Formation of Character Volume 5 Pt 3. Chapter 2 (8)


          This consideration brings me to a question sufficiently puzzling to the heads of households: What is to be done with girls? About the boys there is less difficulty—they go to college, or they go to learn their profession; they are set to work at once, to prepare for that “opening” which, it is hoped, will introduce them to a profitable career.
          Suppose a girl leave school in her eighteenth year; —her eldest sister being already at home for good, her mother’s right hand, and so much identified with all the interests of the family that her career is marked out. The sense of leisure and irresponsibility is delightful at first, and every girl should have a taste of it, just as a grocer is said to give his new apprentices the run of the shop, that they may long no more for figs and raisins. She plays tennis, goes to dances, is allowed to go as much into society as her parents can conveniently arrange for. In her leisure, she paints a little, works a little, practices a little, reads a little French and a good many novels. Her mother assigns her some domestic duties, which she fulfils with more or less care; but these are seldom important enough to call forth all her energy and will. Perhaps she is to sew for the family; but then, the stress of work comes only now and then, in spurts, when everybody helps, and to be regularly and laboriously employed as a sempstress would be intolerable to a girl of spirit and education. She is not exactly idle; her occupations spread fairly well over the day, though they might all be easily crushed into the spare hour or two of a busy woman; she enjoys a good deal of
leisure and pleasure, and her parents look on good-naturedly, glad that she should have her day.
          For a few months, perhaps for a year or two, this is delightful; but in a year or two life becomes a burden. To dance with the same people, to play in the same set, to make or listen to the same talk month after month, becomes intolerable. But then, it is objected, she has her home-work, and additional duties can easily be made for her. Not so easily; the mother of the family clings to her own duties, having discovered that, of the two delights of life, work—the duties of our calling—is to be preferred to play. Besides, the girl wants more than work—she wants a career; she wants work that depends upon her, than cannot be done without her, and the doing of which will bring her honour, and, possibly, pay. Let her “improve her mind,” you say? It is hardly the tendency of modern education to make girls in love with knowledge for its own sake, and what they do for their own sakes is too fitful and desultory to yield much profit or pleasure, unless the old spur is applied—the hope of distinction in some public examination.
          Now what is the poor girl to do under this craving for a career, which is natural to every adult human being, woman as much as man? Hard things are said of the “girl of the period”; but she deserves more consideration than she gets. People do not allow that she has erred because there has been no such outlet for her energy as her nature demands. In the ‘sixties,’ say, there was, practically, but one career open to the young woman of the lower and upper middle classes. She must wait until the prince comes by, and—throws the handkerchief. The girl with more
energy and ambition than modesty and breeding sees her opportunity here. What if that foolish prince should throw the handkerchief to the wrong maiden and leave her out in the cold, with nothing to do, nothing to look forward to, all the rest of her life? The thing is not to be thought of; she will make it her business to let him know where his favours should fall. And then begins a career indeed, a “hunt,” people call it, exhibiting a very ugly phase of young womanhood on which there is no occasion to dwell.
          The well-brought up girl will hardly own to herself that she dreams of this best of all careers for a woman, that of wifehood and motherhood. Maidenliness will not let her put it before her as the thing of which she lives in hope. Indeed, it is not so; her fate in this respect depends so entirely on the mood of some other, that it is impossible for her to allow herself in serious anticipation, though maiden meditation may dwell innocently upon Romeo and Juliet and their kind. Except for these sweet fancies, half illicit in the eyes of many a pure-minded girl, and not too wholesome, the future is a blank; she is in real need of something beyond

                   “Human nature’s daily food.”

of common duties, pleasures, home affections. It is natural for the human brood, as for every other, to leave the parent nest; and when the due time comes, and the overgrown nestling has not taken flight, it is but a comfortless bird.
          The girl wants a career, a distinct path of life for her own feet to tread, quite as much as does the boy. But the girl will be provided for, it is said, while the boy must be made able to support himself and a
family by his labour of head or hands. That is not the point: people are beginning to find out that happiness depends fully as much upon work as on wages. 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 of 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 practices 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. It is not necessary to specify the lines for which women may qualify by thorough training—art, music, teaching, nursing, loftier careers for the more ambitious and better educated; but may I say a word for teaching in elementary schools—a lowly labour of quite immeasurable usefulness.
          May I urge, too, the advantage of training for work which has been too long the refuge of the destitute—I mean, the truly honourable, and often exceedingly pleasant, post of governess in a family? In proportion as parents awake to the necessity for all-round training for their children, this profession of governess will open a more and more delightful and remunerative career to the trained woman able to develop character on right lines, and to teach on rational methods.[1]
          I fear the reader may think of that fox who left his tail in a trap, and advised all the foxes he met to cut off theirs—“so pleasant,” says he, “to be without the incumbrance of a tail!” But, indeed, I do not speak without book on this subject, having had opportunities of learning the views of many women who have placed themselves under training, partly as feeling the need of the discipline it affords, and partly out of a great craving to take some active recognised share in the work of the world. The mistress of a house and mother of a family is—unless she be a lawless, self-indulgent woman—under a discipline of circumstances which should bring out whatever is strong and lovely in the female character; but in the case of grown-up
daughters at home, the difficulty parents labour under is just that of keeping up wholesome discipline. They cannot be for ever struggling against the dawdling, procrastinating, self-indulgent habits girls will fall into when not under the stimulus of pressing duties; for parents must needs admit their grown-up daughters to a friendly footing which makes an over-strict government out of the question.
          The young women want scope, and they want the discipline of work, their own work, for which they alone are responsible; not of home tasks, which may be done or left undone, or which are sure to be done by somebody if the right person neglect her duty. A year or two of home life, in the interval between school and such training as I propose, is very desirable, both that parents may enjoy their daughters, and the daughters their homes, and also that parents may have an opportunity of dealing with the crude characters the girls bring home from school. But with work of their own in view, the girls will live under the stimulus of a definite future, their present work being to make the very best of themselves with a view to that future. Here is a motive for effort, and the important thing is to keep up the habit of effort, intellectual, moral, spiritual, bodily. Nor need such regular training and regular work stand in the way of matrimony. In the first place, early marriages are far less frequent then they were, so there is time to get in some special training and regular work before the final step be taken; and, in the next place, the girl who is only occasionally at home, with fresh interests, greater force of character, is a more attractive person than her sister, who has become a little stale because she is always on hand.
          Forgive me if I make use of this opportunity to press home what may seem to the reader a one-sided view of an important question. I am by no means alone in the view I advocate; seeing that many enlightened men are causing their daughters to undergo as regular a professional training as their sons, not because their means are inadequate to portion the girls, but because they feel it a duty to open a career of usefulness to these as much as to the boys of their families. Besides, I know of no other way of answering the question, What is to be done with the girls? Families of grown-up daughters at home are simply in the way. They are in an anomalous position, with no scope to produce the best that is in them; and unless they have an unusually wisely ordered home, some deterioration in character is almost a necessary consequence of the life they lead.

[1] Already this awakening has taken place so far that perhaps no woman’s work is more in request or better paid than that of the specially trained governess.