A Performative Epistolary Guide towards Intellect and Well-being: Mary Ann Hedge’s “Affection’s Gift to a Beloved God-Child”

This essay was written by Teresa Contino for ENGL 144G at SCU, Fall 2022. Teresa is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in the Czech Republic. She studied English and Psychology at Santa Clara University and was the former editor-in-chief of the Santa Clara Review. She will pursue graduate studies at Claremont Graduate University in the Applied Cognitive Psychology Masters Program next year. Art museums, coffee, and her dog Lucy warm her heart!

A Performative Epistolary Guide towards Intellect and Well-being:
Mary Ann Hedge’s Affection’s Gift to a Beloved God-Child 

Victor Villanueva writes, “Writing provides a means whereby identities are discovered and constituted. Yet those are never clear cut. We carry many identities, choosing to foreground one (or some) over others depending on the context, audience, and the rhetorical task at hand” (57).  In this paper, I recover Mary Ann Hedge’s Affection’s Gift to a Beloved God-Child, published in 1819 in London – a text wherein a writer establishes her identity according to the writing conventions, social practices, and ideological expectations of her time. The text is not found in contemporary critical and historical studies of long 18th-century women’s writing. Originally, I found the book in Francis John Stainforth’s collection, the largest private library of British women authors in 19th-century Great Britain. Her work serves as an example of what I call a “performative epistolary guide” that encourages her godchild and young women to cultivate virtue and intellectual curiosities. Theoretically, the work carves rhetorical space for women’s academic pursuits and allows us to peek into their private lives – but inadequately so, as her argument does not develop beyond the social confines set up by the patriarchy. Hedge’s conduct manual empowers young women to nurture their intellectual interests and find happiness, however, “Affections Gift to a Beloved God-Child” only perpetuates male rhetorical positioning by communicating internalized misogyny to young women as a mode of education.

Two open-access copies can be found on Google Books: one (linked here) inscribed with “To the Bodleian Library from E.S. Dodgson, December 21, 1912,” and the other (linked here) inscribed with the Stainforth bookplate that belongs to the British Museum. The latter is also the second edition, published in 1821, and features three endorsements of her book. Both editions’ front matter consists of a sketch of a woman clutching an open book to her chest and glancing out a window, with a description that reads “Oh! May my spirit never c’er / And Mary’s guardian Angel be!” Hedge signs the book on the following page as “M.H.” and provides a brief overview of her purpose: to describe authentically and affectionately the qualities that she hopes for her godchild to acquire. It was published by “Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy, Paternoster-Row; and Swinborne and Walter, Colchester,” as printed on the title page. The book consists of twenty-three letters, each centered on a different theme, from “Employment of Time” to “Astronomy” to “Vanity.”  Hedge clusters together thematic topics: the first few emphasizing religion, then various academic disciplines, and finally on social expectations and character. She ends the books with a glossary of “Aphorisms” where she alphabetically lists a set of terms with definitions and quotes, some of which are cited from Thomas More and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. While her counsel in support of education and virtue is not inherently “antifeminist,” Hedge’s ideas for applications of virtue fall short of female empowerment beyond the lens of male domination.

As a well-read and accomplished woman author, she establishes an authorial voice of guidance and reason to her god-child. Nonetheless, she positions her voice as subsidiary to man, as she frames her message of female empowerment in regard to how it provides service to them.  For instance, in Letter V titled “On the Cultivation of the Mind,” she instructs, “Recollect how desirable, how essential it is to become better as you become wiser” (25).  Hedge approaches the feminist conception of the inherent value in a woman’s education but ultimately, she ranks educational value in relation to its appeal to men. While she does not outright say that nourishing one’s mind and heart will make her god-child a suitable bachelorette and eventual wife, she blankets her advice for Mary to become “desirable” to men by framing it around wisdom. Masking misogyny with mentorship, she writes, “It is this which will give grace to every virtue, render you happy in yourself, and an ornament to society” (27).  Hedge slips into a patriarchal method of instruction, despite her encouraging words to her god-child. The idea of being “happy in yourself” suggests that she wants Mary to cultivate a sense of independence and self-sufficiency. However, she clarifies that nurturing one’s happiness serves to fulfill a woman’s role as “an ornament” instead of keying into the critical roles that women play in society.  Thus, she sees women (herself included) as embellishments, diminishing the applied purposes of girls’ education and well-being. While she believes in women’s intellectual capabilities and acknowledges that investing in these curiosities will improve their mental health, she sticks to the social expectations imposed upon young women at the time.

