The Daughters of England/Chapter VIII
As one who has been conducting an inexperienced traveller through an enemy's country, joyfully enters with him upon the territory of a well-known and familiar friend; so the writer, whose stern duty it has been to disclose the dangers and deceitfulness of the world to the unpractised eye of youth, delights to open to it that page of human life, which develops all that is most congenial to unsophisticated nature. And can anything be more so to woman, than gratitude and affection? How much of her experience—of the deepest well-springs of her feeling—of those joys peculiar to herself, and with which no stranger can intermeddle—are embodied in these two words!
If our sense of obligation in general bears any proportion to our need of kindness, then has woman, above all created beings, the greatest cause for gratitude. The spirit of man, even in early life, bears a widely different impress from that of woman. The high-spirited and reckless boy flings from him half the little grievances which hang about the girl, and check her infant playfulness, sending her home to tell her tale of sorrow, or to weep away her griefs upon her mother's bosom. There is scarcely a more affecting sight presented by the varied scenes of human life, than a motherless or neglected little girl; yet so strong is the feeling her situation inspires, that happily few are thus circumstanced, without some one being found to care for, and protect them. It is true, the lot of woman has trials enough peculiar to itself and the look of premature sedateness and anxiety, which sometimes hangs upon the brow of the little girl, might seem to be the shadowing forth of some vague apprehensions as to the nature of her future destiny. These trials, however, seldom arise out of unkindness or neglect in her childhood. The voice of humanity would be raised against such treatment; for what living creature is so helpless and inoffensive as a little girl? The voice of humanity, therefore, almost universally speaks kindly to her in early life. The father folds her tenderly in his arms, toils for her subsistence and comfort, and watches over her expanding beauty, that he may shield it from all blight. The mother's heart yearns fondly as she, too, watches with more intense anxiety, lest a shadow should fall, or a rude wind should blow, upon her opening flower. Thus, while the sons in a family may, perhaps, call forth more of the pride and the ambition of their parents, the daughters claim almost all the tenderness, and more than an equal portion of watchfulness and care.
And can the object of so much solicitude be otherwise than grateful? Oh, no. It may be more consonant with the nature and with the avocations of man, that he should go forth into the world forgetful of these things; but woman in the quiet brooding of her secret thoughts—can she forget, how, in the days of helpless infancy, she was accustomed toescape from the rude gaze, or harsh rebuke, to find a never-failing refuge on her father's knee; how every wish and want was whispered to her mother's ear, which never turned away; how all things appropriated to her use, were studiously made so safe, so easy, so suited to her taste—her couch of rest, her favourite meal, her fairy-world of toys—all these arranged according to her fancy, or her good; until, all helpless, and feeble, and dependant as she was, no fear could break the charm of her security, nor sorrow, save what originated in her own bosom, could cast a shadow over the fire-side pleasures of her sunny home.
"No; woman is not—cannot be ungrateful," exclaim a thousand sweet voices at once! Gratitude forms a part of her nature, and without it she would be unworthy of a name amongst her sex! I freely grant that gratitude is a part of her nature, because there can be no generous or noble character, where gratitude is wanting. But I am not so sure that it is always directed to proper objects.
Young women are almost always grateful for the notice of ladies of distinction; they are grateful for being taken out in carriages, when they have none at home; they are grateful for presents of ornaments, or articles of fashionable clothing which they cannot afford to buy; they are grateful for being invited out to pleasant parties; and, indeed, for what may they not be said to be grateful—extremely grateful; but especially so, for acts of kindness from strangers, or from persons occupying a higher station than themselves.
