The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
In Praise of Good Women.

Pot-pourri From the Tributes of Men.
by Douglas M. Gane.
Volume 11, 1900, pgs. 763-771

When we take into consideration the exalted character of many of the women we meet in private life, it is curious to note how few the records of the lives of good women are.

          "Warriors and statesmen have their meed of praise,
          And what they do or suffer, men record;
          But the long sacrifice of women's days
          Passes without a though, without a word;
          And many a lofty struggle for the sake
          Of duties, sternly, faithfully fulfilled--
          For which the anxious mind must watch and wake,
          And the strong feelings of the heart be stilled--
          Goes by unheeded as the summer wind,
          And leaves no memory and no trace behind!
          Yet it must be more holy courage dwells
          In one meek heart which braves an adverse state,
          Than his whose ardent soul indignant swells,
          Warmed by the fight, or cheered through high debate."
                    [from The Dream by Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Norton]

Of the lives of great women, there is no such neglect, but it is noticeable that the qualities that have won them recognition have, in most cases, been those that suggest power rather than worth, achievement in effort rather than beauty of life; and that, though goodness may have been an incidental quality, their title to eminence has been advanced rather on the ground of masculine than of feminine characteristics, and less by reference to standards set by their own nature than to standards set by the nature of men.

But, if there are few records to commemorate the lives of good women, literature abounds with the tributes of great men to their wisdom and magnanimity in the abstract.

"I have always said it," remarked [Gotthold Ephraim] Lessing, "nature meant to make woman as its masterpiece,"--a noble sentiment which James Russell Lowell crystallized in a poetical gem of the first water:--

          "Earth's noblest thing, a woman perfected."
                    [from the poem "Irene"]

"A good woman," says Thackeray, "is the loveliest flower that blooms under heaven; and we look with love and wonder upon its silent grace, its pure fragrance, its delicate bloom of beauty. Sweet and beautiful! The fairest and the most spotless! Is it not a pity to see them bowed down or devoured by grief or death inexorable, wasting in disease, pining with long pain, or cut off by sudden fate in their prime? We may deserve grief, but why should these be unhappy? Except that we know that Heaven chastens those whom it loves best; being pleased by repeated trials, to make these pure spirits more pure."

With clear insight, Wordsworth has portrayed the gradual unfolding of the mind of a man ere he begins to understand the true inwardness of the woman upon whom he has set his affections, and the revelation that awaits him when he comes to realize how beautiful a thing the mind of a good woman is. Not until he himself has attained to some culture can he comprehend it, and the manner in which the poet has depicted his awakenment as occurring after experience had taught him that physical beauty and expertness in household affairs are not necessarily the highest qualities of woman, is characteristic in its absolute fidelity to nature. But let the lines speak for themselves. They cannot be too often repeated:--

             "She was a phantom of delight
          When first she gleam'd upon my sight;
          A lovely apparition, sent
          To be a moment's ornament;
          Her eyes as stars of twilight fair,
          Like twilight's, too, her dusky hair;
          But all things else about her drawn
          From Maytime and the cheerful dawn;
          A dainty shape, an image gay,
          To haunt, to startle, and waylay.

             "I saw her, upon nearer view,
          A spirit, yet a woman too!
          Her household motions light and free
          And steps of virgin liberty;
          A countenance in which did meet
          Sweet records, promises as sweet;
          A creature not too bright or good
          For human nature's daily food,
          For transient sorrows, simple wiles,
          Praise, blame, love, kisses, tears and smiles.

             "And now I see, with eye serene,
          The very pulse of the machine;
          A being breathing thoughtful breath,
          A traveler betwixt life and death;
          The reason firm, the temperate will,
          Endurance, foresight, strength and skill;
          A perfect woman, nobly plann'd,
          To warn, to comfort and command;
          And yet a spirit still and bright,
          With something of an angel's light."

As it affects women, no maxim has received wider confirmation than the saying that "men make the laws, women make the morals." From Sophocles to Browning, the poets and thinkers of all ages bear witness to the part women play in setting the standards of conduct, and in preserving men from the abuse of the power reposed in them and making their efforts respond to the calls of humanity and the dictates of the heart.

          "Oh Woman! lovely woman! Nature made thee
          To temper man; we had been brutes without you."
                    [ from the play "Venice Preserved" by Thomas Otway)

In this connection, how well deserved is Garibaldi's testimony, uttered with all the fervour of a lofty soul. "So far from being his 'inferior,'" he says, "woman was appointed the instructress of man, and was designed by the Creator to mould and educate his moral nature." [from "The Rule of the Monk by Giuseppe Garibaldi]

And Dupanloup's:--"In making her weak in body, God has given her the germ of all that is great and morally strong. There are no noble works in which woman has not been mixed up: at first the teachers, then the inspiring geniuses of men, and often the sharers of their labours."

