The Daughters of England/Chapter VI
These are personal qualifications universally considered to be of great importance to the female sex; yet is there something sad in the contemplation of the first of these, so great is the disproportion between the estimation in which it is regarded by young people in general, and its real value in the aggregate of human happiness. Indeed, when we think of its frailty, its superficial character, and the certainty of its final and utter extinction; and connect these considerations with the incalculable amount of ambition, envy, and false applause, which beauty has excited—we should rather be inclined to consider it a bane than a blessing to the human race.
Female beauty has ever been the theme of inspiration with poets, and with heroes, since the world began; and for all the sins and the follies, and they are many, for which beauty has formed the excuse, has not man been the abettor, if not the cause? Of his habitual and systematic treachery to his weak sister on this one point, what page—what book shall contain the record? Would that some pen more potent than ever yet was wielded by a human hand, would transcribe the dark history, and present it to his view; for happy, thrice happy will be that era, if it shall ever come, in the existence of woman, when man shall be true to her real interests, and when he shall esteem it his highest privilege to protect her—not from enchanted castles, from jealous rivals, or from personal foes, but from the more insidious and fatal enemies which lurk within her own heart—from vanity, from envy, and from love of admiration.
To prove that I lay no unfounded charge at the door of man in this respect, let us look into society as it is. The beautiful woman! What court is paid to her! What extravagances are uttered and committed by those who compose her circle of admirers! She opens her lips;—men of high intellectual pretensions are proud to listen. Some trifling or vapid remark is all she utters. They applaud, if she attempts to be judicious; they laugh, if she aims at being gay; or they evince the most profound reverence for her sentiments, if the tone of her expression is grave. Listen to the flattery they offer at the shrine of this idol of an hour. No; it is too gross—too absurd for repetition. One thing, however, makes it serious. Such flattery is frequently at the expense of rivals, and even of friends; so that, while these admirers foster vanity, they are not satisfied without awaking the demon of envy in a soul—an immortal soul, which it ought to have been their generous and noble aim to shield from every taint of evil, and especially from so foul a taint as that of envy.
But let us turn to another scene in the drama of society. The very same men are disclaiming their unsuccessful efforts to obtain the favour of this beauty, and ridiculing the emptiness and the folly of the remarks they so lately applauded. Time passes on. The beauty so worshipped begins to wane. Other stars shine forth in the hemisphere, and younger belles assert superior claims to admiration. Who, then, remains of all that prostrate circle? Not one! They are all gone over to the junior claimant, and are laughing with her at the disappointment of the faded beauty.
This is a dark and melancholy picture, but for its truth I appeal to any who have mixed much in general society, who have either been beautiful themselves, or the confidants of beauty, or who have been accustomed to hear the remarks of men on these subjects, when no beauty was present. I might appeal also to the fact, that personal beauty amongst women alone, receives no exaggerated or undue homage. Were there no men in the world, female beauty would be valued as a charm, but by no means as one of the highest order; and happily for women, an idea prevails amongst them, that those who want this charm, have the deficiency made up to them in talent, or in some other way.
Still, there is so natural and irresistible a delight in gazing upon beauty, that I never could understand the philosophy of those moralists who would endeavour to keep from a lovely girl, the knowledge that she was so. Her mirror is more faithful, and unless that be destroyed, the danger is, that she will suspect such moral managers of some sinister design in endeavouring to deceive her on this point, and that, in consequence, she will be put upon thinking still more of the value of a gift, with the possession of which she is not to be trusted. Far wiser is the part of that counsellor of youth, who, convinced that much of the danger attendant upon beauty, as a personal recommendation, arises out of low and ignorant views of the value of beauty itself, thus endeavours to show the folly of attaching importance to that which the touch of disease may at any hour destroy, and which time must inevitably efface.
The more the mind is expanded and enlightened, the more it is filled with a sense of what is admirable in the creation at large ; and the more it is impressed with the true image of moral beauty, the less it will be occupied with the consideration of any personal claim to flattery or applause. There will always be a circle of humble candidates for favour surrounding the unguarded steps of youth, whose influence will be excited on the side of personal beauty, perhaps more than in any other way. Without disrespect to the valuable class of servants, to which I allude, for I am convinced they know not what they do, I must express my fears, that they are often busily at work upon the young mind, long before the age of womanhood, instilling into it their own low views of beauty as a personal distinction; and it is against this influence, more especially as it begins the earliest, that I would call up all the power of moral and intellectual expansion, in order to fill the mind as early as possible with elevated thoughts of the creation in general, and of admiration for that part of it which is separate from self.
