The Daughters of England/Chapter I

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The Daughters of England by Sarah Stickney Ellis
Chapter I. Important Inquiries


CHAP. I.
IMPORTANT INQUIRIES.


If it were possible for a human being to be suddenly, and for the first time, awakened to consciousness, with the full possession of all its reasoning faculties, the natural inquiry of such a being would be, "What am I?—how am I to act?—and, what are my capabilities for action?"

The sphere upon which a young woman enters on first leaving school, or, to use a popular phrase, on "completing her education," is so entirely new to her, her mind is so often the subject of new impressions, and her attention so frequently absorbed by new motives for exertion, that, if at all accustomed to reflect, we cannot doubt but she will make these, or similar questions, the subject of serious inquiry—"What is my position in society? what do I aim at? and what means do I intend to employ for the accomplishment of my purpose?" And it is to assist any of the daughters of England, who may be making these inquiries in sincerity of heart, that I would ask their attention to the following pages; just as an experienced traveller, who had himself often stepped aside from the safest path, and found the difficulty of returning, would be anxious to leave directions for others who might follow, in order that they might avoid the dangers with which he had already become acquainted, and pursue their course with greater certainty of attaining the end desired.

First, then, What is your position in society? for, until this point is clearly settled in your own mind, it would be vain to attempt any description of the plan to be pursued. The settlement of this point, however, must depend upon yourselves. Whether you are rich, or poor, an orphan, or the child of watchful parents—one of a numerous family, or comparatively alone—filling an exalted or an humble position—of highly-gifted mind, or otherwise—all these points must be clearly ascertained before you can properly understand the kind of duty required of you. How these questions might be answered, is of no importance to the writer, in the present stage of this work. The importance of their being clearly and faithfully answered to yourselves, is all she would enforce.

For my own purpose, it is not necessary to go further into your particular history or circumstances, than to regard you as women, and, as I hope, Christian women. As Christian women, then, I address you. This is placing you on high ground; yet surely there are few of my young countrywomen who would be willing to take lower. As women, then, the first thing of importance is to be content to be inferior to men—inferior in mental power, in the same proportion that you are inferior in bodily strength.

Facility of movement, aptitude, and grace, the bodily frame of woman may possess in a higher degree than that of man; just as in the softer touches of mental and spiritual beauty, her character may present a lovelier page than his. Yet, as the great attribute of power must still be wanting there, it becomes more immediately her business to inquire how this want may be supplied.

An able and eloquent writer on "Woman's Mission," has justly observed, that woman's strength is in her influence. And, in order to render this influence more complete, you will find, on examination, that you are by nature endowed with peculiar faculties—with a quickness of perception, facility of adaptation, and acuteness of feeling, which fit you especially for the part you have to act in life; and which, at the same time, render you, in a higher degree than men, susceptible both of pain and pleasure.

These are your qualifications as mere women. As Christians, how wide is the prospect which opens before you—how various the claims upon your attention—how vast your capabilities—how deep the responsibility which those capabilities involve! In the first place, you are not alone; you are one of a family—of a social circle—of a community—of a nation. You are a being whose existence will never terminate, who must live for ever, and whose happiness or misery through that endless future which lies before you, will be influenced by the choice you are now in the act of making.

What, then, is the great object of your life? "To be good and happy," you will probably say; or, "To be happy and good." Which is it? For there is an important difference in giving precedence to one or the other of these two words. In one case, your aim is to secure to yourself all the advantages you can possibly enjoy, and wait for the satisfaction they produce, before you begin the great business of self-improvement. In the other, you look at your duties first, examine them well, submit yourself without reserve to their claims, and, having made them habitual, reap your reward in that happiness of which no human being can deprive you, and which no earthly event can entirely destroy.

