Excerpt from Louisa by Louisa Thomas, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams

by Louisa Thomas

Louisa by Louisa Thomas X
Louisa by Louisa Thomas
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2016, 512 pages

    Apr 2017, 512 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kate Braithwaite
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John Hewlett did bring her around to a more or less conventional religious view (although, she would write in 1825, "I am not quite sure that some people do not think me a little of a fanatic even now"). But he did something that Joshua did not intend when he asked John to minister to Louisa: he listened to her, talked with her, recommended books for her to read, and treated the child with unusual respect. On her visits over the years, he and Louisa would engage in "serious conversation." His wife, too, treated her with unusual attention and care. Elizabeth Hewlett was "a very eccentric woman of strong mind and still stronger passions." She was a woman for the age of sensibility— but also a counterpoint to the woman Louisa would have encountered in popular advice manuals of the day. Elizabeth was not quiet and delicate; she did not blush and fade. So forceful was her personality that her neighbors, including the formidable Mary Wollstonecraft—the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman—found her bossy and intimidating. (Wollstonecraft, at the time a local schoolmistress, complained of Elizabeth's power over John Hewlett: "How he is yoked!")

John Hewlett, Louisa wrote, "led me early to think." Thinking was not something that most young women were encouraged to do. John Hewlett was something of a radical. He ran a boys' school in Shacklewell and was a sizar of Magdalen College at Oxford, and he would go on to have an illustrious career as a scholar and preacher, but in the 1780s and 1790s, his friends included famous dissenters and writers, and he had unusual ideas about the education of young women. Even as he was encouraging Louisa, John was urging Mary Wollstonecraft to write an essay about her ideas about the education of young women, which he carried to the publisher himself. Though Thoughts on the Education of Daugh­ters was less explosive than Wollstonecraft's more famous workit still had an incendiary message: a woman should learn to think for herself.

So Louisa began to imagine she might have a mind of her own, which further set her apart. "At school," she later wrote, "I was universally respected, but I was never beloved." While she was there, she and her best friend, Miss Edwards—another misfit, "an East Indian very dark, with long black Indian hair; not handsome, but looked up to by all the teachers as a girl of uncommon talents"—were the "decided favorites" of a teacher named Miss Young. By conventional definitions of the time, the Miss Young she described was hardly a woman at all. "Her uncle had her educated with boys for many years; and obliged her to wear boys clothes: and in this way she had in a great measure acquired something like a classical education," Louisa wrote in "Record of a Life." In Louisa's world, there was nothing natural about a lady who acted like a man, and Louisa would routinely express her uneasiness with women who did. Yet in the same breath, she would often also express her admiration. Miss Young was, Louisa wrote, "a most extraordinary woman." She was the kind of woman—strong, forceful, unconventional, educated, "masculine"—who would always both impress and confound her. Louisa flourished under her attention. Miss Young "conversed freely with us upon the books we read," and taught her and Miss Edwards how to recognize "the most beautiful and striking passages." She took the lessons to heart. When her father gave her a guinea, Louisa used it to buy the kinds of books Miss Young and John Hewlett had encouraged her to read: Milton's Paradise Lost and Regained and John Mason's Self­-Knowledge: A Treatise, Shewing the Nature and Benefit of that Important Science, and the Way to Attain It.

Louisa was pulled, then, between seemingly incompatible imperatives. A woman should not think for herself, because a woman pursued knowledge at the cost of a husband. When she recalled her purchase— as she did more than once, even into old age—she said she regretted buying those books and studying them closely. "How often since that time have I thought it injured me; by teaching me to scrutinize too closely into motives, and looking too closely at the truth," she wrote. Too closely at the truth! Understanding the truth was not the goal of a young woman's education. A wife did not need self-knowledge; she needed self-effacement. As Hannah More, the most popular author of her day, had written in Essays Addressed to Young Ladies, "Girls should be taught to give up their opinions betimes, and not pertinaciously to carry on a dispute, even if they would know themselves to be in the right." Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, another author whom Louisa read, taught herself Latin and Greek in secret and urged her daughter to teach her granddaughter how to hide a good education. Book learning, Lady Montagu wrote, should be concealed "with as much solicitude as she would hide crookedness or lameness."

Excerpted from Louisa by Louisa Thomas. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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