STRAY THOUGHTS FOR GIRLS
L. H. M. SOULSBY
"I sing the Obsolete"
New and Enlarged Edition
Longmans, Green, and Co. 39 Paternoster Row, London New York and Bombay
GIRLS AT THE "AWKWARD AGE."
"An unlessoned girl, unschool'd, unpractis'd, Happy in this, she is not yet so old But she may learn."
What is the awkward age?
Certainly not any special number of years. It is most frequently found between the ages of thirteen and twenty-seven, but some girls never go through it, and some never emerge from it!
I should be inclined to define it as the age during which girls are asked—and cannot answer—varying forms of the question which so embarrassed the Ugly Duckling: "Can you purr—can you lay eggs?"
Most girls on growing up pass through an uncomfortable stage like this, in which neither they nor their friends quite know what niche in life they can best fill—sometimes, because of their own undisciplined characters; sometimes, because the niche itself seems to be lacking. Whether this stage be their misfortune or their fault, it is an unpleasant one—both for themselves and for their friends. With much sympathy for both, I dedicate these few suggestions to my known and unknown friends who are passing through it.
L. H. M. SOULSBY. OXFORD, April 4, 1893.
PREFACE TO NEW EDITION
In bringing out a new edition, the book has been enlarged by adding papers on "Making Plans," "Conversation," "Get up, M. le Comte!" "Sunday," and "A good Time;" "Coming out" has been omitted, and "Friendship and Love" somewhat altered. The present form has been adopted in order to make it match the other volumes of "Stray Thoughts."
L. H. M. SOULSBY. BRONDESBURY, Nov. 23, 1903.
LINES WRITTEN ON BEING TOLD THAT A LADY WAS "PLAIN AND COMMONPLACE"
THE VIRTUOUS WOMAN
AUNT RACHEL; OR, OLD MAIDS' CHILDREN
"GET UP, M. LE COMTE!"
A FRIDAY LESSON
A HOME ART; OR, MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS
ESPRIT DE CORPS
ROUGH NOTES OF A LESSON
FRIENDSHIP AND LOVE
A GOOD TIME
"The Sweet, Sweet Love of Daughter,
"I have discovered a thing very little known, which is, that in one's whole life one can never have more than a single mother. You may think this obvious and (what you call) a trite observation.... You are a green gosling! I was at the same age (very near) as wise as you, and yet I never discovered this (with full evidence and conviction, I mean) till it was too late."—Gray's Letters.
"The Blessing of my later years Was with me when a Boy She gave me eyes, she gave me ears, And love, and thought, and joy." Wordsworth.
"and of Wife."
"The thousand still sweet joys of such As hand in hand face earthly life." M. Arnold.
"I desired to make her my wife, knowing that she would be a counsellor of good things, and a comfort in cares and grief. For her conversation hath no bitterness; and to live with her hath no sorrow, but mirth and joy."—Wisdom of Solomon.
WRITTEN ON BEING TOLD THAT A LADY WAS "PLAIN AND COMMONPLACE."
You say that my love is plain, But that I can never allow When I look at the thought for others That is written on her brow.
The eyes are not fine, I own, She has not a well-cut nose, But a smile for others' pleasures And a sigh for others' woes:
Quick to perceive a want, Quicker to set it right, Quickest in overlooking Injury, wrong, or slight.
Nothing to say for herself, That is the fault you find! Hark to her words to the children, Cheery and bright and kind.
Hark to her words to the sick, Look at her patient ways; Every word she utters Speaks to the speaker's praise.
"Nothing to say for herself," Yes! right, most right, you are, But plenty to say for others, And that is better by far.
Purity, truth, and love, Are they such common things? If hers were a common nature, Women would all have wings.
Talent she may not have, Beauty, nor wit, nor grace, But, until she's among the angels, She cannot be commonplace.
The Virtuous Woman.
A FAREWELL BIBLE LESSON TO GIRLS ON LEAVING SCHOOL.
"Wisdom ordereth all things strongly and sweetly."—WISDOM viii. 1 (Vulg.).
It would be interesting to make a "Garden of Women" from the poets, collecting the pictures of "Fair Women" they have drawn for us, but I want to consider specially the ideal woman of that ancient poet Solomon, and to see how far she can be translated into modern life.
The subject ought to be considered by you who are leaving a school you have loved and valued, and which you should commend to the world, by showing that it has made you fit for home. Beaumaris School has a blank shield for its arms, with the motto, "Albam exorna," "Adorn the white;" you are all starting with white shields, and you can adorn the white: it is not only in Spenser that we find Britomarts. You are as much a band of champions as were King Arthur's Knights; you have all the same enemy, have made the same vows, and for a year have been in fellowship, learning and practising the same lessons: can you help feeling that there is a responsibility laid on you, to see that the world shall be the better because of you? Be like Sir Galahad with his white shield on which "a bloody cross" was signed, when he had fought and won.
You know that I admire the old-fashioned type of woman—the womanly woman,—and you will not suspect me of wishing you to start off "on some adventure strange and new," but I do want you not to be content to lead a commonplace life; you must, anyway, live your life: resolve that by God's grace you will live it nobly. You cannot alter the outward form of your life,—you will probably be surrounded by very commonplace household duties, and worries, and jars,—but you can be like King Midas, whose touch turned the most common things to gold. We have it in our power, as Epictetus tells us, to be the gold on the garment of Life, and not the mere stuff of which Fate weaves it. We can choose whether we will live a king's life or a slave's: Marcus Aurelius on his throne was a king, for nothing could conquer him; but Epictetus in chains was equally unconquerable and equally a king. We all have the choice between the Crown and the Muck Rake, and I think we sometimes turn to the straws and the rubbish, not because they are fascinating to us, but because they seem the only things open to us: we do not feel as if our lives had anything to do with Crowns. If you think of your various homes from the point of view of turning their "necessities to glorious gains," and as a field for winning your spurs, I suspect you are each feeling that this is very "tall talk" for such a commonplace home as yours. "All lives have an ideal meaning as well as their prose translation;" but you feel perhaps that you are sure to be swamped in little bothers and duties, and pleasures, and dulness and stagnation, so that you will find it hard to see any ideal meaning at all. This is not true, and to look on an ideal life as "tall talk" is a snare of the Devil; and in these days of common sense and higher education we need to guard against it, and to remember that "a thing may be good enough for practical purposes, but not for ideal purposes." "Ideal life" is not tall talk, but our plain duty, unless our Lord was mocking us when He said, "Be ye perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect."
To know our ideal is one step towards attaining it. "So run, not as uncertainly; so fight, not as one that beateth the air." Before taking such a definite step in life as leaving school, it would be very interesting to draw up a plan of what you would like your life to be, and also of what you hope to make of the life apparently before you, which may be very different from the life you would like. If you kept it, like sealed orders, for five years, it would be interesting to see how your views had changed, and how prayers had been answered in unexpected ways, and it would also be a solemn warning to see, as we assuredly should, that wilful prayers had been heard to our hurt.
Bacon, when he made a new start as Solicitor-General, made a survey of his life, past and future, his faults and blunders, his strong and weak points, his hopes, the books he meant to read and to write, the friends he wished to make. I am sure that thinking over our own lives as a whole would strengthen and guide us. We rush into action and fight our best, but we do not make a plan of the campaign, and thus much of our energy is wasted by misdirected effort; and, in leaving a school-life of rule and regularity, you will be much tempted to slip through the day without the safeguard of a life of Rule; but, until you are the saints you are called to be, you cannot afford to do without this help. We must remember the warning of St. Francis de Sales against playing at being angels before we are men and women.
On the other hand, you will need to guard against the temptation to make your rules unbending and inconsiderate, to follow your ideal, heedless of the fact that you thereby become tiresome to your people. How often the home people feel jealous of school, and say it has cut a girl off from her home interests, that she comes back full of outside friendships and interests and new principles. Of course she does; if not, what good would school have done her? But she ought to feel how natural and how loving is this (often unexpressed) jealousy, and, by sympathetic tact, to avoid rousing it, and not to be always thrusting school interests down home throats. The duty of a life of rule at home is all the more complex because home pleasures are duties too; if it was only a question of self-denial it would be plain sailing, but your mother likes you to go out, and your brothers want you, and if you refuse to enjoy yourself it hurts them: if you even betray that you would rather be doing something else, you spoil their pleasure, for a "martyr" to home duty is a most depressing sight to gods and men. And the complexity lies in the fact that you enjoy going, and conscience pricks you every now and then because you never read, and you seem to go through the day in a slipshod way, with no definite rule,—no daily cross-bearing, no self-restraint to give salt to the day. At school you have a definite duty of self-improvement set before you, and everything urges you to follow it. This remains a duty when you go home, but it is very hard to reconcile it with the many things that clash—not the least of these being our own laziness when the help of external pressure is taken away. You have had intellectual advantages, and you will be downright sinful if you fritter all your time away over flowers and tennis, and never read because you do not like to be thought unsociable: you are bound to improve your talents, but take it as your motto, that rules should be iron when they clash with our own wishes, and wax when they clash with those of others.