A being thus enlightened, will perceive that admiration is one of the higher faculties of our nature unknown to the brute creation, and one, the lawful exercise of which, affords us perhaps more enjoyment than any other. Upon the right employment of this faculty depends much of the moral tendency of human character. It is, therefore, of the utmost importance that we should learn in early life to admire only what is truly excellent; and as there is an excellence of beauty, which it is consonant with the higher attributes of our nature that we should admire, it necessarily follows, that to search for beauty as an essence pervading the universe, is an employment not unworthy of an intelligent and immortal being.
Let us then examine, so far as we are able to do so, "the treasures of earth, ocean, and air;" and we shall see that it has pleased the all-wise Creator, to diffuse the principle of beauty over every region of the world. The deep sea, into whose mysterious caves no human eye can penetrate is full of it. The blue ether, and the sailing clouds, sun, moon, and stars, are they not beautiful? and the fruitful garden of the earth, wherever nature smiles?
"How beautiful is all this visible world!"
Now, let me ask whether a mind, habitually engaged in the contemplation of subjects such as these, would be likely to be diverted from its noble but natural exercise, by vulgar calculations upon the comparative beauty of a face? No. It would be perfectly aware, where such beauty did exist; but it would also be impressed with the important fact, that in relation to the wondrous and magnificent whole, its own share of beauty constituted so small a part, as scarcely to be worthy of a passing thought.
Those who are accustomed to enlightened views on this subject, will know also that there are different kinds of personal beauty, amongst which, that of form and colouring holds a very inferior rank. There is a beauty of expression, for instance, of sweetness, of nobility, of intellectual refinement, of feeling, of animation, of meekness, of resignation, and many other kinds of beauty, which may all be allied to the plainest features, and yet may remain, to give pleasure long after the blooming cheek has faded, and silver grey has mingled with the hair. And how far more powerful in their influence upon others, are some of these kinds of beauty! for, after all, beauty depends more upon the movements of the face, than upon the form of the features, when at rest; and thus, a countenance habitually under the influence of amiable feelings acquires a beauty of the highest order, from the frequency with which such feelings are the originating cause of the movements or expressions which stamp their character upon it.
Who has not waited for the first opening of the lips of a celebrated belle, to see whether her claims would be supported by
"The mind, the music breathing from her face;"
and who has not occasionally turned away repelled by the utter blank, or worse than blank, which the simple movement of the mouth, in speaking, or smiling, has revealed?
The language of poetry describes the loud laugh as indicative of the vulgar mind; and certainly there are expressions, conveyed even through the medium of a smile, which need not Lavater to inform us that refinement of feeling, or elevation of soul, have little to do with the fair countenance on which they are impressed. On the other hand, there are plain women sometimes met with in society, every movement of whose features is instinct with intelligence; who, from the genuine heart-warm smiles which play about the mouth, the sweetly modulated voice, and the lighting up of an eye that looks as if it could "comprehend the universe," becomes perfectly beautiful to those who understand them, and still more so to those who live with them, and love them. Before such pretensions to beauty as these, how soon do the pink and white of a merely pretty face vanish into nothing!
Yet, if the beauty of expression should be less popular amongst women, from the circumstance of its being less admired by men than that of mere form and complexion, they do well in this, as in every other disputed question of ultimate good, to look to the end. Men have been found whose admiration of beauty was so great, that they have actually married for that alone, content, for its sake, to dispense with the presence of mind. And what has been the end to them, or rather to the luckless beings whose misfortune it was to be the objects of their choice?—A neglected and degraded lot, imbittered by the fretfulness of disappointment on the part of their husbands; while, on the other hand, women, whose attractions have been of a more intellectual nature, have maintained their hold upon the affections of their companions, through life, even to the unlovely season of old age.
But, in addition to the insufficiency of mere beauty, there is another cause why men are so frequently disappointed in selecting merely pretty wives. They have a habit of supposing that if a woman is pretty, and not very clever, she must be amiable. Yet, how often do we find that the most wayward temper, the most capricious will, and beyond all calculation the most provoking habits, are connected with a weak and unenlightened mind. And added to all this, there is the false position the young beauty has held in society, the flattery to which she has been exposed, the dominion she has been permitted to assert, the triumph she has been accustomed to feel over others, the strength her inclinations from constant indulgence have attained—all these have to be contended with, in addition to the incapacity of her imbecile and undisciplined mind; and surely of this catalogue of evils, any one might be sufficient to counterbalance the advantages of mere personal beauty in a companion for life—a companion who is to tread with her husband the rough road of experience, and whose influence upon his character and feelings will not end on this side the grave.
Let us, however, not think hardly of the feeble-minded beauty, simply as such. She is as little to be blamed for the natural imbecility of her mental powers, as to be commended for her personal charms. Both are to her the appointments of a wise Providence; but as both combined are the means of exposing her to evils for which she is really to be pitied, so she ought to be kindly protected from the dangers to which she is exposed; and since she possesses not in herself sufficient perception to know, that in consequence of her beauty she is made to occupy a false position in society, from which she will assuredly have to descend, it becomes the duty of all who have her happiness at heart, to warn her, that in her intercourse with the world, she must not look for a sincere and disinterested friend in man.
