Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/The young lady in town and country: her health

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Once a Week, Series 1, Volume II (1859-1860)
The young lady in town and country. Her health
by Harriet Martineau


Visitors from many foreign countries speak with hearty admiration, when they return home, of the young ladies of England; and especially of their bloom and gaiety, as the results of a healthy organisation. These admirers, whose impressions reach us by books, or in conversation when we in turn visit them, describe our young maidens as they see them—riding about the country,—possibly viewing the hunt from afar; or walking for hours in the lanes and under the hedgerows, while father or brothers are among the stubbles or the turnips in autumn: or gardening in spring, or attending scenes of rural sport,—perhaps even taking a share in the archery-meeting, as well as the flower-show. When the foreigner meets in town his fair rural acquaintance, he sees them with the glow of country air and exercise still upon them; and he adds his testimony to the many which declare that the young daughters of England are the fairest in the world.

This is probably true of a portion of the girlhood of our nation. The young ladies who are met in that London society which is seen by travelled foreigners who write books, and send forth their impressions in conversation, are, for the most part, daughters of country gentlemen, or of the aristocracy. They are young ladies who live in a park in the autumn, and in Belgravia in the spring, and who have horses, and whatever else promotes health and pleasure. They are few in number, however, in comparison with the daughters of our graduated middle-class: and it may be a question whether foreign observers would give an equally favourable report of the health, spirit, and beauty of the daughters of our merchants and tradesmen, our physicians and surgeons, our lawyers, accountants, and manufacturers. Medical men, anxious parents, and observant moralists might indeed say, that, from one cause or another, one seldom sees a family of thoroughly healthy and cheerful young women of the middle-class, unless they are early married, or have to earn their living in some way, not in itself unhealthy. I am compelled to say, after a long life of observation of middle-class life in England, that I believe this allegation to be only too true.

How does it happen? What is the mode of life of girls of the middle-class?

Where girls have not full occupation and interest after the close of their school-life (which is crowded with interests of its own), they grow languid, indolent, irritable, or depressed; dissatisfied with themselves and everybody about them; morbid, in short, in mind and morals, as well as in physical condition. When, again, girls are seen in this morbid condition, the first thing that should occur to parents and physician is, that they may not have enough occupation and interest. Girls have the same need that other people have of a general exercise of the brain, in its physical, intellectual, and moral regions: yet it would seem, by our practice, that we think girls ought to thrive on a very small range of interests, and under the lowest degree of vital exercise.

Let us see how they live in their own homes in London. Let us take for observation the daughters of a silk manufacturer, or a sugar refiner, or a solicitor, or a surgeon. Let them be members of a household where there is neither wealth nor poverty. Let it be a genuine middle-class London household. What has the eldest daughter to do when her school-days are over?

If her mother and she are sensible women, she will vary her occupations, in the first place. The Ladies’ Colleges in Harley Street and Bedford Square now afford an inestimable resource to women who desire to carry on their intellectual improvement beyond the ordinary school range. Every girl who comes home to her father’s house intends to go on studying. The mother fits up some little room, or some corner of the dear child’s bed-room, or says she shall have the dining-room to herself at certain hours, “for her own pursuits.” But it seldom or never comes to anything. No man, woman, or child can go on long studying (as it is miscalled) without need, or special aim, and without companionship. There is less and less decision about the daily study: there are more and more interruptions; and, after some months, daughter and mother agree that, after all, “the duties of society” are more imperative than the obligation to study. Then begins the slipping away of the knowledge obtained at school, and the lowering of the mind to the petty interests of the hour: and it is not long before the neglect of brain exercise and the absence of intellectual stimulus begin to tell upon the health. It is in cases like this, that the Ladies’ Colleges are as great a blessing as they can be in training young women to be educators. The stimulus of companionship, the excellent teaching, the atmosphere of activity, the breadth of view laid open by the diversity of subjects, and the broad treatment of them by tho professors, render study truly captivating to clever and thoughtful girls, and full of interest to any one who is in any degree worthy of the privilege. The study at home goes on vigorously when it is subsidiary to college-work. A kind-hearted parent will be well-pleased to afford his daughter such a pursuit. If he should be disposed to grudge the small expense, it might be well to remind him of the prudence of an expenditure which obviates doctors’ fees, and those journeys for health which are rarely wanted by well-occupied young people.

Another profitable result from this college study will be the discovery of the bent of the girl’s ability. If she has sufficient ability to do or learn eome one thing better than others, she will find it out, and test the degree of tho talent, under the searching influence of this second education: and whether she has to work for an independence, sooner or later, or to fill up her life by her own mental resources, it is of vast importance to have, thus early, the means of self-knowledge.