To woman as a beacon on the path of duty, what tribute is more tender than Browning's?

          "Love, if you knew the light
          That your soul casts in my sight;
          How I look to you,
          For the pure and true,
          And the beauteous and the right."
                    [from A Lovers' Quarrel by Robert Browning]

Or more devout than Pierre Vidal's?

          "If aught of goodness or of grace
          Be mine, hers be the glory;
          She led me on in wisdom's path,
          And set the light before me."
                    [Pierre Vidal, who died in 1229, has been called "the Don Quixote of Troubadours"]

The exaltation we experience in sensation from good music or fine scenery, we experience, in fact, from good women in the permanent elevation of our daily life. A thing of beauty is a joy for ever. {Keats] But it is more than a joy; it is a force, a force vital with the power of animating men to realize the best that is in them. This is what [Giuseppe/Joseph] Mazzini means when he says, "Seek in woman, not merely a comfort, but a force, an inspiration, the redoubling of your intellectual and moral faculties." [from his essay, "Duties Towards the Family"]

But, unlike the influence of the beautiful as we find it expressed in good music or fine scenery, the influence of good women has a direct connection with human conduct, through the medium of those faculties of quick insight, prompt judgment and immediate expression which are characteristic of their sex. Possessed of these, the good woman becomes what is more than the passive exemplar and inspiration of man; she becomes his active counselor, and thereby justifies to the full, Voltaire's famous appreciation, "All the reasonings of men are not worth one sentiment of women."

          "Beshrew my heart, but it is wondrous strange;
          Sure there is something more than witchcraft in them,
          That masters ev'n the wisest of us all."
                    [from the 1714 play "Jane Shore" by Nicholas Rowe]

In Virginibus Puerisque [a collection of essays], Robert Louis Stevenson admits to the acquaintance of a woman who cannot so much as understand the meaning of the word politics, and has given up trying to distinguish Whigs from Tories. But on her own ground, he says, ask her about other men or women, and the chicanery of every-day existence--the rubs, the tricks, the vanities on which life turns--and you will not find many more shrewd, trenchant or humorous. [1]

Let us then follow the advice of a profound thinker, who warns us not to shrink from the woman of sound sense. "If she become attached to you," he observes, "it will be from seeing and valuing similar qualities in yourself. You may trust her, for she knows the value of your confidence; you may consult her, for she is able to devise, and does so at once with the firmness of reason and the consideration of affection. Her love will be lasting, for it will not have been lightly won; it will be strong and ardent, for weak minds are not capable of the loftier grades of passion. If you prefer attaching yourself to a woman of feeble understanding, it must be either from fearing to encounter a superior person, or from the poor vanity of preferring that admiration which springs from ignorance to that which approaches to appreciation." [2]

Naturally, as his wife and mother, woman calls forth from man his sincerest panegyric. And this not only by direct apostrophe! For are we not told that each man forms his opinion of the other sex from the woman with whom he is brought into closest communication, and that in praising woman he generally bears unconscious testimony to the character of that good wife or mother who has won his appreciation. If we remember that the best qualities of women evade the uninterested observer and are disclosed to men only in the course of the nearest intimacy, we shall see how well justified this reasoning is.

Of the high character of women as wives, we find mention in the earliest writings.

"The wife is the honour of the family," we read in the Mahabharata [ancient India/Hindu], "she who presents the children; the wife is the man's vital spirit, is the man's half, is his best friend, and the source of his best felicity. The wife with her endearing discourse is the friend in solitude, the mother of the oppressed, and a refreshment on the journey in the wilderness of life."

From such a noble estimate of women written in the golden period of Aryan literature, and echoed and re-echoed through succeeding ages, what more natural than the grave utterance of [Jean Paul Friedrich] Richter's--"No man can either live piously or die righteous without a wife"; or of [Jules] Michelet's. "To be a man in a true sense is, in the first place, and above all things, to have a wife." And the advice of Shelley's--"Win her and wear her if you can. She is the most delightful of God's creatures, Heaven's best gift, man's joy and pride in prosperity, man's support and comforter in affliction."

          "She is so conjunctive to my life and soul,
          That as a star moves not but in its sphere,
          I could not but by her"
                    [Hamlet, Shakespeare]

Goethe pictured to himself a heaven upon earth spent in the companionship of a wife who would everywhere cooperate with him, and whose occupation would spread itself on every side, while his must travel forward on its single path; not the heaven of an enthusiastic bliss, he says, but of a sure life on earth; order in prosperity, courage in adversity, care for the smallest, and a spirit capable of comprehending and managing the greatest. To the man who "knows the world, who understands what he should do in it, and what he should hope from it," nothing can be more precious than the sympathy that comes from the companionship of one capable of understanding him.

