(Woodcut by Joan Hassell from The Folio Society’s Edition of Pride and Prejudice)

In Chapter 8 of Pride and Prejudice, we are given a small diatribe on the subject of what qualifies a woman to be deemed accomplished. Charles Bingley, declares that he thinks all young women are accomplished:

“It is amazing to me,” said Bingley, “how young ladies can have patience to be so very accomplished as they all are.”

“All young ladies accomplished! My dear Charles, what do you mean?”

“Yes, all of them, I think. They all paint tables, cover screens, and net purses. I scarcely know any one who cannot do all this, and I am sure I never heard a young lady spoken of for the first time, without being informed that she was very accomplished.”

The more exacting Darcy pours scorn on his list of accomplishments:

“Your list of the common extent of accomplishments,” said Darcy, “has too much truth. The word is applied to many a woman who deserves it no otherwise than by netting a purse or covering a screen. But I am very far from agreeing with you in your estimation of ladies in general. I cannot boast of knowing more than half a dozen, in the whole range of my acquaintance, that are really accomplished.”

Miss Bingley, hoping her fashionably expensive, seminary acquired education will allow her to belittle the home schooled-if we can all  it that- Elizabeth Bennet ,weighs in:

“Oh! certainly,” cried his faithful assistant, “no one can be really esteemed accomplished who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved.”

And it is left to Darcy –who surely as such an acute observer, knows the only woman in the room with a book in her hand is Elizabeth Bennet – to pay her this ever so slight compliment, by emphasizing the intellectual requirements of true accomplishment:

“All this she must possess,” added Darcy, “and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”

This pity of it is all is that Elizabeth is already  too prejudiced against Darcy to accept or even notice it; and, inevitably, she goes on the attack:

“I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any.”

(Don’t worry-it all works out well in the end)

For many years the debate has continued to rage: was the “work” created by many genteel women of this era of any intellectual value? Or did Darcy’s view prevail, so that the ability to net a purse and cover a screen was not thought of being of any merit, and to call  a women accomplished in these circumstances was  rather over egging the pudding? In this revealing article by Amanda Vickery she contends that  to see woman’s ”work” as a lesser achievement with no artistic or intellectual input and of lesser worth than the intellectual purists of men is to misunderstand it and them. I quite agree.

And the woman who was the subject of that article is someone who even the disdainful un-reconstructed Fitzwilliam Darcy would ,I submit have been forced to  have called accomplished . Mrs Delany united a genteel women’s “work” with artistic and intellectual ability and scientific endeavor

The book Mrs. Delany and her Circle has been published by Yale to coincide with an exhibition that concentrates on her artistic and scientific endeavours, and which has been on view at The Centre for British Art in the US, and is now on view at the Sir John Soane’s Museum, London. I am hoping to get there to see later in the year, but in the meantime I wanted to review  this and one more book on the subject of Mrs Delany.

First, a little background information. Mrs. Delaney lived almost the length of the 18th century; born in 1700 she died in 1788 Well connected she was no doubt a conventional accomplished woman, but had a keen intellect which raised her “work” to new levels of artistic ability and scientific truth.

Her first marriage to Alexander Pendarves was unhappy but ended in 1725 with the unexpected death of her restrictive and jealous husband. Her widowhood in London  was a happier time in her life and many of her most important friendships were cemented in this period, especially that with Margaret, Duchess of Portland. The great collection of letters to these friends, and to her mother and sister to which I will refer below, began during her widowhood.

Her second marriage was much happier in all ways than her first and gave her much intellectual freedom and stimulation. The entry on Mrs Delany in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography  records it thus:

In 1731 Pendarves joined her friend Anne Donnellan, the daughter of Nehemiah Donnellan, chief baron of the Irish exchequer, in Ireland for a visit of eighteen months. They were widely entertained in Dublin and the country and introduced to most of Anglo-Irish society. Pendarves met Jonathan Swift, with whom she afterwards corresponded. More important was her meeting with Patrick Delany an Anglican cleric. The two were clearly attracted to each other, but he was already engaged to a rich widow, whom he married in 1732. In 1743, after his wife’s death, Delany went to England to propose to Pendarves. Her male relations opposed the match, for Delany had neither fortune nor gentle birth. But she ignored these protests, and the marriage took place in London in early June 1743.