Letter VII “On the Study of History and Reading in General” urges Mary to read books with a careful selection process. Poetically, Hedge encourages Mary to engage in reading as if it is “an intellectual feast at which you may fearlessly banquet” (38).  She uses a metaphor to compare reading books to enjoying a dinner spread – an inherently feminist proposition, at first glance. Instead of exhorting Mary to participate in the classical responsibilities of preparing a banquet, such as cooking in the kitchen, putting on makeup, or buying nice materials for a dress, she asks Mary to eat. The word “fearlessly” suggests Mary can indulge herself in reading without restraint. However, later on, Hedge writes that some novels, when not chosen wisely, “vitiate the taste, and to render it unfit for more solid reading, – that they greatly corrupt the judgment and bewilder understanding” (39). Further, she argues that certain books, “initiate the guileless reader with scenes which insensibly wear away the quick feelings of delicacy, and thus remove both the ornament and safeguard of innocence” (39-40).  While she entertains the idea of young girls having the freedom to read anything they would like, she adheres to the limitations of intellectual exploration imposed on women. By reminding Mary of “judgment,” “understanding,” “delicacy,” and “innocence,” she reminds the reader of the social virtues that ultimately steer her argument.

She further cautions Mary against reading “several female writers of our own country and time” because of their heroines with selfish desires that “quicken our disgust” (41). The mode of her education relies on a patriarchal system of organization. She writes, “I would wish you, my dear girl never to peruse works of this description…the purity of your mind may be contaminated ere you are sensible of the danger” (41).  She prioritizes “purity” over offering her support to her fellow women writers and colleagues, suggesting that she would like to exclude her membership from the British women writing community. Her identity as a female author is separate from the others, abstaining from granting her god-child any advice that could be interpreted as controversial by her publisher or by the British public. Ultimately, she instructs Mary to read according to an inherently antifeminist method that does not allow for liberation through intellectual exploration.

It is critical to consider how our individual positionalities and sociocultural contexts such as mainstream feminism guide our interpretation of recovered texts. Jean Marsden reminds and cautions against allowing our “unconscious desire to read ourselves into our foremothers” to gauge the cultural relevance of an archived text (661).  Susan Felch similarly argues that authors “cannot possibly know how their texts will be read and understood in the future” (21). As feminist-informed scholars, indeed, the goal is no longer to simply recover but to employ critical research skills of rescue and inscription to frame our understanding of recovered texts. Gesa Kirsch and Jacqueline Royster’s dialectical and dialogical tools of “critical imagination, strategic contemplation, and social circulation” remind us to listen, inquire, and critically interpret recovered texts. One way to employ these tools is to consider what informs Hedge’s decisions regarding the standards of a woman’s character. By exploring Hedge’s positionality, in terms of race, gender, and class, we can gain insight into the rhetorical purpose and methodology of writing the text.

