vols. 8vo. Paris. The History of Christine, Queen of Sweden, by J. P. CATTEAU-CALLEVILLE : Paris.

The biography of the female sex has been treated from the earliest period of modern civilization, almost as amply as the other. Dictionaries have been devoted specially to the commemoration of the virtues and demerits of the ladies; they occupy much space in all the great biographical compilations; and the separate lives, sketches, notices, and eulogies, of which they are the subjects, may be pronounced innumerable. They cannot complain of neglect, on the part of either poets or prose writers, philosophers, or legendaries. They almost crowd the martyrologies--much to the dishonour of mankind, in one respectand modern piety has canonized a multitude, shining like galaxies among the saints. The ancients, though liberal in exalting and spreading them in the invisible or mythological world, invested them with less importance in real life, or yielded them less attention when they treated of human characters and affairs, than the Christian generations have done. As they are indebted to Christianity for superior usage and estimation in domestic and social relations, they owe it also far greater prominence and diffusion in public annals, and the ability which they have freely employed, of commemorating their own deeds and merits.

The attempts of female writers, hy which the end of the last century was marked, to assert the mental equality of the sexes, if not the superiority of the softer, were far from being new or original. Mary Wollstonecraft was scarcely more than a plagiary, with all her pretensions :—the example and the doctrine which she followed had been provided centuries before, in a more elegant form and erudite strain; and by women who, from their consciousness of intellectual power, and the depth of their recondite studies, were entitled, in a higher degree, to dispute the palm, or contend against the prejudice of inferiority. We shall proceed to cite a few instances, which may not be known to the major part of even our female readers, and which, as we have touched this topic, may be an acceptable offering, therefore, to laudable curiosity and pride. So early as the year 1675, the Abbé Gallois stated, in the Paris Journal des Savants, that one virtuoso of his acquaintance, had collected four hundred several

works which the republic of letters owed to learned females; and Ménage's Historia Mulierum Philosopharum, dedicated to Madame Dacier--whom he styled Fæminarum, quot sunt, quot fuere, doctissima--afforded another body of cogent examples for the argument in behalf of the female mind. Towards the end of the sixteenth century, Modesto Pozzo, a Venetian lady and ripe scholar, gave to the world an able treatise on the merits of women, de Merita delle Donne, in which she asserted the equality of the sex. Another, of the same city, Marinelli, more celebrated, published, in 1601, a book, with the title Nobility and Excellence of Women, with the defects and faults of Men; La Nobiltà e l'Excellenza delle Donne, con difetti et mancamenti de gli Huomini. Her object was to demonstrate the superiority of her own sex, in every intellectual and moral respect; which the erudite damsel of Cologne, Anna Maria Schurman, (1611,) reprehended as an exorbitant pretension, though she printed herself a Latin dissertation on the side of equality-Dissertatio de Ingenii muliebris ad doctrinam et meliores literas aptitudine. Marinelli's theory became, however, popular with most of the Blues of her age and the succeeding century. One of her French disciples issued at Paris, in 1644, an octavo, called “The Generous or Courageous Woman, manifesting that her sex is more noble, deeply political, learned, virtuous, and economical, than the male.” Another, La demoiselle Jaquette Guillaume, produced, in 1665, a larger work of a similar purport—Les Dames Illustres, où, par bonnes et fortes raisons, il se prouve que le sexe feminin surpasse en toute sorte de genres le sexe masculin. The spinster de Gournay, Montaigne's adopted daughter, whom the amusing philosopher signalizes, on account of her zeal for the rights and wrongs of women, restricted herself in her ingenious Discourse, to the question of the equality of the sexes.