Of the constancy of good women, great men are in no doubt!

"No man," says Washington Irving with tender pathos, "knows what the wife of his bosom is, no man knows what a ministering angel she is, until he has gone with her through the fiery trials of this world." [The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon]

Or the testimony of [James] Sheridan Knowles! "Save the love we pay to Heaven, there is none purer, holier, than that a virtuous woman feels for him she would cleave through life to. Sisters part from sisters, brothers from brothers, children from their parents, but such a woman from the husband of her choice, never!"

Or of Barry Cornwall!

             "'Tis woman alone, with a purer heart,
          Can see all these idols of life depart,
          And live the more, and smile and bless
          Man in his uttermost wretchedness."

But how irreparable is the loss of such a wife, a man's faithful adviser, the guardian of his health, and the "rudder of his household!" "It is," says [Alphonse de] Lamartine, "as if his right hand was withered; as if one wing of his angel was broken, and every movement that he made brought him to the ground." Nothing could better illustrate the depth of his affliction than the touching inscriptions that were written by two great men to the memory of their wives, and which we quote. The first is Thomas Carlyle's. It runs:--"Here, likewise, now rests Jane Welsh Carlyle, spouse of Thomas Carlyle, Chelsea, London. She was born at Hadington, 14th July, 1801. In her bright existence she had more sorrows than are common, but also a self-invincibility, a clearness of discernment, and a noble loyalty of heart, which are rare. For forty years she was the true and loving helpmate of her husband, and by act and word unweariedly forwarded him as none else could in all of worthy that he did or attempted. She died at London, 21st April, 1866, suddenly snatched away from him, and the light of his life, as if gone out."

The other is the tribute of John Stuart Mill to the memory of Harriet Mill. It reads:--"To the beloved memory of Harriet Mill, the dearly loved and deeply regretted wife of John Stuart Mill. Her great and loving heart, her noble soul, her clear, powerful, original and comprehensive intellect, made her the guide and support, the instructor in wisdom, the example in goodness, as she was the chief earthly delight, of those who had the happiness to belong to her. As earnest for all public good as she was generous and devoted to all who surrounded her, her influence has been felt in many of the greatest improvements of the age, and will be in those still to come. Were there even a few hearts and intellects like hers, this world would already become the hoped-for heaven. She died to the irreparable loss of those who survived her, at Avignon, November 3rd, 1858."

As mothers, good women have always had the reverence of great men. Comte points out that intellectual force is, with all its pretensions, not in itself more moral than material force--that each is but an instrument, the merit depending entirely upon its right employment. He says we have neglected the moral side of education, giving too much importance to the intellectual side, and thus rendering the heart subordinate to the intellect. For this reason, he says, "the best tutor, however sympathetic his nature, will be always far inferior to a good mother. A mother may often not be able to explain the reason of the principle on which she acts, but the wisdom of her plan will generally show itself in the end. Without formal teaching, she will take every opportunity of showing her children, as no other instructor could show them, the joy that springs from generous feelings, and the misery of yielding to selfishness." [A General View of Positivism, by Auguste Comte, p. 180]

Though we depart from our original design of appealing only to the testimony of men, we cannot refrain from reproducing here the sympathetic picture Mrs. [Sarah Stickney] Ellis gives in The Mothers of Great Men, of that vital phase of motherhood that M. Guyau called "the maternity of the heart and mind."

"There is but one woman in the whole world," the passage runs, "who can be to a boy exactly what he wants, and that woman is his mother. Most pitiable then is the young heart of an affectionate boy who has early lost his mother. . . When a boy is so highly gifted as to be peculiarly brilliant or successful, he wants his mother to rejoice in his glory, because he knows that her rejoicing will be sincere. When he is particularly dull, or finds learning very difficult, he wants his mother to give him a little secret encouragement or perhaps a little private help. When he is affectionate, he wants his mother, because he can love her without shame. When he has done wrong, he wants to weep the tears of penitence upon his mother's breast; and when he would begin to lift his trembling soul to God, he wants his mother to teach him how to pray. Above all, when half man, half boy, a new existence dawns upon him, and temptation within as well as without, lead him on to make experiments of untried fields of action, he wants his mother to confide in; and from her alone, perhaps, of all the world, will he bear to be warned or reprimanded, if he has gone too far, or ventured to set his foot upon the path of sin.

