Sermons to Young Women is a collection of sermons by the Reverend James Fordyce (1720–1796). The work was first published in 1766, in two volumes. This is the sixth edition, also published in 1766. As the title page makes clear, it contains a number of alterations and additions.
How do the sermons suggest young women should behave?
Fordyce instructs women to be dutiful, submissive and modest in dress and behaviour: ‘Meekness, cultivated on Christian principles, is the proper consummation, and highest finishing, of female excellence’. Women should also be sensitive: the 'better kind of woman' will ‘melt into tears at the sight or hearing of distress’. At the same time, they should appear as elegant and attractive as possible, since beauty is a gift from God (p. 12). This emphasis on being attractive is at odds with Fordyce’s belief in the importance of modesty: there is a contradiction in his depiction of the ideal woman.
James Fordyce and the reception of Sermons to Young Women
The Reverend James Fordyce (1720–1796) was a minister in the Church of Scotland. In 1760, he moved to London and became one of the most famous preachers in the city.
Sermons to Young Women was a huge success, as demonstrated by the fact that it reached its sixth edition in the year it was originally published. In 1777, Fordyce published an equivalent collection of sermons for men, Addresses to Young Men, which was also very popular. However, in the early 1770s the popularity of Fordyce and his sermons declined, and by the end of the 18th century Fordyce’s approach to women seemed very old-fashioned. Even so, Sermons to Young Women was frequently reprinted until the early 1900s.
In A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), Mary Wollstonecraft strongly criticises Sermons for Young Women. She objects to Fordyce’s suggestion that the highest reward for female virtue is male attention; she also objects to his belief that if a husband becomes indifferent, it is because his wife is insufficiently submissive and forgiving.
Sermons to Young Women in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice
Mr Collins chooses Sermons to Young Women to read aloud to the Bennet sisters on the first evening that he spends with the family (I. 14). This is an important clue to Mr Collins’s character, since by the time Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice, Fordyce’s views were outdated and restrictive. Lydia Bennet is particularly unimpressed by Mr Collins’s choice of reading material: ‘Lydia gaped as he opened the volume, and before he had, with very monotonous solemnity, read three pages, she interrupted him …’.