Italy contained a number of females, who, after gaining distinction as authors or professors, in the sciences and ancient languages, exerted their attainments and faculties to fortify the unqualified claim of the Venetian literary amazon. They ransacked pagan history for the cases of female ascendency and prowess, in government, in arms, in arts, in morals, in the practical virtues, and the useful qualities; and explained with the most industrious subtilty and zeal how it happened, through the operations of brute force and blind chance, that the more spiritual and ethereal of the genders had fallen under the dominion and in the wake of the other. They threw back caustic contempt on the Greek and Roman satirists, who made the female nature and career in general, responsible for prodigies of folly and dissoluteness, which were immediately created or occasioned by the extreme degeneracy and monstrous turpitude of the usurpers, self-ycleped lords of the creation. Old Eubulus, Euripides, and Juvenal, were understood in

the original, and scorned ; just as, in later times, the ladies of France revenged themselves on Boileau, and those of England might have retorted, by accounting for the spleen of Pope. We do not concur with Warburton in his remark, “that the men bear a general satire most heroically; the women, with the utmost impatience;” and we deem the reason assigned still more questionable and derogatory than the allegation itself—"the women fear that such representations may hurt the sex in the opinion of the men; whereas the men are not at all apprehensive that their follies or vices would prejudice them in the opinion of the women. " But the sentiment of Warburton recurred to our memory with some force, as we looked into the pages wherein the Italian female champions have expressed the indignation and resentment due to the classic libellers, and when we thought of the feeling and language, with which they would have treated such eompositions as the Epistles of Pope, from which, according to Warburton, the great moral is, that the two rarest things in all nature, are a disinterested man and a reasonable woman.

It seems to us that the ladies of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and the first quarter or half of the eighteenth centuries, had more plausible and immediate reasons for their jealousy of intellectual reputation, than exist for those of the present times. Science and erudi. tion were less general among the men, particularly in the two first periods; and eminence in classical and abstruse knowledge was more common and brilliant with the other sex, than it is in our age, notwithstanding the frequent introduction of Latin studies into the prevailing system of female education. Female acquirements and authorship are now generally confined to the vernacular languages; to works of fiction, elementary treatises, and compositions for the improvementof ordinary life, social and domestic. But, in England, for example, during the reigns of Elizabeth and James, it was the fashion to give a learned education to women. We are told by the annalists, and know from the biographical records, that the study of the higher sciences and ancient tongues, was the occupation of the most gorgeous dames” and beauteous damsels of the court. The subjoined extract from an interesting book entitled “Lady Jane Grey and her Times,” will show the state of the case at a still earlier period.

“In an elegy, written after the death of Lady Jane Grey by Sir Thomas Chaloner, she is commended not only for her beauty, but also for that which was a greater charm, her intelligent and interesting style of conversation. He speaks too of her stupendous skill in languages, being well versed in eight, consisting of the Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Chaldaic, Arabic, French, and Italian, besides that of her native land, in which she was well grounded.

“He further observes that she had a natural wit, and that much improved by art and study. She played well on instrumental music. She wrote an excellent hand; and she was as excellent at her needle.

“Notwithstanding all these endowments, Chaloner affirms, that she was of a

mild, humble, and modest spirit, and never showed an elated mind until she manifested it at her death.

“To boarding-school misses of the present day it may seem strange, that young ladies in those times should have troubled themselves with so many tongues, but the fact is not the less certain ; as we are told by Udal, in his dedication to Queen Katherine Parr, of the translation of Erasmus's Paraphrase on the four Gospels; that a great number of noble women at that time in England were given to the study of human sciences and of strange tongues.' In short, he says, that it is noun. common thyng to see young virgins so nouzled and trained in the study of letters, that they willyngly set all other vain pastymes at nought for learnynge's sake. It was no news at all to see queens and ladies of most high estate and progenie, instede of courtely daliaunce to embrace virtuous exercises, readyng and writyng, and with most earneste studie both erlye and late, to apply themselves to the acquiryng of knowledge as well as all other liberal arts and disciplines, as also most specially of God, and his most holy writ. And in this behalf, like as to your highnesse, as well for composyng and settyng forth many godly psalms and di. verse other contemplative meditations, as also for causing these paraphrases to be translated into our vulgare language. England can never be able to render thanks sufficient.' Not only did languages form a great part of female education, but philosophy also; such as it was at that day, bursting from the trammels of the schools and of superstitious ignorance.”