(Silhouette by Mrs Delany)

After her husband’s death in 1768, she lived mostly with her great friend the Duchess of Portland:

Mary Delany returned to London, and lived first at Thatched House Court and then at St James’s Place. She spent most summers at Bulstrode in Buckinghamshire, the favourite country house of the duchess of Portland. There the friends improved the gardens, collected shells and botanical specimens, indulged in various arts and crafts, and entertained poets, scientists, theologians, friends, and royalty. It was there in 1774 that Delany began what she called her paper mosaics, the cut-paper illustrations of flowers and plants that were her most important artistic achievement. Using various shadings of coloured tissue, she cut freehand all the parts of the plant, which were then pasted on black paper to make a perfect specimen. Nearly a thousand pages of her Hortus siccus were completed by 1784, when she had to give up the work because of failing eyesight; these are now in the department of prints and drawings at the British Museum.

The book, Mrs Delany and her Circle, concentrates on her stunning accomplishments and is peppered throughout with stunning examples of her work

Her needlework is of the highest technical ability :

(Please do click on these illustrations to enlarge them-the detail is amazing)

But for me the most important thing to note however is the fact that she is not fanciful in her designs. The flowers-roses, hollyhocks, auriculas, sweet peas  etc., etc.,  are all botanically correct.

This close up of a thistle being strangled prettily by a convolvulus is a tour de force

She continued with her artistic endeavors throughout her life, but in 1772  -when suffering from failing eyesight-she invented a new form of recording botanical samples with her  paper mosaics. The craze for natural science was fuelled by the introductions of previously unseen/unknown plants from newly conquered lands. Her interest in botany reflected this development in science. That she used her artistic talents to capture these specimens for posterity is not I think to be derided.

The book is superbly illustrated with many, many examples of her mosaics and embroideries ( plus her drawings )

Here are a few of them for you to enjoy:

On visits to Bulstrode-the home of the Duchess of Portland- King George III and Queen Charlotte were  introduced to Mrs Delany and were very impressed with her- her abilities, accomplishments and character – so that  they made her many presents including this exquisitely embroidered  pocket book and its contents:

On their suggestion Sir Joseph Banks of Kew  sent specimens of rare plants to Mrs Delany to enable her to capture the intricate details of these plants in the most accurate form.

After the Duchess of Portland died in 1785,  King George II gave Mrs Delany a house at Windsor and a pension of £300. She enjoyed her last years as a royal favourite, and died at Windsor Castle, probably of pneumonia, on 15 April 1788. She was buried at St James’s, Piccadilly.

This book is, to be frank a bargain : it is fabulously  illustrated and the essays within on Mrs Delany’s life and art are well written readable and comprehensive. They even include a details analysis of the process of making the mosaics and there is a section with set by step photographs should you want to try to recreate them…

…..perhaps not.

The next book on Mrs Delay I wanted to review is by my good friend Katherine Cahill, Mrs Delany’s Menus, Medicines and Manners

This is a very good companion volume to the exhibition volume, concentrating on Mrs Delany’s life and interests as expressed in her letters.Her copious correspondence to her family and friends  was first edited and published in six volumes in 1861-2 by Lady Llanover, and these are now difficult to find (and if you manage that feat, they  are expensive to buy)

Katherine Cahill’s book expertly summarises all aspects of the correspondence and Mrs Delany’s life as recorded in the letters : her homes, interior decoration, her advice regarding food, servants, medicine and her clothes. All these important  aspects of her life are expertly explained for a 21st century reader and are clearly addressed in this slim and very affordable volume: it is a treasure. Sadly its few illustrations are in black and white only: but if you posses both these books you will have the best of both worlds and a tremendous insight into the life of a very interesting woman of the 18th century

So there you are, two books on  the life and achievements of a very accomplished woman. I highly recommend both to you.