Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Early Modern Advertising Again (or how not to write a Girls’ School Prospectus)

It was 1642, and Ben Agar had ambitious schemes to set up, in
, ‘a private Schoole or Nursery, for the generall education of female youth only, at, or from the age of eight yeares, or thereabout, with all convenient and delightfull appurtenances thereunto belonging’. The curriculum will be of ‘Latine, French, and writing by Letter and Cyphers, as also for other Morrall, Civill, and Religious discipline, with the teaching of sundry sorts of Needle-work, Tent-worke, or the like, Musicall instruments, and Dancing.’

Unfortunately, the schemes of this over-sensitive gentleman were put back by his wife absconding with a man he intended to employ in the school, leaving the unhappy pedant determined to do two things in just the one pamphlet: advertise his girls’ school, and re-assert his virility. This is not an easy combination of aims. For instance, he will undertake, he says:

“To breed up and religiously educate, three dozen at least of pure Virgins, and yet turne and returne them all safe and secure to their severall indulgent Parents, after foure or five yeares exercise of their young and tender inclinations, as chast and pure, and surely more perfect and cleare, then they came or were delivered into my charge, maugre all those imputations of my frozen imbecilitie that way, cast upon me by my lustfull wife, who (after almost twentie yeares experience) declares me scarce so able for her satisfaction as an Euenuch.”

One subject at a time would have been better, wouldn’t it? He can’t quite resolve whether it would be better for his boarding school to declare himself impotent, or whether he should as a husband contradict the charge laid by his absconded wife. He ventures into metaphor, to predictably unhappy effect:

“Notwithstanding all the insultant premises of an ungracious wife; I have had by two wives, six children; though now (through lazie negligence or other accidentall impediment) I have so seldome, and timorously frequented the two-leav’d dore of my stately habitation; that my present wife hath been unwillingly constrained to run thorow the back-yard of Concupiscence behinde her husbands great house, to perswade her lusty man to perform his Masters office at home and abroad.”

Once started, Agar lets it all hang out: when it comes to not delivering on the marriage vows, he will tell the predictable husband’s tale, of a man “who hath been hitherto detained from her, and bated of her own and due benevolence, three quarters, at least, or every whole yeare, for almost twenty yeares together”.

The title page of this ill-judged publication seems to introduce the hopeless confusion of aims. He called it The Lost Sheepe is Found, but the sub-title then explains that his “imperious revolted Wife” and her paramour the “ungrateful Man-servant” had departed together “into the streights of Magellanica, or the West Indies, or some where else unknowne” – there’s a Lost Sheep that sounds to have exited fairly conclusively from the fold.

Poor old Agar! Simultaneously presenting himself as the reassuringly continent schoolmaster, and sex-denied husband, eager to advertise his scheme, but conforming to every traditional satirical hit at schoolteachers: touchy, self-absorbed, blind to reality, issuing promises to look after dozens of young women, but made to look an utter fool by just one.

I wonder how many of the couples who joined the early colonies were driven to go there, as the ex-Mrs Agar so understandably was, by the unavailability of divorce in

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