On the continent, the fashion was as positive and broad as in England, and dignified by a proportional number of shining examples. We shall cull a few of these for edification and entertainment, without observing a strict chronological order or any rule of gradation. We may begin with the Dutchess of Retz, who died at Paris in 1603, and of whom, and the Italian Savante Catherine Cibo, Rapin said —

“On les voyoit sur un tome
Ou de saint Jean Chrysostome
Ou bien de saint Augustin,
Passant et soir et matin,
Dessus la sainte Ecriture,
En priere ou en lecture.
Puis extraire de Platon,
De Plutarque et de Caton,
De Tulle et des deux Séneques
Les fleurs Latines et Grecques,
Mélant d'un soin curieux
Le plaisant au sérieux.
De-là leur esprit agile
S'égayoit dans le Virgile,
Dont la pure netteté

Ne sent que la chasteté." We cannot furnish a suitable translation of the rhymes, but may quote in English the statements of the biographers that the Dutchess, though so deeply and variously erudite, gave birth to ten children; lost nothing of her exquisite beauty; managed the highest diplomatic concerns; gained victories in the field at the head of her husband's vassals; built castles and churches; founded monasteries, and enjoyed perfect health of mind and body until her sixtieth year. The lady Cornara Piscopia, of Venice, (A. D. 1646,) a doctor of the University of Padua, earned her cap, (bonnet.) and her splendid public admission, by prodigious

acquirements, as the rival of the first Greek, Latin, and Hebrew philologers, and a theologian of the transcendental class. She knew seven languages ; was thoroughly versed in mathematics and music ; trod the paths and practised the austerities of a saintly virgin, and died at the age of thirty-eight, the admiration of her contemporaries.

Madame Dacier's learning, career, and renown are much better known, and certainly for ever memorable. Her editions and translations of the most difficult Greek and Latin authors, her critical dissertations and copious notes, her Latin epistles, and Greek scholia, retain no small share of authority, and are monuments of extraordinary scholarship and diligence. Her notes and many of her readings were adopted by Pope and Colman, in the translations of Homer and Terence, and the English translators of Aristophanes have levied abundant contribution on her version and elucidations of the Greek dramatist. Born in 1651, she commenced her classical studies at the age of ten, and from her eighteenth year, pursued them without the aid of a master. Some idea of her resolution and perseverance as an author, may be formed from the following passage of one of the biographical sketches.

“The reputation which madame Dacier had acquired by the comedies of Plautus and Aristophanes, inclined her to turn her attention to those of Terence, a design which one circumstance only seemed to oppose. A man of erudition and of piety had, by the version he had given of three of these comedies, carried away all suffrages. Amidst the prepossession of the public for this performance, to persuade them it could be excelled would be a task of some difficulty. Madame Dacier, however, who understood better than most persons all the perfection of which certain works are capable, and who, in the most finished was enabled to detect errors which escaped minds less penetrating and acute, resolved to essay her powers in private on an author so worthy of her labours. For this purpose she rose every morning at four o'clock, and pursued her task with so much application and diligence, that, in four months, she completed a translation of the four first comedies of Terence. But, after a time, having reperused them, she perceived them to be so little conformable to the genius of the author, that, in a fit of vexation, she threw them into the flames. Disappointed, but not discouraged, she still persevered in her design, with which she occupied herself for three months, during which interval she studied her author without ceasing, transfusing into her own mind his genius and spirit: having thus surrendered berself to her purpose with new ardour, she made a second translation so superior to the first, that those among her friends who had been most prejudiced in favour of the ancient version, agreed, with one accord, that it was not comparable to that which was now presented to them. Their encomiums were justified by the approbation with which this performance was received by the public.”

This lady married a great scholar, a man of similar tastes and pursuits, with whom she lived in full harmony and affection during the forty years of their union. It is difficult to conceive a more exalted and delightful association, than one wherein the friendship and the congeniality were of the heart and the mind together, refined and enriched in the highest degree by the same culture. For many years they pursued their literary labours separately, or rather, executed distinct tasks, with kindred suc

« ElőzőTovább »