I am far from asserting that there are not instances of noble and generous-hearted men, who know how to be the friend of woman, and the protector of her true interests; yet, such is the general tone of social intercourse, that these instances are lamentably rare.
The most objectionable part, however, of what I would call the minor morals of social life, as regards the subject of female beauty, has not yet been alluded to. Man is sincere in one sense, in his admiration of real beauty while it lasts; and if when the ruling star begins to wane, he suns himself in the rays of another luminary, he is still faithful to beauty as the object of his worship, though the supposed divinity may be invested in a different shrine. If, then, his professions of admiration were offered only to the really beautiful, scarcely one woman in a hundred would be injured by the personal flattery of man. But, unfortunately, that large proportion of the female sex, who are not exactly pretty, nor altogether plain, are exposed to the same system of flattery, for charms which they really do not possess. I have often wondered whether there ever was a woman so destitute of personal attractions, that no man, at some time or other of her life, had ever told her she was beautiful; and it is a well-known fact, that the more we doubt our possession of any particular attraction, the more agreeable is every assurance from others that such attraction does exist.
Thus there is an endless train of mischief let in upon the minds of the young and inexperienced, by what men are accustomed to regard in the light of harmless pleasantry, or as an almost necessary embellishment to polished manners. It may be said, that the plain woman has her glass, to which she can refer for never-failing truth. It is true, she has; but there is a vast difference between looking for what we do not wish to see, and for what we do. Besides which, when a young plain woman first mixes in society, she sees the high distinction which mere beauty obtains for its possessor, and she finds herself comparatively neglected and forgotten. In her home she is doubtless valued in proportion to her merits; but in company, what avail the kind and generous heart which beats within her bosom, the bright intelligence of her mind, the cordial response she would offer in return for kindness, the gratitude, the generous feeling which animate her soul? Who, in all that busy circle, cares to call forth any of these? Nay, so little do all or any of them avail her in society, that she begins in time to suspect she is personally repulsive; and what woman of sensitive or delicate feelings ever conceived this idea of herself, without experiencing, along with it, a strange sense of loneliness and destitution, as if excluded from the fellowship of social kindness—shut out from the pale of the lovely, and the beloved? If, then, the treacherous voice of man but whispers in her ear, that these hard thoughts about herself have no foundation, who can wonder if she is found too ready to "lay the flattering unction" to her heart? or who can wonder if the equanimity of her mind becomes disturbed by a recurrence of those painful doubts, occasionally to be dispelled by a recurrence of that flattery too?
To young women. thus circumstanced, I would affectionately say—Beware! Beware of the unquiet thoughts, the disappointment, the rivalry, the vain competition, the fruitless decoration, and all that train of evils which ensue from vacillating between the two extremes of flattering hopes, and mortified ambition. Go home, then, and consult your mirror; no falsehood will be there. Go home, and find, as you have often done before, that even without beauty, you can make the fire-side circle happy there; nor deem your lot a hard one. From many dangers attendant upon beauty you are safe, from many sorrows you are exempt; above all, should you become a wife, from that which is, perhaps, the greatest calamity in woman's history, the loss of her husband's love, because the charms for which alone he valued her, have vanished. This never can be your experience, and so far you are blest.
If personal beauty be so great a good as men persuade us it is, how important does it become to know that there is no certain way of preserving this treasure, but by a strict regard to health! We hear of the beauty of extreme delicacy, of the beauty of a slight hectic, and sometimes of the beauty of constitutional debility and languor, but who ever ventured to speak of the beauty of disease? And yet, all these, if not treated judiciously, or checked in time, will infallibly become disease. On the other hand, we hear of vulgar health, of an unladylike bloom, and of too much strength, giving an air of independence unbecoming to the female character. Sincerely wishing that all who hold these sentiments may make the best use of the advantages of illness, when it does fall to their lot, we will pass on to consider the advantages of health as one of the greatest of earthly blessings.
Perfect health was the portion of our first parents while Paradise was yet untrodden, save by the steps of sinless men, and angels. Since that time, it has become rarely the experience of any of the human family to be altogether exempt from disease ; yet, so much are the sufferings of illness mitigated by the skill of modern science, and the comforts of civilized life, that a slight degree of bodily indisposition is looked upon as an evil scarcely worth the pains which any systematic means of remedy would require.
It is only when health is lost, and lost beyond the hope of regaining it, that we become sensible of its real value. It is then we tax the ingenuity of the physician, and the patience of the nurse, to bring us back, if only so near as to stand upon the verge of that region of happiness from which we are expelled. It is then we see the folly of those who play upon the brink of the precipice which separates this beautiful and blessed region from the troubled waters below. It is then we resign our wealth, our friends, our country, and our home, in the hope of purchasing this treasure. It is then we feel that, although, when in the possession of health, we neglected many opportunities of kindness, benevolence, and general usefulness, yet when deprived of this blessing, we would kneel at the footstool of mercy, to ask those opportunities again, in order that we may use them better.