Very soon after the opening of these colleges, it was observed that they were doing good in rendering girls independent and courageous, and their parents rational, about the walking habits of the pupils. In six months’ time, many who never before would leave home unattended, or cross a square alone, were daily walking considerable distances alone, to and from the college. The steady walk of women bound on some business, is usually a sufficient safeguard in London streets; and women of business seldom or never have anything to tell of adventures in London, any more than in a village street; while the timid young lady, apprehensive of she knows not what, if out in the broad noon of London, may naturally excite observation, and be insecure, because she supposes herself so. It is pleasant to think how many hundreds of girls have walked miles daily in all weathers, with great benefit to health, nerve, and independence, since these colleges were opened.

Among home-studies, that of music has assumed a foremost place, in London, within a few years. Early in the century, one might hear more or less strumming on the piano in most middle-class houses; but not often what was worthy the name of music. Now, it is said that in the evenings, after shop-closing, all along Whitechapel, Cheapside, and the like, the back-parlours are little concert-rooms, where brothers and sisters play various instruments, or practise part-singing, as pupils of the great popular masters of the day, or members of the Sacred Harmonic, or other societies of a high order. Thus is a new and delightful interest introduced into citizen homes, to the great benefit of the daughters. The singing is good for the chest: but the ideas and emotions created and exercised by the study of good music are more important still.

A different kind of occupation from any of these is, in my opinion, no less essential to health of body and mind. Domestic employments of the commonest kind have their own charms to most, and their special value to all women who are properly trained to them. The worst thing about girls’ schools is, that they put out of sight for the time all housekeeping matters, and break the salutary habit of domestic employment. When a girl comes home to her father’s house, she should begin at once upon this chapter of feminine study. When a child, she had probably been allowed and encouraged to help her mother in the store-room and kitchen, as well as with the household needle-work. She had probably gone with her mother to the fishmonger’s and the green-grocer’s. If so, she has now only to brush up her old associations, and set to work at a more advanced point. If not, it is high time she was beginning to learn.

I wish the people of a higher and a lower class, and Americans and other foreigners, could be made to understand how much domestic business is actually transacted by middle-class women in England. I do not like the discredit of the popular notion, that our English girls are too genteel to understand how to cook, and to do shopping, and manage the house. Whether the business is properly done or not, women should insist on its being regarded as a duty, that there may be the better chance for its being done. If the daughter we are now contemplating is a rational girl, she will presently be in possession of the keybasket, and getting into training under her mother. She will be up early (thereby ensuring the early rising of the servants), and off to the fishmonger’s, or the vegetable market,—having the benefit of an early choice of good things. She will have planned with her mother the dinners of the week (with a margin for unexpected occurrences); and therefore, when she has made breakfast, she is ready for her conference with the cook. She chooses to know how to do everything that she requires to be done; and, as far as may be, by experience. She experiments upon cakes and puddings; and the syllabubs, tarts, and preserves are of her making, till she is satisfied of her proficiency. The linen in the housemaid’s department is under her care, and it will be her fault if a table-cloth has a jagged corner, or the sheets a slit in the middle. These matters, so far, occupy very little time, while they afford more or less of exercise and amusement to a healthy mind.

The sewing is another affair. It is still the curse of girlhood in too large a portion of the middle class. There can hardly be another woman in that class more thoroughly fond of the needle than myself: and few, probably, have done more needlework of all kinds in the course of their lives: yet it is my belief that thousands of parents are actually cruel to their daughters in requiring from them tho amount of needlework customary in this and a few other countries. Fathers and brothers suppose that the women of the household are to sit down to make linen for the house and its inhabitants, every day after breakfast, and to stick to the work all day, as the men do to their business. If they knew the strain upon the nerves, and the general unhealthiness of the occupation, when a certain limit of hours is past, they would forbid it as peremptorily as intemperance in stimulating novels. I fear it is still too often the case, that all the girls of a family are seated at the work-table all day long, except when at meals, or when taking a walk; and that no one of them can attempt to steal half-an-hour’s solitude in her own room without being sent for to join the sewing-party. There may be reading aloud; and this is a great improvement upon perpetual talk: but the need of solitude, and of freedom of occupation, is too often forgotten in households where needlework is assumed to be the whole employment, if not the whole duty of women. I could say much more under this head; but the advent of the sewing-machine supersedes much remonstrance and preaching. It will not happily take the needle out of women’s hands, because there is much delicate and critical work which it cannot do: but it will soon put an end to the slavery to the needle under which so many English girls grow crooked, and sallow, and nervous, and miserable.

