Wisdom from Volume 5: A Place for Home-Bred Daughters

My weekly excerpt from Charlotte Mason’s fifth volume, Formation of Character, is found on pages 266-267. You can read Karen’s excerpt here.

“It is work, work of her very own, that the girl wants; and to keep her at home waiting for a career which may come to her or may not, but which it is hardly becoming in her to look forward to, is, to say the least of it, not quite fair. The weak girl mopes and grows hysterical; the strong-minded girl strikes out erratic lines for herself; the good girl makes the most of such employments as are especially hers, but often with great cravings for more definite, recognised work.

“The worst of it is, these home-bred daughters are not being fitted to fill a place in this workaday world at any future time. Already, amateur work is at a discount; nobody is wanted to do what she has not been specially trained for. Here seems to me to be the answer to the perplexing question, What is to be done with a family of grown-up daughters? It is not enough that they learn a little cooking, a little dressmaking, a little clear-starching. Every one of them should have a thorough recognised training for some art or profession whereby she may earn her living, doing work useful to the world, and interesting and delightful to herself, as is all skilled labour of head or hands. It appears to me that parents owe this to their girls as much as to their boys. And valuable training in many branches of woman’s work is to be had, at so low a charge as hardly to cost more than would keep a lady fittingly at home. Whether the girl makes use of her training, and practises the art she has acquired, depends upon circumstances, and––the handkerchief! But in no case is the training thrown away. To say nothing of the special aptitude she has acquired, she has increased in personal weight, force of character, and fitness for any work.”

Volume 5, Part 3: “Young Maidens at Home”

“What is to be done with the girls?”

“Concerning the Young Maidens” is a mini-manual for parents of a hypothetical young woman who has finished school and is too old for a governess, but who could still use a bit of guidance. This scenario reminds me of the three upper-class daughters in the T.V. series Downton Abbey; but the writing predates even that early-twentieth-century era. As Karen noted, the two chapters in this section were given as lectures, probably in the 1880’s, and were intended to accompany the other material that became Home Education. Even Mary, Edith, and Sybil might have found them a bit dated.

However, in the context of Formation of Character, the chapter becomes more than just a period piece: it presents some of our ultimate aims in education, in the interesting context of someone who is not immediately concerned with preparation for earning a living. Theoretically stripping away the utilitarian view of education allows the discussion to focus on character and what we’re really here to do in this life. (Mason does discuss work at the end of the chapter).

Who is this girl?

This young woman, as described by Charlotte Mason, isn’t Gradzilla, but she isn’t a model of perfect character either. She is “a thoroughly nice girl,” but is still “unformed.” “She, too, has yet to learn to live” (p. 238). “She is full of vague self-consciousness, watching curiously the thoughts and emotions within her…[but has not] begun to concern [herself] about what may or may not be in other people” (p. 239). She seems at loose ends trying to figure out what to do with herself. Mason points out that the girl she has in mind isn’t totally vapid and focused on herself, though. She knows something about duty; she has noble ideals; but, at the minute, there’s more “scope for the imagination” in dreaming of Big, Interesting ways to use those abilities than there is in darning her brother’s stockings.

What is successful womanhood?

“The woman who has herself well in hand, who thinks her own thoughts, reserves her judgments, considers her speech, controls her actions—she is the woman who succeeds in life, with a success to be measured by her powers of heart, brain, and soul” (p. 238). This woman is not subservient, not a victim, not a fainting flower, but strong, able to think for herself. She is not ruled by impulse but lives out the Way of the Will. She is a businessperson, partly in the skills of “domestic science” that she is expected to be mastering, but more importantly in the business of knowing herself as a human being, developing “all that is in her” (p. 370, pronoun mine). As illustrator Garth Williams wrote about Laura Ingalls Wilder, “She understood the meaning of hardship and struggle, of joy and work, of shyness and bravery. She was never overcome by drabness or squalor. She never glamorized anything; yet she saw the loveliness in everything.”

The magic wand is…definite work.