Yet we must yield sensibly, and not allow our time to be needlessly wasted—at all events, by brothers and sisters and friends. It is different with a father or mother: they are only lent to us for a part of our lives, and no memory of sensible, useful work will be to us the same pleasure in after years as the thought of the time that passed more pleasantly for a mother because we spent it in idle (!) talk, or the knowledge that a father had enjoyed the feeling that we were always at hand if he wanted us. A strong-minded woman might consider matters differently, and feel that a language learnt, or a district visited, was of more value, but we shall not be able to reason so when we see life in the new light which death throws upon it; the little restrictions of home life will then assume a very different aspect.
Unless you are driven with an unusually loose rein, you will probably be irked by having to be punctual, and to account for your letters and for your goings and comings; but if you ever feel inclined to resent it, just think what it will be when you are left free—free to be late because there is no one to wait dinner for you, free to come and go as you will because there is no one who cares whether you are tired or not; some of these days you will give anything to be once more so "fettered."
Higher education often makes girls feel it waste of time to write notes for their mothers, and to settle the drawing-room flowers: they "must go and read." Now, what mental result, what benefit to the world, will result from an ordinary woman's reading, which can, in any way, be comparable to the value of a woman who diffuses a home-atmosphere, and is always "at leisure from herself"? You know that I care very much for your reading—you will have plenty to do if you read all the books I have begged you to study—but if it gave your mother pleasure for you to be at the stupidest garden-party, I should think you were wasting your time terribly if you spent it over a book instead. Some people think ordinary society, and small talk, beneath them:—well! do not let the talk be smaller than you can help, but remember Goulburn's warning, "Despise not little crosses, for they have been to many a saved soul an excellent discipline of humility."
But to come at last to Solomon's ideal—what is our first impression of her? Surely it is strength, and we probably feel her strong-minded, and rather a "managing woman"—and, as a rule, these are not loved. I feel that she wants some sorrow to humanize her—she would hardly be sorry for less prosperous, less sensible people: the modern feeling of, "the pity of it, Iago, the pity of it!" has never gone home to her; she is not like Ruskin's "gentleman" who has tears always in his eyes, in spite of the smile on his lips; she is not "quick to perceive the want" in the many lives, which are empty or crippled, though, perhaps, seemingly prosperous: things turn out well with her, and she deserves it, so the sight of her would bring home a sense of undeservingness to the less fortunate; she cannot speak so as to be "understanded of" them; she is not one of those who have learnt that "avoir beaucoup souffert c'est comme ceux qui savent beaucoup de langues, avoir appris a tout comprendre, et a se fairs comprendre de tous." But the virtues Solomon describes need not result in this type, which is antagonistic to us; extremes meet, and it is the exaggeration of a very lovable type—the woman who gives you the feeling of rest and protection and strong motherliness, who is as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land. "The meekness and gentleness of Christ" is translated by Matthew Arnold as the "sweet reasonableness," and this makes a very lovable woman. Sweet unreasonableness makes a more taking one, but not a keeping one. Butterfly women have more fascinating ways, but Spring-time comes to an end—the day will come for all women when others will come to them to be ministered to, to be rested and soothed and raised. It is sad to watch many who have the faded pretty ways which once was all that was required of them, and who, in middle life, cannot understand why their belongings find them so inadequate! Long ago, Swift warned girls against making nets instead of cages, but they have not all learnt wisdom yet. And the main point is, not how you can get, or give, most amusement, but how you can give most comfort; and no one goes to a weak person for that. There are few things certain in life, but one of these few is, that others will come to each one of us, in doubt, in sorrow, in pain, in ignorance, and that, through negligence and ignorance of ours, they may go away uncomforted, unhelped, untaught, and this, though each one of us has it in her power to become, through God's grace, one of those Queens of Consolation of whom Dante spoke.
I think the Virtuous Woman ought to be on her guard against hardness: it is her temptation, naturally, as it was that of the Elder Brother,—but love and humility can make even strength lovable. And for those who are in no danger of being too like the Virtuous Woman, but who are still struggling out of a lower life, I am quite sure that weakness is the rock ahead. It must be so for nearly all women: their feelings are keener and sooner developed than those of men, and they are less trained in intellect and self-control. Their chief value lies in intuition and impulse, and their chief danger also. You will never be the "Virtuous Woman" if you are self-indulgent in novels which dwell on feelings, in daydreams, in foolish friendships, which only bring out the emotional side of your nature, instead of strengthening you to do what is right, and widening your sensible interests in life. There is but one certain protection against this temptation, and we find it in Proverbs xxxi.; I mean, industry at home.
Industry is a leading feature of Solomon's ideal, and nothing but plenty to do can possibly keep our minds fresh and sweet, and wholesome and strong,—and hence, strengthening for others. Feeling is the only part of a woman's nature which will develop of itself:—her mind will not grow unless definitely cultivated, and no more will her conscience, but if she leave the field fallow, weeds of foolish feelings and fancies spring up on all sides. This is why it is your duty, when you leave, not to allow yourself to be idle: not only because God expects you to bring your sheaves with you at the Last Day, but because your field cannot stand empty—if good grain is not there, weeds will be. And manual work—gardening or housework—gives more fresh air to the mind than anything else. If you ever, as Punch expresses it, "find your doll stuffed with sawdust," if life seems a disappointment, and you are a prey to foolish fancies, and have lost your spring, then try being really tired out in body by useful work, and see if you do not find it an effectual tonic. Some say that these "mental measles" are a phase which the modern girl must inevitably pass through: perhaps so, but I should be disappointed if you went through them,—at all events, if you did so in the hopelessly idiotic way that many do! I should be disappointed if, in the future, you came and said, "I am in the dark, and Life is all a tangle!" I do feel you ought to have learnt that "the light of Duty shines on every day for all." "We always have as much light as we need, though often not as much as we would like," and if you honestly want to do your next duty, you will have light enough to do it by. Come to me, by all means, if you like, and say, "I feel idle and good-for-nothing, and don't particularly want to see my Duty!" but do not moan about Life being all perplexity! It is always nobler to do your duty than to leave it undone: make this principle your sheet-anchor, and spiritual feelings and light will come some day, if God sees fit. It does not always do to apply direct remedies to these "measles:" if your mind is out of gear, leave it alone, and attack it through the body by industry. And industry at home is best; here was the true strength of the Virtuous Woman. The strength of her modern descendant lies abroad: she is strong and admirable, she does splendid work, but there is always a tinge of excitement to help one through outside work. Things done among father and mother, brothers and sisters, are either very peaceful or very flat, according as your feelings are either wholesome or unwholesome—there is none of the pleasurable excitement, generally more or less feverish, of working with friends we love and admire; it is the difference between milk and wine. I do not think wine wrong, but I think it is much better to cultivate a taste for milk; you must watch yourselves, and not get to feel home things dull. Some are so strong in home, so wrapped up in their own family, that outsiders feel de trop, which of course is a fault on the other side. If we have happy homes, it is a trust for the use of others; we can give a home feeling to those who are less fortunate as they pass by us, like the swallow flying through the lighted hall. Lonely people may gain a sense of home from this large-heartedness in the happy, a feeling of rest and repose, which is the very essence of the atmosphere I should like my Virtuous Woman to shed around her; she must "do good by effluvia;" in her home, "roof and fire are types only of a nobler light and shade—shade as of the rock in a weary land, and light as of the Pharos in the stormy sea. And wherever a true wife comes this home is always round her. The stars only may be over her head, the glowworm in the night-cold grass may be the only fire at her foot: yet home is wherever she is; and for a noble woman it stretches far around her, better than ceiled with cedar or painted with vermilion, shedding its quiet light far for those who else were homeless."
Let us now consider the Virtuous Woman verse by verse. Solomon is describing a rich woman with an "establishment," a sphere and husband and children, as if a woman's life was not complete without this. And no more it is; it may be very useful and very beautiful, but it is not complete. Girls are often blamed for thinking too much about marriage: I think they do not do it enough,—at least in the right way; you are not fit to be wives now, and you should aim at becoming so, and to do that, you must be fit to manage your house and to teach your children; if you fit yourselves to be perfect wives, you will at least be very perfect old maids, and find plenty to do for other people's children! But your life would then be incomplete. St. Paul is misquoted when his words in Cor. vii. 34 are used to condemn marriage; our Lord puts it before all other earthly ties, and it is used as a type of His love for His Church, which should guard us from two errors in connection with it. If married love is to be a type, however faint, of Christ's love for His Church, there must be no unworthiness connected with it; "no inner baseness we would hide;" no marrying for the sake of being married, for the dignity and position, or the worldly advantages it may bring; and there must be no matchmaking or flirtation that a woman need be ashamed of afterwards. "Let the wife see that she reverence her husband," says St. Paul, and the husband must be able to reverence her. And there must be no selfishness, no getting entangled in engagements that must bring trouble on others; to marry for money is degrading, but a woman may redeem it by being a good wife; to marry without money means debt, which is irretrievably degrading, and is altogether selfish instead of romantic.
