Collecting Jane Austen ~ ‘Sermons to Young Women’ by James Fordyce

I shall take a little side road today with this discussion of must-haves in your Jane Austen collection – here an example of a book Jane Austen had read, referred to, satirized, and which then became the most interesting thing about Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice.

Part of collecting Jane Austen is to learn about and possibly add to your collection those books known to have been read by her, a fascinating list compiled from the many allusions in her novels and her letters. You can start with R. W. Chapman’s “Index of Literary Allusions, which you can find online.

Chapman’s list first appeared in the NA and P volume of the Oxford edition we looked at last week – more has been added to this – but this is a good start – you could spend the rest of your life just collecting “allusion” books and you will completely forget what you were collecting in the first place.

But Fordyce is one you must have, should read, for if nothing else it will give you a better idea of where Mr. Collins is coming from and what Austen has to say about both he AND Fordyce.

Sermons to Young Women, by Dr. James Fordyce, is certainly one the most well-known of all the various conduct manuals Austen would have had access to, published in London in 1766, “and by 1814, the year after Pride and Prejudice appeared, it had gone though 14 editions published in London alone.” [Ford, intro, i].

We all recall that in Pride and PrejudiceMr. Collins chooses to read Fordyce’s Sermons aloud to the Bennet sisters, Lydia especially unimpressed:

By tea-time, however, the dose had been enough, and Mr. Bennet was glad to take his guest into the drawing-room again, and, when tea was over, glad to invite him to read aloud to the ladies. Mr. Collins readily assented, and a book was produced; but, on beholding it (for everything announced it to be from a circulating library), he started back, and begging pardon, protested that he never read novels. Kitty stared at him, and Lydia exclaimed. Other books were produced, and after some deliberation he chose Fordyce’s Sermons. Lydia gaped as he opened the volume, and before he had, with very monotonous solemnity, read three pages, she interrupted him with:

“Do you know, mama, that my uncle Philips talks of turning away Richard; and if he does, Colonel Forster will hire him. My aunt told me so herself on Saturday. I shall walk to Meryton to-morrow to hear more about it, and to ask when Mr. Denny comes back from town.”

Lydia was bid by her two eldest sisters to hold her tongue; but Mr. Collins, much offended, laid aside his book, and said:

“I have often observed how little young ladies are interested by books of a serious stamp, though written solely for their benefit. It amazes me, I confess; for, certainly, there can be nothing so advantageous to them as instruction. But I will no longer importune my young cousin.” [P&P, Ch. XIV]

Collins, done with such young and frivolous young ladies, heads off for a game of backgammon with Mr. Bennet…

Illustrators of Pride and Prejudice have turned this scene into a visual treat:

Hugh Thomson, P&P (George Allen, 1894)

Chris Hammond, P&P, Gresham, 1900

**************

Fordyce (1720-1796) was a Scottish Presbyterian minister and a poet, but is most known for his Sermons. He also published Addresses to Young Men in 1777. But would we even be talking about him today if it weren’t for Jane Austen??!

As for his poetry, this is the only poem to be found on the Eighteenth-Century Poetry Archive, attesting to Fordyce’s seeming obsession with Female Virtue…

TRUE BEAUTY

The diamond’s and the ruby’s blaze
Disputes the palm with Beauty’s queen:
Not Beauty’s queen commands such praise,
Devoid of virtue if she’s seen.

But the soft tear in Pity’s eye
Outshines the diamond’s brightest beams;
But the sweet blush of Modesty
More beauteous than the ruby seems.

****************

Further Reading:

  1. For more information you can read this essay on Fordyce and P&P by Susan Allen Ford in Persuasions On-Line Mr. Collins Interrupted: Reading Fordyce’s Sermons with Pride and Prejudice [POL 34.1 (2013)].
  2. Here are some images and commentary at the British Library: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/sermons-to-young-women
  3. Here’s the full text of a 2-volumes-in-one American edition from 1809 [the 3rd American from the 12th London edition] at HathiTrust: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015008247788&view=1up&seq=5
  4. If your main concern is with “Female Virtue,” the University of Toronto has these two abstracts for your reading pleasure – From Sermon IV: On Female Virtue; and From Sermon V: On Female Virtue, Friendship, and Conversation: http://individual.utoronto.ca/dftaylor/Fordyce_Sermons.pdf
  5. As you will see in the comments below, A. Marie Sprayberry sent me this link to her excellent Persuasions On-Line essay on Fanny Price and Fordyce: “Fanny Price as Fordyce’s Ideal Woman? And Why?” http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/on-line/vol35no1/sprayberry.html

Much has been written about Austen and Fordyce – the point being, you need a copy. You can find it in one of its original editions on used bookstore sites for not over the top prices – or there are many, many reprints out there.

One of the best of these is the facsimile reprint of the 10th ed. of 1786 and published by Chawton House Press in 2012. Susan Allen Ford wrote the valuable introduction and it also includes a fine bibliography. This edition is unfortunately out-of-print and I am hoping that they will republish it in the near future. It was a best-seller in its time and again today! Who knew!

©Jane Austen in Vermont

4 thoughts on “Collecting Jane Austen ~ ‘Sermons to Young Women’ by James Fordyce

    • Thank you for this link Marie! – I didn’t do a full search of all things Fordyce and Austen, but should have remembered this essay of yours which gives full weight to Fanny Price as Fordyce’s ideal pious woman. I love Mansfield Park and have been a Fanny champion for years – but having never actually read through all of Fordyce’s Sermons I didn’t pick up on this parallel – so well done you! I shall add this in to my links as well. Thank you!

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  1. Very interesting Deb. I have just read one of his sermons. If I gave this to my daughters to read they would hang me out to dry!! Ha! Ha!
    I have just done a WIKI search for James Fordyce. He was a Scottish Presbyterian Minister. Even now Scottish Presbyterians are rather straight laced. I can see how his sermons would appeal to right wing evangelical Christians even today. A couple of days ago I read Tony Tanner’s essay that goes with the Penguin Classic edition of Mansfield Park. He sees Fanny Price as the still. quiet, unmoving moral centre to Mansfield Park while moral degradation in all its forms swirls around her. I can see how JA might have used Fordyce’s sermons about young women as a source for Fanny Price but I think she is a lot more than that. Fordyce seems to have an unhealthy interest in the morals of young ladies. Slightly creepy perhaps? A bit like Mr Collins.

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