Is it your intention beyond this to live for yourself, or for others? Perhaps you have no definite aim as relates to this subject. You are ashamed to think of living only for yourself, and deem it hard to live entirely for others; you, therefore, put away the thought, and conclude to leave this important subject until some future day. Do not, however, be deceived by such a fallacious conclusion. Each day of your life will prove that you have decided, and are acting upon the decision you make on this momentous point. Your conduct in society proves it, your behaviour in your family, every thought which occupies your mind, every wish you breathe, every plan you form, every pleasure you enjoy, every pain you suffer—all prove whether it is your object to live for yourself, or for others.

Again, is it your aim to live for this world only, or for eternity? This is the question of supreme importance, which all who profess to be Christians, and who think seriously, must ask and answer to themselves. There can be no delay here. Time is silently deciding this question for you. Before another day has passed, you will be so much nearer to the kingdom of heaven, or so much farther from it. Another day, another, and another, of this fearful indecision, will be adding to your distance from the path of peace, and rendering your task more difficult if you should afterwards seek to return.

If it be your deliberate desire to live for this world only, all the highest faculties of your nature may then lie dormant, for there is no field of exercise here, to make the cultivation of them worth the pains. If it is your deliberate desire to live for this world only, the improvement of the bodily senses becomes more properly the object of primary interest, in order that you may taste, smell, feel, hear, and see, with more acuteness. A little invention, a little calculation, a little observation of cause and effect, may be necessary, in order that the senses may be. gratified in a higher degree; but beyond this, all would indeed be worse than vanity, that would tend to raise the human mind to a knowledge of its own capabilities, and yet leave it to perish with the frail tenement it inhabits.

I cannot, however, suppose it possible that any daughter of Christian parents, in this enlightened country, would deliberately make so blind, so despicable a choice. And if your aim be to live for eternity; if you would really make this an object, not merely to read or to talk about, but to strive after, as the highest good you are capable of conceiving, then is the great mystery of your being unravelled—then is a field of exercise laid open for the noblest faculties of your soul—then has faith its true foundation, hope its unextinguishable beacon, and charity its sure reward.

I must now take it for granted, that the youthful reader of these pages has reflected seriously upon her position in society as a woman, has acknowledged her inferiority to man, has examined her own nature, and found there a capability of feeling, a quickness of perception, and a facility of adaptation, beyond what he possesses, and which, consequently, fit her for a distinct and separate sphere; and I would also gladly persuade myself, that the same individual, as a Christian woman, has made her decision not to live for herself, so much as for others; but, above all, not to live for this world, so much as for eternity. The question then arises—What means are to be adopted in the pursuit of this most desirable end? Some of my young readers will perhaps be disposed to exclaim, "Why, this is but the old story of giving up the world, and all its pleasures!" But let them not be too hasty in their conclusions. It is not a system of giving up which I am about to recommend to them, so much as one of attaining. My advice is rather to advance than to retreat, yet to be sure that you advance in the right way. Instead, therefore of depreciating the value of their advantages and acquirements, it is my intention to point out, so far as I am able, how all these advantages may be made conducive to the great end I have already supposed them to have in view—that of living for others, rather than for themselves—of living for eternity, rather than for time.

I have already stated, that I suppose myself to be addressing young women who are professedly Christians, and who know that the profession of Christianity as the religion of the Bible, involves responsibility for every talent they possess. By responsibility I mean, that they should consider themselves, during the whole of their lives, as in a condition to say, if called upon to answer, whether they have made use of the best means they were acquainted with, for attaining what they believed to be the most desirable end.

Youth and health are means of the utmost importance in this great work. Youth is the season of impressions, and can never be recalled; health is a blessing of such boundless value, that when lost it may safely be said to be sighed for more than any other, for the sake of the countless advantages it affords. Education is another means, which you are now supposed to be enjoying in its fullest extent; for I have already said that I suppose myself to be addressing young women who are popularly spoken of as having just completed their education. Fresh from the master's hand, you will therefore never possess in greater perfection the entire sum of your scholastic attainments than now. Reading and conversation, it is true, may improve your mind; but of your present possessions, in the way of learning and accomplishments, how many will be lost through indolence or neglect, and how many more will give place to claims of greater urgency, or subjects of more lively interest?