But, married or single, rich or poor, Solomon's Virtuous Woman gives us principles to go on.
"The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her." Is not trustworthiness a main point in those we respect? Do we not require our Virtuous Woman to be reliable, not to repeat what we say to her, not to forget her promises, in short, that we know "where to have her"?
"She will do him good and not evil all the days of his life." It would distinctly do him evil if she did his work for him! This is a great temptation of capable people; it is so much easier to do a thing yourself than to see others bungling over it; but remember, that not to do other people's duties is as much a duty as it is to do your own. Unselfish people are often selfish in the harm they do husbands, and brothers, and sisters, and unconscionable friends, by doing their duties for them. You recognize that you yourself are on a downward path when you leave duties undone. You have no right to help any one else to tread that path. It is much pleasanter to spoil your brothers than to make them take their fair share of family burdens; it is much pleasanter to be popular,—but if your brother grows up selfish, three-fourths of the sin will be on your head. You will have to be very careful to convince him that you are not selfish by sacrificing yourself on every occasion when it is not bad for him, but if you are to do him good and not evil all the days of his life, you must remember that you are your brother's keeper in this matter.
"She worketh willingly with her hands." The idea is going out that, to be like a lady, you must sit with your hands before you. I heard of a village tea the other day where a curate's maid-of-all-work was boasting that her mistress was a real lady who could not do a thing! "Dear! how strange," said an old servant; "my first mistress taught me, with her own hands, all the house-work I know." "Ah! she couldn't have been a real lady," said the other. "Perhaps not," said the old woman reflectively; "I can't tell, but I know she was an Earl's daughter." If you knew anything of Colonial life in old uncivilized days, you would know how invariably it turned out that those settlers were nobody at home who talked there about what they were "accustomed to," and how they could not do this or that,—while the real ladies laughed and buckled to. I do not believe in a woman being thoroughbred if she cannot do what comes to her to do; she may have little bodily strength, but if she is of the right sort, spirit carries her through, just as you often find uneducated people, unnerved by pain or fright, crying and pitying themselves: a real lady has nerve for it all, though she is ten times more sensitive, and, till the occasion arises, she may lie on the sofa all day, and believe herself quite unable to do a thing!
People sometimes seem to think it the mark of a sensitive, high-bred, refined nature to be unable to conquer fads, and fancies, and fears. You hear them say, with an air of modest pride, "I can't eat this or that;" "I can't touch spiders:" very likely they suffer if they do, and I do not see that they need be always forcing themselves to do it, but they should feel the power to do it if need be; if you are not master of yourself, there is bad blood about you somewhere; noblesse oblige applies preeminently to such things.
And I think noblesse oblige ought to teach us another lesson in this matter of work. So many often say, or feel, "It's not my duty to do this or that; why should I? it's just as much her business,—why shouldn't she do the dirty work?" The true lady says, "Somebody must do the dirty work, and why not I as well as another?" And so she worketh willingly with her hands; for "common household service" is
"The wageless work of Paradise."
"She bringeth her food from afar." She is foreseeing and businesslike: she is not obliged to get inferior articles because she is driven at the last moment and cannot send to the best shop; she is never unable to match her dress because she has not thought about new gloves till the very afternoon that she wants them; she does not forget till half-past six that dinner has not been ordered, and then, in despair, order in ready-cooked things from a shop.
"She riseth while it is yet night." Early rising is a great trial to some, but I think those who are conscientious often make a mistake between sloth and conscientious care of health: and the Virtuous Woman should be very careful of her health. Some girls think it fine not to be; they say, "Oh, well, I shall only die the sooner! Better to wear out than rust out!" and they feel—and so do some of their friends—that they are very noble characters, and accordingly these tragedy queens stalk picturesquely through wet grass when they could quite well keep on the gravel. I hope none of you will develop into tragic heroines. I have no patience when I see girls with perfectly prosperous lives inventing tragedies for themselves. They have no right "to take in vain the sacred name of grief." If there is nothing else to romance about, they fall back on being "misunderstood," which generally means that their mother understands them a great deal too well to please them. I dare say you will not see this in yourselves or in your friends, but it will strike you very much in your acquaintances, and you will, in time, recognize your own share of human nature, for we all do, undoubtedly, enjoy being sorry for ourselves, though I suspect life is much happier for all of us than we deserve.
But to return to the question of health. If you could go out like the flame of a candle, well and good! the world would probably be well rid of you if you were going through life tragically, longing for death, but you will not "wear out" in consequence of carelessness about wet feet and want of sleep, and over-fatigue, and fancifulness about eating. These things destroy, not your life, but your nerves and temper, and all that makes your life a comfort to others; "wearing out" yourself means that you will wear out others, and require from them much time and nursing and good temper.
Now, sleep is a most important consideration in such a nervous generation as ours: every woman ought to have eight hours' sleep, and more if she needs it, but she should not wake up and then go to sleep again; that second sleep, which is so pleasant, is the sleep of the sluggard. I would like to give her "a chamber deaf to noise and blind to light," and never let her be woke, but she should get up the moment she wakes of her own accord, or, at most, spend ten minutes in the process of waking.
"She planteth a vineyard." I should like my Virtuous Woman to be fond of gardening, and at all events read in Bacon's Essays how God Almighty first planted a garden.
"She strengthened her arms." This verse makes us fancy the Virtuous Woman as being unpleasingly strong, but we should guard against being purposely weak, with an idea of its being pleasing; Thackeray's Amelia is hardly a good model, and Patient Grizzel did her husband an infinity of harm!
"Her candle goeth not out by night." But the Virtuous Woman must be self-denying in the matter of sitting up, now that modern life makes so many more demands upon her brain. You know it is self-indulgence when you sit up late; you were not bound to be so sociable as all that; you only hinder yourself and others from proper time for prayer and sleep; if you made a move after a reasonable amount of talk, the others would be sensible too. And so you repent and force yourself to get up very punctually the next morning, not seeing that this is on the principle that two wrongs make a right. It is your duty to get up in good time, but it is also a duty to get sufficient sleep. I know you have a more comfortable feeling when you have punished yourself,—you feel that you took the self-indulgence and you want to pay for it. This sounds fair and honest, but it is not, because you pay for it with the health and strength that God gave you to use for Him. Instead of the satisfactory scourge and hair shirt of rising betimes next morning, try the more commonplace penance of going to bed in proper time the next night, without any dawdling. So many girls do things in a dreamy, dawdling way, that must be a sore trial to those about them: if a thing has to be done, you should do it in a quick, purpose-like way, and not waste your own time and other people's temper. A girl will placidly tell you, "I'm always slow, it's my way," never realizing that "ways" may be very objectionable. We think it dishonest in workmen that there should be a difference between a man who works by time and one who works by the piece: you blame the workman who spends twice as much of his master's time as he need, but, when you dawdle, you spend your Master's time: getting through with things quickly and "deedily" is a matter of habit, and the Virtuous Woman practises it in everything she does.
"Her hands hold the distaff." The Virtuous Woman will not be satisfied until she knows how to make a dress and do plain work; not that, having acquired the knowledge, she will necessarily use it, for a woman with brains and education can employ her time to more purpose, and can give employment to poorer women at her gate, by putting out her work. It is burying her talent in the ground if she employs, in making her children's frocks, the time which should be spent in cultivating her mind, so as to be fit to educate them when they are older.
"She stretcheth out her hand to the poor." The "classes" are poor and needy, as well as the "masses:" read Mozley's "University Sermon" on "Our Duty to our Equals," and learn to see that they also need a stretched-out hand. We may be very kind in our district; are we as kind to social bores? We may be very energetic in school feasts; are we as careful to provide amusements of other kinds for people who, in rank or brains, are slightly our inferiors?
"She is not afraid of the snow for her household, for all her household are clothed with scarlet" (marg., double garments). She looks after the health of other people as well as her own; she does not keep her maid sitting up night after night, or overwork her dressmaker. She is as considerate for the flyman waiting for her on a rainy night as she would be for her father's coachman and horses, remembering that the flyman is quite as liable to catch cold as the coachman, and has fewer facilities for curing himself.
"Her clothing is silk and purple." She dresses suitably, richly if occasion demand it, but never showily. If she has to walk as a rule, she will not buy dresses that look fit only for a carriage: she will not wear, in church, a brilliant dress that would be suitable at a flower-show.