In early youth, however, little of this knowledge can be experimentally acquired. Little does the pampered child of fond and indulgent parents know what illness is to the poor and the destitute; or what it may be to her when her mother's hand is cold and helpless in the tomb, and when her own head is no longer sheltered by a father's roof. Thus we find young girls so often practising a certain kind of recklessness, and contempt of health, nay, even encouraging, I will not say affecting, a degree of delicacy, feebleness, and liability to bodily ailments, which, if they were not accustomed to the kindest attentions, would be the last calamity they would wish to bring upon themselves. How important is it for such individuals to remember, that the constitution of the body, as well as that of the mind, is, in a good degree, of their own forming; that the season of youth is the time when the seeds of disease are most generally sown; and that no one thus circumstanced, can suffer a loss of health without inflicting the penalty of anxious solicitude, and, frequently, of unremitting personal exertion, upon those by whom she is surrounded, or beloved.
Fanciful and ill-disciplined young women are apt to think it gives them an attractive air, and looks like an absence of selfishness, to be indifferent about the preservation of their health; and thus they indulge the most absurd capriciousness with respect to their diet, sometimes refusing altogether to eat at proper times, and eating most improperly; at others, running about upon wet grass with thin shoes, as if they really wished to take cold, making no difference between their summer and their winter clothing, or casting off a warm dress for an evening party; refusing to take medicine when necessary, or taking it unsanctioned by their parents, or their best advisers; all these they appear to consider as most engaging features in the female character. But there are those who could tell them such conduct is, in reality, the most consummate selfishness, because it inevitably produces the effect of making them the objects of much necessary attention, and of inflicting an endless catalogue of troubles and anxieties upon their friends. How soon does the stern discipline of life inflict its own punishment for this folly! but, unfortunately, not soon enough, in all instances, to stop the progress of the host of maladies which are thus produced.
Let it not for a moment be supposed, that I would recommend to young women over solicitude on the score of health; for, I believe nothing is more likely than this to induce real or fancied indisposition. Neither would I presume to interfere with the proper province of the physician; yet am I strongly disposed to think, that if the rules I am about to lay down were faithfully adhered to, that worthy and important personage would much less frequently be found beside the couch where the bloom of youthful beauty wastes away.
My first rule is, to let one hour every day, generally two, and sometimes three, be spent in taking exercise in the open air, either on horseback, or on foot. Let no weather prevent this; for, with strong boots, waterproof cloak, and umbrella, there are few situations where an hour's walk, at some time or other of the day, may not be accomplished; and when the air is damp, there is sometimes more need for exercise, than when it is dry. I am perfectly aware of the unpleasantness of all this, unless when regarded as a duty; I am aware, too, that where the health is good, it appears, at times, a work of supererogation; but I am aware, also, of the difference there is in the state both of mind and body, between sitting in the house, or by the fire all day, and taking, during some part of it, a brisk and healthy walk.
How often have I seen a restless, weary, discontented being, moving from chair to chair, finding comfort in none, and tired of every employment; with contracted and uneasy brow, complexion dry and grey, and eyes that looked as if their very vision was scorched up. How often have I seen such a being come in from a winter's walk, with the countenance of a perfect Hebe, with the energy of an invigorated mind beaming forth from his eyes as beautiful as clear, and with the benevolence of a young warm heart reflected in the dimpling freshness of a sunny smile. How pleasant is it then to resume the half-finished work—how refreshing the social meal—how inviting the seat beside the glowing hearth—how frank and free the intercourse with those who form the circle there! And if such be the effect of one single walk, how beneficial must be that of habitual exercise, upon the condition both of mind and body!
Were it possible for human calculation to sum up all the evils resulting from want of exercise, the catalogue would be too appalling. All those disorders which in common parlance, and for want of a more definite and scientific name, are called bilious—and, truly, their name is legion—are mainly to be attributed to this cause. All head-aches, want of appetite, pains under the shoulders, side-ache, cold feet, and irregular circulation, provided there is no positive disease, might, in time, be remedied by systematic attention to exercise. Of its effect upon the temper, and the general tone of the mind, we have yet to speak; but certain I am, that no actual calamity inflicted upon woman, ever brought with it more severe or extended sufferings, than those which result from the habitual neglect of exercise.