There is a familiar saying, that charity begins at home; and if by home is meant the circle immediately surrounding ourselves, surely gratitude ought also most especially to begin at home, and for this simple reason—strangers may know, or imagine us to have great merits; but with our demerits, or perhaps I ought rather to say, with that part of our character which comes under the head of disagreeableness, they must necessarily be unacquainted, because no one chooses to be disagreeable to strangers. Against them, too, we have never offended, either by word or act, so that they can have nothing to forgive. But it is not so at home. All our evil tempers and dispositions have been exhibited there, and consequently the kindness received at home is the more generous. There is no one member of the family circle against whom we have not, at one time or another, offended, and consequently we owe them a double share of gratitude, for having kindly overlooked the past, and for receiving us as cordially to their favour as if we had never cost them an uneasy thought. It is nothing in comparison, to win the good-will of strangers. The bare thought of how soon that good-will might be withdrawn, did they know us better, is sufficient of itself to pain a generous mind. But it is much to continue daily and hourly to receive the kind attentions, the forbearance and the love of those who know our meanest faults, who see us as we really are, who have borne with us in all our different moods for months and years, whom our unkindness could not estrange, whom our indifference could not alienate, whom our unworthiness could not repel—it is, indeed, much to be still followed by their affection, to be protected by their anxious care, and to be supported by their unremitting industry and toil. Yes, and there may come a day when the young in their turn will feel
"How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is
when they will see the smile of gratitude which ought to be their own, worn only for strangers, they will think then of the days of unmurmuring labour—the nights of untiring watchfulness—the ages of thought and feeling they have lived through, and would willingly experience again—the suffering and the shame they would endure if that were necessary, for the sake of the beloved of their souls; and they will wonder—for to blame, they will scarce know how—why nature should have left the heart of their child so void, that for all they have so lavishly bestowed they should receive nothing in return.
If gratitude were looked upon more than it is, as a distinct duty—a debt to be discharged without involving any other payment, I am inclined to think its claims would be more frequently attended to, than they now are. But few young persons are in the habit of sufficiently separating gratitude from admiration, and thus they hold themselves above being grateful in due proportion, to the aged, the unenlightened, or the insignificant; because they do not often feel disposed to offer to such persons the tribute of their praise. Perhaps they are a little ashamed to have owed anything to so inferior a source; while, on the other hand, they are but too proud to acknowledge that they are deeply indebted to those whom they admire.
Now, it is against such encroachments of vanity and selfishness, that the amiable and the high-principled are perpetually on their guard. That gratitude will not grow up with us without culture, is sufficiently evident from the indifference with which all young children treat the donors of their little gifts; receiving them rather as their right, than as a favour. It is, therefore, an excellent habit, for young people, to bear perpetually in mind a sort of memorial, or catalogue, of the names of those by whom every article of their own personal property was given, so that even the most insignificant individual to whom they have been thus indebted, may not be forgotten.
"I am naturally," says a celebrated German writer, "as little inclined to gratitude as any one; and it would even be easy for the lively sense of a present dissatisfaction to lead me first to forget a benefit, and next to ingratitude. In order to avoid falling into this error, I early accustomed myself to take pleasure in reckoning up all I possessed, and ascertaining by whose means I acquired it. I think on the persons to whom I am indebted for the different articles in my collections; I reflect on the circumstances, chances, and most remote causes, owing to which I have obtained the various things I prize, in order to pay my tribute of gratitude to whomsoever it is owing. All that surrounds me is thus animated in my sight, and becomes connected with affectionate remembrances. It is with still greater pleasure that I dwell on the objects, the possession of which does not fall within the dominion of the senses; such as the sentiments I have imbibed, and the instruction I have received. Thus my present existence is exalted and enriched by the memory of the past; my imagination recalls to my heart the authors of the good I enjoy; a sweet reminiscence attends the recollection, and I am rendered incapable of ingratitude."
How beautiful is the simplicity of this confession, from one whose mind was capacious beyond the ordinary extent of man's understanding, and to whose genius the literary and the distinguished of all nations were proud to offer the tribute of their praise. How completely does this passage prove to us, that he who knew so many of the secrets of human nature, knew also that it is not possible to begin too humbly with the exercise of gratitude. The nurse who bore the burden of our childhood, the old servant fallen into poverty and want, the neighbouring cottager who used to let us share her orchard's scanty produce, the poor relations who took us to their lowly home when rich ones were less kind, the maiden aunt who patiently instructed us in all her curious arts, the bachelor uncle who kindly permitted us to derange the order of his house, above all, the venerable grandfather, and his aged helpmate, who used to tell us of the good old ways, and warn us against breaking down the ancient landmarks—all these are pleasant household memories, which ought to cling about the heart until they grow into our very being, and become identified with the elements of thought, and feeling, which constitute our life. There is in fact a species of cruelty, as well as injustice, in disentangling the memory from these early associations. To have received our very nature, our principles, the bias of our sentiments, all that which is understood by distinctiveness of character, from the hands of these old friends, and not to look back and acknowledge it with thankfulness, though the casual notice of a passing stranger furnishes food for gratitude—the fact is scarcely to be thought of, still less believed; and we look to the daughters of England to show us that they know better how to bestow their gratitude.