A few instances may go a long way in giving strangers an impression that our middle-class ladies do not condescend to domestic employments. I would fain hope that a few scattered cases have passed for more than they were worth, or I must think less well than I wish to do, of the cultivation of whole classes of my countrywomen. I once felt, and probably appeared, somewhat indignant, when a foreign clergyman crossed the room to ask me whether I could sew; and he was much surprised at a subsequent time, when we were better acquainted, to find that it would be considered insulting in this country to doubt any educated woman’s being able to sew.

I wondered less when I saw, during a Nile voyage, the spectacle presented by a young English lady,—a daughter and sister of a clergyman,—to a considerable number of observers. She was accompanying her brother in his travels in search of health: and she was in intention a kind nurse and devoted companion; but she had had little or no training in feminine offices. She was aware of the deficiency; but she did not appear to regret it. She explained that her mother had vigilantly guarded her against every sort of communication with servants, and had prohibited all approach to the precincts of their department. (There was no doubt cause and effect in this method, as no mistress could have good servants who established such respect of persons in the household.) As there are no laundresses on the Nile boats, and the clothes of travellers are washed by the crew, in their primitive style, travellers must wear their linen rough-dried, unless female hands will iron them. My companions were a lady and two gentlemen. My lady friend and I took flat-irons with us; and during the ten weeks we were on the Nile, the gentlemen had collars and shirt-fronts, and we ladies had gowns and collars, as well starched and smoothed as they would have been at home, while all stockings were duly mended, and all damages repaired, with a very small sacrifice of time. The invalid clergyman and his sister, meanwhile, looked as wofully out of order as any ducal family, bereft of servants, could appear: and servants are a mere nuisance on the Nile. His collars were rough and limp; her muslin dresses looked as if they had been wrung out of a washing-tub;—which was indeed the real state of the case. They tried to induce their dragoman to undertake the ironing,—a process which the Arabs conclude to be a sort of devilry,—or a charm against vermin. The obliging dragoman yielded to entreaty, and tried the experiment upon a pair of duck trousers, which looked particularly ill in a rough condition. At the very first touch, the operator took off a leg with his over-heated implement. He fled in a scared state, and could never be prevailed upon to try again. As the sister was acquainted with many of the parties on the river, and as she evidently did not envy us our power of “making things pleasant,” the effect of the incident would probably be, to lead strangers to suppose the young lady an example of English middle-class education, and the more housewifely ladies eccentric or low-bred.

The two main difficulties for young women in London seem to be, to get enough of bodily exercise, and to pass beyond a too narrow circle of sympathies. Some kind-hearted people, it is true, are for ever on their feet, going about doing good, as they think: but, in the first place, they are not usually young ladies who do this; and next, it is never prudent to recommend philanthropic pursuits as express business or resource. Philanthropy is apt to be mischievous unless it comes of itself;—that is, unless it arises out of natural circumstances; and it loses all its virtue when it is cultivated for the advantage of the dispenser of the good. While deprecating, on this account, the sending girls among the poor for exercise of body or mind,—as a sort of prescription for quickening the circulation, and stimulating the emotions,—we may yet bear in mind that all exercise is more salutary when it is means to an end than when it is taken as exercise. Daily governesses, if not overworked, derive more benefit from their walks than ladies who go out for constitutional exercise: and the excellent women who find it occur in their course of life to visit and aid the sick and unhappy, in prisons, workhouses, hospitals, reformatories, and in their wretched homes, certainly have fewer ailments, and more disposable daily strength, than women whose heads, hearts, and limbs are insufficiently employed. There is great difficulty in passing out of the small environment of personal acquaintance, and penetrating the life of any who live outside of it; and I would not deal out censure upon London families whose interests have been restricted within their own class, and even their own coterie; but, at the same time, we cannot but see in this, as in other cases, that “where there’s a will there’s a way.” Young ladies in London, who have no carriage to set them down at any point they wish to reach, and no footman at their heels, do get face to face with sufferers whom they can aid, and sinners whom they can retrieve. The truth seems to be, that it does not answer to go wandering forth, to find excitement for philanthropic, any more than other feelings: but that persons of kind hearts, and the open sense which belongs to benevolence, are always meeting with opportunities of doing something for somebody,—even in London, where it often happens that one knows nothing whatever of one’s neighbour on either hand.

