The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
An Apology for the Mediocre Person

by Grace M. Gwynne, who
"Does nothing in particular,
And does it very well."
Volume 12, 1901, pgs. 779-788

"But the quiet old-fashioned person listens with courtesy, and does not treat your share of the conversation as mere asterisks dividing her own paragraphs."

In the storm and stress of modern life, which has become almost wholly competitive, each individual struggling for distinction, each trying in their own province to press to the front, it sometimes occurs to the thinker, "What room nowadays is there for Mediocrity? Life is success, failure is annihilation!" And from the obscurity of dull country towns and the loneliness of great crowded cities where the failures hide themselves, comes the retort, "What rest or happiness is there in success? Is it not to us you turn for soothing for your jaded brain and nigh-worn-out body, after your so-called successes?"

The very dictionary takes their part, and says, "Mediocrity is a middling state; a mediocrity of success is most favourable to morals and happiness, and mediocrity of talent will generally ensure respectability."

Mediocrity is the state typical of our world. Were we much better, we should belong properly to the world of angels; were we much worse, we should qualify for the world of fiends. We hear it said of someone who has died, "Ah, they were too good for this world; they whom the gods love die young." And if any denizen of this sphere dare to be worse than the average, is he not assisted with a rope to reach the world of worse things: do we not say, "He is not fit to live?"

There are two ladders by which men may rise above the average, they are called Goodness and Genius. They spring from mediocrity, but lead from earth to heaven, and the angels lean down and stretch out a helping hand to those who climb.

Contentment is a rung very low down on either of these ladders. Upon contentment you early set your foot, and leave it far below. As aesthetic knowledge grows, so dwindle your sources of satisfaction. The master of an art can only be appreciated by his peers, and can enjoy but the very best. The purest saint despises himself more than the grossest sinner, and weeps over faults which have to be discerned by that moral microscope the "divine discontent." How differently does the frankly mediocre person regard life! To him the world is a garden full of beauty, sweetness and satisfaction.

To Madam Mediocrity, her children's performances on the piano are the loveliest music, and nothing in the way of art can afford her more pleasure than a framed Christmas Supplement, nothing in literature surpass the charms of John Strange Winter and Marie Corelli. When from their family circle, or their immediate neighbours, some aspiring spirit breaks away from the shackles of conventionality and the tether of daily life, and soars far beyond their ken, how fluttered and surprised is the whole tame dove cot at the discovery that they have unwittingly harboured amongst them that superior being whose nature is to rise, the carrier pigeon, now soaring high above the clouds; with dazzled eyes they watch the flight of their late companion, and then retire with a sigh to the obvious duty, that of fitting themselves for their humble destiny, the domestic pigeon-pie.

The nature of goodness is the nature of angels, and many who humbly bow to success, and live in the shade, are themselves allied to heaven by the sweetness, the heroic unselfishness, the purity of their lives. Such characters are the wild flowers whose perfume sweetens the dusty wayside of life, all unaware of their own value and little appreciated by others.

Here is the patient wife, a "Grizel" whose virtues have not been sung; here is a "Milly Barton" who has not found her George Eliot; here is a little "Madam Liberality"; here is "Miss Patty," of Cranford, each wanting but the gifted pen of a Ewing or a Gaskell to give her fame.

Mediocrity is the last retreat of leisure, without which character can no more be perfected than can a peach ripen without the sun. People who are in no haste to be famous, who have recognised their own limitations, are almost thankful that the "Ten Talents" have not been entrusted to their care, "it leaves them so much time!" And these obscure people actually do find time to garden, to play with their children, to take "constitutionals," and to write by every mail to India! One of their virtues is that of being good listeners. The art of listening has nearly gone out, and you find it lingering chiefly amongst the class we speak of. Those who are consciously clever and superior, listen to others as a rule with impatience, or merely because they are out of breath. Don't you know the person well, in whose face, as you speak, you see an irrelevant smile working up to his next remark, which will plainly show that he has not listened to yours?

But the quiet old-fashioned person listens with courtesy, and does not treat your share of the conversation as mere asterisks dividing her own paragraphs.

The old gentleman who takes Miss Mediocrity in to dinner thoroughly enjoys his own conversation, and thanks his stars that here is no Isabel Carnaby to startle him by asking, in the midst of an entrée that his soul loveth, "How many people are you? I am fifteen at least!"

The man of science finds his neighbour "has just the amount of knowledge of his subject that he likes in a woman, the power to ask intelligent questions. What else is a woman good for?"