Mary Ann Hedge was born on November 23, 1776, in Colchester, England. She was the youngest and only daughter of a goldsmith and a milliner. By the age of 35, all of Hedge’s seven brothers died (Jackson Bibliography of Romantic Poetry). Her mother died in 1816, and her father died in 1821, forcing her to apply to the Royal Literary Fund for financial assistance (Jackson Bibliography of Romantic Poetry). She wrote various stories and poems for children, historical summaries, and epistolary collections: a total of 34 works in 112 publications. (Jackson Bibliography of Romantic Poetry; WorldCat Identities). Perhaps Hedge published “Affection’s Gift” in 1819 to support herself financially – its reception might have been critical to her economic security. Michelle Levy informs us that the decision for 18th-century British women to print work was complex, but for most women, the prospect of making money on their writing served as a major incentive. The patriarchal underpinnings of Hedge’s letters can be interpreted as a means of survival in a capitalist system that profits from her writing in favor of the patriarchy. The epistolary text thus demonstrates and perpetuates women’s mental imprisonment across generations.

Letter X “Botany, Chymistery, and Mineralogy” advocates for young girls to pursue the study of natural sciences, especially in their hours of leisure. On one hand, Hedge pioneers the notion of women studying various scientific subdisciplines, but on the other hand, she falls back on the idea of academic success through the lens of male validation.  In the first paragraph of the chapter, she clarifies, “I have no intention however of recommending you to become a natural philosopher… it would be neither consistent with your sex, nor the duties of it, to enter such an exhaustless field of observation” (43).  Here, she expresses her doubt of girls’ cognitive abilities, feeding into the stereotype that women should be excluded from the discipline of science. While the chapter performatively champions young girls’ pursuit of natural science, the chapter’s content reveals Hedge’s sterilized version of female empowerment.  She underestimates women’s abilities to engage in the more grueling tasks of observation and analysis. In fact, she explains that once Mary explores botany, she will be able to “sketch with truth the beauteous forms of the flowery creation, must surely be preeminently pleasing” (44). Again, she feels the need to compensate words of empowerment with unassuming and gentle language. She describes the act of sketching as “pleasing,” in contrast to her description of the field of observation as “exhaustless.” Internalized misogyny and self-doubt are etched into her tone. As a result, male readers and reviewers of her text will not feel insecure about the prospect of a young girl potentially usurping their role as a philosopher. She concludes the chapter by accrediting male intellect, “I need not urge it further, for your father, who is so entirely acquainted with it in theory and practice, can fully bear testimony to what I assert” (44). In a somewhat robotic fashion, she relinquishes her rhetorical authority by giving into the conception that men should occupy scientific spaces.

Other letter-writing manuals of the long-18th century, such as British novelist Samuel Richardson’s“Letters Written to and for Particular Friends,” published in 1741 offer social etiquette tips and promote the pursuit of scholarship. They give advice on how to act according to specific social scenarios and structure their advice around the concept of improving the mind and heart. These letters evolved into publications that serve as accessible forms of entertainment for variously positioned British people. Victoria Myers deftly describes Richardson’s conduct manuals while “formulaic,” it is “not devoid of feeling – or perhaps it is more accurate to say they are related to feeling in an almost calibrated way” (387).  Hedge’s writing reflects Richardson’s calculated tone. Like Richardson, she uses the second person and sprinkles personalized dedications to her godchild such as “my dear Girl” or “my beloved,” but she refrains from discussing details of her personal life. She keeps her embodiment separate from her guidance. In the concluding lines, Hedge subtly hints at the ways in which her aversive experiences could be informing the body of the text: “The lessons I have learned in the school of life have been severe; may you, by reading the reflections which have resulted, be warned, without encountering the sorrow experienced by your friendly monitor” (114).  She alludes to her personal experiences that have inspired her to share how to live life with virtue and delight in the face of trauma, such as the death of her entire family or financial hardship.  However, she abstains from divulging into the feminist practice of acknowledging how her affective experiences influence her writing and her identity.