The present moment, then, is the time to take into account the right use of all your knowledge and all your accomplishments. What is the precise amount of these, we will not presume to ask; but let it not be forgotten, that your accountability extends to the time, the trouble, and the expense bestowed on your education, as well as to what you may have actually acquired. How many years have you been at school?—We will suppose from two to ten, and that from one hundred pounds, to five or more, have been expended upon you during this time; add to this the number of teachers employed in your instruction, the number of books appropriated to your use, the time—to say nothing of the patience—bestowed upon you, the anxiety of parents, who probably spared with difficulty the sum that was necessary for your education, their solicitude, their self-denial, their prayers that this sum might be well applied; reflect upon all these, and you will perceive that a debt has been contracted, which you have to discharge to your parents, your family, and to society—that you have enjoyed a vast amount of advantages, for which you have to account to the great Author of your being.

Such, then, is your position in life; a Christian woman, and therefore one whose first duty is to ascertain her proper place—a sensitive and intelligent being, more quick to feel than to understand, and therefore more under the necessity of learning to feel rightly—a responsible being, with numberless talents to be accounted for, and believing that no talent was ever given in vain, but that all, however apparently trifling in themselves, are capable of being so used as to promote the great end of our being, the happiness of our fellow-creatures, and the glory of our Creator.

Let not my young friends, however, suppose that I am about to lay down for them some system of Spartan discipline, some iron rule, by which to effect the subjugation of all that is buoyant in health, and delightful in the season of youth. The rule I would propose to them is one by which they may become beloved as well as lovely—the source of happiness to others, as well as happy in themselves. My desire is to assist them to overcome the three great enemies to their temporal and eternal good—their selfishness, indolence, and vanity, and to establish in their stead feelings of benevolence and habits of industry, so blended with Christian meekness, that while affording pleasure to all who live within the sphere of their influence, they shall be unconscious of the charm by which they please.

I have already stated, that women, in their position in life, must be content to be inferior to men; but as their inferiority consists chiefly, in their want of power, this deficiency is abundantly made up to them by their capability of exercising influence; it is made up to them also in other ways, incalculable in their number and extent, but in none so effectually as by that order of Divine Providence which places them, in a moral and religious point of view, on the same level with man; nor can it be a subject of regret to any right-minded woman, that they are not only exempt from the most laborious occupations both of mind and body, but also from the necessity of engaging in those eager pecuniary speculations, and in that fierce conflict of worldly interests, by which men are so deeply occupied as to be in a manner compelled to stifle their best feelings, until they become in reality the characters they at first only assumed. Can it be a subject of regret to any kind and feeling woman, that her sphere of action is one adapted to the exercise of the affections, where she may love, and trust, and hope, and serve, to the utmost of her wishes? Can it be a subject of regret that she is not called upon, so much as man, to calculate, to compete, to struggle, but rather to occupy a sphere in which the elements of discord cannot with propriety be admitted—in which beauty and order are expected to denote her presence, and where the exercise of benevolence is the duty she is most frequently called upon to perform.

Women almost universally consider themselves, and wish to be considered by others, as extremely affectionate; scarcely can a more severe libel be pronounced upon a woman than to say that she is not so. Now the whole law of woman's life is a law of love. I propose, therefore, to treat the subject in this light—to try whether the neglect of their peculiar duties does not imply an absence of love, and whether the principle of love, thoroughly carried out, would not so influence their conduct and feelings as to render them all which their best friends could desire.

Let us, however, clearly understand each other at the outset. To love, is a very different thing from a desire to be beloved. To love, is woman's nature—to be beloved is the consequence of her having properly exercised and controlled that nature. To love, is woman's duty—to be beloved, is her reward.

Does the subject, when considered in this point of view, appear less attractive? "No," you reply, "it constitutes the happiness of every generous soul, to love; and if that be the secret of our duty, the whole life of woman must be a pleasant journey on a path of flowers."

