Leading Apes in Hell — Regency Spinsters

Recently, I was looking for Regency images in the 1816 journals of “Repository of Arts, Literature, Fashions” by Rudolph Ackermann, Frederic Shoberl. I came across a columnist who was mysteriously named “The Female Tattler.” Her moralistic writings were full of melodrama and woe.  So, I thought I would include one on my blog. In this particular article, she considers the appropriateness of calling spinsters “ape leaders.”

NOTE: The Female Tattler enjoyed poetry. However, I chose to edit out her long and copious poetic quotes.

Also, you can find descriptions of the gowns on my Pinterest page under “Regency Fashions”

Enjoy.

THE FEMALE TATTLER.
No. IX.

It may be in the recollection of my readers, that, in a former number, a question was addressed to me relative to the origin of a certain mysterious proverb, very familiar to everyone, respecting the allotment of that class of females distinguished by the title of Old Maids, in a future state of existence; and it was particularly requested to illustrate the employment assigned them of leading apes in hell. 

I did not feel myself disposed, from the delicacy of the subject, to engage in an inquiry so ill suited to female disquisition; and if, in a vain or foolish moment, I had indulged.an idle inclination to pursue it, I must soon have been checked by experiencing a total disqualification for the task. I therefore waited till some ingenious correspondent, skilled in that branch of antiquarian knowledge which relates to symbols, figures, fables, and proverbs, should condescend to favour me with his opinions on the subject.

With this determination I have good reason to be satisfied, as I have at length received a letter relative to the inquiry, which, though not altogether decisive, is replete with ingenuity, fancy, and information, and throws as much light upon the object of investigation as it appears to be capable of receiving. I am not myself one of those females, who, on account of their virgin state, are so frequently, and, I shall add, so illiberally and unjustly, made a subject of jest and contumely; for I have been the wife of two husbands, who are gone to rest, and the mother of five children, three of whom, Heaven protect them, I see like olive-branches round my table: nevertheless, 1 cannot assume it as a rightful privilege to consider, much less to treat with disrespect, any of my sex who have not been subjected to the laws of Hymen, or been in a state to fulfill the duties of a mother. Even supposing, which however is by no means to be taken for granted, that the condition of an old maid is of inferior estimation, as it is not to be attributed to herself, but to those cross accidents of life which it is not in her power to command or control, it must be the height of injustice to regard it either with ridicule or disdain: nay on the contrary, I do not hesitate to declare, that some of the most amiable and excellent women I have known, have been in that I class of my sex who have borne j their virgin honours to the grave. But I am led from the object before me, and therefore shall proceed to communicate the letter, which will form the interesting part of this paper.

TO THE FEMALE TATTLER

Madam,

It has been an amusement of mine, from the early part of my life, to collect, examine, and explain the various proverbial sayings and expressions that are peculiar to different countries and languages, ancient and modern, as well as the provincial peculiarities that are found to prevail, and the idioms that are in habitual use in the different parts of the country which gave me birth. I have a large folio full of my collections, and have sometimes felt an inclination to send it to the press, as a publication that might be of no inconsiderable use to critics, commentators, and the curious in logographic inquiries. Some of these proverbial sayings, however, have not yielded, at least in a manner altogether satisfactory, to my researches. Among them is that which assigns the miserable occupation of leading apes (I will not make use of the horrid word generally annexed to it) in a future state of existence. I shall, however, give you all the information on the subject which I have been able to attain from others, with such opinions as my own curious and investigating mind has suggested to myself.

One of my ingenious friends is convinced, that this predestinating proverb was invented and propagated by the monks, to allure opulent maiden females into the cloister, by persuading them, that as they were likely to become the wives of men, they might become the spouses of God, and, by such an union on earth, be protected from the sentence, which otherwise condemns them to the most rude, disgusting, and improvident companion that can well be conceived in a future world. This notion is too whimsical, as well as trop recherche, to meet with my fastidious humour: for my part, I am rather inclined to rank an idea so injurious to the virgin character, among the dismal and irrational superstitions of the Egyptians, as I find a passage in Hermes Trismegistus, which states, that those women who die childless are, immediately after their death, tormented by demons. I must confess, however, that from the very high respect which the Egyptians entertained for the ape, the demons mentioned by Trismegistus could hardly be of that figure. Indeed, the affectionate adoration which apes have sometimes received, as we learn from the pious poet Prudentius (Venerem precaris, comprecare et simiam), has, at times, led me to conjecture, that the saying in question might have arisen in some country where it bore a very different meaning from what we annex to it at present, and where this destiny of the ancient virgin was intended not as a punishment, but as the reward of her continence.