One goodnatured and serious-minded girl will be deeply interested in a Sunday School, and be thence led to know several families who may be the better for her acquaintance; while another girl, amiable in her way, may be heard to say (as one actually did say, to the horror of a foreign philanthropist), “I am thinking whether I ever in my life spoke to a poor person.” After all her thinking, she could not get beyond the washerwoman and the baker’s boy. This is certainly not the sort of life which agrees with our conceptions of social duty and personal disinterestedness. It is not the sort of life which can ever fully exercise the moral faculties of any intelligent person: and if living in London really involved the necessity of young women growing up in this narrowness and hardness, it would be the greatest of misfortunes to live in London. We all know it to be otherwise, however: and where we meet with the most active and self-forgetting kindliness we generally see the gleam of happiness in the eye, the glow of health on the cheek, and the cheerfulness and bloom of genuine vigour and enjoyment pervading the whole mind and countenance.

There remain the higher intellectual resources,—the study and practice of Art, for which London affords unequalled facilities; and the cultivation of literature, which is practicable everywhere. Intellectual privileges are at the command of all qualified to lay hold of them.

It appears, on the whole, that the main point in regard to health,—for persons who are well fed, clothed, and housed,—is having plenty to do:—in other words, having the brain well and equably exercised. Where we see a permanent condition of vigorous health, this must be the case. Where we see the too common spectacle of sickly girlhood, and of families of sisters growing sallow, feeble, depressed, and indolent, we may be very sure that, whatever else may be amiss, they are leading a self-corroding life, and need, above everything, imperative duties and interests which would call them out of themselves. If parents would but see what it is for any human being to have to invent something to do and care about, they would allow the utmost practicable liberty to their daughters to follow their own pursuits and adopt their own objects. It is not every father who can build a schoolroom for one daughter, and glaze a painting-room for another, and fit up a music-room for a third, and a conservatory for a fourth—like an old friend of mine: but every parent can so far respect the claims of his children as to consider their tastes, aid them in their objects, and abstain from confining them to petty interests and monotonous employments. It is the smallest consideration in the case, that the comfort and pleasure of his own home depend on the alternative he adopts.

In the country, it ought to be an unnatural circumstance, that young ladies are ever out of health. Besides the fresh air, and liberty and sociability of rural life, there is such various, and abundant and charming employment for young people! Early hours, plentiful exercise, sunlight without stint, and an ocean of fresh air; food perpetually fresh from the kitchen garden, the farmyard, and the river—here are conditions of health of very high value. The higher still seem to be no less plentifully afforded. In a country neighbourhood everybody knows everybody; and the calls for kindly action are incessant and perfectly natural. There are out-door pursuits for the whole year round, for girls of any spirit—the garden and green-house, the poultry-yard, the bees, and various branches of natural history, in which there is at present a demand for ability of every kind. Literature, again, and art are treasures within reach; and nowhere do they flourish more than in the bright atmosphere of rural life. Evenings of books are singularly charming after mornings of activity among the realities of the farm, the breezy common, the blossoming lanes, and the village school. Yet what do we actually see? Two contrasting cases rise up before my mind’s eye, which so illustrate the whole matter, that I may simply relate them, and then stop.

I once saw how a family may lead a prison life, by choice, in a breezy, open, pleasant country. It was so long ago that, considering their state of health and their determination not to get better, they must all be dead long since. If not, it is no matter. As they never read anything, nor heard of anything readable, they would never encounter any report of themselves: and if they did, they would stick to their own scheme of life, and sneer at every other.

