Houghton Mifflin Textbook -
InstructorsStudentsReviewersAuthorsBooksellersContact Us
Textbook Site for:
The Brief American Pageant , Sixth Edition
David M. Kennedy, Stanford University
Lizabeth Cohen, Harvard University
Thomas A. Bailey
Mel Piehl, Valparaiso University
Primary Sources

Introduction | Questions to Consider | Source

Virginia Gentleman Weighs "a Frail Woman's" Class
(c. 1730)
William Byrd, II

Instructors' Note
William Byrd was something of a ladies' man, and he often enjoyed the company of widowsó more ways than one. In the passage he recalls a bit of Virginia gossip involving the elopement of an upper-class woman, who was the daughter of a widow, and an Irish overseer. His judgment is predictably harsh, but it reflects a common view of women in the eighteenth century as empty-headed and easily swayed. There is some suggestion that the overseer possessed a certain sexual attraction, something that Byrd would have commented on, given his own proclivities. This observation is also consonant with an eigthteenth-century view of women as energetic, sexual beings.

William Byrd, besides being a leading political figure in Virginia, was also something of a man about town. His published works give account of his political dealings, but his diaries are more interesting for their insights into the doings of Virginia aristocracy and as a record of his intimate life.

Questions to Consider
  1. What had the widow's daughter done?

  2. What does "Hibernian" refer to?

  3. How is the vignette an example of eighteenth-century views of women?

  4. Do you agree with Byrd's assessment of the situation? Why?

The widow smiled graciously upon me, and entertain'd me very handsomely. Here I learnt all the tragical Story of her Daughter's humble Marriage with her Uncle's Overseer. Besides the meanness of this mortal's Aspect, the Man has not one visible Qualification, except Impudence, to recommend him to a Female's Inclinations. But there is sometimes such a Charm in that Hibernian Endowment, that frail Woman cant withstand it, tho' it stand alone without any other Recommendation. Had she run away with a Gentleman or a pretty Fellow, there might have been some Excuse for her, tho' he were of inferior Fortune: but to stoop to a dirty Plebian, without any kind of merit, is the lowest Prostitution. I found the Family justly enraged at it; and tho' I had more good Nature than to join in her Condemnation, yet I cou'd devise no Excuse for so senceless a Prank as this young Gentlewoman had play'd. . . .