My next rule is—to retire early to rest. Wherever I meet with a pale, melancholy young woman, highly nervous, easily excited, unequal in her temper; in the early part of the day languid, listless, discontented, and fit for nothing; but when evening comes on, disposed for conversation, brisk and lively; I feel morally certain, that such a one is in the habit of sitting up late—perhaps of making herself extremely interesting to her friends beside the midnight fire; but I know also, that such a one is eminently in danger of having recourse to stimulants to keep up the activity of her mind; and that during more than half her life—during the morning, that most valuable portion of every day—she is of little value to society; and well will it be for her friends and near connexions, if her listlessness and discontent do not render her companionship worse than valueless to them.
My next rule is to eat regularly, so far as it can be done conveniently to others—at regular times, and in regular quantities; and this I believe to be of more consequence than to be very particular about the nature of the food partaken of, provided only it is simple and nutritious. I know that with a sickly appetite, or where the constitution is under the influence of disease, it is impossible to do this; but much may be done while in a state of health, by striving against that capricious abstinence from food, especially in the early part of the day, which by certain individuals is thought rather lady-like and becoming. I doubt not but this may be the case, so far as it is becoming to look pale, and lady-like to be the object of attention—to be pleaded with by kind friends, and pitied by strangers: but the wisdom and the utility of this system is what I am not the less disposed to call in question.
It is a great evil in society, that the necessary act of eating is looked upon too much as a luxury, and an indulgence. If we regarded it more as a simple act, the frequent recurrence of which was rendered necessary by the absolute wants of the body, we should be more disposed to consider the proper regulation of this act, as a duty within our power to neglect or attend to. We should consequently think little of each particular portion of food set before us, and the business of eating would then be despatched as a regular habit, attention to which could afford no very high degree of excitement or felicity, while at the same time it could not be neglected without serious injury.
My next rule is, to dress according to the season ; a rule so simple and so obvious in its relation to health, as to need no comment.
Thus far my remarks have applied only to the subject of health, where it is enjoyed. The loss of health is a theme of far deeper interest, as it separates us from many of the enjoyments of this world, and brings us nearer to the borders of the world which is to come.
It is a remarkable feature in connexion with the constitution constitution of woman, that she is capable of enduring, with patience and fortitude, far beyond that of the stronger sex, almost every degree of bodily suffering. It is true, that she is more accustomed to such suffering than man; it is true also that a slight degree of indisposition makes less difference in her amusements and occupations than in his. Still there is a strength and a beauty in her character, when labouring under bodily affliction, of which the heroism and fiction affords but a feeble imitation. Wherever woman is the most flattered, courted and indulged, she is the least admirable; but in seasons of trial her highest excellences shine forth; and how encouraging is the reflection to the occupant of a sick chamber, that while the busy circles, in which she was wont to move, close up her vacant place, and pursue their cheerful rounds as gaily as when she was there—that while excluded from participation in the merry laugh, the social meeting, and the cordial intercourse of former friends, she is not excluded from more intimate communion with those who still remain; that she can still exercise a moral and religious influence over them, and deepen the impression of her affectionate and earnest counsel, by exhibiting the Christian graces of patience under suffering, and resignation to the will of God.
Yes, there are many enjoyments in the chamber of sickness—enjoyments derived from the absence of temptation, from proofs: of disinterested affection, and from the unspeakable privilege of having the vanity of earthly things, and the realities of the eternal world, brought near, and kept continually in view. How are we then made acquainted with the hollowness of mere profession! How much that appeared to us plausible and attractive when we mingled in society, is now stripped of its false colouring, and rendered repulsive and odious! while, on the other hand, how much that was lightly esteemed by the world in which, we moved, is discovered to be worthy of our admiration and esteem! How much of human love, where we most calculated upon finding it, has escaped from our hold! but then, how much is left to succour and console us, from those upon whose kindness we feel to have but little claim!
Experience is often said to be the only true teacher; but illness often crowds an age of experience into the compass of a few short days. Often while engaged in the active avocations of life, involved in its contending interests, and led captive by its allurements, we wish in vain that a just balance could be maintained between the value of the things of time and of eternity. It is the greatest privilege of illness, that, if rightly regarded, it adjusts this balance, and keeps it true. From the bed of sickness, we look back upon the business, which, a short time ago, absorbed our very being. What is it then? A mere struggle for the food and clothing of a body about to mingle with the dust. We look back at the pleasures we have left. What are they? The sport of truant children, when they should have been learning to be wise and good, We look back upon the objects which engaged our affections. How is it? Have the stars all vanished from our heaven? Have the flowers all faded from our earth? How can it be? Alas! our affections have been misplaced. We have not loved supremely only what was lovely in the sight of God: and merciful, most merciful is the warning voice, not yet too late, to tell us that He who formed the human heart, has an unquestionable right to claim his own.
I am not one of those who would speak of religion as especially calculated for the chamber of sickness, and the bed of death; because I believe it is equally important to choose religion as our portion in illness, as in health—in the bloom of youth, as on the border of the grave. I believe also, that in reality, that being is in as awful a condition, who lives on from day to day in the possession of all temporal blessings, without religion, as he who pines upon a bed of suffering, without it. But if the necessity of religion be the same, its consolations are far more powerfully felt, when deprived by sickness of every other stay; and often do the darkened chamber, and the weary couch, display such evidence of the power and the condescension of Divine love, that even the stranger acknowledges it is better to go to the house of mourning, than of feasting.