When the nature of gratitude is considered in its proper light, as a debt which we have contracted, and which consequently must be discharged, we see at once that the merit or demerit of the individual to whom we owe this debt, has nothing whatever to do with our payment of it. A generous mind would perhaps feel more bound to discharge it to an unworthy object, simply because where respect or love was wanting, grateful feeling would be all that could with propriety be offered. But, as in all such cases, the debt, though just, must still be painful and humiliating, it is of the utmost importance, both to young and old, that they should be careful never to be the willing recipients of obligations from persons whom they neither love nor esteem. The young need great watchfulness in this respect, and sometimes, from their over-willingness to incur obligations, involve themselves in connections and associations highly disadvantageous.
It is an excellent plan for young women, always to put this question to themselves before they accept an offered kindness. "Is the person who offers it, one whom I should like to feel indebted to? or am I prepared to make all the return of gratitude to that person, which would, under similar circumstances, be due to the most praiseworthy and distinguished individual of my acquaintance?" If the answer be in the negative, nothing but a meanness of spirit, of which I cannot believe the daughters of England to be capable, could lead to the acceptance of such an obligation.
In this, therefore, as well as in all other cases, it is of the utmost importance that gratitude should be considered as a distinct feeling, in no way involving any other. It sometimes happens, however, and especially during the present rapid march of intellect, that the junior members of a family are far in advance of their parents in the cultivation of their intellectual powers, and this difference occasionally leads to a want of respect towards the heads of the family, which is alike distressing and disgraceful. On the other hand, there are young women—and happy would it be for our nation, if all the daughters of England were such—who, remembering that their parents, however humble and unenlightened, are their parents still; that by their self-denial, and their toil, and as the highest proof of their regard, they have received the education which makes them so much to differ, make it their constant study to offer to them tokens of respect and regard of such a nature as not to draw forth their intellectual deficiences, but to place them on the higher ground of moral excellence. How beautiful, how touching is the solicitude of such young persons, to guard the venerated brow from shame; and to sacrifice even something of the display of their own endowments, rather than outshine those, who, with all their deficiences, still were the oracles of their infant years; and who unquestionably did more during the season of childhood, towards the formation of their real character, than has since been done by the merely intellectual discipline of schools. Yes, we may owe our grammar, our geography, our music, and our painting, to what are called the instructors of our youth; but the seeds of moral character are sown by those who surround us in infancy; and how much soever we may despise the hand by which that seed is scattered, the bias of our moral being is derived from that agent more than from any other.
How just then, and how true is that development of youthful gratitude which looks back to these early days, and seeks to return into the bosom of parental love, the treasures of that harvest which parental love has sown!
And it is meet that youth should do this—youth, whose very nature it is to be redundant with the rills of life, and fruitful in joy, and redolent in bloom, from the perpetual flowing forth of its own glad waters—youth, which is so rich in all that gladdens, and exhilarates; how can it be penurious and niggardly in giving out? No, nature has been so munificent to youth, it cannot yet have learned the art of grudging; and gratitude, the most liberal, the most blessed of all human feelings, was first required of us as a debt, that we might go on paying according to our measure, through all the different stages of existence; and though we may never have had money or rich gifts, the poorest amongst us has been able to pay in kindness, and sometimes in love.
In the cultivation and exercise of the benevolent feelings of our nature, there is this beautiful feature to be observed in the order of divine providence—that expenditure never exhausts. Thus the indulgence of gratitude, and the bestowment of affection, instead of impoverishing, render more rich the fountain whence both are derived; while, on the other hand, the habit of withholding our generous affections, produces the certain effect of checking their growth, and diminishing the spontaneous effusion of kindness.