"Her husband is known in the gates." There was doubtless a great difference among the husbands at the gate, and I feel sure that this one took a specially large and public-spirited view of the business there discussed. The Virtuous Woman would not usurp his office, just because she had the power of speaking well,—she would remember the Russian proverb, "The Master is the Head of the House, while the Mistress is its Soul," and she would be a very high-souled mistress, and care greatly that her master should not only be a good husband and a father, but should also serve his generation as a good citizen and a true patriot. When the public good demanded sacrifices, she would not drag him back by insisting on his duty to his family, nor would she persuade him to rob the public stores, or time, by taking little perquisites or shortening his office hours. She would feel with De Tocqueville, who says, "A hundred times I have seen weak men show real public virtue, because they had by their sides women who supported them—not by advice as to particulars, but by fortifying their feelings of duty, and by directing their ambition. More frequently, I must confess, I have observed the domestic influence gradually transforming a man, naturally generous, noble, and unselfish, into a cowardly, commonplace, place-hunting, self-seeker, thinking of public business only as the means of making himself comfortable; and this simply by daily contact with a well-conducted woman, a faithful wife, an excellent mother, but from whose mind the grand notion of public duty was entirely absent."
The husband of "a superior woman" is usually much to be pitied, but surely the reason is that the woman is not superior enough. She has capabilities and knowledge, and has learnt to value them, and is right in so doing, but she has not learnt the next page of Life's Lesson Book, which is, the relative insignificance of her own acquirements, and the value of the qualities she has not got,—qualities which her husband very likely possesses, only he has not the feminine power of expression. How often a woman's seeming superiority lies in this gift of words, which, as George Eliot says, is in her, "often a fatal aptitude for expressing what she neither believes nor feels." The man often silently knows, and lives, the noble sentiment, which the woman fluently utters, imagining herself to be its discoverer and prophet. Another point to remember in this matter is that women are apt to overvalue intellect, perhaps because it is only during the last few years that intellectual advantages have been within their reach. Sydney Smith looked forward hopefully to a day when French would be a common accomplishment, and women would be no more vain of possessing it than of having two arms and legs! Perhaps when, not only French, but still higher education becomes more generally diffused, we may learn the proportions, and realize that, though intellect is a good gift, many others are to be preferred before it. The more we know, the wider our horizon grows, and the smaller we ourselves seem relatively to the wider expanse around us. "Man's first word is, No: his second, Yes: and his third is, No, again." We start with ignorance and are necessarily humble, in a negative way: then comes the schoolroom, when we prize highly the knowledge so laboriously acquired; and then comes the schoolroom of life, which sends us back again to humility, though of a larger and nobler kind.
(The tendency of the day is to overvalue education, rather than the reverse, so I need not dwell on the necessity laid upon the modern Virtuous Woman, of developing her intellect, more than Solomon required from his ideal.)
"She maketh fine linen and selleth it." She is reliable and punctual, and clear in business arrangements. How much charitable work of the present day requires good arithmetic and a clear business head! She will not miss her train, and she will write a clear legible hand, especially when names and addresses are concerned. A good handwriting is a matter of patience and self-discipline, and a truly unselfish person would force herself to acquire it, because she can thereby, in small ways, be of so much use and comfort to others.
"She shall rejoice in time to come." She is not likely to do this, unless she learns to rejoice in the present also. Rejoicing is a habit like most other virtues, and if we fail in this, it is probably ourselves and not our circumstances that need to be changed. "The aids to happiness are all within," and the Virtuous Woman will take life bravely and cheerfully, like the heroes of old, and will think it a poor thing to pity herself and to go about with a long face. She
"Welcomes and makes hers Whate'er of good though small the present brings— Kind greetings, sunshine, song of birds, and flowers, With a child's pure delight in little things; And of the griefs unborn will rest secure, Knowing that mercy ever will endure."
"She openeth her mouth with wisdom, and in her tongue is the law of kindness." Perhaps few things have done so much harm in the world as sympathy! Are we not all conscious of having perpetually allowed the kindness of our tongue to be divorced from wisdom, so that our affectionate sympathy has weakened our friend and done more harm than good? It is so much pleasanter to both when we join in her discontent or irritation, instead of being to her a second and a better self, aiding her to see things wisely, as she would see them when she grew calmer. "A book," said Dr. Johnson, "should teach us either to enjoy life, or to endure it," and so should a friend.
"The law of kindness." It may seem a small thing that the Virtuous Woman should never lose an opportunity of saying a kind word, but, if we all did this, the world would be revolutionized; how it lowers our moral temperature when some needless criticism is made, or some disparaging remark is repeated to us! The Virtuous Woman would set herself to be a non-conductor of these "stings and arrows," while, in "a voice ever soft, gentle, and low," she would pass on to us the pleasant things our friends say, which make us feel "on the sunny side of the wall." What was said of St. Theresa will be true of her—"it came to be understood that absent persons were safe where she was. It would be hard to exaggerate the power of influence for good which the confidence she had thus won must have given her. Her nobility felt the treachery which always lies in detraction, the kind of advantage taken, as it were, of the unprotectedness of the absent."
Some separate wisdom and kindness in another way; they are so anxious to help others that they stretch a point of conscience, and persist in a forbidden friendship, in order to help the friend. Now you may be unjustly treated in being told to give up your friend, and you may feel, and rightly, that it is very cruel to him or her. Perhaps so, but your want of principle, in being disobedient or deceitful, must harm your friend infinitely more than any amount of your good advice can do her good. Acting on principle always helps others: it is the most catching thing in the world, whereas our words and our personal influence do not help them one bit, unless God is speaking through us, and making us His instruments, which He will not do if we are behaving wrongly.
"She looketh well to the ways of her household." She gives her servants full work, and insists on its being done, at the right time and in the right way, but she is careful never to overwork them, and to remember that servants have rights and feelings; she is not only kind, but considerate, which involves far more sympathy and thought.
"She eateth not the bread of idleness." But she never does her servants' work, or spoils them. Of course, if she is very poor, and has few servants, she will lend a helping hand, but she will be wise in her industry, and understand that riches are a call, not to idleness, but to another kind of work—overseeing and directing, but not doing. "One good head is worth a hundred good hands," but the head must know how things should be done, and therefore the Virtuous Woman will make it a point of conscience to know how to cook, and equally a point of conscience not to do it, if she has servants who ought to see to it.
"Her children shall rise up and call her blessed, her husband also, and he praiseth her." My Virtuous Woman may never marry, but she will be a mother in Israel in spite of that. Every woman finds scope for motherliness if it is in her; one way or another she will find children looking to her for love and help, and she must fit herself to educate those children, for this is a woman's main duty in life; she should never be satisfied till she has earned a right to the compliment which Steele paid his wife—that "to know her was a liberal education," until
"Men at her side Grow nobler, girls purer, and, through the whole town, The children are gladder that pull at her gown."
"A woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised." I may seem to have made my last words to you consist of merely worldly-wise counsels, and to have left out of sight "the one thing needful," but in many other Scripture lessons we have spoken of that Prayer, and Bible reading, that "going in the strength of the Lord God," which is the only source of strength for man or woman.
I have tried to give a few practical counsels for everyday life, believing, as I do firmly, that the best part of this world's wisdom is really one with Christianity, and that the fruits of dutifulness, common sense, and kindliness, cannot be produced unless there is the root of real religion. Solomon takes that root for granted, only at the close reminding us of its necessity; and, in picturing our ideal woman, I am sure we all see her with
"A brow serene Speaking calm hope and trust within her, whence Welleth a noiseless spring of patience, That keepeth all her life so fresh, so green And full of holiness, that every look, The greatness of her woman's soul revealing, Unto me bringeth blessing, and a feeling As when I read in God's own Holy Book."
Holidays.—This is the time to show if school has done you any good.
At school you are reminded constantly of Prayer, hard work, tidiness, regularity, self-control: you are practised in these things, and the great underlying principles of life are brought before you so that not one of you has any excuse for being careless and unconscientious in the holidays. Also you are most of you communicants, and you know that it is impossible to be a communicant and to "let yourself go" in these ways.
You have duties in the holidays as well as in school time. It is wrong to spend two months in self-indulgence without any self-discipline. You must open your eyes to your duties,—practising, sensible reading, tidiness, and daily unselfishness.
It may be no one's business to remind you in the holidays, and your mother may let you alone a good deal, from wishing you to have "a good time;" but you alter very considerably during two months, and it is your part to see that you alter for the better.
Two months means two Communions with definite resolves, two definite upward stages in life. If you let yourself go till you get back to the crutches of school, you will have gone two very definite stages downhill.
Some of you are tidy here, but at home your temptation is to plaster some neatly folded garment or sash over the recesses of an untidy drawer, or to use anything that comes to hand, any racquet, or croquet-mallet, or oil-can, or thimble; your own cannot be found—you take the nearest and then leave that also lying about.
Do you think these things do not matter? You would think it mattered very much if you grew up an unreliable, unconscientious woman, and yet, I do not know in what lesson-book you can learn to be thorough and reliable and conscientious, except in the daily lesson-book of these trifles.
You each know that daily practise is a duty, if your mother wishes you to learn music. A daily duty neglected, or a daily duty done, means a very considerable difference in the person by the end of two months.
There are one or two further points in your holiday and grown-up life which I should like to talk about to-day.