It is when the feeble step has trod for the last time upon nature's verdant carpet, when the dim eye has looked its last upon the green earth and sunny sky, when the weary body has almost ached and pined its last, when human skill can do no more, and kindness has offered its last relief—it is then, that we see the perfect adaptation of the promises of the gospel to feeble nature's utmost need; and while we contemplate the depths of the Redeemer's love, and hear in anticipation the welcome of angels to the pardoned sinner, and see upon his faded lips the smile of everlasting peace, we look from that solemn scene once more into the world, and wonder at the madness and the folly of its infatuated slaves.
All these are privileges, if only to feel them as a mere spectator; and never ought such scenes to be avoided on account of the painful sympathy which the sight of human suffering naturally occasions. Young people are apt to think it is not their business to wait upon the sick, that their seniors are better fitted for such service, that they shall make some serious mistake, or create some inconvenience by their want of knowledge; or at all events, they hold themselves excused. Yet is there many a sweet young girl, who, in consequence of family affliction, becomes initiated in these deep mysteries of Christian charity, before her willing step has lost the playful elasticity of childhood; and never did the maturer virtues of the female character appear less lovely from such precocious exercise. I should rather say, there was a tenderness of feeling, and a power of sympathy derived from early acquaintance with human suffering, which remains with woman till the end of life, and constitutes alike the charm of youth, and the attraction of old age.
I have dwelt long upon the privileges of illness, both to the sufferer and her friends, because I believe that all which is noble, and sweet, and patient, and disinterested in woman's nature, is often thus called forth; as well as all that is most encouraging in the exemplification of the Christian character. But I must again advert to
"Woman in our hours of ease;"
and here I am sorry to say, we sometimes find a fretfulness and petulence under the infliction of slight bodily ailments, which are as much at variance with the moral dignity of woman, as opposed to her religious influence. The root of the evil, however, lies not so often in her impatience, as in a deeper secret of her nature. It lies most frequently in what I am compelled to acknowledge as the besetting sin of woman—her desire to be an object of attention. From this desire, how many little coughs, slight headaches, sudden pains, attacks of faintness, and symptoms of feebleness are complained of, which, if alone, or in the company of those whose attentions are not agreeable, would scarcely occupy a thought. Yet it is astonishing how such habits gain ground, and remain with those who have indulged them in youth, long after such complaints have ceased to call forth a single kind attention, or to engage a single patient ear.
Youth is the only time to prevent this habit fixing itself upon the character; and it might be a wholesome truth for all women to bear in mind, that although politeness may sometimes compel their friends to appear to listen, nothing is really so wearisome to others, as frequent and detailed accounts of our own little ailments. It is good, therefore whenever temptations arise to make these trifling grievances the subject of complaint, to think of the poor, and the really afflicted. It is good to visit them also, so far as it may be suitable in their seasons of trial, in order that we may go home, ashamed before our families, and ashamed in the sight of God, that our comparatively slight trials should excite a single murmuring thought.
Besides, if there were no other check upon these habitual complainers, surely the cheerfulness of home might have some effect; for who can be happy seated beside a companion who is always in "excruciating pain," or who fancies herself so? There are, besides, many alleviations to temporary suffering, which it is not only lawful, but expedient to adopt. Many interesting books may be read, many pleasant kinds of work may be done, during a season of slight indisposition; while on the other hand, every little pain is made worse by dwelling upon it, and especially by doing nothing else.
The next consideration which occurs in connexion with these views of health, is that of temper; and few young persons, I believe, are aware how much the one is dependent upon the other. Want of exercise, indigestion, and many other causes originating in the state of the body, have a powerful effect in destroying the sweetness of the temper; while habitual exercise, regular diet, and occasional change of air, are amongst the most certain means of restoring the temper from any temporary derangement.
Still, there are constitutional tendencies of mind, as well as body, which seriously affect the temper, and which remain with us to the end of life, as our blessing, or our bane; just in proportion as they are overruled by our own watchfulness and care, operating in connexion with the work of religion in the heart.
It would require volumes, rather than pages, to give any distinct analysis of temper, so various are the characteristics it assumes, so vast its influence upon social and domestic happiness. We will, therefore, in the present instance, confine our attention to a few important facts, in connexion with this subject, which it is of the utmost consequence that the young should bear in mind.
