The daughter of Thomas Mulso (1695–1763), a gentleman farmer, and his wife (died 1747/8), a daughter of Colonel Thomas, Hester wrote a romance at the age of nine, "The Loves of Amoret and Melissa", which earned her mother's disapproval. She was educated more thoroughly than most girls in that period, learning French, Italian and Latin, and began writing regularly and corresponding with other writers at the age of 18. Her earliest published works were four brief pieces written for Samuel Johnson's journal The Rambler in 1750. She was married in 1760 to the solicitor John Chapone (c.1728–1761), who was the son of an earlier moral writer, Sarah Chapone (1699–1764), but soon widowed. Hester Chapone was associated with the learned ladies or Bluestockings who gathered around Elizabeth Montagu, and was the author of Letters on the Improvement of the Mind and Miscellanies. She died at Hadley, Middlesex, on 25 December 1801.
The former was first written for her 15-year-old niece, in 1773, but by 1800 it had been through at least 16 editions. A further 12 editions had appeared by 1829, at least one of them a French translation. They focused on encouraging rational understanding through the reading of the Bible, history and literature. The girl addressed was also supposed to study book-keeping, household management and botany, geology, astronomy. Only sentimental novels were to be avoided. Mary Wollstonecraft singled it out as one of the few examples of the self-improvement genre that deserved praise.
The tide of advice or conduct books in Britain reached its height between 1760 and 1820; one scholar refers to the period as "the age of courtesy books for women". As Nancy Armstrong writes in her seminal work on this genre, Desire and Domestic Fiction (1987): "So popular did these books become that by the second half of the eighteenth century virtually everyone knew the ideal of womanhood they proposed." Chapone's is a typical example.
Conduct books integrated the styles and rhetorics of earlier genres, such as devotional writings, marriage manuals, recipe books, and works on household economy. They offered their readers a description of (most often) the ideal woman while at the same time handing out practical advice. Not only did they dictate morality, but they guided readers' choice of dress and outlined what was seen in that period as proper etiquette. Chapone's work, in particular, appealed to Wollstonecraft at this time and influenced her composition of Thoughts. She admired it for containing "a sustained programme of study for women" and being based on the idea that Christianity should be "the chief instructor of our rational faculties". Moreover, it emphasised that women should be considered rational beings and not left to wallow in "sensualism". Wollstonecraft drew on both Chapone and Macaulay's works when she wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. Another admirer, and also a personal friend, was the novelist and diarist Frances Burney. Their surviving correspondence includes a letter of condolence of 4 April 1799, from Burney to Chapone, on the death in childbirth of Jane Jeffreyes, née Mulso, the niece to whom the Letters on the Improvement of the Mind had been addressed.
Elizabeth Gaskell, the 19th-century novelist, refers to Chapone as an epistolatory model, bracketing her in Cranford with Elizabeth Carter, a much better educated Bluestocking. The book is also mentioned in Anne Brontë's novel Agnes Grey through one of the characters, and it had an influence on Samuel Richardson, Jane Austen and Mary Wollstonecraft.
In Chapter 1 of Vanity Fair, Thackeray neatly sums up the self-image of Miss Pinkerton, proprietor of an "academy for young ladies", by describing her as "that majestic lady; the Semiramis of Hammersmith, the friend of Doctor Johnson, the correspondent of Mrs. Chapone herself"; later in the same chapter Miss Pinkerton notes that her establishment, The Mall, enjoyed "the patronage of the admirable Mrs Chapone".
Richardson and Elizabeth Carter edited a posthumous compilation of Chapone's writings, entitled "The Posthumous Works of Mrs. Chapone: Containing Her Correspondence with Mr. Richardson; a Series of Letters to Mrs. Elizabeth Carter, and Some Fugitive Pieces, Never Before Published. Together with an Account of Her Life and Character, Drawn Up by Her Own Family" (1807). There, Chapone is quoted:
"Though men's ways are unequal, the ways of God are equal, and with him even women shall find justice."