The habit of encouraging feelings of gratitude towards our fellow-creatures, of recalling their friendly and benevolent offices towards ourselves, of thinking what would have been our situation without them, and, in short, of reckoning up the items of the great debt we all have incurred, especially in infancy and youth, has a most beneficial effect upon the mind, in the bias it gives towards the feeling and expression of gratitude in general, not only as confined to the intercourse of social life, or the interchange of kindness amongst our fellow-creatures; but with regard to the higher obligations of gratitude, which every child of sin and sorrow must feel, on being admitted to participation in the promises of the gospel, and the glorious hopes which the gospel was sent to inspire.
I have said, that women, above all created beings, have cause for gratitude. Deprived of the benefits of the Christian dispensation, woman has ever been, and will be ever the most abject, and the most degraded of creatures, oppressed in proportion to her weakness, and miserable in proportion to her capability of suffering. Yet, under the Christian dispensation, she who was the first in sin, is raised to an equality with man, and made his fellow-heir in the blessings of eternal life. Nor is this all, A dispensation which had permitted her merely to creep, and grovel through this life, so as to purchase by her patient sufferings a title to the next, would have been unworthy of that law of love by which pardon was offered to a guilty world. In accordance with the ineffable beneficence of this law, woman was therefore raised to a moral, as well as a spiritual equality with man; and from being first his tempter, and then his slave, she has become his helpmate, his counsellor, his friend, the object of his most affectionate solicitude, the sharer of his dignity, and the partaker in his highest enjoyments.
When we compare the situation of woman, too, in our privileged land, with what it is even now in countries where the Christian religion less universally prevails, we cannot help exclaiming, that of all women upon earth, those who live under the salutary influence of British laws and British institutions, have the deepest cause for gratitude. And can the daughters of Britain be regardless of these considerations? Will they not rather study how to pay back to their country, in the cultivation and exercise of their best feelings, the innumerable advantages they are thus deriving. And what is the sacrifice? Oh! blessed dispensation of love—that we are never so happy as when feeling grateful; and never so well employed, as when acting upon this feeling !
While, then, they begin first by retracing all the little rills of kindness by which their cup of benefit has been filled, let them not pause in thought, until they have counted up every item of that vast catalogue of blessings which extend from human instrumentality, to divine; nor let them pause in action, until they have rendered every return which it is possible for a finite being, aided by watchfulness and prayer, to make.
What a subject for contemplation does this view of gratitude afford, to those who say they find nothing to interest them in human life! What a field of exercise for those who complain that they find nothing to do!
Affection, too, is a subject in which the interests of woman are deeply involved, because affection in a peculiar manner constitutes her wealth. Beyond the sphere of her affections, she has nothing, and is nothing. Let her talents be what they may, without affection they can only be compared to a splendid casket, where the gem is wanting. Affection, like gratitude, must begin at home. Let no man choose for the wife of his bosom, a woman whose affections are not warm, and cordial, and ever flowing forth at her own fire-side. Yet there are young women whose behaviour in society, and amongst those whom they call their friends, exhibits every sign of genuine affection, who are yet cold, indifferent, and inconsiderate to their brothers, sisters and parents. These are the women against whom men ought to be especially warned, for sure I am, that such affection ought never to be trusted to, as that which is only called into life by the sunshine of society, or the excitement of transient intercourse with comparative strangers.
Affection also resembles gratitude in this, that the more we bestow, the more we feel, provided only it is bestowed upon safe and suitable objects. It is the lavish and reckless expenditure of this treasure in early life, and simply under the direction of fancy, without regard to natural claims, which so often leaves the heart of its possessor poor, and cold, and joyless.
Here, then, the claims of nature and of home may always be attended to with safety. No young girl can be too affectionate at home, because the demerits of a brother, a sister, or a parent, except in some rare and peculiar instances, constitute no disqualification for being the recipients either of her gratitude or her affection. But her approval and her admiration must still be kept distinct, lest her affection for an unworthy relative should render her insensible to the exact line of demarcation between moral good and evil. Were it not thus wisely and mercifully permitted us to continue to love our nearest connections, even when not deserving of general esteem, where would the prodigal, or the outcast, be able to find a shelter, when the horrors of a wounded conscience might drive them back from the ways of guilt? The mother's heart is subject to a higher, holier law than that which separates her erring child from the fellowship of mankind; the father meets his returning son while yet afar off; and the sister—can she withhold her welcome?—can she neglect the study of all those little arts of love, by which a father's home may be rendered as alluring as the world?