What is the magic wand that is to turn the young Cinderella into such a competent, self-possessed (p. 249) yet un-self-centered woman? First, “a course of moral and mental science” (p. 240). This means a certain amount of direct conversation and/or reading on what’s what. She needs to review the lessons found elsewhere in Charlotte Mason’s writings: about habit, the will, the conscience, and “the conditions of the spiritual life” (p. 241). This is not self-culture, but preparation for “labours of love and service” (p. 261). “By the time the girl has discovered how much of her is common to all the world, she will be prepared to look with less admiring wonder at her secret self, and with more respect upon other people” (p. 240).

Second, “Training in Practical Affairs” (p. 242). This is not a course in how to clean or what to buy, as much as it is establishing the principles on which the practical decisions are made. (The how-to of home tasks is suggested, later in the chapter, as something that “might well occupy an hour or two of the girl’s morning,” along with “an hour’s brisk needlework” and any help needed caring for younger children.) In shopping for clothes, to use Mason’s example, we name several guiding principles: suitability, harmony, and so on; and the test is whether the shopper can use those to choose, without falling back on the opinion of Mother or her friends. What happens if she gets something less than perfect? That’s life, and lesson learned. As another example, she is responsible for her own health; but the older adults in her life need to communicate or make available whatever basic information she seems to be lacking, and model good habits themselves. Charlotte Mason reminds us that “a free woman with the courage of her opinions” needs to be given both liberty and a sense of responsibility (p. 245). The delicate task for the parent of an almost-adult is to “let her choose…but know what she chooses.”

Was school a waste of time?

Charlotte Mason admits that we don’t retain all our geography, science, and French, unless we’re constantly using and reviewing them. “All the same, what [a woman] thinks is of consequence to the world; even if she is not to be the mother of future fathers and mothers, she will make her mark somehow” (p. 253). She has been created to be a “thinking person,” and to use her brain power to protect herself against persuasive but potentially harmful arguments and relationships (p. 254). “An hour or two in the morning [should be given to] solid reading” (p. 260), including the study of “political economy,” the sort of studies that, in the AmblesideOnline curriculum, begin with Richard J. Maybury’s books on economics and common law. (Mason suggests incidentally that women might be good at mediating class struggles and labour disputes, because of their ability to see the human side of things.)

Even if she forgets her school lessons, “the solid gain education has brought her lies in the powers and habits of attention, persistent effort, intellectual and moral endeavour, it has educed” (p. 251). But, Mason warns, those habits die a miserable death unless they’re maintained. Even at this age, regaining lost habits is more difficult than it was in childhood. For example, if the young woman feels she’s too old to go out and play, she may never regain the enjoyment of exercise, or have the stamina to keep up with her (potential) offspring; so “two or three hours of the afternoon should be given to vigorous out-of-door exercise” (p. 260). (That includes nature hikes, notebook in hand.)

In the End

Charlotte Mason may have had a Victorian outlook on manners, but as a single woman, she refused to assume that marriage and keeping one’s own home were either a prerequisite or a guarantee of success. She has some unexpectedly modern words at the end of the chapter about the prospects of a young, single woman. A woman too obviously on the hunt for a handsome prince, says Mason, is not a pretty thing. In any case, she says, “people are beginning to find out that happiness depends fully as much upon work as on wages,” (p. 266), and that having something to do besides home tasks invigorates one’s character in new ways. The options listed include “art, music, teaching, nursing, loftier careers for the more ambitious and better educated…teaching in elementary schools…[and] the post of governess in a family” (p. 267). I’m not sure what “loftier careers” might include, but the list certainly doesn’t set limits! If you’re Downton Abbey daughter Edith, you edit a magazine; if you’re Sybil, you nurse soldiers; and if you’re Mary, you run the estate. “Every [woman] should have a thorough recognized training for some art or profession whereby she may earn her living, doing work useful to the world, and interesting and delightful to herself…[and if she marries], in no case is the training thrown away” (p. 266).

