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)

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