Sketches of the Fair Sex

So what were the women of the eighteenth-century like? Well, we came across this publication ‘Sketches of the Fair Sex’ written about eighteenth-century women, so we thought we would share with you a few extracts about the author’s view of women across Europe, although the book provides descriptions and anecdotes from around the world in 1799 plus much, much more!  It is not clear as to whether the author was male or female, the author simply simply described themselves as being ‘a friend of the sex’. Please remember these are the author’s views alone and were probably meant to be complimentary when written over 200 years ago!

French Women

elisabeth-louise_vigee_le_brun_-_portrait_of_marie_gabrielle_de_gramont_duchesse_de_caderousse_-_google_art_project
Portrait of Marie Gabrielle de Gramont, Duchesse de Caderousse , 1784 Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

No women upon earth can excel, and few rival them, in their almost native arts of pleasing all who approach them. Add to this, an education beyond that of most Europeans ladies, a consummate skill in those accomplishments that suit the fair sex and the most graceful manner of displaying that knowledge to the utmost advantage.  Such is the description that may be safely given of the French ladies in general. But the spirit, or rather the evil genius of gallantry, too often perverts all these lovely qualities and renders then subservient to very iniquitous ends. In every country, women have always a little to do and a great deal to say. In France, they dictate almost everything that is said, and direct everything that is done. They are the most restless beings in the world. To fold her hands in idleness and impose silence on her tongue would be to a French woman worse than death. The sole joy of her life is to be engage in the prosecution of some scheme, relating to either fashion, ambition or love.  Among the rich and opulent, they are entirely the votaries of pleasure, which they pursue through all its labyrinths, at the expense of fortune, reputation and health. Giddy and extravagant to the last degree, they leave to their husbands’ economy and care, which would only spoil their complexions and furrow their brows.

When we descend to tradesmen and mechanics the case is reversed: the wife manages everything in the house and shop, while the husband lounges in the back shop, an idle spectator or struts about with his sword and bag-wig.

Matrimony, among the French, seems to be a bargain entered into by a male and female to bear the same name, live in the same house, and pursue their separate pleasures without restrain or control.

Italian Women

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Pietro Rotari (Italian, 1707-1762) Portrait of a Young Woman, ca. 1760 Courtesy of Indiana University Art Museum

Almost every traveller, who has visited Italy, agrees in describing it as the most abandoned of all the countries of Europe.  At Venice, at Naples and indeed in almost every part of Italy, women are taught from their infancy the various arts of alluring to their arms the young and unwary, and of obtaining from them, while heated by love or wine, everything that flattery and false smiles can obtain, in these unguarded moments.

The Italian ladies are not quite so fay and volatile as the French, nor do they so much excite the risibility of the spectator; but, by the softness of their language and their manner, they more forcibly engage the heart.

They are not so much the chameleon or the weathercock, but have some decent degree of permanency in the connections, whether of love or friendship. With regard to jealousy, they are so far from being careless and indifferent, in that respect, as the French are, that they often suffer it to transport them to the most unwarrantable actions.

An Italian female of birth and fortune, bred in the prison of a cloister, is brought forth, when marriageable to receive her sentence; and conducted like a victim to the altar, there to be made a sacrifice of to a man whom she hardly knows the face. Among them, we find none of those antecedent homages of a lover, none of those engaging proofs of attachment, which only can secure a reciprocation. In short, no medium of courtship intervenes, and therefore no opportunity is given to create an affection on either side.

Spanish Women

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Charles IV of Spain and His Family, 1800 by Francisco Goya – Museo del Prado

As the Spanish ladies are under greater seclusion from general society, than the sex is in other European countries, their desires of an adequate degree of liberty are consequently more strong and urgent. A free and open communication being denied them, they make it their business to secure themselves a secret and hidden one. The Spanish women are little or nothing indebted to education. But nature has liberally supplied them with a fund of wit and sprightliness, which is certainly no small inducement, to those who have only transient glimpses of their charms, to wish every earnestly for a removal of those impediments, that obstruct their more frequent preference.

Unlike French women their affections are not to be gained by a bit of sparkling lace, or a tawdry set of liveries. Their deportment is rather grave and reserved, and on the whole they have much more of the prude than the coquette in their composition.

Something more than a century ago, the Marquis D’Astrogas having prevailed on a young lady of great beauty to become his mistress, the Marchioness hearing of it, went to her lodgings with some assassins, killed her, tore out her heart, carried it home, made a ragout of it, and presented the dish to the Marquis “it is exceedingly good” said he. “No wonder” she answered “since it is made of the heart of that creature you so much doted on”. And, to confirm what she had said, she immediately drew out her head all bloody from beneath her hoop, and rolled it on the floor, he eyes sparkling all of the time with a mixture of pleasure and fury.

English Women

Portrait by George Romney, Young Woman in Powder Blue c1777

The women of England are eminent for many good qualities both of the head and of the heart. There we meet with that inexpressible softness and delicacy of manners which cultivated by education, appears as much superior to what it does without it, as the polished diamond appears superior to that which is rough from the mine. In some parts of the world women have attained to so little knowledge, and so little consequence, that we consider their virtues as merely of the negative kind. In England the consist not only in abstinence from evil, but in doing good.

There we see the sex every day exerting themselves in acts of benevolence and charity, in relieving the distresses of the body, and binding up the wounds of the mind; in reconciling the differences of friends and preventing the strife of enemies; and, to sum up all, in that care and attention to their offspring, which is so necessary and essential a part of their duty.

The English women are by no means indifferent about public affairs. Their interesting themselves in these, gives a new pleasure to social life. The husband always finds at home somebody to whom he can open himself, and converse as long and as earnestly as he thinks proper, upon those subjects which he mad most at heart.

Russian Women

Russian School; The Empress Catherine the Great of Russia (1729-1796); The Bowes Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-empress-catherine-the-great-of-russia-17291796-44277
Russian School; The Empress Catherine the Great of Russia (1729-1796); The Bowes Museum

It is only a few years since the Russians emerged form a state of barbarity. A late empress of Russia, as a punishment for some female frailties, ordered a most beautiful young lady of a family to be publicly chastised, in a manner which was hardly less indelicate than severe.

It is said that the Russian ladies were formerly as submissive to their husbands in their families, as the latter are to their superiors in the field; and that they thought themselves ill-treated if they were not often reminded of their duty by the discipline of a whip, manufactured by themselves, which they presented to their husbands on the day of their marriage.

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