And it is her voice that utters that reproving "Hsh!" when the piano is opened and a roar of conversation begins, her hand that offers to turn over the leaves, and her voice that says in such genuine good faith, when the display is over, "How wonderfully clever!" much on the principle of the safe remark, "Well, that is a baby!"

Who is it that we ask on a visit when we have no servants, or feel in bad health, or have the children down in the measles? Who is it knows all about the girls' love-affairs, and is known as a successful matchmaker; who is it "does not mind" any arrangement for other people's comfort in which she is the only sufferer, and who always says, "I told you so," when things go happily? 'Tis not the clever one of the family, not the beauty or the society favourite, 'tis usually the quiet sister who does nothing particularly well, the old maid cousin who frankly avows her very mediocre education.

Miss Mediocrity is a lady of limited income; she has been given "neither poverty nor riches," but being also a lady of limited desires, she does not feel herself poor. Her circumstances certainly may suggest charming little economies, such as the saving up of string and paper from parcels, and picking up of stray pins from the carpet, and if there are three prices to her groceries, her raisins and her rice, she invariably chooses the middle one, "as most suited to the dignity of a gentlewoman." But not so her tea, that must always be of the best, in fact quite unnecessarily expensive. "I leave cheap teas to the working classes, my dear," she says, and Miss Mediocrity's tea is simply splendid, for she makes it herself with a newly boiled kettle in the parlour.

It is Miss Mediocrity's pride that she does not belong to the "working classes," and she would be insulted were you to speak of her as belonging to the "middle class" of society. She speaks of herself as of the "upper class."

And this is a foolish prejudice that exists with regard to the class of gentry. Surely it is "the middle class"? Are not the aristocracy above and the working class below? Why should the untitled professional man refuse to see his place under its true title, when he may glory in the knowledge that this class is the back-bone of England's constitution, the home of virtue, and the favourite haunt of happiness?

The Mediocre Person is not uneducated by any means. She quite reaches the Board School average in English, science, and accomplishments, and that is a proud boast for a person who has had a private education at a mediocre "Ladies' Seminary." She plays a little, sings a little, paints a little, reads a little, and even perhaps writes a little. Tradition has it that Miss Mediocrity once actually got a story printed; and in their pride and delight the family bought up nearly the entire issue of the paper it came out in. Certain it is that there is a wonderful store of old newspapers, all of one date, filling her attic, not one of which the servant dare touch for lighting a fire, or any other such practical purpose!

If you ask whether the framed water-colours on the wall are her own handiwork, she says with a sigh, "I'm so sorry I did not stick to painting, I should have loved to be an artist; but you see I've so many tastes, I really couldn't give much time to each: there's my music, and my reading, and needlework, and house-keeping and cycling, and my parish work."

I'm afraid the world would not really have benefited if the dear woman had "stuck to art"; had given up singing last year's drawing-room ballad, and playing on a piano which she was unaware was out of tune; had given up her bazaars, and district visiting, her meetings, and her sewing-parties and whist, and had lived all day at the School of Art, in a long pink apron, making cocoa at lunch-time in the shadow of the Laocoon; had even eventually joined a studio and perhaps reached the line at the Academy, years after her youth and beauty had faded in a life of Bohemian frugality and constant disappointment.

But, "there is room enough in the world for thee and me," says Uncle Toby to the wasp; and certainly there is room enough for Mediocrity to flourish side by side with the Geniuses; for, after all, the latter are not very numerous. And what would the world do without its Mediocrities, its society buffers, its amiable duffers?

What would musicians do without the ticket-buying un-musical people who fill Albert Halls because it is "the thing," and applaud because their neighbours are applauding? How would Punch exist without his society mediocrities to say the funny things that he illustrates so beautifully? What would the authors do if their reading public failed, and only those bought their books who understood them? And where would the Church be, if reduced to those preachers who could preach well? Why, we should have no "opening in life" for half our boys and girls, were these things to cease.

But mediocrity means in the year 1901 a very different thing to the mediocrity of fifty years ago. What was high-water mark of the tide of progress then, now marks its ebb, and the most mediocre among us can do things that were the pride only of the very learned then. Our housemaids now play the piano, and our cooks learn science; hygiene is the heritage of the masses instead of being an occult science, and Lady Jane Grey's attainments would scarcely win her a Town Trust Scholarship and certainly would not bracket her with a Senior Wrangler. The whole standard of education and of civilization is raised:

"What sages would have died to learn, now taught by village dames."

