Women worth Emulating/Chapter 4

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Miss Elizabeth Smith.
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Miss Elizabeth Smith.


The excellent systems of teaching in the present day so smooth the steep hill of difficulty to the young seeker after knowledge, that it is sometimes thought there is no great need of saying much now about self-training and culture. Every facility is afforded to learner, and the assumption is that all learn readily, and that allusions to and examples of what was in former times very justly called "the pursuit of knowledge under difficulties" are now no longer needed.

While rejoicing heartily that the difficulties in the way of school instruction are removed, that elementary knowledge is insisted on for all, and that culture in the higher branches of attainment in generally accessible, I yet think that there is some danger—it may be great danger—that the young will depend too much on what is done for them, and think too little of what, if they are to be really cultivated and intelligent women, must be done by them. No system of instruction can possibly supersede thoughtful effort and diligent attention in the pupil, or compensate for wise application of attainments when girlhood merges into womanhood.

There is a sense, and a very important sense too, in which every one who really is well-informed must be self-taught. Instruction given is one thing, instruction received another. No plans of education can supersede or supply a substitute for the faculty of attention and the practice of diligence. What the young mind desires and resolves to do for itself is of the utmost importance to that mind. Instruction may stream on and over the mind like water over a mirror, and make no abiding-place in it.

In the times gone by, people were rather to be pitied than blamed if they were ignorant. "Ignorance of what they could not know" was not culpable. But now, with all the facilities which schools and libraries afford, ignorance is a disgrace which every right-minded young person should resolutely avoid. When darkness prevailed, none were to blame for not seeing; but to be voluntarily dark amid the blaze of day, that is indeed culpable. It is the awful realization of the solemn words: "If the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!"

Hence it is a salutary exercise to look back on former times, and refresh our minds and stimulate our faculties with the records and experience of those who have had to cope with hardships no longer existing, and whose mental and moral triumphs over difficulties remain as an example to all thoughtful readers.

Few young women in any age or country were more successful in acquiring knowledge, or more modest, conscientious, and judicious in its use, than Miss Elizabeth Smith, the Oriental scholar, and the translator of the Book of Job; and readers are more drawn to the consideration of her acquirements from the fact that her Christian character was even more lofty than her remarkable mind.

There is not much to record in her uneventful, brief, yet beautiful life. Some sorrows came to test her principles and show her sweet sympathy and calm fortitude. In the year 1793, times were very hard in England. The French Revolution had startled the whole civilized world. War was rampant, opinions were conflicting, property was insecure, taxation high, trade and commerce much depressed. It was not wonderful that the moneyed interest should suffer, and many banks broke. One in the West of England, of which a Mr. Smith was the leading partner, failed; and the blow that shattered the dwelling may be said to have let in light, by which we plainly see a most interesting family circle.

The eldest daughter, Elizabeth, was sixteen years of age—just able to enjoy and estimate the elegancies and comforts that were lost. The blow fell suddenly—for, in such crises, failures are often the result of the difficulties of others, and become beyond individual control—and the family at Piercefield were looking forward, not unreasonably, to building a new house, and to years of prosperity and domestic happiness.

Fortunately, Mrs. Smith, the mother in that home, was a woman of great good sense as well as refinement. She had not been domesticated in one residence for any long period of her married life. She resided at Bumhall, the seat of her ancestors, near Durham, when Elizabeth, her eldest daughter, was born, in 1776. Thence the family removed to Suffolk for a time, and afterwards lived at Piercefield, or Bath. Mrs. Smith was her children's first instructress, and was equally surprised and delighted both at the quickness and attention of little Elizabeth. She was a docile, rather shy child, very lovely in person, and gentle in temper.

A young lady. Miss Hunt, an orphan, only some seventeen years of age, was taken by Mrs. Smith as a governess to her little family, and from her Elizabeth received all the regular instruction that was ever bestowed on her. The young governess was kind and good, and tolerably clever; but her pupil Elizabeth was what every wise teacher wishes to have—a learner; and her progress, particularly in languages, was surprising. By the time she was thirteen, she had surpassed her governess in attainments.

I observe, too, from her letters[1] that she compelled herself to studies that she did not like so well as languages. Many a girl will devote herself to what comes easy and pleasant to her, but avoids what tasks her intellect. Arithmetic and mathematical studies were not favourite pursuits with Elizabeth; but she overcame her reluctance, not from any parental command, but because she was impressed with the value of solid studies, and the duty of cultivating her mind in all branches which she had an opportunity of acquiring.

Elizabeth was but fifteen when, by the removal of this first and only governess, the instruction of her younger sisters and brothers devolved on her. No doubt this use of her education had long been thought of by her. Mrs. Smith's health grew delicate^ and the good daughter had early learned to be her mother's helper. Her fingers were skilful on the piano, but they were as active and as skilled in making and mending her own and the younger children's clothes. She was one of those—may their numbers ever increase—who thought all acquirements and accomplishments should be so used as to promote domestic order and social comfort and refined pursuits. Hence there was no selfishness in her motives.