"With these fundamental principles of conduct and elements of character, a woman even of ordinary talent may be so conversant, her perception may be so clear, and her moral sense so true, that if she cannot instruct her boy in the lesson of the schools, she may teach him much that he will have to learn in after association with his fellow-men, and much that will be of infinite importance to him when he meets them in the field of action, and measures his strength with theirs.

"Indeed, it would be impossible to set limits either to the extent or the value of that wisdom which a mother may impart to her son before he enters upon independent life; and especially when he is passing through that transition state from which so many ways diverge--from which, too, so many, to all appearance innocent at first, lead downwards into depths that no mother's eye would seek to penetrate. But if the mother shrinks from knowing to what such downward paths may lead, she ought to know, and often does know, what marks their commencement as being false in promise and fatal in experiment. Thus, with their quick sense of right and wrong, women often can discriminate more clearly than men between the upward and the downward tendency of those steps which a young takes first with hesitation, but afterwards with boldness and resolution, so that no mother's hand can draw him back should the opportunity of early decision have been neglected."

                             "Happy he
          With such a mother! faith in womankind
          Beats with his blood, and trust in all things high
          Comes easy to him, and though he trip and fall
          He shall not bind his soul with clay."
                    [from The Princess, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson]

"Shakespeare has no heroes," says Ruskin, "he has only heroines . . . There is hardly a play that has not a perfect woman in it, steadfast in grave hope and errorless purpose--Cordelia, Desdemona, Isabella, Hermione, Imogen, Queen Catherine, Perdita, Sylvia, Viola, Rosalind, Helena, and last, and perhaps loveliest, Virgilia, are all faultless; conceived in the highest heroic type of humanity. . . Such, in broad light, is Shakespeare's testimony to the position and character of women in human life. He represents them as infallibly faithful and wise counsellors--incorruptibly just and pure examples--strong always to sanctify, even when they cannot save." [Sesame and Lilies, pp. 116, 117, 121.]

"Woman," says Comte, "is the spontaneous priestess of humanity." As the companions of men, women have always been sought for guidance in the affairs of human conduct, and with the intuitive power they have to give sound advice, what office can better befit them that the office of priestess? Their penetration, the balance and wholeness of their minds, their responsiveness to the subtle appeals of nature, their mother-wit that makes philosophy immediate; each and all mark them out as the true guides of man in an age when the conditions of remunerative labour lead him farther and farther from the simple life of earth's creatures.

"Woman, deeply thoughtful and moral," says [Ernest] Renan, "alone can heal the sores of the present time; alone can take up anew the education of man, and bring back the taste for the beautiful and good."

Priestesses! "Every book of knowledge is implanted in the heart of a woman!" says an oriental sage. What qualification can better befit a priestess? An inward illumination revealing to us by word and deed the abiding laws of God.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

[1] exact quote: "I know a woman who, from some distaste or disability, could never so much as understand the meaning of the word 'politics', and has given up trying to distinguish Whigs from Tories; but take her on her own politics, ask her about other men or women and the chicanery of everyday existence--the rubs, the tricks, the vanities on which life turns-and you will not find many more shrewd, trenchant, and humorous. Nay, to make plainer what I have in mind, this same woman has a share of the higher and more poetical understanding, frank interest in things for their own sake, and enduring astonishment at the most common."

[2] The quote was used in various magazines; the earliest found online is The Southern Rosebud, or, Youth's Gazette, 1832; here is the complete text: "Never shrink from a woman of strong sense. If she become attached to you, it will be from seeing and valuing similar qualities in yourself. You may trust her, for she knows the value of your confidence; you may consult her, for she is able to advise, and does so at once with the firmness of reason, and the consideration of affection. Her love will be lasting, for it will not have been slightly won; it will be strong and ardent, for weak minds are not capable of the loftier grades of the passion. If you prefer attaching yourself to a woman of feeble understanding, it must be from the fear of encountering a superior person, or from the poor vanity of preferring that admiration which springs from ignorance, to that which arises from appreciation. A woman, who has the beauty of feminine delicacy and grace--who has the strong sense of a woman, yet softened and refined by the influence of womanly feeling; whose passions are strong, but chastened and directed by delicacy; whose mind is brilliant, alike from its natural emanations and its stores and acquirements; whose manners have been formed by the imperceptible influence of good society, in its broad sense, yet are totally free irom the consciousness and affectation of an etiquette, though it be the highest--who, though she shines, and enjoys the world, finds her heart's happiness at home--is not this the noblest, and the sweetest of the creatures made by God? -- MARY."

Proofread May 2011, LNL