Visits.—Enrich your life with them, instead of letting them be times when you slip back morally. Take your conscience with you (but do not wear it outside), and be very careful to keep your rules, your prayers, your home standard of right and wrong, your quietness and self-control. Do not "let yourself go," and do silly things for fun. A great many leave their sense of responsibility at home, whereas our visits are part of the regular course of that life for which God will judge us. And keep your mind open, get new ideas, read the books in the house, instead of taking a store with you.
Next consider your duty in the choice of people you live with. First, there are your relations. You say you cannot choose these; no, but you can choose which side of them you will draw out. Every one is a magnet; some attract the worried, irritable side of other people, some the serene, pleasant side. If you try to see the bright side of things and to agree instead of differing, and if you say nice things about people when they are out of the room, your family circle will show themselves very different from what they might be if you were a magnet for unpleasantness!
Secondly, there are your friends. Do not let one person monopolize you, or you her; do not have friends given to secrets, and do not let any one trap you into a promise not to tell. If her secret is all right, she cannot object to your telling your mother, and if it is silly you had better be clear of it. And do not forget that nice people do not deal in secrets, they keep their family affairs to themselves. It is the Rosa Matildas at "Young Ladies' Academies" who have secrets in a corner.
Thirdly, choose your book friends carefully. You live with people in books, so have a conscience about your choice in this just as much as with living friends. Some books are bad for any one; a great many more would do harm to you, but perhaps not touch an older person. When I was your age, many an argumentative book (which seems thin and empty to me now) might have upset my faith. Many an exciting, passionate book (which I now read with a calm and critical mind) would have filled my whole heart and soul! Be thankful if you are kept under direction about books; but if you are not, use common sense and conscience. Manage yourself sensibly, and since you know that you are in a very mouldable, impressionable stage, it stands to reason that you had better steadily read classics now, to form and strengthen your mind.
When a girl reads sentimental and passionate poetry, neglecting Scott, Milton, and Wordsworth, I call it the same sort of wrong mismanaging of herself as if she ruined her digestion with a greedy love of pastry. Poetry and pastry are often the same sort of weak self-indulgence.
I do not say read no novels that are exciting and romantic, or even that are silly, but I do say, sandwich them. Face the fact that a silly or passionate novel is likely to have great power over you at this stage, and therefore read very few of them, and read many of Scott, Thackeray, Dickens, Miss Austen, and Mrs. Gaskell.
Do not read society novels that make you live with flippant, irreverent, or coarse people, or those who take sin lightly.
It is not right for a girl to live with people in books who would not be good friends for her in life, and she ought to make a conscience of not doing it, even though there may be no definite bad scenes in the book to shock her.
Books should give you nice ideas. You have got the making of your own mind and character in your own hands, and you are responsible for the books on which you choose to feed yourself, for each one of them alters you for good or bad. Your book list is a very good help to self-examination.
There is a great deal to think about and to settle for yourself when you begin life, but there are three points of goodness binding on every one. One is, giving time to God. A girl must stick to her prayers and go to Church on Sunday whether other people do or not. Sunday varies in different households, and I think each girl is bound by her parents' standard in the matter as long as she lives at home; when she marries she should think the matter over and have her own standard. But the root of Sunday-keeping lies in the fact that she must feed the Sunday side of her or it will die; and she should go to Church, once at least, to show her colours. As to how much she feeds that Sunday side, or when,—that varies with the household, only she should resolve on something and stick to it. You need not be disobliging, since you can always make time by denying yourself.
Secondly, have a standard in talk. You cannot tell your elders when you think them wrong, but you should not join in, when your contemporaries say what you think wrong. Speak out then, or at least be silent and unresponsive.
Thirdly, do something for other people, some steady kindness which you do not give up just to suit your own convenience.
Now, what plan of life should you have? You must have a plan and resolution, for if you drift you are almost certain to drift down and not up.
Yet you are quite rightly looking forward to a time of freedom. But freedom means being able to command yourself, it does not mean being free to drift without a helm.
Also you will be under control to a certain extent. Very likely you will sometimes resent control or reproof at home more than you would resent it from an outsider! But you are a stage nearer that sad freedom of later life when it is nobody's business to look after you, and you have now got to learn how to use wisely that fuller freedom of later life.
I hope you have been learning at school to use the comparative freedom of "being out." I hope that, with both men and girls, you will remember what I tell you here about not being silly and uncontrolled, or loud and boisterous. The actual school rules pass away, but there is not one of them that is not founded on some principle that I hope you will carry with you and live by.
The books, the music, the pictures in which you are interested here are not mere lessons to be shut up joyfully when you leave! They are the great interests and amusements of the friends whom you most value, and it would be very disappointing if you did not use your free time in making opportunities to carry them on better than at school, for you come here mainly to find out what interesting things there are in the world you are going into.
But to go to practical details. Take a girl who wants to be good and dutiful and useful, to be a comfort at home, to keep her brain in good working order, and to enjoy herself: what should she resolve upon if she is to be of use in the world and not drift idly along? She must think it out for herself, and no longer wait for orders. She must put the salt of self-denial and effort into every day, of her own accord, and not feel absolved because her mother has not given any special orders. You are responsible for your own life, and it is horribly easy to slide into a slack, pleasure-seeking life which will eat all the good out of you.
You must not fill the day with rules and employments so that people feel you always engaged, yet, though you must seem disengaged, you must have a real purpose underneath. You must be free to idle about after breakfast while your mother or the visitors are settling the day's employments, and yet you should aim at always having something to show for your morning,
"Something accomplished, something done."
It is more difficult to live an ordinary idle life well than a hard-working one, because it rests entirely with you whether you put any salt into your day, and because it is your duty to do much as other people do, while at the same time, underneath, you must keep to your standard of Right and Wrong.
But, suppose a girl wants to arrange her own individual life on the best possible lines. Had you better make your plan, and begin at once?
There is great danger, if you wait, that your good resolutions will die away, and you will never begin. And yet, when you first leave, you want a little time to feel quite free, and your people like to feel you are quite free to enjoy yourself.
There is a great deal to be said for beginning at once, but I am not sure about it!
If you feel that you will never begin good ways unless you do so at once, then begin! But I am not sure that I should advise you to make your Resolution at once, though I should like you to make your Plan. I should like you to plan your day while you are here, and write it out: you will not do much with Resolutions unless you write them. Plan what time you will get up and go to bed (you should have a conscience about both); settle a plan of your reading,—what books you want to read during the first year, what poetry to learn, what subjects to study. Plan it all out, and then seal it up, and keep it till Christmas comes. Then think over it, and pray over it, before New Year's Day, and then start your definite resolutions with the new year.
But are you to fritter away the time between this and then? No, carry out your ideas of reading sensible books and doing kind things for friends and poor people, and saying your prayers and reading the Bible, and write down every day exactly how much you did. Let your resolution be to keep a record of these months, rather than a resolution to keep to a detailed plan. Keeping a record is self-discipline in itself, it means self-examination every night. If it shows you to be silly and idle and unpersevering, it will make you ashamed of yourself. Also it will give you some idea of how much time you can really count on getting. See how your plan works before you promise God to keep it, and then you will not make unwise resolutions at the New Year.
In arranging one's life, it is well to take our Lord's three divisions of Duty,—Prayer, Alms, and Fasting,—and see how our life and our plans stand this test.
Prayer.—Under this head you would notice whether your daily prayers, and your attendance at the Holy Communion, were regular, and how you kept Sunday.
Alms.—What proportion of your money do you give away? You ought to give away one shilling out of every half-sovereign which you spend on yourself; and be sure you spend dress-money on dress, it is not honest to use it on charity, or books, and then to look shabby.
But money is only part of the giving which you owe: 'Such as I have give I unto thee.' What have you got? You have got education. There may be girls like yourself living near you who have less; could you not start some sensible reading together? I remember delightful French and German and Dante readings when we lived in the country,—eight or ten girls used to come regularly, and we all enjoyed it.
Are there no old people you could amuse in some way,—possibly with whist? Or rather lonely people (aunts sometimes), to whom you could write regularly; people like to be remembered, especially by the young! As long as you are young your kindnesses are very much valued, and if you choose to be selfish instead, it is forgiven you, but, as you are in youth so you will be in middle life, therefore be careful. As I heard Mr. Clifford say, "As long as you are young you may be selfish, or vain, or silly, and people love you all the same! But, by the time you are thirty, people will begin to say they will not stand it any longer, and by the time you are forty or fifty you will be left to a lonely life!" So begin a kind life at once, and act towards all around you on the principle 'such as I have I give thee.' Sometimes you can share your money, sometimes your pleasures, sometimes your education. And remember that in the work and kindnesses which you do for others, you must put first and foremost what you do for your mother and father and home people. "Haus Teuffel, Strasse Engel" is a bad name. The point of that text about 'Corban, it is a gift,' is, that you must not feel absolved from duties at home, because you do good works outside. Find out some home duty you can do regularly, and stick to it. I dare say your mother may not suggest any to you, because she wants you to have a good time, but think of her pleasure and amusement; mothers often talk as if they enjoyed being left at home, just to make more room for you. Keep your eyes open, and find out what you can do to make life pleasanter to her. Talk over your plans with her; often mothers do not realize that a girl wants to find duties and kind things to do, and so they only shower pleasures on her which do not satisfy her.