The head of the family was an opulent man, the heir of a large and lucrative rural business which kept him constantly in the open air, on land or water. He rode many miles every day except Sundays. I saw him only once; but I well remember his healthy, brown complexion, his active gait; and especially the wistful, tender, anxious gaze with which he looked on his three young daughters. The wife was fat and foolish, but with life enough in her to give her orders, and make tea, and hope her guests were comfortable. Further conversation she had none. The daughters were a lamentable group. They appeared to be between eighteen and four-and-twenty. All had the same complexion, which was lemon colour: and the substance was more like dough than muscle and skin. Their eyes were half dead; the lids drooping and the brows contracted, as by a perpetual headache. One had a crooked shoulder; another a lame knee; and the third an obstinate liver complaint. They seemed never to speak, except to their mother. It was impossible to get from them an answer to even a direct question. They looked too languid to move; yet when a stranger drew near to any one of them, she fled to the others—the three squeezing upon two chairs rather than separate to fetch another. Winking in the blaze of fire and candles, shivering unless they were in the direct heat of an enormous fire, eating rich cake with the care required by aching teeth—looking as if they had never enjoyed an unmixed pleasure in their lives—there and thus lived the daughters of that stalwart father. They were in a spacious house, surrounded by a broad sunny garden: green-houses extended on the one hand and a paddock on the other. Across the road—a pretty winding road, checkered with hedgerow timber—spread a noble park; and outside the park was a gravelly, hillocky, thymy, furze-sprinkled common, where you might smell the sea-air when the wind was east. What were all these charms to the poor girls? Unhappily, there was nothing that they liked; so they did nothing but sit still and sew. All the week days of the year they sat in the same places, doing fancy work, when their plain work was done. The fires were hot; the table was rich; they came down to a late breakfast, and went up to bed after an early supper. If a neighbour came to call, they were rather disconcerted; for they felt uncomfortable at going on with their work, and yet could not prevail on themselves to put it down. They were driven to church on Sundays; and, of course, they caught cold there nearly every week. The most pitiable thing was their tone of mind, when it could be more or less ascertained. Its stupid exclusiveness, mixed with an ignorant shyness, was really like something new under the sun: but I suppose one may meet with it in some convents where the nuns are kept idle. “We never go out.” “We don’t like walking.” “We don’t know what is in the garden.” “We never look into the green-house.” “We know nothing about politics.” “Papa reads the newspaper, but we never look at it.” “We are not fond of books,” and so on. Even about fancy work there was no getting on, so evident was their belief that nobody had patterns so good as theirs, and that nobody could work their patterns but themselves. Enough of them! for what could their lives be? They would certainly never marry. They were too far gone to change their habits. I doubt not they were carried to the churchyard, one after another, after a short and miserable life of disobedience to all the laws of health of body and mind.

In short and sharp contrast to this miserable group, let me disclose a much larger and happier one. No matter that it is on the other side of the Atlantic. It may be all the more instructive for that.

Some of my readers may remember hearing, above twenty years ago, of Angelina and Sarah Grimke, young Quaker ladies of South Carolina, and sisters of the learned Professor Grimké. The family were opulent; but the young sisters, troubled in conscience about slavery, freed their negroes and sacrificed at once their fortune and their native State; for they could not live in South Carolina without having or hiring slaves. They went northwards; and Angelina, after a time, married the well-known abolitionist, Theodore Weld. They have, for many years, dispensed an education of a very high quality indeed, to a long succession of girls; and, as it is a work of love, they go on with ever-growing skill and ease. Last summer a visitor spent a day in that country household, and what he saw was singularly impressive to him.

We hear much of the beauty of young American girls, and it is very true; but the beauty is sadly short-lived, because it is not based on physical vigour. It is otherwise with the full-grown young women in the Welds’ house, where the girls beg to stay as long as can possibly be allowed. As the ordinary mode of dress is neither healthy nor convenient, the girls wear a model dress, which is said to be graceful, and agreeable in colour, as well as commendable in other respects. It is made of a grey fabric, of the alpaca kind, trimmed with a suitable shade of red. It is a good deal like the Bloomer dress, with some improvements. When the guest saw the singular prevalence of ruddy health in the household, he was not surprised to find that the gardening was done mainly by the pupils. The ease and animation of the conversation struck him next, the topics being very solid and the spirit serious.

In the afternoon an excursion on the river was proposed. The girls were the rowers. They got out and prepared the boat, and pulled good strokes with ungloved hands. They managed the expedition as well as any boatmen could have done. While resting in a pretty spot, under the shade of the wooded bank, music was asked for. The girls sang glees and duets very charmingly,—with real excellence, the guest declares, both as to quality of voice and style. Now, this is like what many English parents want to see;—a country life at school, where the health may be established without the sacrifice of intellectual cultivation during the period of intellectual activity and tenacity.

If English parents wish this enough to demand it, they will obtain it. There is no natural reason why girls should not be trained to that robust womanhood which manifests itself by fitness for all occasions. In our age and country marriage is uncertain in the middle classes, and becoming rather less than more frequent. Every girl should be rendered “equal to either fortune” by the completeness of the development of her faculties. The world abounds in occupations and interests for all; and if we see a young woman declining in health and energy, and growing fretful or morose, or loquacious and trifling in her father’s house, we may be sure that her parents have not duly provided for her health of body and mind. If she is yet recoverable, it will be by some stroke of what the world calls misfortune, by which her own capacities will be proved to herself, and she will find, perhaps in the middle term of life, what it is to live.

Harriet Martineau.