Some writers have asserted, that along with the power to love, we all possess, in an equal degree, the power to hate. I am not prepared to go this length, because I would not acknowledge the principle of hatred in any enlightened mind; yet I do believe, that in proportion to our capability of being attracted by certain persons or things, is our liability to be repelled by others, and that along with such repulsion there is a feeling of dislike, which belongs to women in a higher degree than it does to men, in the same proportion that their perceptions are more acute, and their attention more easily excited by the minuter shades of difference in certain things. Although not willingly recognizing the sensation of hatred, as applied to anything but sin, I am compelled to use the word, in order to render my meaning more obvious; and certainly, when we listen to the unrestrained conversation of the generality of young ladies, we cannot hesitate to suppose that the sensation of hatred towards certain persons or things, does, in reality, form part of the most important business of their lives.

To love and to hate, then, seem to be the two things which it is most natural and most easy for women to do. In these two principles how many of the actions of their lives originate? How important is it, therefore, that they should learn in early life to love and hate aright.

Most young women of respectable parentage and education, believe that they love virtue and hate vice. But have they clearly ascertained what virtue and vice are—have they examined the meaning of these two important words by the light of the world, or by the light of divine truth? Have they listened to the plausible reasoning of what is called society; where things are often spoken of by false names, and where vulgar vice is distinguished from that which is sanctioned by good breeding? or have they gone directly to the eternal and immutable principles of good and evil, as explained in the Bible, which they profess to believe? have they by this test tried all their favourite habits—their sweet weaknesses—their darling idols? and have they been willing to abide the result of this test—to love whatever approaches that standard of moral excellence, and to renounce whatever is offensive to the pure eye of Omniscience? Now, when we reflect that all this must be done before we can safely give ourselves up either to love or hate, we shall probably cease to think that our great duty is so easily performed.

Youth is the season for regulating these emotions as we ought, because it is comparatively easy to govern our affections when first awakened; after they have been allowed for some time to flow in any particular channel, it requires a painful and determined effort to restrain or divert their course; nor does the constitution of the human mind endure this revulsion of feeling unharmed. As the country over whose surface an impetuous river has poured its waters, retains, after those waters are gone, the sterile track they once pursued, marring the picture as with a scar—a seamy track of barrenness and drought; so the course of misplaced affection leaves its indelible trace upon the character, breaking the harmony of what might otherwise have been most attractive in its beauty and repose.

There is, perhaps, no subject on which young women are apt to make so many and such fatal mistakes as in the regulation of their emotions of attraction and repulsion; and chiefly for this reason—because there is a popular notion prevailing amongst them, that it is exceedingly becoming to act from the impulse of the moment, to be, what they call, "the creatures of feeling," or, in other words, to exclude the high attribute of reason from those very emotions which are given them, especially, to serve the most exalted purposes. "It is a cold philosophy," they say, "to calculate before you feel;" and thus they choose to act from impulse rather than from principle.

The unnatural mother does this when she singles out a favourite child as the recipient of all her endearments, leaving the neglected one to pine away its little life. The foolish mother does this, when she withholds, from imagined tenderness, the wholesome discipline which infancy requires—choosing for her unconscious offspring a succession of momentary indulgences which are sure to entail upon them years of suffering in after life. The fickle friend does this, when she conceives a sudden distaste for the companion she has professed to love. The unfaithful wife does this, when she allows her thoughts to wander from her rightful lord. All women have done this, who have committed those frightful crimes which stain the page of history—all have acted from impulse, and by far the greater number have acted under the influence of misplaced affection. It is, indeed, appalling to contemplate the extent of ruin and of wretchedness to which woman may be carried by the force of her own impetuous and unregulated feelings. Her faults are not those of selfish calculation; she makes no stipulation for her own, or others' safety; when once she renounces principle, therefore, and gives herself up to act as the mere creature of impulse, there is no hope for her, except that experience, by its painful chastisements, may bring her back to wisdom and to peace.

Does this seem a hard sentence to pronounce upon those impetuous young creatures who make it their boast that they never stay to think—that they cannot reason—and were only born to feel? Hard as it is, observation proves it true. If we do not acknowledge any regular system of conduct, habit will render that systematical which is our customary choice; and if we choose day by day to act from impulse rather than principle, we yield ourselves to a fatal and delusive system, the worst consequences of which will follow us beyond the grave.