Many epistolary guides written by women of the long 18th century share similar perspectives in favor of women’s education; they often delve into issues of marriage, financial gains, friendship, and domestic affairs. They offer guidance to young women on how to act with courtesy, protect their reputations, and overcome rejection and the dangers of sexual indiscretion (Linda Mitchell). In fact, many letter-writing manuals have repeated content and language, exhibiting their function as eclectic anthology-like books in the publishing industry (Linda Mitchell). In her introduction, Hedge identifies that in her letters, she has “adopted the sentiments and even the language of various authors when they have expressed my meaning in clearer and more elegant terms than I was myself capable of” (3).  While she rightfully credits other conduct manuals, she does not identify the female authors from whom words she borrows. Though quick to attribute Shakespeare and Rosseau’s names to their texts, she withholds from naming or featuring any female writers. In some ways, the communal pool of terms and phrases are reused and repurposed to form a sort of kaleidoscope of women’s wisdom. On the other hand, the lack of identification makes the act of feminist recovery work more challenging.

Epistolary manuals written by women defined everyday moral acts and attempted to empower young women through language. As writers produce text, or in this case letters, they indicate their membership in a particular field and constitute their identity. Hedge’s letters attempt to build a mentoring relationship with Mary, define her own intellectual and moral goals, and help establish her identity as a female author. However, lacking a liberatory perspective, the logos of the letters are subject to a prescriptive tone that fails to surpass the social expectations stipulated to women at the time.  As feminist recoverists, we listen and critically analyze women’s writing, while considering the ways in which oppressive systems interact with modes of thinking. Working within the patriarchal framework, she is unable to free herself and her writing from the periphery of male approval and validation. She performs her uplifting support towards women’s success and well-being in epistolary form – her writing, filtered by the rhetorical task of patriarchal structures of the long 18th century.

Works Cited

Felch, Susan M. “The Backward Gaze: Editing Elizabeth Tyrwhit’s Prayerbook.” Editing Early Modern Women, edited by Sarah C. E. Ross and Paul Salzman, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2016, pp. 21–39.

Hedge, Mary Ann. Affections Gift to a Beloved God-Child. 1st ed., Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy, Paternoster-Row; and Swinborne and Walter, Colchester, 1819, Google Books, https://books.google.com/books?id=iJQDAAAAQAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q=cultivation%20of%20the%20mind&f=false, Accessed 6 Nov. 2022.

Hedge, Mary Ann. Affections Gift to a Beloved God-Child. 2nd ed., Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy, Paternoster-Row; and Swinborne and Walter, Colchester, 1821, Google Books, https://books.google.com/books?id=VwDKVz3hGOgC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false, Accessed 6 Nov. 2022.

“Hedge, Mary Ann.” Jackson Bibliography of Romantic Poetry, University of Toronto Libraries, https://jacksonbibliography.library.utoronto.ca/author/details/hedge-mary-ann/6712.

“Hedge, Mary Ann.” WorldCat Identities, OCLC WorldCat Identities, 2022.

Kirsch, Gesa E., and Jacqueline J. Royster. “Feminist Rhetorical Practices: In Search of Excellence.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 61, no. 4, 2010, pp. 640–72. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27917867. Accessed 4 Nov. 2022.

Levy, Michelle. “Women and print culture, 1750–1830.” The History of British Women’s Writing, 1750–1830. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2010. 29-46.

Marsden, Jean I. “Beyond Recovery: Feminism and the Future of Eighteenth-Century Literary Studies.” Feminist Studies, vol. 28, no. 3, 2002, pp. 657–62. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/3178795. Accessed 7 Nov. 2022.

Mitchell, Linda C. “Entertainment and Instruction: Women’s Roles in the English Epistolary Tradition.” Huntington Library Quarterly, vol. 66, no. 3/4, 2003, pp. 331–47. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3818086. Accessed 4 Nov. 2022.

Villanueva, Victor. Chapter 3.5 “Writing Enacts and Creates Identities and Ideologies: Writing Provides a Representation of Ideologies and Identities” Naming What We Know : Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies.  Edited by Adler-Kassner Linda and Elizabeth Wardle.  Utah State University Press 2015.





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