Our guest speaker for the day was Dr. Cindy Aalders of Regent College. She gave a presentation on Henrietta Maria Bowdler (1750–1830), a writer and literary editor who lived in Bath at the same time as Jane Austen. Like Austen, Bowdler was something of a force in contemporary literary and religious circles. Half the leaders of high-minded thought in England were in correspondence with her, and many had visited the literary salon she kept in Bath. Also like Austen, she never married. A prolific author, Bowdler wrote one novel: Pen Tamar, or the History of an Old Maid. The talk explored Bowdler’s representation of single women in Pen Tamar. While defending single women and seeking to let her female characters be seen more complexly, Bowdler also capitulates to contemporary social and religious mores, excusing male prejudice, and so presents a mixed message.
Before the presentation, we listened to the Jane Austen reading of the day given by Joan Reynolds whose character focus from Pride & Prejudice was Mr. Wickham. Joan read excerpts that focused on different characters’ first impressions of Wickham.
Barbara Phillips introduced Dr. Aalders who specializes in the religious lives of 18th c. women in Britain and has an interest in marginalized women in particular (single, elderly, etc.). The Regency era was not a good time for a woman to be single, as the prejudice against them was vile. For proof of the general sentiment, Dr. Aalders read some excerpts from, “A philosophical, historical and moral essay on Old Maids” by William Hayley. It’s three volumes express his general disgust of single women. Bowdler’s Pen Tamar was written in response to those essays. Bowdler expressed opposing viewpoints about single women through William’s prejudice, Matilda’s virtue, and the relationship between Matilda & William. We see William’s prejudice against single women in statements like, “O, plague take them all, for a set of malicious, spiteful, mischief-making devils.” To contrast, Bowdler used Matilda’s character to show a single woman being “perfectly free from pride and affectation, with…a mind in which every day seemed to show new virtues.” To further drive home Bowdler’s viewpoint she engages Matilda and William in a debate of “old maids.” William’s argument held such sentiments as “having nothing to do in the world, she [a single woman] must do mischief; while the activity which should have been employed in educating her children, and making home pleasant to her husband, must be wasted in scandal or in cards, -in impertinence, or in ill-humour.” To which Matilda responds that there are many single women “who, far from being useless, are engaged in the constant exertion of active benevolence: many who employ the leisure which a single life affords to cultivate their minds by reading and reflection: many who devote their time and thoughts to parents, sisters, friends, -to smooth the bed of sickness, or cheer the langour of age. I could bring examples of single women, equal in talents and virtues to any of my married acquaintance, and who deserve and possess, in the highest degree, the respect and esteem of all who know them.” A philanthropic life was believed by Bowdler a good alternative to a married life, and we can see opinions like these expressed through Matilda. When Dr. Aalders informed us that William and Matilda did not marry in the book, we all cheered. Written in 1801, Bowdler did not want Pen Tamar published until after her death. It was published in 1830. It’s ironic. She wanted a woman to be seen, but didn’t want this novel challenging patriarchal views to be published while she was alive – therefore, since it was not published in her lifetime, she died unseen. She did, however, write Sermons on the Doctrines & Duties of Christianity, which was well received – likely because no one knew a woman had written them. Dr. Aalders brought a first edition of Pen Tamar that was passed around during the talk.
Biography: Dr. Cindy Aalders is Director of the John Richard Allison Library and Associate Professor of the History of Christianity at Regent College. A graduate of the University of Oxford’s doctoral program in history, she is the author of The Spiritual Lives and Manuscript Cultures of Eighteenth-Century English Women (forthcoming from Oxford University Press, 2023), To Express the Ineffable: The Hymns and Spirituality of Anne Steele (2008), and numerous book chapters and articles. She has taught and spoken widely to international audiences on the history of women’s theological and literary contributions to diverse cultures. Her current research explores the religious lives of eighteenth-century children.