An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex is a religious conduct manual by Thomas Gisborne (1758–1846), aimed mainly at ‘women placed in the higher or in the middle classes of society’ (p. 2). Gisborne was a Church of England clergyman, a poet and a writer on moral and religious matters.
An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex covers a huge range of topics, including the differences between men and women, female education, choosing a husband, raising children and how women should spend their free time.
in 1805, the year the book was published in its sixth edition. In a letter to her sister dated 30 August 1805, she writes ‘I am glad you recommended “Gisborne”, for having begun, I am pleased with it, and I had quite determined not to read it’.
We don’t know why Austen had ‘determined not to read’ An Enquiry. Perhaps she expected it to be similar to the Mr Collins-endorsed Sermons to Young Women, referred to in Pride and Prejudice, which stresses the need for women to be submissive and modest. In fact, Gisborne praises woman’s capacity for ‘sprightliness and vivacity’, ‘quickness of perception’ and ‘fertility of invention’ – as well as the more traditional female virtues of offering comfort and cheer to those around them.
Though Gisborne’s views seem conservative to modern readers, many of them are similar to those that Austen expresses in her novels. He urges women to spend time each day reading improving books, mentioning as particularly suitable the works of William Cowper, one of Austen’s favourite poets (p. 219). He warns against the ‘absurd and mischievous’ belief that a woman can reform a cruel and immoral man after marrying him (p. 238), and criticises mothers who prioritise wealth over happiness in choosing husbands for their daughters. He also criticises young men and women who flatter and flirt with one another, talking about trivial subjects and encouraging one another’s vanity. However, unlike other writers of conduct manuals, Gisborne does not suggest that all conversation should be serious and worthy. He praises ‘ease’, ‘gaiety’, ‘laughter’ and ‘wit’ in conversation, as long as they are not insincere or mean spirited.This is not to say that Austen would have agreed with all of Gisborne’s views. For example, he worries that novels are addictive, and ‘secretly corrupt’ women’s minds (though he does admit that they have some good qualities).