By early rising, she had time for her reading of the poets, English, German, and Italian, as well as superintending the lessons of the younger children. How much depends on the eldest daughter in a home! How she may become a sweet companion for the leisure hours of her father, a ready helper in household matters to her mother, a tender and wise friend to her younger brothers and sisters, a loving and beloved assistant to all!

This wise discipline of early life, when there was no fear of any change of social position, undoubtedly fitted Elizabeth for the altered circumstances that came to her just as womanhood was opening before her.

Of course there must have been grief and perplexity for her father and mother, but there never was a murmur from herself. She became more cheerful and active than before, so as to lighten the cares of others. The younger children clung to her with increased affection, for she was ever ready to teach or to play with them, and to supply, as far as she could, every want of the attendance they had been used to, and to teach them by her own example to be gentle and helpful.

For some time the family were absolutely without a home of their own. The kindness of friends was shown by offers of hospitality, and the family visited among intimates and connections until thing could be settled on for them. Elizabeth, amid all these interruptions, kept up her own studies and gave constant help to her mother with the younger branches of the family.

Mr. Smith obtained a commission and entered the army. This, in Elizabeth^s seventeenth year, necessitated their removal to Ireland. Her father joined his regiment at Sligo, and his family went to him. Mrs. Smith, in a letter to Dr. Randolph, says:—

"Books are not light of carriage, and the blow which deprived us of Piercefield deprived us of a library also. But though this period of her (Eliza's) life (while with the regiment in Ireland) afforded little opportunity for improvement in science, the qualities of her heart never appeared in a more amiable light. Through all the inconveniences which attended our situation while living in barracks, the firmness and cheerful resignation of her mind made me blush for the tear which too frequently trembled in my eye at the recollection of the comforts we had lost."

On their first arrival in Ireland, in the summer of 1796, they passed some time as guests at the Earl of Kingston's residence, and went from thence to join Captain Smith at Sligo. Although it was summer, the weather was very wet, and the family seem to have had a wretched journey, and found that no comforts awaited them at their quarters in the Sligo barracks. In a letter to a friend, Elizabeth says, "We were all completely web through when we arrived, and had everything to unpack, and beds to contrive and arrange" She adds, "we are all very well and much amused with the little misfortunes that happen to us"

It is wonderful to think of her cheerfulness; for Mrs. Smith, in a letter on the same subject, says, "We arrived at the barracks, dripping wet. Our baggage not come, and, owing to the negligence of the quarter-master, there was not even a bed to rest on. The whole furniture of our apartments consisted of a piece of a cart-wheel for a fender, a bit of iron for a poker, a dirty deal table, and three wooden-bottomed chairs. It was the first time we had joined the regiment; and I was standing by the fire meditating on our forlorn state, and perhaps dwelling too much on the comforts I had lost, when I was roused from my reverie by Elizabeth exclaiming, 'Oh, what a blessing"'

"'Blessing!' I replied; 'there seems none left.'

"'Indeed there is, dear mother; for see, here is a little cupboard.'

"I dried my tears, and endeavoured to learn fortitude from my daughter."

That lovely and gifted daughter immediately set to work to make a meal for the family, and to put the little cupboard to use for holding necessaries; and with characteristic ingenuity and good humour, she contrived a little luxurious surprise for the family by making them a currant tart. What a treasure was her activity and unfailing good humour! Not that she did not feel the change of circumstances, for with her thoughtful mind and tender heart she must have felt deeply; but she was intent on lightening the burden for the rest, and in this found her own soul comforted.

I have said she was a good needlewoman, and her own dress and that of the family depended almost entirely on her skill and taste. It was remarked of her, when she was grown up and mixed in the small but very cultivated circle of her friends, that her taste was so correct, no lady could be more elegantly and yet more simply dressed. Economy and neatness were both combined with taste and refinement, an equal avoidance of finery and shabbiness, which I think my judicious young readers will esteem the perfection of good sense in dress for those whose means are limited.

Although there were many interruptions and impediments to the studies that she loved during her residence in Ireland, and Elizabeth could not obtain the books she wished for, yet she made good use of such as fell in her way. Some Greek and Latin works especially came within reach, and she employed her brief leisure, or rather, by her habits of economizing time and rising early, made leisure to use these books in helping her to obtain classical knowledge.

From Ireland, the family returned to Bath, and here she resumed her Hebrew and her German studies, having access to books that helped her. She seems to have pursued her student course alone, as regards tuition, being her own tutor, but not without admiring encouragement from her family and friends. There were found among her papers the following reflections, written on the day of her coming of age:—

"Being now arrived at what is called years of discretion, and looking back on my past life with shame and confusion, when I recollect the many advantages I have had and the bad use I have made of them, the hours I have squandered, and the opportunities of improvement I have neglected; when I imagine what with those advantages I ought to be, and find myself what I am, I am resolved to endeavour to be more careful for the future, if the future be granted me; to try to make amends for past negligence by employing every moment I can command to some good purpose; to endeavour to acquire all the little knowledge that human nature is capable of on earth, but to let the Word of God be my chief study, and all others subservient to it. To model myself, as far as I am able, according to the gospel of Christ; to be content while my trial lasts; and when it is finished, to rejoice, trusting in the merits of my Redeemer. I have written these resolutions to stand as a witness against me, in case I should be inclined to forget them, and to return to my former indolence and thoughtlessness, because I have found the inutility of menial determinations. May God give me strength to keep them!"