I do not recollect to have seen the expression of leading apes in hell, in any English author before Shirley the dramatic poet, remarkable for the number of plays which he wrote, and dying, with his wife, of the fright occasioned by the fire of 1666. In his comedy called The School of Compliment, printed in 1637, there is a scene, in which, to humour the madness of Infortunio, a leading personage in the piece, the several characters on the stage pretend to be damned. Delia, among the rest, declares that she was brought into her wretched and lamentable situation as the fatal consequence of her being a stale virgin, or, in the more intelligible phrase, an old maid, and that the horrid punishment assigned her was to lead apes in hell.

But to bring the matter to something like a conclusive opinion, I shall beg leave to state how I have reconciled this expression to my understanding; or rather, what was the meaning intended to be annexed by the judicial ingenuity of the wit who first employed it.

It would be the height of injustice to consider any circumstance, unattended with moral turpitude or criminal intention, as deserving of punishment; and it is altogether improbable, if not absolutely unnatural, that any female should voluntarily and by preference select the maiden state as the condition of her life, merely as such; nor is,  presume, an example to be found of a woman who could marry with a rational prospect of happiness, and, under such circumstances, turned her back upon the altar.

Instances must have occurred to everyone, who has advanced on the journey of life, where female resolution has been seen to resist the invitations of Hymen, from motives that discretion has awakened and reason may approve. While, on the other hand, it must have been visible, how much misery is produced by matrimonial connections hurried on by passion, or formed by interest, in which neither the understanding nor the heart has been duly consulted; and, of course, the happiness that ought to result from the most important connection of life is left to accidental circumstances, in which the risk is by no means in favour of a successful issue.

I will suppose, by way of illustrating my notion on the subject, the two following situations; though I need not state them on supposition, as they were familiar to my own observation and the respective parties perfectly well known to myself. The one was a young lady of very respectable connections; but, in consequence of being one of a numerous family, her principal fortune was the beauty she had received from nature, and the accomplishments which had been afforded by a superior education. At the age of twenty she had won the regards of a young gentleman of handsome fortune; and she did not hesitate to make every return of regard and affection which he required of her. But as his father, who consulted the fortunes rather than the happiness of his son, objected to the consummation of his wishes, they could not be gratified till the old gentleman, who had long been in a very declining state of health, was removed by death from forming any further obstacles to the pleasing prospect of connubial happiness. But in this disappointing world, little dependence can be had on anything which is not actually in our possession. Every thing was settled for this promising union; and even the day was named when the ceremonial of the altar was to repay the happy pair for all their fears, doubts, and anxieties, which they had suffered. But the hand of fate interposed; the young man was suddenly seized with an illness which baffled all the efforts of medical skill: in short, he died, but gave the only proof of regard now in his power to the destined bride, by securing to her a very liberal independence. She lamented her loss with unbounded grief, and formed a resolution to wed herself to the grave of her lover, and devote herself to virgin solitude for his sake. Her fortune was sufficient to give her all the comforts of life; and, in that point of view, she was impelled by no inducement to swerve from the resolution she had decidedly formed. Five years passed, and more than one proposal had been rejected: at length, however, the hour of temptation arrived which did not meet with the wish to resist it. A baronet, who was no longer a young man, “appeared as a suitor; and as he brought a title, and all its fascinating accompaniments along with it, she forgot the tomb over which she had wept, and took possession of a splendid allotment, in which she soon forgot to smile. Harassed by the peevishness of a sick husband, suspected by his jealousy, and misruled by his tyranny, she sought for what she could attain of her former comfort by a deed of separation; and did not become a widow till, if she had even been bold enough, it was too late once more to become a wife.

The contrast to this character will demand an equal space to describe it. . .