Travel is so easy and so cheap, as is communication by post and electricity, that on the one hand we are in touch with all the world, and on the other have learned to waste the gifts of print and caligraphy. Who takes trouble over a letter to a friend in these days of penny postage? Who can retain any respect for printed matter, when advertisement actually asks us to trample on it, and a waste paper basket has become one of the first necessaries of a house?

Long ago it was pride and joy to a country lady to display in her drawing-room the painted clay figures and curios, India jars and carvings, that showed her to have a son in the East; and to know that the visitor was greeted by the faint insidious aroma of Sandalwood from these treasures, then unique. Now we disdainfully talk of "Tea-shop china," and Birmingham and Earl's Court Exhibitions have successfully introduced cheap and meretricious imitations of Japanese, Indian and Chinese ware to flood the country ad nauseam.

Nothing has changed more than what we now call middle-class art. This used to consist in fine pencil drawings on Bristol board, and pre-Raphaelite studies of feathers and flowers. But water-colour art, especially landscape, has developed rapidly, and is now the special art of the middle classes, and, with the study of design, almost monopolizes the attention of the Schools of Art scattered everywhere throughout the country.

Photography, too, is a godsend to the person who wants a family portrait, and cannot afford a Herkomer or Sergeant; and every day it reaches higher perfection.

Literature has also enlarged her boundaries, and the magazines and weekly newspapers are a refuge for the amateur scribbler of real worth, who would not attempt the writing of a novel or serious magnum opus. But the mediocre novel of to-day is a much worthier production than that of fifty years ago, and would have created quite a hubbub in Dr. Johnson's days, as much as Evelina [sentimental romantic novel by Frances Burney, 1778], when a novel was as startling as a splash in a quiet pond. The literature provided for children, then so scant, so stiff and conventional, is now growing in charm by leaps and bounds, and indeed, with the wonderful illustrations, are a delight to their parents also.

Dress has changed too, and the universally acceptable tailor-made style, or blouse and skirt, and sailor hat, has at last created a sumptuary law of its own for the nation, the law of the survival of the fittest. It is a style of dress eminently suited for the middle-class woman, in which to spend her busy useful life, but our princesses wear it too.

Music, too, has moved with the times; and people of quite limited means have it now in their power to procure a good musical education for any boy or girl of decided taste in their families. Festivals, church choirs, popular concerts, Board schools, High Schools and Colleges of Music, all unite in bringing musical instruction of the best sort within the reach of all. The pity is that anyone without real taste should waste so large a part of their own and their teachers' time, as is the fashion, and this foolish habit of learning the piano merely for fashion's sake is providing a harvest of mediocrity even in these days of enlightenment.

I fear we are not quite done with the old difficulty of readily finding an accompanist in a drawing-room gathering for a singer or violinist. It is a great pity that reading instrumental music at sight is not as universally taught as is singing at sight. How well I remember an occasion, long, long ago, the memory of which is even now torture to me, when a lovely tenor was discovered at an evening party, and the hostess looked vainly round for an accompanist. None could be found to volunteer, all drew shyly back, but at last in despair "Aunt Maria" was pressed into the service, and triumphantly seated at the instrument, giggling like a girl, and honestly deprecating her powers, but quite resigned to do her worst.

I would draw a veil over the anguish that followed. "Aunt Maria's" fingers were more erring than her heart, and "The Message" that the poor young man wished to send, I regret to say, was never reached.

"Finishing" girls' schools used to be a kind of educational cemetery, and thus in the "salubrious grounds" of some Pinkerton establishment, "patronized by the aristocracy, and combining all the advantages of home, society and school, religious, social and educational," a young lady laid to rest all further interest in study; there in that "salubrious" spot she buried her Latin grammar, often as well her arithmetic and geography and all knowledge of the history of her country, and returned to her home an emancipated being, free to dance and dress and angle for a husband to her heart's desire.

But we have changed all that. School is now only a step on the educational ladder, and a girl gladly passes on to other spheres for the cultivation of her talents. At lectures and classes, in societies and open competitions, she learns to use those faculties with which she is especially gifted. Be it music or medicine, business or bonnets, cooking or handicrafts, nursing or needlework, laundry or languages, journalism or gardening, teaching or typewriting, all open their arms to the girl who is in earnest to succeed in life and to put her talents to good usury. The new professions open to women do not admit of mediocrity. Medicine and hospital work are stern in their sifting of the incompetent, and teaching is now regarded as an art, to be learned like any other art.

Gone is the day of the dear old governess who knew nothing but to make herself acceptable in a household; gone is the ill-educated woman whom only stress of poverty made a teacher; gone is the whole class upon whom was written "found wanting." But as "the poor are ever with us," I do not think the time will ever come when mediocrity will cease: mediocrity of rank, even in the millennium dreamed of by the Socialist; mediocrity of character, evening the Christian's millennium, and mediocrity of intelligence, even when Board Schools have educated humanity up to one dead level.

