Youth's Magazine,  3rd ser. 6 (1833), 117–22.

Ladies at College!



Letter, Introduction; Extract, Short Fiction, Letter; Afterword


Gender, Education, Amusement, Lecturing, Universities, History of Science, Chemistry, Instruments, Nomenclature, Utility, Reasoning

    The narrator introduces an extract from an 'unedited manuscript', hoping that, since the magazine's pages are 'open to useful knowledge as well as religious instruction', the extract will be found to contain observations of profit to 'female students'. The narrator of the apparently fictional extract records that Miss Hamilton took her country friend Mrs Montgomery to attend some of the popular lectures delivered to ladies in Edinburgh. A letter of Mrs Montgomery describes a visit to 'college' to hear a lecture on chemistry. She writes: 'It was a new thing in the history alike of science and the sex, to find female students in the lecture-room of a professor, in this celebrated university'. (118) She went chiefly from curiosity, and describes those who attended. She describes the apparatus, including things 'so strange' to her 'unlearned vision, that the whole combined might have been imagined the laboratory in a lunatic asylum'. The lecturer went 'gravely over the details of science', although the ladies seemed 'too little pre-disciplined to understand him'. (118) The 'nomenclature of science' caused particular difficulties. Mrs Montgomery writes that it would take uncommon courage 'to hear young ladies talking in a drawing-room of horizontal strata, alluvial soil, high induration, fluoric acid, glucina, itria, flushing and puddling'. She finds it odd 'that almost the only subject of popular lectures in this country should be that of chemistry, which of all others seems to be least likely to be beneficial to women'. She argues that the immediate utility of knowledge is not so important as the development of the faculty of reasoning, but that the 'unwieldy technicalities' of physical science make it less appropriate for women than other subjects, especially belles lettres. (119) Nonetheless, Mrs Montgomery welcomes this 'highly popular lecture', considering that it 'augurs well for the future' and is 'a breaking-up of the prejudices of the public mind against that higher, intellectual, and scientific education, of which women in the rapid advancement of society in every rank of life, must very soon become the subjects' (120). The letter ends with a reference to books on 'learning foreign languages without the previous study of grammar' (apparently a reference to the system of James Hamilton). Mrs Montgomery remarks: 'when I heard the author say, that it was possible to form a language on mathematical principles, and that the chemical language of Lavoisier was of that nature, I felt that I had not much faith in his theory' (120–21). The afterword advocates the utility of the study of literature by women, especially as potential instructors of the young, within the context of Christian piety.

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