If there seems no special work for you, be on the look-out to do the things that other people do not like doing; that is the sort of person I like better than any other,—the one who feels "somebody must do the tiresome work, why shouldn't I?" Nothing you could do in the future would please me so much as if you lived by that motto; and, if you add to it a determination to make it quite a pleasure to your mother to find fault with you, you will do well!
So much for Prayer, our duty to God, and for Alms, our duty to our neighbour; how about Fasting, our duty to ourself?
What is the good of fasting? Is it simply that we should be uncomfortable? No, the point of fasting is self-discipline and training. This is your duty to self: not to get comfort or amusement or success in the world, but, so to train, to drill, to feed and strengthen yourself, that you may be a good soldier for God.
Such questions as the proper amount of Rest and Amusement and Exercise all come under this head, for we ought to aim at just as much as will make us good soldiers, not to try for as much as we can get.
We must manage ourselves; we must keep our bodies in good order, and keep our brains keen and bright. Self-denial in sleep and food and drink are part of this management.
Early Rising ought to be on your list of resolutions. Some find it best to name a certain hour, but then, if they are not called punctually, they feel the resolution broken, and they very likely lie on slothfully. I think it is best to resolve to get up either five or ten minutes after you wake, or are called; look at your watch, and jump up when the time comes.
When you are up, your Rule of Prayer is the first thing to think of and to act on.
And when you are dressed (carefully and prettily dressed), and your soul is dressed in God's armour, what are you going to do with the new day God has given you?
First carry out some duty in the house; next see to your own improvement, not as a self-ending pleasure, but in order to make yourself a useful woman, to train you for better work in the future.
Reading is not the only kind of such training, but it is one of the best kinds and gives you new ideas. I advise you to try for half an hour a day, and to keep a list of the books you read: make an abstract of a sensible book once in three months: sandwich your English novels with foreign ones: keep a sensible book on hand and, alternately with books you fancy, read something a little above you: take up some special subject every three or six months and read several books on it, or else read through the books on my lists: read no novels before luncheon.
It is seldom safe to fix the hour very decidedly; some one interrupts you, and then you feel the rule broken and you get discouraged!
Make a point of being occupied, keep some needlework on hand, idleness leads to silly thoughts and self-indulgence. Do not be out-of-doors all day; have something indoors to show for yourself. Feminine occupations have a good result on the character, and help you to be quiet and recollected, to be the womanly woman who makes a real Home for her father and brothers. As Roger Ascham is reported by Landor to have said to Lady Jane Grey, "exercise that beauteous couple, the mind and body, much and variously; but at home, at home, Jane! indoors, and about things indoors."
Mr. Lowell said that most men act as if they had sealed orders not to be opened till middle life! I do not want you to waste your life like that, I want you to feel that you have a definite purpose and that you know what orders you ought to give yourselves, or rather what are God's orders for your life.
What is your purpose in life? I hope—Lord Bacon's words in our Tuesday midday Prayer express it—"the glory of God and the relief of man's estate." You go into life knowing how dearly the Lord Jesus Christ loves you, at how dear a cost He bought you; therefore, not just to save your souls, not just because you would be afraid to live carelessly, but, because of His amazing love, you will try to live as He asks you to do. God grant you such a sense of that amazing love that you may rejoice to spend and be spent in His service.
And you will want to live for the relief of man's estate. The more your eyes open to life, the more you see how many sore hearts there are in the world, and (besides the well-dressed sorrows which are as sore as any) there is the pain and poverty and sin of those who have no chance in the world; what can you do for the poor—you who have so many chances in life, who have so much love, so many pleasures? There may not be very much open to you when you first grow up, and you may be very busy with your pleasures and home duties. Let your mother enjoy your pleasures, she has been planning them for years, but do what little things you can to discipline yourself so that by-and-by (when you are free to work) you may be a worker worth having. It is that which makes the waiting years worth while.
Often a girl gets tired of enjoying herself and longs for some purpose in life, but she is tied in a hundred ways. Sometimes she loses her aspirations, her wish to do some good in the world, and sinks down into an idle round of small pleasures and worries. But do not you do that; rather realize that, according as you spend your waiting time,—before you marry or find some definite work,—such you will be when your opportunity comes:
"Be resolute and great To keep thy muscles trained: know'st thou when Fate Thy measure takes, or when she'll say to thee, 'I find thee worthy; do this thing for me'?"
I was talking over East London work the other day with a worker, and she was saying that the best preparation for usefulness lay in such common things as cooking, cutting out, musical-drill, gardening, children's games, neat business-like letters, keeping your own accounts, a power of small talk! All these are possible to each of you, and a resolute putting of salt into each day,—some discipline, some self-denial, some thoroughness,—will turn you out able by-and-by to do good work for the Relief of man's estate.
"Be resolute and great To keep thy muscles trained"
that you may be fit to do something to show forth your sense of the exceeding great love of our Master and only Saviour Jesus Christ.
[Footnote 1: "Record of a Year's Reading" (6d. Mowbray) would be useful to you.]
Tourgenieff has a story in which three young princes, one by one, went into an enchanted garden and plucked a magic apple which gave the eater one wish. The first asked for money, the second for beauty, the third for the good-will of old women. The third proved to be the successful one.
If a fairy godmother offered you one gift, what would you choose? I am not sure that you would not do well to imitate that shrewd young prince! It is old ladies who can teach you knowledge of the world, and whose good-will gets you the most desirable invitations! However, you can easily gain their good-will without any apple, so that, on the whole, I should advise a princess to choose the gift of being a good Talker—or rather one who produces good Talk.
A woman Macaulay, even with brilliant flashes of silence, is not loved: you do not want a hostess who "holds forth," but one who sets her guests talking; and every woman is the hostess when she is talking to a man, or to any one younger or shyer than herself. You should make people go away with a regretful feeling that they missed a great deal by having talked so much themselves that they heard very little from you.
Do you think it is easy to listen—that it means mere silence? I assure you it means nothing of the sort; it means listening with all your heart and soul and mind, and making the speaker feel, by your way of listening, that you have a heart and a soul and a mind. There could not well be anything further from the person who makes him feel that there is a mere dead wall of silence before him at which he is talking.
Listening is a fine art and requires great tact and a peculiar delicate perception of the shades that are passing over the speaker's mind, and dictating (often unconsciously) the words he says—words which in themselves do not convey his mind, unless you are of the family of the Interpreter in Bunyan, and know by instinct what he feels.
Only a large heart of quick understanding has this gift; but we help our heart wonderfully by keeping our mind keen. The heart is apt to be very blundering and stupid by itself; just as the mind is very apt to go off on a wrong scent about people, unless you have a warm heart to throw true light on their motives.
A quick-witted heart is what I should put as the first requisite for a good talker; and next a noble heart—a heart that cares for the best side of things and people, a heart which brings out the bearable side of circumstances, and the nobler side of people, and the interesting side of subjects.
Some people are like Kay, in Anderson's "Snow Queen," they have a bit of ice in their heart, and they see all the smallnesses and absurdities about them, instead of being alive to the pathos, or endurance, or good-nature of the apparently stupid lives round them. They are always in a critical, carping, superior frame of mind. These people can often talk brilliantly, but it is thin. You cannot have a large mind without a large heart. 'We live by admiration, hope, and love;' without these, we cease to live—we wither.
The best talk is kindly; any fool can point out flaws, said Goethe (who certainly had a great mind, whatever his heart was like),—it takes a clever man to discern excellencies. A good talker makes other people feel they are much cleverer than they had before realized; they are at their best, thanks to the listener who draws out the best side of them. It is delightful to be with some people—you are sure of hearing good talk—interesting subjects spring up wherever they are.
Perhaps you have a friend staying with you who is one of these delightful people, and you say: "Oh dear! I must go and pay a duty visit—it will be so dull, but do come with me." And, lo and behold! that visit is delightful, for your friend made that dull person into an interesting one by getting her to talk and show her real self. For the real self of every soul is interesting, only it often has such a "buried life" that we are not skilful enough to find it.
Now, does your way of talking bring out the best side of yourself and of those you talk to?
School gives you tremendous opportunities of adding to the kindliness and nice-mindedness of the world; for there you talk with a large number who, like yourself, are not yet made, and who are, therefore, more coloured by the person they talk to than older people would be.
There are people in the world who never hear unkind gossip or vulgar jokes, for no one would think of saying such things to them. I know girls who would never have such things said—who would never get a letter written to them that was not of a nice tone—because, instinctively, their friends would feel such things out of harmony with them.
When girls are silly, or spiteful, or not quite nice in what they say to you, it pays you a bad compliment; do not in your own mind merely condemn them. They would not say it to you if they felt you above talk of that kind. You may be above it in your own mind and may feel that your home surroundings are on a higher level than such talk; but either you have not had the courage to show your colours, or else you are like that in your heart, and they know it by instinct.