Marianne had considerable attractions, and possessed a superior understanding, polished by education, and, which is still better, had been subsequently improved by herself. Fashionable education, unfortunately, gains more and more the ascendancy over good education; as for one young woman who is brought up to fulfill the real duties of the marriage state, as a housewife or a mother, a much greater proportion will be found who learn little more than to tickle the keys of a piano-forte, to thrum the strings of a harp, to sing, to dance, to babble a foreign language, with at most a little needlework and embroidery; in short, to make themselves dolls for a babyman to play withal. Marianne, however, had all the former, and all that was essential to the latter; but she .had formed certain notions of matrimonial happiness which were not confined to the mere having of a husband. She had observed among her female acquaintance how few of them had improved their condition by going to the altar and changing their names, without having duly considered the character, temper, and habits of the man w hose names they assumed. Her own sister had happened to dance with a gentleman at a public assembly, who was so struck with her charms, that the very next day he was a suitor for
her hand. He happened to have a good fortune, with a handsome person, and did not sue in vain. In less than a month he led her to the altar; and in the course of another month she awoke from her fancied dream of happiness, with the melancholy conviction that she should be a wretch for life. My heroine, therefore, determined to weigh the merits of any lovers she might have in the scale of her own judgment, to examine well the preferences of her heart, and not to let the irretrievable die be cast till her reason was convinced, that the chances in favour of happiness were of a decisive character.

She had several opportunities of fulfilling her resolution, and she completely fulfilled it: but the result was, that she grew into an Old Maid. As she never became a wife, she consequently never became a mother; but the maternal duties she exercised for many years with exemplary care and affection. Her sister, whose days were supposed to have been shortened by the base treatment of a profligate husband, requested, on her dying pillow, that her three female children, who were then young, might be consigned to the care of their maiden aunt. This last entreaty was complied with, and their maiden aunt employed all the years which they required to make them the ornaments of their sex and their nature. When she introduced them into the world, at the age when it is proper that they should appear there, thyy were the admiration of all who beheld them. Such a woman as this, Old MAID as she was, ought not surely to be sentenced to lead apes in hell.

What then are the characters— for proverbs, figurative as they may be, are generally founded in justice, and are the offspring of experience—what then, I say, are the characters to whose ancient virginity punishment might be justly applied? I will endeavour to tell you.

Sophia had formed a resolution never to marry, unless the ardent proposition of love was accompanied with a title; and a title never presented itself.

Leonora was convinced, that she should be disgraced if her bridegroom did not take her to church in his coach and four; and no one appeared to make her that offer but in a carriage and pair.

Henrietta had formed the determined whimsey to make it an essential in the gentleman whom she would favour with her hand, that he should be in a rank of life to render it necessary for her to be presented at court; but the courtiers proceeded no further than compliments and congees, and, in their addresses to her, not an hymeneal expression escaped them.

Litterella, my fourth and last, who piqued herself upon her epistolary writing, and had more correspondents than any young lady of her age, or perhaps any age, in the kingdom, determined never to marry a man who could not frank her letters; and neither peer nor member of parliament appeared to perform that office upon the proposed conditions.

The ladies, however, had one virtue; they maintained their respective resolutions, consequently became Old Maids for their folly, and deserve to lead apes in hell.

But why, it may be said, of all the beasts of the forest, are apes selected as the associates of this punishment? I have only to conjecture, that for the whimsical weakness, to say no more of such ancient misses as I have described, in refusing rational marriage with man, they are proverbially condemned to the society of that animal who bears the most disgusting resemblance of him.

But to console the amiable, sensible, and which may be considered as the unfortunate class of the maiden sisterhood, I shall conclude with the sentiments of a distinguished poet, who seems to have been influenced by what he felt, as a humane wish to make some amends for the insult of this injurious proverb, by assigning a place to old maids of the better description in his poetical elysium.

A CURIOUS INQUIRER

2 Replies to “Leading Apes in Hell — Regency Spinsters”

  1. I love this long letter, the style of it is so complex. I have to say it sheds a little light on the expression “ape leader.” But mostly it talks of virgins. What struck me was that never did it occur to the author that a woman would remain a virgin because nobody would offer for her. He names two examples who were lovely women, and several silly ones who refused offers due to the gentleman being 2 horses short. But never any poor plain and unaccomplished woman who never caught a man’s eye.
    Oh and it also struck me how taboo the word virgin is these days, seeing it so casually used here.

  2. Abigail,

    I thought the stories were just cracked. Must get out the smelling salts. Funny how the author of the letter was arguing for shades of gray concerning the women. I guess it really did come down to the “good woman/bad woman” and nothing inbetween mentality.

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