As youth is the season for making this important choice so it is the season for impressions. You will never remember what you acquire in after life, as you will remember what you are acquiring now. The knowledge you now obtain of evil will haunt you through future years, like a dark spectre in your path; while the glimpses of virtue which you now perceive irradiating the circle in which you move, will re-appear before you to the end of life, surrounded by the same bright halo which adorns them now. If you have loved the virtuous and the good—if you have associated yourselves with their pursuits, and made their aims and objects yours in early life—the remembrance of these early friends will form a bright spot in your existence, to recur to as long as that existence lasts.

It is therefore of the highest importance to the right government of your affections, that you should endeavour to form clear notions of good and evil, in order that you may know how to choose the one and refuse the other; not to take things for granted—not to believe that is always best which is most approved by the world, unless you would prefer the approbation of man to that of God; but to be willing to see the truth, whatever it may be, and as such to embrace it.

In the gospel of Christ there are truths so simple and so clear, so perfectly in keeping one with another, that none need be kept in the dark as to the principles on which they ought to act, if they are but willing to submit themselves to this rule.

I speak here of the practical part of the Scriptures only; but in connexion with the vivid and lasting impressions made upon the mind of youth, I would strongly enforce the importance of choosing that season for obtaining an intimate knowledge of the Scriptures altogether. You can scarcely at present be aware of the extreme value of this knowledge; it will serve you in after life as a rich and precious store to draw upon, not only for your own consolation, and the renewal of your own faith, but for the comfort, guidance, and support of all who come within the sphere of your influence, or depend upon you for aid in the great work of preparing for eternity. Without this knowledge, how feeble will be your arguments on the most important of all subjects, how useless your assertions, and how devoid of efficacy your endeavours to disseminate the principles of Divine Truth! How enviable does the possession of this knowledge now appear to many a zealous Christian who has to deplore the consequences of a neglected youth! for I repeat, that in after life it is almost impossible to impress the mind with the same vividness, and consequently to enrich the memory with the same amount of useful knowledge, as when the aspect of the world is new, and the feelings comparatively unoccupied and unimpressed.

The same observations which occur in relation to the reading of the Scriptures at an early period of life, apply, in degree, to the acquisition of all other kinds of knowledge. Never again will the mind be so free from distraction as now; never again will the claims of duty be so few; never again will the memory be so unoccupied. If, therefore, a store of knowledge is not laid up while the mind is in this state, it will be found wanting when most needed; and difficult indeed, is the task, and mortifying the situation of those, whose information has to be sought, in order to supply the demand of every hour. As well might the cultivator of the soil allow his grain to remain in the fields, until hunger reminded him that bread was wanted on his board; as the woman who expects to fill a respectable station in life, go forth into society unprovided with that supply of knowledge and information which she will there find perpetually required. The use of such knowledge is a different question, and remains yet to be discussed; but on the importance of its acquisition in the season of youth, there can be but one opinion amongst experienced and rational beings.

Of all kinds of knowledge, that of our own ignorance, is the first to be acquired. It is an humbling lesson for those to learn, who are built up on the foundation of what is called a good education; yet, such is the fact, that the knowledge which young ladies bring home with them from school, forms but a very small part of that which they will be expected to possess. Indeed, such is the illimitable nature of knowledge, that persons can only be said to know much or little by comparison. It is by comparing ourselves with others, and especially with those who are more advanced in life, that we first learn the important secret of our own deficiencies. And it is good to keep the mind open to this truth, for without having clearly ascertained our own inferiority, we should always be liable to make the most egregious mistakes, not only by telling those around us what they already know, and wearying our acquaintance with the most tedious common-place; but by the worst kind of false assumption—by placing ourselves in exalted positions, and thereby rendering our ignorance more conspicuous.