In the first place, ill-temper should always be regarded as a disease, both in ourselves and others; and as such, instead of either irritating or increasing it, we should rather endeavour to subdue the symptoms of the disease by the most careful and unremitting efforts. A bad temper, although the most pitiable of all infirmities, from the misery it entails upon its possessor, is almost invariably opposed by harshness, severity, or contempt. It is true, that all symptoms of disease exhibited by a bad temper, have a strong tendency to call forth the same in ourselves; but this arises in great measure from not looking at the case as it really is. If a friend or a relative, for instance, is afflicted with the gout, how carefully do we walk past his footstool, how tenderly do we remove everything which can increase his pain, how softly do we touch the affected part. And why should we not exercise the same kind feeling towards a brother or a sister afflicted with a bad temper, which of all human maladies is unquestionably the greatest?
I know it is difficult—nay, almost impossible, to practise this forbearance towards a bad temper, when not allied to a generous heart—when no atonement is afterwards offered for the pain which has been given, and when no evidence exists of the offender being so much as conscious of deserving blame. But when concession is made, when tears of penitence are wept, and when, in moments of returning confidence, that luckless tendency of temper is candidly confessed, and sincerely bewailed; when all the different acts committed under its influence, are acknowledged to have been wrong, how complete ought to be the reconciliation thus begun, and how zealous our endeavours for the future to avert the consequences of this sad calamity! Indeed, if those who are not equally tempted to the sins of temper, and who think and speak harshly of us for such transgressions, could know the agony they entail upon those who commit them—the yearning of an affectionate heart towards a friend thus estranged—the humiliation of a proud spirit after having thus exposed its weakness—the bitter reflection, that not one of all those burning words we uttered can ever be recalled—that they have eaten like a canker into some old attachment, and stamped with ingratitude the aching brow, whose fever is already almost more than it can bear. Oh! could our calm-tempered friends become acquainted with all this—with the tears and the prayers to which the overburdened soul gives vent, when no eye seeth its affliction, surely they would pity our infirmity; and not only pity, but assist.
These, however, are amongst the deep things of human experience, never to be clearly revealed, or fully understood, until that day when the secrets of all hearts shall be laid open. It is perhaps more to our present purpose, to consider what is the effect upon others, of encouraging wrong tempers in ourselves. Young people are apt to think what they do. of little importance, because they are perhaps the youngest in the family, or at least too young to have any influence. They should remember, that no one is too young to be disagreeable, nor too insignificant to annoy. A fretful child may disturb the peace of a whole household, and an ill-tempered young woman carries about with her an atmosphere of repulsion wherever she goes. The moment she enters a room, where a social circle are enjoying themselves, conversation either ceases or drags on heavily, as if a stranger or an enemy were near; and kindly thoughts, which the moment before would have found frank and free expression, are suppressed, from the instinctive feeling that she can take no part in them. Each one of the company, in short, feels the worse for her presence, a sense of contraction seizes every heart, a cloud falls upon every countenance; and so powerful are the sympathies of our nature, and so rapidly does that which is evil extend its contaminating influence, that all this will sometimes be experienced, when not a word has been spoken by the victim of ill-temper.
It is easy to perceive when most young women are out of temper, even without the interchange of words. The pouting lip, the door shut with violence, the thread suddenly snapped, the work twitched aside or thrown down, are indications of the real state of the mind, at least as unwise, as they are unlovely. Others who are not guilty of these absurdities, will render themselves still more annoying, by a captiousness of conduct, most difficult to bear with any moderate degree of patience ; by conversing only upon humiliating or unpleasant subjects, complaining incessantly about grievances which all have equally to bear, prolonging disputes about the merest trifles beyond all bounds of reason and propriety; and by finally concluding with a direct reproach for some offence which had far better have been spoken of candidly at first.
But there would be no end to the task of tracing out the symptoms of this malady. Suffice it that a naturally bad temper, or even a moderate one badly disciplined, is the greatest enemy to the happiness of a family which can be admitted beneath any respectable roof—the greatest hinderance to social intercourse—the most fatal barrier against moral and religious improvement.
Like all other evils incident to man, a bad temper, if long encouraged, and thoroughly rooted in the constitution, becomes in time impossible to be eradicated. In youth it is comparatively easy to stem the rising tide of sullenness, petulance, or passion; but when the tide has been allowed to gain ground so as to break down every barrier, until its desolating waters habitually overflow the soul, no human power can drive them back, or restore the beauty, freshness, and fertility which once existed there.
No longer, then, let inexperienced youth believe this tide of evil can be stayed at will. The maniac may say, "I am now calm, I will injure you no more:" yet, the frenzied fit will come to-morrow, when he will turn again and rend you. In the same way, the victim of ungoverned temper may even beg forgiveness for the past, and promise, with the best intentions, to offend no more ; but how shall a daughter in her mood of kindness heal the wound her temper has inflicted on a mother's heart, or convince her parent it will be the last? How shall the woman, whose temper has made desolate her household hearth, win back the peace and confidence she has destroyed? How shall the wife, though she would give all her bridal jewels for that purpose, restore the links her temper has rudely snapped asunder in the chain of conjugal affection?