While the young of both sexes are suffering from the consequences of a system of education, under which the cultivation of moral principle bears no proportion to the cultivation of the intellectual powers, it is desirable to offer all the assistance we can in the improvement of that portion of human character which is at once the most important and the most neglected. In order to strengthen the good resolutions of those who are really desirous of paying the attention and the respect to old age which is justly its due, I would suggest to the accomplished young reader, an idea which it is highly probable may never before have crossed her mind, but which I feel assured will stain her cheek with shame, if she has ever allowed herself to treat her parents, or even her grand-parents with contempt, as inferior in the scale of consideration to herself, because of their want of mental cultivation.
Let her remember, then, whatever their deficiency in other points of wisdom may be, that there is one in which they must be her superiors. She may occasionally be obliged to correct their grammatical inaccuracies; she may be able not only to dazzle them with her accomplishments, but even to baffle them in argument; yet there is one fundamental part of true knowledge, in consideration of which, every youthful head must bow to age. Not ten thousand times the sum of money expended on your education would be sufficient to purchase this treasure of human wisdom for you. And there sits the aged woman, with her white locks, and her feeble hands, a by-word, and perhaps a jest, from the very helplessness of worn-out nature; yet, all the while, this humble and neglected being may be rich in the wealth which princes are too poor to buy; for she is rich in experience, and that is where you are poor. The simple being you despise has lived to see the working out of many systems, the end of many beginnings, the detection of much falsehood, the development of much truth; in short, the operation of principles upon the lives and conduct of men; and here, in this most important point of wisdom, you are—you must be her inferior.
The wisdom of experience, independently of every other consideration, presents a strong claim upon the respectful attention of youth, in cases where propriety of conduct is a disputed point between parent and child. Young persons sometimes think their parents too severe in the instructions they would enforce; but let it ever be remembered, that those parents have experience to direct them; and that, while the child is influenced only by inclination, or opinion, founded upon what must at least be a very limited and superficial knowledge of things in general, the opinion of the parent is founded upon facts, which have occurred during a far longer acquaintance with human nature, and with what is called the world.
Let the experience of the aged, then, be weighed against your modern acquirements, and even without the exercise of natural affection, we find that they are richly entitled to your respectful attention. But there is something beyond this consideration in the overflowing of the warm and buoyant feelings of youth, which so naturally and so beautifully supply the requirements of old age, that scarcely can we picture to ourselves a situation more congenial to the daughters of England, than one of those fire-side scenes, where venerated age is treated with the gratitude and affection which ought ever to be considered as its due.
It sometimes happens that the cares and the anxieties of parental love have a second time to be endured by those who have had to mourn the loss of their immediate offspring. Perhaps a family of orphan sons and daughters have become their charge, at a time of life when they had but little strength of body, or buoyancy of spirit, to encounter the turbulance of childhood, and the waywardness of youth, How admirably, then, are the character and constitution of woman adapted to the part which it becomes her duty and her privilege to act. Even the kindest amongst boys would scarcely know how to accommodate himself to the peculiarities of old age. But woman has an intuitive perception of these things; and the little playful girl can be gentle and still, the moment she sees that her restlessness, or loud mirth, would offend.
And what woman, I would ask, was ever less estimable for this early exercise of self-discipline? None can begin too soon. The labour of love is never difficult, except to those who have put off compliance with this sacred duty until too late in life; or who, while the affections of the heart were young and warm, have centered them in self, and lived for self alone. The social scenes upon which imagination loves to dwell, are those where self has never found a place amongst the household gods. They are those where the daughters of a family, from the oldest to the very infant, are all too happy in the exercise of their affections, to think of self. Theirs is a relative existence, and their enjoyments consist more in giving than receiving. Affections thus cherished in the cordial intercourse of home, may early be sent forth on errands of kindness to all who are fortunate enough to come within the sphere of their operations; and happy is the man who chooses from such a family the companion of his earthly lot!