Volume 5 Part IV: All About Pendennis

Have you ever read The History of Pendennis: His Fortunes and Misfortunes, His Friends and His Greatest Enemy, by William Makepeace Thackeray? It’s an English novel which contrasts the hope that good fortune will just come along, or that it can be come by cheaply, with the value of earning it through good character and hard work.

Like the other books described in this section of Formation of Character, there is some value in having read it first, but it’s not necessary. Like a sermon that begins with a story and then turns to a point of faith, the plot is outlined, excerpts are given, and then Miss Mason gives her “exegesis” of the story. As we might expect, incidents relating to the upbringing and education of Arthur Pendennis receive the closest examination.

The Story of Pendennis…a little of it

“Pen” is raised by his mother, with as much luxury she can manage, and without any requirement that he apply himself to anything tedious or distasteful. She lives very much for her son, in the same way that readers of Understood Betsy will remember “Aunt Frances” devoting herself to “Elizabeth Ann” without benefit to either. Charlotte Mason warns of the paradox that “The careless mother who spends her days in pleasure-seeking will sometimes have more duty-doing children than that mother whose only fault is that she loves her family, not wisely but too well” (pp. 377-378). Over-doting on a child is a more serious charge than it may first appear. “…the boy who knows that his mother will do anything for him, knows also that he stands in the place of duty, is more to his mother than her duty to him and to others; he grows up without learning the meaning of two chief words in our use––must and ought are to him terms capable of being explained away” (pp. 378-379). Such an ignorance of duty even hinders a child’s relationship with God.

“He is taught that he may love and serve God, but not that he must do so; that this is the one duty he is in the world to fulfil. Parents have a unique opportunity to present the thought of duty to their children; and if they let this occasion pass, it is in vain to try to make up by religious feeling, sentiment, emotion” (p. 379).

But it is not only Pen’s mother who influences him negatively. His uncle, Major Pendennis, fills Pen’s head with ideas of the “right” way to get ahead in life. Charlotte Mason admits that she enjoys Major Pendennis as a character, although she would not want children to be trained by him.

“How great he is in his own line, how absurd and how respectable; how one likes him in spite of himself, and how convincing is the neatness and finish of his unworthy code! Is the title of the novel in truth a conundrum, and which of the Pendennises is the hero? This is the reader’s point of view; but what if we had been brought up to reverence this old worldling, had been placed solemnly under his guardianship? What if, on our first going forth into life, such an one accompanied us as Mentor?” (p. 370).

Pen lives in a bubble of family pride and personal entitlement, annoyed only when his world occasionally “does not understand [his] prerogatives, does not see that [he has] a right to the free enjoyment of [his] elegant tastes, no matter at whose cost” (pp. 365-366). But as Miss Mason says, “This is a blundering world. A day of ignominy is at hand for the Prince of Fairoaks.” School does not repair the damage done by Pen’s early lack of character training, and he struggles with these deficits throughout his life.

“How fine a start, on the other hand, would the child have whose parents recognised his distinction as that of a human being; for this, after all, is no common state; it is distinction in each case. And what a world of persons, sweet and serviceable, we should have if each child were brought up to be all that is in him!” (p. 370)

These Books are the Real Goods

One of the ways that Charlotte Mason recommends we bring up children “to be all that is in them” is to open timeless novels such as Pendennis to our children. These are the sorts of real, uncontrived books she recommends as evening reading: the types of novels she calls “reflectional,” not “sensational.” We may not get through more than a few such books with our children, but that doesn’t matter. In any such character-driven story, whether written for adults or children, we will recognize ourselves and our world, see mistakes to be avoided, and learn to applaud courage and loyalty.

The Difficulty with Adult Literature

Even older adult novels are often darker than we might expect, and of course parents must be sensitive both in choosing books and in deciding who gets to listen in, in the same way that they might watch a certain film with their older children but only after the younger ones are in bed. Some parents outlaw not only such films but also plays and novels, with a view to keeping their children’s minds untainted. Charlotte Mason points out that “There is a good deal to be said for this point of view; but the decisions of life are not simple, and to taboo knowledge is not to secure innocence” (p. 374). A “sensational novel” carries out the literal meaning of that term, similar to the term “purple prose,” that which can be defined as drawing excessive attention to itself. Such books do not have to be X-rated, but can simply be those which “appeal, with whatever apparent innocence, to those physical sensations which are the begetters of lust,––the ‘his lips met hers,’ ‘the touch of her hand thrilled him in every nerve’” and so on (p. 375).

To further explain that distinction, let’s turn to L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables.

 “Oh, how can you call Ben Hur a novel when it’s really such a religious book?” protested Anne. “Of course it’s a little too exciting to be proper reading for Sunday, and I only read it on weekdays. And I never read _any_ book now unless either Miss Stacy [the teacher] or Mrs. Allan [the minister’s wife] thinks it is a proper book for a girl thirteen and three-quarters to read. Miss Stacy made me promise that. She found me reading a book one day called The Lurid Mystery of the Haunted Hall. It was one Ruby Gillis had lent me, and, oh, Marilla, it was so fascinating and creepy. It just curdled the blood in my veins. But Miss Stacy said it was a very silly, unwholesome book, and she asked me not to read any more of it or any like it. I didn’t mind promising not to read any more like it, but it was _agonizing_ to give back that book without knowing how it turned out. But my love for Miss Stacy stood the test and I did. It’s really wonderful, Marilla, what you can do when you’re truly anxious to please a certain person.”

So blood-curdling, creepy, and thrilling are generally to be avoided, but over-sanitization is also not the aim. We want quality, above all, and not necessarily quantity.

We’re not finished yet

This chapter on Pendennis is long, and it moves through a wide variety of topics, especially towards the end. Some examples: “what education is, and what it is to effect [what it is supposed to do]”; the “synthetic and analytic stages of education,” the purpose of “public schools” (of the sort previously described by Headmaster Harrowby); and “the setting in order [of] the house of our national education.” In Philosophy of Education, written some years later, Charlotte Mason takes a bleak but not unjustified look at the often less-than-excellent British behaviour that was exhibited during the Great War, and blames it on an increasing devaluation of character, both at home and in school. In Formation of Character, she warns already that

“Even with the example of our Master before us, we take small pains to make our young people realise the possibilities of noble action that lie in them and in everyone. We give them certain warnings, it is true, for fear of ruin and loss of reputation, but do we warn them against that deadly dull failure which is implied in a career of commonplace success?” (p. 383).

As a remedy, Miss Mason suggests this motto from a book that is both classic and classical.

          “‘O friend,’ said he, ‘hold up your mind; strength is but strength of will; 
          Reverence each other’s good in fight, and shame at things done ill.”‘
                    [from The Iliad, Book 5, Chapman’s translation]

Part IV: Sowing the Seeds

By Karen Glass

Welcome to the final week of this blog series:

“He possessed nothing as a man the seed of which had not been sown in the course of his education.”

This fragment, which appears in part IV of Formation of Character, might be considered the theme, not only of this section, but of volume 5 and of Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy as a whole. She writes:

There is also a time for sowing the seed of this knowledge, an intellectual as well as a natural springtime; and it would be interesting to examine the question, how far it is possible to prosecute any branch of knowledge, the sowing and germination of which has not taken place in early youth.

You get a taste of this in School Education, where Charlotte Mason looks at the childhoods of Wordsworth and Ruskin, and considers how their early experiences and tastes affected them as grown men. In this section of Formation of Character, she applies that principle to fictional characters as well as real people.

Read the rest of Karen’s post here.

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.