“How many know that to possess an alert, intelligent, and reflective mind is also among our duties? How many are aware of the incalculable joys of knowledge, of imagination, of reasoned thought, and that these are a patrimony in readiness for each of us…capital, as it were, for an outlay of continual serviceableness?” (p. 386)

Volume 5 Part III: Two “Lost” Lectures

by Karen Glass

If you are familiar with the history of Home Education, you may recall that the book began as a series of lectures which Charlotte Mason gave in order to do some fund-raising for a church project. The lectures were well-attended and well-received, and there were eight of them. A quick look at the table of contents of a current copy of Home Education will reveal only six Roman-numeraled sections, corresponding to six of those lectures. But here, tucked into Formation of Character, we find the last two lectures, just as Miss Mason explained.

Apparently, in the process of rearranging the material, the decision was made to allow Home Education to focus on the education of younger children, under the age of nine. These two lectures deal with older children, and so they were moved into this volume. Whatever the situation at that time (around 1905), Formation of Character is the most neglected of all the volumes in the series today, and while much of the material isn’t vital to understanding the methods, it’s rather a shame that these two chapters, which can be so helpful to parents, don’t get more attention. If you never read any other part of Volume 5, I do recommend reading these chapters as your children grow older.

Read the rest of the post here.

Wisdom from Volume 5: Too Many Cooks, Not Enough Facts

This week’s excerpt from Formation of Character is from pages 137-139.

“Oh yes! you men make ludicrous blunders about children. But that’s no help. A young mother gets a tender human creature into her keeping, full of possibilities. Her first concern is, not only to keep it in health, but, so to speak, to fill it with reserves of health to last a lifetime. At once her perplexities begin… a mother I know wished her child to be clothed delicately, as befits a first-born. She sent to Ireland for a delicious baby trousseau of lace and cambric. You, gentlemen, don’t understand. Hardly had the dear little garments gone through their first wash, when somebody tells her that ‘oo’ a’ ‘oo’ [wool] is the only wear for babies and grown-ups. I doubt if to this day she knows why, but there was a soupçon of science in the suggestion, so the sweet cambrics were discarded and fine woollens took their place. By-and-by, when the child came to feed like other mortals, there was a hail of pseudo-science about her ears. ‘Grape-sugar,’ ‘farinaceous foods,’ ‘saliva,’ and what not; but this was less simple than the wool question. She could make nothing of it, so asked her doctor how to feed the child. Further complications arose: ‘the child sees everything;’ ‘the child knows everything’; ‘what you make him now he will be through life’; ‘the period of infancy is the most important in his life.’ My poor friend grew bewildered, with the result that, in her ignorant anxiety to do right, she is for ever changing the child’s diet, nurse, sleeping hours, airing hours, according to the last lights of the most scientific of her acquaintances; and it’s my belief the little one would be a deal better off brought up like its mother before it.”

“Then you would walk in the old paths?”

“Not a bit of it!…But my contention is, that you cannot bring up children on hearsay in these days; there is some principle involved in the most everyday matter, and we must go to school to learn the common laws of healthy living and well-being.”

Karen’s excerpt for today can be found here.

Part II–So many things to think about!

by Karen Glass

I think one of the most interesting inclusions in Part II is Chapter 4,— “Die Neue Zeit Bedarf Der Neuen Schule: A Schoolmaster’s Reverie.”

This chapter can be a bit difficult to follow. It is written as if it were the private “reverie” of a teacher who has been given the position of headmaster, running a grammar school—that is, a small boarding school which typically focused on the British version of classical education.

His first thought is that it would be easiest to maintain the status quo. He muses: “What is, is best. But that is laziness, cowardice.” Charlotte Mason imagines him as a thinker who has been delving into deep thoughts and new ideas about education, so we are treated to his rambling thoughts as he envisions plans and schemes for his school, justifying the rationale of it all to himself as he goes. It can be a cumbersome vehicle for the ideas, but we have to indulge Miss Mason and dig for the treasure.

Read the rest of the post here.