The prayer with which this resolve concludes shows the source to which alone she looked for strength and grace. Resolutions made in our own strength only are never likely to produce the results we wish. They are evanescent, like the morning cloud and early dew.

Captain Smith's stay with his regiment was prolonged for some years; and his family at length were settled in a little retreat at Coniston, in a very beautiful region, since become celebrated not only for its great natural beauties, but for the many eminent literary people who have taken up their residence within the lake district, and have made its scenery ever memorable.

From the time that Elizabeth began to study Hebrew, she devoted herself to the examination of, and to translations from, the Holy Scriptures. This indeed was her motive in entering on a course of study not common now, and very uncommon then, among women. She was eminently a Bible student, and the work of her life, which honourably ranks her among contributors to the literature of her time, was her translation of the Book of Job—a very ambitious efgort for a young and self-taught woman.

Rev. Dr. Magee, of Trinity College, known then as a great Hebraist and authority in Bibilical criticism wrote of Elizabeth Smithes translation: "After a close scrutiny and a careful comparison with the original, it strikes me as conveying more of the true character and meaning of the Hebrew, with fewer departures from the idiom of the English than any other translation whatever that we possess. It combines accuracy of style, and unites critical research with familiar exposition."

This work was finished in 1803. She occupied herself also, while at Coniston, with making translations from the German of Klopstock,[2] chiefly letters and papers of the illustrious German devotional poet, and his congenial-minded wife; and it was said of her success in clothing the German author in an English dress:—"Klopstock, under her management, talks English as well as his native tongue; and the warmest of his admirers would rejoice to hear the facility and precision with which she has taught their favourite poet and philosopher to converse amongst us"

Her acquaintance with eminent poetical writings, and more especially with so sublime a work as the Book of Job, gave her a distaste for her own original poetic compositions. She felt their inferiority to the models which had formed her taste, and therefore, to the regret of many friends, ceased to exercise her pen in that way. As there is no subject, on which even sensible people so often deceive themselves, as on that of their own powers of poetic writings, it shows US both the humility and the sound judgment of this young lady, that she early came to the conclusion, that while she had poetic feeling and fine taste, she had not in a high degree the gift of poetic expression.

It is pleasant to think that the last two years of this sweet life were passed amid scenery that she loved, and that her healthy until a few months before her lamented deaths was perfect. She made many sketching excursions^ and returned exhilarated from the long walks to many beautiful scenes, which hep skilful and ready pencil had transferred to her sketch-book. The commencement of her illness is given by herself:—

"One very hot evening in July I took a book and walked about two miles from home, where I seated myself on a stone beside the lake. Being much engaged by a poem I was reading, I did not perceive that the sun was gone down, and was succeeded by a very heavy dew, till in a moment I felt struck on the chest as if with a sharp knife. I returned home, but said nothing of the pain. The next day being also very hot, and every one busy in the hayfield, I thought I would take a rake and work very hard to produce perspiration, in the hope that it might remove the pain, but it did not."

Prom that time a bad cough and frequent loss of voice alarmed her family. In the autumn, as she became worse, she was removed to a milder climate, and reached the house of a friend at Gloucester, Thence she was taken to Finsbury, where she stayed five months. Afterwards, in May, Dr. Baillie of London recommended Matlock; but, as she did not improve, and confirmed consumption had set in, at her earnest desire she returned to Coniston, and on reaching her pretty cottage home, she said, "If I cannot live here, I am sure I can nowhere else"

Here, in a few weeks, the end drew near, but the gentle sufferer was so serenely calm and unmurmuring, that no one but her mother thought her so ill as she really was. Nor did she herself anticipate so sudden a release as she experienced. But she was, by faith in Jesus, always ready, and never depressed. On the night of the 7th August, 1806, she became very exhausted and somewhat restless. She would not let her mother sit up with her, fearing the fatigue would be injurious to her. An old and faithful servant was with the sufferer early in the morning, and yielded to her wish to get up and be dressed. While this was being done, a slight tremor shook Elizabeth's feeble frame; she leaned her head on the attendant's shoulder, and with a gentle sigh the spirit fled to join its kindred among the just made perfect. Surely there was infinite mercy in such an easy dismissal to one so prepared!

One lesson of humility from her own private meditations deserves to be remembered by all young readers; to the highly gifted it is the most applicable—"The more talents and good qualities we have received, the more humble we ought to be, because we have the less merit in doing right."

She was buried at Hawkeshead, where a white marble tablet is inscribed:—

In Memory of
Eldest Daughter of George Smith,
Of Coniston, Esq.
She died August the 7th, aged 29.
she possessed great talents,
exalted virtues,
and humble piety.

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  1. Mrs. H. M. Bowdler's account of Miss Elizabeth Smith.
  2. Author of " The Messiah," etc.