See to it that you keep at your best: for the danger of school is the temptation to follow a multitude to do, not evil, but folly.
Many, from indolence or thoughtlessness, or from yielding to the bad bit in them, join in silly school talk, silly mysteries, giggling, criticizing other people, boasting about home, loud, rough ways of talking, slang, cliques and exclusive friendships (every one of which is underbred, as well as silly or unkind), and are yet, three-quarters of them, fit for something better,—at home they would be better, and at school they could be better.
Many people dread schools for fear of wrong talk going on; now some of you may (through gossip, or newspapers, or servants, or novels) know of bad things or fast things; and it is perhaps not your fault that you know; but it is a very heavy sin on your conscience if you hand on your knowledge and make others dwell on wrong things which would never have been in their minds but for you. Books or friends which give us a knowledge of wickedness, do more harm than we know.
Never have the blood-guiltiness on your head of teaching evil to others, or leading their minds to dwell on it. Some find it much harder to get rid of such thoughts than others do—they may be more naturally inclined to it, and you may have woke up in them far more harm than you guess.
Your very first duty when you are thrown with others is to see that no one shall ever be less nice-minded because they knew you. See to it that no one learns anything about evil through your being with them. You can very easily soil a mind, and you can never wash it clean.
If you feel the least doubt about a thing, do not say it—do not tell the story; if you want to ask a question and feel in the very least uncomfortable about it, hold your tongue, or ask your mother instead.
There are many things which it is not wholesome to talk about among yourselves, but which it is quite right to ask your mother about, or any one in her place, if you find yourself dwelling on them. Of course this includes everything which makes you feel at all hot, with a sense of something not quite nice;—everything in books which it would make you hot to read out loud (an excellent test);—and I include all uncanny things such as ghosts and palmistry and fortune-telling:—these are not safe things to talk about, and I ask you as my particular wish not to do it, though you are quite welcome to unburden your mind to me if you wish to do so! I think your common sense will bear me out in not wanting them talked about among yourselves, because you never know who may take it seriously or what harm you may be doing, though as I have read "The Mysteries of Udolpho" to you, you will see that it is not the subject, but the indiscriminate talking which I object to!
But apart from wrong talk, what sort of silly talk are you likely to be infected with at school? It is not unlikely that among a number of girls there will be one with a hawk's eye for dress, who knows exactly how a trimming went, and how long this or that has been worn; in fact, she takes in every detail of the dress of each person she sees for a minute, and can talk of it by the hour! She may have no harm in her, but she is first cousin to a milliner's apprentice (and is mentally the poor relation of the two, since the milliner notices these things as a part of business, and very likely has other interests in life for her spare time). If the girl wishes to prove herself of different family, she needs to put to sleep the side of her that belongs to the keen-eyed young lady behind the counter, by feeding other sides of her mind, and turning her powers of observation on to other things.
I should like you to be faultlessly dressed outside, and I should like you to be perfectly well inside; but I should not admire you if your chief subject of conversation was the devices by which you arrived at the dress, or the decoctions you took to arrive at the health.
Copy the flowers of the field, not only in prettiness, but in giving an impression that you grow as naturally as they do! Make us feel that you could not have anything ugly or awkward or unbecoming about you. Your dress and your rooms and your dinners should be perfect, but do not entertain your guest with the mere mechanism of how you arrive at any one of them. Give time and thought to this machinery of life—enough to produce the right result, and then go on to the real interests, for which they are only the stage. I do not want a sloven, but I want a girl who is a real person and not a mere poupee modele to show off dresses.
Petty gossip is the prevailing danger of any small community such as a girls' school. Provincial gossip, Matthew Arnold would call it—provincial being one of his severest adjectives for the Philistines whom his soul abhors,—by which he means that their talk is limited to their narrow-minded local gossip, so that when a stranger comes from a larger world, they have nothing in common. I think his use of that word marks his French turn of mind;—parochial would be the better expression in England, where the talk is very often literally parochial,—besides deserving the word in its wider meaning, as describing talk which is full of unimportant, local, and personal facts, instead of belonging to the larger world of ideas.
English girls, as a whole, are supposed to be bad at talking—to giggle among themselves, and to have nothing to say on general subjects. But, besides this, there is a certain love of silly mysteries and secrets in some girls, which is apt to be too much for their common sense.
Some girls are so keen to chatter, and make themselves interesting at any cost, that they tell their family's private affairs or discuss the faults of their nearest relations. I am sure you would all remember that any one, with a grain of decent family pride, washes every bit of dirty linen at home, and holds their tongue about family news till they are sure it is public property, and to the family credit! If you ever want to talk about such things for real reasons, always go to an older friend and not to one of your own age; for an older friend would know enough of the world to take it up by the right handle and to hold her tongue.
Again, some girls fancy that a little theatre gossip marks them out as women of the world. To talk about a play and about the good and bad strokes of acting is one thing:—the petty personal gossip about the actors and actresses is on the same level, to my mind, as the talking about dukes and duchesses by those who read of them in a society paper, without ever expecting to meet them.
Again, there is some school talk which is undesirable, though not wrong. I mean talk about the things which belong to your future life, but which are just the sides of it that you want your education to help you to keep in proper proportion. There are interests, such as hunting and dancing, which are all right in their own time and place, but which make a silly, empty mind when they are your chief mental food. You come to school to take an interest in work, and in bookish things generally. It is not so easy to do this when you are in the full swing of home amusements, and so you come away for a sort of mental retreat, during which it will be easier to you to let your bookish and thoughtful side grow. Here you are, and your home amusements are left behind. Would it not be a pity to let your mind keep running on the very things from which you have come away? Do not let your tongue or your mind run on the amusements of home—they prevent your taking real interest in your work.
Also there should be no talk about religious differences. Of course, you all come from different homes and have somewhat different teaching, and I do not wish you ever to discuss those differences. Every one should keep to her home ways, and try to live up to them. Religious controversy never yet made any into better Christians, and it generally makes them worse!
Avoid Religious gossip about the services and the clergy. Make it a rule for yourself, wherever you are, never to criticize the clergyman or the sermon. Very likely you might say something to the point—it might do him good if he heard it! That will not happen, and what will happen is, that you will do yourself harm by being critical or amused, instead of making your mind devout. If your "mind" knows that, whatever it may notice in church, your "will" is not going to allow it to speak of, then your critical part goes to sleep. A joke loses its amusingness if one is not going to tell it, and you are then able to think only of your Prayers and Resolutions.
Purity and Reverence are the two main things in talk, but how about Sense?
There is one class of girl I have sometimes noticed with amused regret—I dare say you have too—though she is by no means so objectionable as the other kind I spoke of. She is a would-be child of nature. She has no thoughtfulness or weight about her; she is an engaging kitten who exists on the rather inadequate stock-in-trade of nice eyes; she is quite irresponsible and useless, and tells you so, in an ingenuous way, for which her nearest and dearest long to box her ears! I would call her "The Artless Japanese," remembering the princess in the Mikado, who says, "I sit and wonder, in my artless Japanese way, why I am so charming."
Again, very often a girl of your age gets a good deal of society in the holidays or before she comes. She comes to school on purpose to keep away from that, till the right time for it comes (when I hope she will have plenty of it!)
Now, when a girl is not much accustomed to society (especially to men's society), it sometimes turns her head, and she gets an idea that any joke about a man is amusing. I will not say that this sort of a joke is like a servant, for a well-brought-up servant puts many a young lady to shame by her nice-mindedness. Young ladies' academies are supposed to be full of that sort of thing—for which there is no word but vulgar—and when such girls leave such academies to go home for good, they are always in holes and corners either with a man, or with another girl talking about one. A man does not respect that kind of girl—though he will go just as far with her as she will let him—and he will tell it again at his club, and probably to his sisters. If she does not mind about her dignity, why should he? There is hardly a man living who would not make game of the advances of the girl who admires him, just as there is hardly a man living who would speak to others of the girl he loves. Unluckily, every idiotic girl (who is silly about him) thinks she is the one he cares for, and never realizes how she is "giving herself away!"
And the worst of it is, that the girl is not only lowering herself, she is lowering a man's standard of Woman in general. You, each one of you, help to decide whether your brothers and every man you meet shall have a high or a low standard about women. I assure you, when I think of girls I have known of (and heard of from men), I wonder that men have any respect for women at all.
We shall never know how much of Dante's nobleness was due to his having once known a girl in Florence, who never was in any specially close relationship to him. He met her at the gatherings of Florentine ladies, where she must have heard his songs, but the most close personal intercourse they had was one day when they passed each other in the street, and she bowed to him,—"From that salute, humbleness flowed all his being o'er." Do you say, he was a poet, and Beatrice was one of the most famous of all Fair Women, and therefore they are no guide for you? What man has not got poetry in him, waiting for the woman he loves to wake it? and what woman does not possess that womanhood which is, by God's ordering, in itself an attraction to a man, and which it rests with her so to use—by self-restraint and love of noble things—that she may be, to every man about her, something of what Beatrice was to Dante?—he may know very little of her, and care less, but she will have helped to raise his idea of what a woman should be.
