by Hannah More
Coelebs in Search of a Wife: Comprehending Observations on Domestic Habits and Manners, Religion and Morals (1809) is a novel by the British Christian moralist Hannah More (1745-1833).
The novel focuses on Charles, a well-to-do young man who tries to find a wife who can meet the lofty moral requirements laid down by his mother. The book was extremely popular when it was published. Its novelistic narrative combined with religious lessons helped it to become the first nineteenth century novel to be accepted enthusiastically by the large religious reading public. Wikipedia
Cœlebs is, frankly, unreadable. It’s nearly 900 pages of turgid moralising with no discernible plot, no sympathetic characters and – fatally – no humour.
To add insult to injury, my edition retains the long S which is ſo not eaſy to read at ſpeed.
So why bother with it at all?
Well, I embarked on it to get a sense (ſenſe, if you prefer) of what the characters in my WIP (Mrs Fortescue’s Tiger – set in 1819) might be influenced by. Cœlebs was a best-seller in its day: first published in 1809, it went through at least 11 reprints in that same year. It’s been held responsible in part for the creation of the Domestic Economy and also for setting back the cause of feminism for generations.
Its principal character is an orphaned bachelor, Charles; he wants to find a wife who lives up to the standards set by his mother. The picaresque narrative sees Charles encounter many Miss Not-Quite-Rights; he also has philosophical conversations about the correct educational model for girls with a variety of people–all men, strangely enough. Eventually, he marries Lucilla “Practically Perfect in Every Way” Stanley.
Charles’ standards are high: in a passage curiously remiscent of both Benedick and Darcy (see below), he lays out his requirements.
I do not want a Helen, a Saint Cecilia, or a Madame Dacier; yet she must be elegant, or I should not love her; sensible, or I should not respect her; well-informed, or she could not educate my children; well-bred, or she could not entertain my friends; consistent, or I should offend the shade of my mother; pious or I should not be happy with her, because the prime comfort in a companion for life is the delightful hope that she will be a companion for eternity.
I need scarcely point out that this is a vision of Woman as Man’s Helpmeet, and be damned to any pesky ideas of female independence. A woman’s place, implies More (not at all subtly), is in the home, and no where else. There’s a strong argument that Cœlebs‘ success helped promote a view of female subjectivity that leads directly to the Victorian worship of ‘Er Indoors and the cult of the Home. (Not to mention the rise of the middle-class, and the subsequent enrichment of the Glorious British Empire.)
In fairness, I should note that her readers responded positively to More’s insistence on charitable works as a mark of a truly virtuous woman: public debate about how to assist the poor was re-invigorated.
Luckily, other its pivotal position in defining a restrictive role for women, Cœlebs has a couple of points of real interest for my 1819 characters.
Firstly, the pervasive influence of the Bible. More has, of course, a proselytising religious agenda in mind: Cœlebs is an overtly Christian book (for a given value of Christian = middle-class Church of England). But I think we tend to forget the extent to which the Bible (King James’ version) was part of the lingua franca of the time. At the time, church attendance was effectively mandatory. It was almost impossible to hold any kind of office or be in business, or a member of trade guilds etc without taking the Anglican sacrament. So the Bible was the one book that everyone had read / listened to; its stories, its poetry were part of everyone’s cultural baggage. Just read any passage of Jane Austen’s books and count the biblical echoes and language. [So it wouldn’t be at all out of place for my characters unconsciously to weave biblical phrases and cadences in their daily speech.]
The other point is More’s belief that a truly virtuous woman will not put herself forward. It’s not just that she will restrict her interests to the hearth, but that under no circumstances will she complain.
In a passage that echoes 1 Corinthians 13 (Charity suffereth long… vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up…seeketh not her own / Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things), one of More’s female idols explains:
‘Of what subject should we talk,’ said she, ‘but of my husband’s faults? Ought I to allow myself in such a practice? It would lead me to indulge a habit of complaint which I am laboring to subdue. …When we are suffering wrong, the mind … pours out its sorrows in prayer.’