All this, however, though a fruitful source of folly and ridicule, is of trifling importance compared with the absolute want—the mental poverty—the moral destitution, necessarily occasioned by an absence of true knowledge; we must begin, therefore, by opening our minds to the truth, not by adopting the opinions of this or that set of persons, but by reading the works of the best authors, by keeping the mind unbiassed by the writings or the conversation of persons infected with prejudice, and by endeavouring to view every object in its full extent, its breadth, its reality, and its importance.

It is the grand defect in woman's intellectual condition, that she seldom makes any equivalent effort to do this. She is not only too often occupied with the mere frivolities of life, to estimate the true value of general knowledge; but, she is also too apt to hang her credulity upon her affections, and to take anything for granted which is believed by those whom she loves. It is true, this servility of mind may appear to some like acting out the law of love, which I am so anxious to advocate; but how is it, if their dearest friends are in error, and if they err in such a way as to endanger their temporal and eternal interests? Is it not a higher and nobler effort of love, to see and rectify such error, than to endeavour to imbibe the same, for the sake of being companions in folly, or in sin?

One of the greatest faults in the system of education pursued in the present day, is that of considering youth as the season for reading short and easy books. Although the ablest of female writers—I had almost said the wisest of women—has left on record her testimony against this practice, it continues to be the fashion, to place in the hands of young persons, all kinds of abstracts, summaries, and short means of arriving at facts; as if the only use of knowledge was to be able to repeat by rote a list of the dates of public events.

Now, if ever an entire history or a complete work is worth reading, it must be at an early period of life, when attention and leisure are both at our command. By the early and studious reading of books of this description, those important events which it is of so much consequence to impress upon the mind, become interwoven in the memory, with the spirit and style of the author; so that instead of the youthful reader becoming possessed of nothing more than a mere table of facts, she is in reality associating herself with a being of the highest order of mind, seeing with the eyes of the author, breathing his atmosphere, thinking his thoughts, and imbibing, through a thousand indirect channels, the very essence of his genius.

This is the only kind of reading which is really worthy of the name. Abstracts and compendiums may very properly be glanced over in after life, for the sake of refreshing the memory as to dates and facts; but unless the works of the best authors have been read in this manner in early life, there will always be something vapid in our conversation, contracted in our views, prejudiced in our mode of judging, and vulgar in our habits of thinking and speaking of things in general. In vain may we attempt to hide this great deficiency. Art may in some measure conceal what is wanting; but it cannot bring to light what does not exist. Prudence may seal the lips, and female tact may point out when to speak with safety, and when to withhold a remark; but all those enlightened views, all that bold launching forth into the region of intellect, all the companionship of gifted minds, which intelligent women, even in their inferior capacity, may at least delight in, will be wanting to the happiness of her who chooses to waste the precious hours of her youth in idleness or frivolity.

Nor is it easy for after study to make up the deficiency of what ought to have been acquired in youth. Bare information dragged in to supply the want of the moment, without arrangement, and without previous thought, too often resembles in its crudeness and inappropriate display, a provision of raw fruits, and undressed food, instead of the luxuries of an elegant and well-furnished board.

I have heard it pleaded by young women, that they did 'not care for knowledge'—'did not wish to be clever.' And if such persons would be satisfied to fill the lowest place in society, to creep through the world alone, or to have silly husbands, and idiot sons, we should say that their ambition was equal to their destiny. But when we see the same persons jealous of their rights as intellectual beings, aspiring to be the companions of rational men, and, above all, the early instructors of immortal beings, we blush to contemplate such lamentable destitution of right feeling, and can only forgive their presumption in consideration to their ignorance and folly.

I cannot believe of any of the young persons who may read these pages, that they could be guilty of such an act of ingratitude to the great Author of their being, and the Giver of every good and perfect gift they possess, as deliberately to choose to consign to oblivion and neglect the intellectual part of their nature, which may justly be regarded as the highest of these gifts. I would rather suppose them already acquainted with the fact, that those passions, and emotions, to the exercise of which they believe themselves especially called, are many of them such as are common to the inferior orders of animals, while the possession of an understanding capable of unlimited extension, is an attribute of the Divine nature, and one which raises them to a level with the angels.