Women have a great deal to answer for as regards men, and every girl should do her best to be on the right side and to help a man to be at his best, by showing that she thinks silliness and vulgar chaff objectionable. Every girl sets the tone of those she talks with, for every one's conscience responds to the tacit appeal of a nice-minded girl's dislike of these things. If you do not respond, it checks such talk wonderfully.
Boys are sometimes told that they must swim with the stream at school and join in bad talk because "everybody does it," but the nice boy stands out and does not, and helps weaker ones thereby.
Girls have a much smaller temptation in that way—more to silliness than to actual wrong; but your tone—in these matters that I speak of—helps your brothers in their battles with downright wrong. Every boy who knows his sister's standard is very high, is helped far more than he is conscious of, by her influence,—and far more than she ever knows, for she does not know all his temptations.
Women have been trained to nice-mindedness by centuries of public opinion—they have always been admired for it, and blamed if they lack it; while men have not been so trained; therefore women have a special power of helping men, who are, consequently, not likely to be born so particular about these things as women are.
Always feel responsible for what you laugh at: very often people say things tentatively to see if you will laugh: you help to fix their standard by the way you take it, and you often throw your weight into the wrong scale because you are afraid of seeming priggish. A man's sense of humour is different from a woman's; when you go into the world you must be careful not to laugh just because a man makes a joke, until you are quite sure that it is one to laugh at. Perhaps your host makes it, and his wife looks a trifle grave: then be quick to take your cue from her and to notice what nice women think nice for a woman.
Very often in talking to girls and preparing them for life, the whole question of flirtation and nonsense is left out—there is not even as much said as in Mrs. Blackett's village, where the clergyman's wife put every girl through a special catechism before she left to go to service, part of which was, "Lads, Sally?" The correct answer briskly given by Sally was, "Have naught to do with them—but if they will, tell mother."
The whole subject of getting married, or falling in love, or meeting a man you may fall in love with, is often smothered up out of sight, as if it were something wrong. If you have your life so full of other interests that it does not concern you till the real thing comes, so much the better—you will lose the pleasantest five years of your life if you turn your mind in this direction too soon.
What often happens is that it is plentifully thought of and talked of among the girls, and hidden away from the mothers and any older friends. Either do not speak of it at all, or let it be an open straightforward thing, instead of a Rosa Matilda mystery. So often a girl feels a delightful spice of impropriety in any remark about a man or a boy. If she had more to do with them she would not be so silly—unless she had a very odd sort of menkind belonging to her; but you will find girls (very unattractive ones, too) always imagining that a man is in love with them, or else being silly themselves over every other man they meet.
What I am describing is, of course, very vulgar; but, from the castle to the cottage, no house is folly-proof, though the outward manifestations of it may be less objectionable where the manners are better.
Now, with regard to all the kinds of talk which I have singled out as undesirable, please understand, that except in speaking of wickedness (or worse still nastiness), which is always a sin and needs your penitent confession and God's absolution, all these things are wrong, only in the wrong place and wrong way and wrong proportion.
If you are keen about any of them, and want dreadfully to talk about it, do so; let it out, if you cannot fill your mind with other things; only, do it with an older person, so as to save yourself from that demon of silliness who hovers about a room where girls are alone together. He is powerless unless you invoke him; but remember, he is always there, eagerly watching his opportunity.
I advise you to make it a rule for yourself always to go to an older friend, when you want to talk about anything that might be not quite nice, or that might verge on silliness. If conscience or prudence give any pricks in the matter, go to an elder. You do not know how much such a rule would save you from, and if you say, "but that is impossible, she would not understand!" then I say to you, "well, it is always possible to hold your tongue, though I do not wish to impose such a severe penance on you; I only say, talk to a safe friend, or to none."
This question of talk is a very practical one in school life. Probably most of you think privately, "How silly girls are!" What do you do, to make the mass less silly? That sort of infectious silliness is the great danger of school life, but the chatter is made up by individuals, who could each talk instead of chattering: remember that a girl at school need not be a schoolgirl; but she is in great danger of it, unless she is careful!
When you live at home you do not talk nonsense at dinner, you probably join in sensible talk. Well, do not alter because you are with girls, and say complacently in your heart "How silly the others are!" Your neighbours would not be silly if you did not admire it. You yourself are part of the mass you are criticizing. On which side do your words go—talk or chatter? Watch yourselves, and see how your words, each day, can fairly be divided between those two scales.
"By thy words thou shall be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned." Are these words too solemn to use, after suggestions on talk which may seem to you to have been occupied with very petty and ignoble details? Surely not, for your talk on these commonplace matters really settles your standard, and that of the world about you, on the deepest moral questions. The common talk of the day is both cause and effect of the morality of the day.
May I suggest some thoughts for self-examination on the matter? One good question to put daily to yourself is, "How much of my talk to-day was for myself, and against others? Perhaps I was too well-mannered to boast, but have I turned things to my own advantage, shown up my own strong points, instead of trying to help others to shine? Have I tried to get cheap credit for wit, by sharp speeches, would-be clever criticism and pulling people to pieces? Have I started, or handed on, spiteful remarks?" If you like, use another question, and ask yourself, "Was I like S. Theresa, 'An Advocate of the Absent'?" Or ask, "Have I, by my way of speaking or listening, lowered any one's standard to-day?" Very often people say things or make jokes tentatively, to see how we shall take it, and through fear of being stiff or priggish we surprise them by seeming to enjoy what they were rather uncertain about. It is quite curious how ashamed most people generally are of seeming as good as they really are; they "hide their best selves as if they had stolen them." If they would show their colours, they would find that many of the apparently careless people they meet do care about the real interests of life. If they themselves do care and yet try to seem careless, are they not responsible for half the carelessness in those about them?
"The manner of our ordinary conversation," says Bishop Wilson, "is that which either hardens people in wrong, or awakens them to the right. We always do good or harm to others by the manner of our conversation."
Aunt Rachel; or, Old Maids' Children.
"What is the matter, my dear" said Aunt Rachel to her favourite niece, Urith Trevelyan, who was spending the Easter holidays with her. "You look fit to be a sister in mind, though I hope not in manners, to the Persian poet, who described himself as 'scratching the head of Thought with the nails of Despair.'"
"I think life is very difficult," remarked Urith, with a solemn sigh.
"There I partly agree with you," said Aunt Rachel; "especially to people who insist on doing to-morrow's duty with to-day's strength. I doubt very much if the holiday task, which I see in your hand, is the cause of this gloom."
"Oh dear, no! I was thinking what shall I do with myself when I leave school at Midsummer; it will be so very hard to read by myself."
"My good child, do attend to what you are doing; you are just like the man in the 'Snark,' who had
"'luncheon at five o'clock tea, And dined on the following day.'
"I wish you would dine off that unfortunate task to-day, and when you have finished it we will talk about your future work."
The task did not take long when Urith fairly gave her mind to it, and the next day she and her aunt started for a distant cottage at the far end of the parish. Urith seized the opportunity, and began as the door closed behind them—
"Now, Aunt Rachel, how can I do everything I ought when I leave school? I shall know nothing of Greek or Roman history, or mythology, or French or German history, or even of English, except the period we have been just doing, and I have done only a few books in the literature class, and none in foreign literature, and I have forgotten all my geography, and I shall have Latin and Greek to keep up, and French and German and chemistry, and I don't know anything, hardly, of modern books, or of architecture or natural history, or philosophy, or of cooking"—here, in her ardour, she tripped over a stone, and her aunt availed herself of the pause to say—
"Add Shakespeare and the musical glasses, and you will have a tolerably complete programme before you."
"Yes, Aunt Rachel, you need not laugh, you always say girls are so uneducated, and can't respond to literary allusions; but how are they to become educated when there is so much to be done?"
"My dear Urith, there is a very wise Irish proverb, 'Never cross a bridge till you come to it,' and though this bridge of culture seems such a bridge of sighs to you, I really do not think it need be. In the first place, it has not got to be crossed in one year. You get far more law now than in my young days, for you and your friends are not expected to come out full-blown heroines at seventeen or eighteen; you are almost expected to carry on your education for some time longer. It is not safe to count on it, for real life may come on you in a dozen ways when you once leave the safety of the schoolroom, but you will probably get several years of tolerable quiet, and, if I were you, I would not spend my first year in a desperate effort to fill up all the gaps in my education, and to go on with school-work in the school spirit. I should take my first year of freedom as the arbour on the Hill Difficulty, where Christian rested; the lord of that country does not like pilgrims to stay there for good, but they go on all the better for it afterwards. I should look on this year as being the ornamental fringe to the intellectual dress you have been weaving for yourself at school. And do not forget that the dress and the trimming are not an end in themselves—they are only to enable you to leave the house with decency, to go about your business; and at the end of the first year I should count up my possessions and see where I was wanting—if the dress proved thin, I would then set to work and furnish myself with a jacket, by hard, steady work in the second year."