And there is one influence at work to keep us down in this mediocre old world, which does not obtain in either other world, and that influence is bad health. How many promising careers has it not sapped and left in despair! But I knew one to whom illness did its worst and mediocrity was stamped upon her circumstances, yet who rose unconquered from the battle. With a crippled form, an empty purse (for she was a decayed Irish lady whose income depended on land), she took up her abode many years ago in a £20 house in the suburbs of this town. Behind those white lace curtains, in the bay window with its flowers and parrot, you found her bright eyes and kindly laugh; now alas! gone for ever.

I seem to see her still, white-haired and cheerful as of yore! There she sits, surrounded by a number of friends, and keeps the whole room in a flow of merriment; and these friends represent every grade of society and both sexes. Here is a dignified white-haired old lady, who has brought a little bouquet of flowers in her hand; here a sporting man, who has handed some game to the maid as she let him in. All are drinking tea from old China, daintily served with the thinnest of wafer bread and butter.

In the wee dining room, should you enter unexpectedly, you would find a poor raw-boned country curate, enjoying a square meal of bread and jam, and an egg, sitting comfortably at the big table, and quite at his ease, the old lady having divined with unerring tact that "afternoon-tea" in a drawing-room would be a sore trial to his bashfulness.

At another time you would find her enjoying the society of a fat and sticky baby, with blue eyes and no hair, who sat gravely in the middle of the rug staring its best. This, she would explain, was the offspring of a country friend, the possessor of many other hopefuls, who had come into the town for a day's shopping, and being obliged to burthen herself with the "last-joined," had been only too glad to accept her kind old friend's offer to take charge of the darling for two or three hours, while she flew round the shops with a long list and a short purse. A chop and a strong and sweet cup of tea, as well as the cherub, on her return awaited the tired mother, and these refreshments were administered with loving tyranny.

Tyranny! Ah, that was her especial métier in the sick room, the element in which she shone. Those who knew how to draw her out would bring up this topic, and settle down for an hour's racy description of all the evil diseases she had combated in her day. Nothing was left out of that list but small-pox, she proudly assured you, she had nursed them all: a nephew in typhoid; a niece in scarlet fever; an aunt, who got diphtheria while she was carving a goose, and who was saved by my friend's presence of mind in hastily applying the contents of the mustard-pot; a child in croup saved by the timely application of a jug of cold water to its head; all, all confessed her skill, and doctors invariably came in and complimented her by saying, "they were not needed while she was there, and that she had saved the patient's life by her presence of mind!"

And so embellished did the stories become by her Irish humour and much telling, it was well that other testimony was not wanting, and that you knew that she was called "Auntie" by pale young fellows, who owned her no relationship, but who owed, to her good nursing in their lonely bachelor rooms, their very lives.

The old lady's supper-parties were pictures of hospitality. When all had taken their places in her little back-parlour, the door could no longer be opened, so full was the room. There were all the treasures of old cut-glass, old silver, and old china displayed; it was their day, and the viands had been chosen with a special view to these dishes, while hot punch made from "my nephew's Christmas Bushmills" was introduced for the gentlemen afterwards, merely to give a raison d'étre for the appearance of the old-fashioned silver punch-kettle.

Whatever my dear old friend received as a present must be shared with her friends, from a bunch of violets to a New Zealand leg of mutton. Sometimes has her faithful Phyllis appeared at my door with a neatly put-up package, addressed to me with compliments, and containing grapes or cake, or some other delicacy sent her by friends, and which to take from her seemed quite impossible. "No, Phyllis, no, I cannot take it, indeed it is quite impossible, she must not ask me," I would cry. and the offering would go with a deprecatory note. But the old lady was very obstinate, and a pendulum sort of process now commenced between our houses, a tug of war between two equally determined wills! I have known a package go backwards and forwards five times, but alas! she always conquered in the end.

On coming out of church one day, after listening to a very dull sermon, I exclaimed to my friend, "Did you ever hear such a tissue of bad English!" With a very grave face she turned to me and said, "My dear, I can only thank Heaven that I am not highly educated, if that is all that you could see in that earnest and eloquent discourse!"

We have talked long about mediocrity, and its advantages and disadvantages; but I must admit that there are three things in which mediocrity is inexcusable, and for-ever to be condemned; and those three are—The heart of a woman; the head of a doctor; and a cup of coffee.

Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, Mar 2009