Then turning to the Bible which lay before her, and pointing to the sublime passage of St Paul, which she had just been reading, ‘Our light affliction which is but for a moment worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.‘…The affliction is light, and but for a moment; the glory is a weight, and it is forever…Oh, how the scale which contains this world’s light trouble kicks the beam, when weighed against the glory which shall be revealed.’
To paraphrase crudely, it’s not for women to complain about their lot in this world, because they’ll be rewarded in the next. Keep your head down, your mouth shut, and hope for the best when you’re dead.
[For my female MC, that means that when she’s suffered an appalling injustice, all her upbringing and influences tell her not to do anything about it. It’s not a viewpoint that we are used to in the C21st, so the challenge for me is to make my MC relatable but not anachronistic.]
Is Cœlebs worth reading? Honestly, no (at least not unless you’re researching the period). Better to check out in the first instance Rachel Knowles’ informative blog on Cœlebs here.
Gutenberg has a copy of the text here if you are deſperate to ſee what all the fuſ is about.
“Writing,” said Sir John, “to a certain degree is an art, or, if you please, a trade. And as no man is allowed to set up in an ordinary trade till he has served a long apprenticeship to its mysteries , so no man should set up for a writer till he knows somewhat of the mysteries of the art he is about to practice. He may, if he want talents, produce a vapid and inefficient book; but possess what talents he may, he will, without knowledge, produce a crude and indigested one.”
“Cœlebs” is Latin for “unwed”.
The binomial name for the chaffinch is Fringilla cœlebs. Wikipedia tells me that “Fringilla is the Latin word for finch, while cœlebs means unmarried or single. Linnaeus remarked that during the Swedish winter, only the female birds migrated south through Belgium to Italy.”
Somehow, I don’t think Mrs More would approve of that.
Benedick on why he’ll never marry:
Till all graces be in one woman, one woman shall not come in my grace. Rich she shall be, that’s certain; wise, or I’ll none; virtuous, or I’ll never cheapen her; fair, or I’ll never look on her; mild, or come not near me; noble, or not I for an angel; of good discourse, an excellent musician, and her hair shall be of what colour it please God.Much Ado About Nothing, III i
Miss Bingley and Darcy discuss the perfect woman in Pride and Prejudice. I know P&P was first drafted in 1797 before its eventual publication in 1813, but JA made revised the original manuscript in 1811-12. I am certain that the following passage is inspired by Charles’ shopping list in Cœlebs:
“It is amazing to me,” said Bingley, “how young ladies can have patience to be so very accomplished as they all are.”
“All young ladies accomplished! My dear Charles, what do you mean?”
“Yes, all of them, I think. They all paint tables, cover screens, and net purses. I scarcely know any one who cannot do all this, and I am sure I never heard a young lady spoken of for the first time, without being informed that she was very accomplished.”
“Your list of the common extent of accomplishments,” said Darcy, “has too much truth. The word is applied to many a woman who deserves it no otherwise than by netting a purse or covering a screen. But I am very far from agreeing with you in your estimation of ladies in general. I cannot boast of knowing more than half a dozen, in the whole range of my acquaintance, that are really accomplished.”
“Nor I, I am sure,” said Miss Bingley.
“Then,” observed Elizabeth, “you must comprehend a great deal in your idea of an accomplished woman.”
“Yes; I do comprehend a great deal in it.”
“Oh! certainly,” cried his faithful assistant, “no one can be really esteemed accomplished who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved.”
“All this she must possess,” added Darcy, “and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”
“I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any.”Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 8
The cover is a cheat, because my copy of the book has only a muddy brown leather cover. This silly picture is from a much later book: Cœlebs the Younger in Search of a Wife or The Drawing Room Troubles of Moody Robinson Esquire (1865 – author unknown, at least by me). It shows what a long half life the original Cœlebs had, that it was considered worth spoofing nearly 60 years later.
The illustrator is Charles Altamont Doyle, father of the more famous Arthur Conan Doyle. With thanks to Simon Cooke for the image.