No, there are no other means than those adopted and pursued in youth, by which to overcome this foe to temporal and eternal happiness. Nor let the task appear too difficult. There is one curious fact in connection with the subject, which it may be encouraging to my young friends to remember. Strangers never provoke us—at least, not in any degree proportionate to the provocations of our near and familiar connections. They may annoy us by their folly, or stay too long when they call, or call at inconvenient times; but how sweetly do we smile at all their remarks, how patiently do we bear all their allusions, compared with those of our own family circle. The fact is, they have less power over us, and for this reason, because they do not know us so well. Half the provocations we experience from common conversation, and more than half the point of every bitter taunt, arise out of some intended or imagined allusion to what has been known or supposed of us before. If a parent speaks harshly to us in years of maturity, we think he assumes too much the authority which governed our childhood; if a brother would correct our folly, we are piqued and mortified to think how often he must have seen it; if a sister blames us for any trifling error, we know what her condemnation of our whole conduct must be, if all our faults are blamed in the same proportion. Thus it is that our near connections have a hold upon us, which strangers cannot have ; for, besides the cases in which the offence is merely imagined, there are but too many in which past folly or transgression is made the subject of present reproach. And thus the evil grows, as year after year is added to the catalogue of the past, until our nearest connections have need of the utmost forbearance to avoid touching upon any tender or forbidden point.Now, it is evident that youth must be comparatively exempt from this real or imaginary source of pain; just in proportion as the past is of less importance to them, and as fewer allusions can be made to the follies or the errors of their former lives. Thus the season of youth has greatly the advantage over that of maturer age, in cultivating that evenness of temper which enables its possessor to pass pleasantly along the stream of life, without unnecessarily ruffling its own course, or that of others.
The next point we have to take into account in the right government of temper, is the important truth, that habitual cheerfulness is a duty we owe to our friends and to society. We all have our little troubles, if we choose to brood over them, and even youth is not exempt; but the habit is easily acquired of setting them aside for the sake of others, of evincing a willingness to join in general conversation, to smile at what is generally entertaining, and even to seek out subjects for remark which are likely to interest and please. We have no more right to inflict our moodiness upon our friends, than we have to wear in their presence our soiled or cast-off clothes; and, certainly, the latter is the least insulting and disgraceful of the two.
A cheerful temper—not occasionally, but habitually cheerful—is a quality which no wise man would be willing to dispense with in choosing a wife. It is like a good fire in winter, diffusive and genial in its influence, and always approached with a confidence that it will comfort, and do us good. Attention to health is one great means of maintaining this excellence unimpaired, and attention to household affairs is another. The state of body which women call bilious, is most inimical to habitual cheerfulness; and that which girls call having nothing to do, but which I should call idleness, is equally so. In a former part of this chapter, I have strongly recommended exercise as the first rule for preserving health; but there is an exercise in domestic usefulness, which, without superseding that in the open air, is highly beneficial to the health, both of mind and body, inasmuch as it adds to other benefits, the happiest of all sensations, that of having rendered some assistance, or done some good.
How the daughters of England—those who have but few servants, or, perhaps, only one—can sit in their father's homes with folded hands, when any great domestic movement is going on, and not endeavour to assist, is a mystery I have tried in vain to solve; especially when, by so doing, they become habitually listless, weary, and unhappy; and when, on the other hand, the prompt and willing domestic assistant is almost invariably distinguished by the characteristics of energy and cheerfulness. Let me entreat my young readers, if they ever feel a tendency to causeless melancholy, if they are afflicted with cold feet and headache, but, above all, with impatience and irritability, so that they can scarcely make a pleasant reply when spoken to, let me entreat them to make trial of the system I am recommending; not simply to run into the kitchen and trifle with the servants, but to set about doing something that will add to the general comfort of the family, and that will, at the same time, relieve some member of that family of a portion of daily toil.
I fear it is a very unromantic conclusion to come to, but my firm conviction is, that half the miseries of young women, and half their ill-tempers, might be avoided by habits of domestic activity; because (I repeat the fact again) there is no sensation more cheering and delightful, than the conviction of having been useful; and I have gene- rally found young people particularly susceptible of this pleasure.
A willing temper, then, is the great thing to be attained; a temper that does not object, that does not resist, that does not hold itself excused. A temper subdued to an habitual acquiescence with duty, is the only temper worth calling good; and this may be the portion of all who desire so great a blessing, who seek it in youth, and who adopt the only means of making it their own—watchfulness and prayer.
I have said nothing of the operation of love, as it relates to the subject of this chapter ; but it must be understood to be pre-eminently the life-spring of our best endeavours in the regulation both of health and temper, since none can fail in the slightest degree in either of these points, without materially affecting the happiness of others.