The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Minor Morals.

By Miss Wordsworth, Principal of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.
Volume 13, 1902, pg. 922-927

[A Paper read before the Parent's Union, at Leeds, October 6th, 1902.]

I have ventured to choose this subject as the text for the little discourse I have been invited to give here to-night, and in so doing I feel very much like a clergyman occupying a strange pulpit, who, if he has some disadvantages in not knowing his audience, has at least this one advantage, that he being a perfect stranger to them and they to him, nothing that he can say will be looked upon as personal, and what is at least important, that they will probably have no opportunity of contrasting his theories with his practice, his high ideals with his very inadequate attainment. I trust, nevertheless, that I may have all the indulgence which I shall greatly need at your hands.

By minor morals I mean all those little but very important pieces of good manners, all those lessons of good breeding which can really only be properly taught at home, and on which not only much of a man's or woman's success in life depends, but the comfort and pleasure others may take in their society; and my reason for speaking of them is, not only for the sake of the comparatively few girls who come up to Ladies' Colleges, but for the much larger number who have to make their way in the ordinary world, and who often are placed at a great disadvantage by little personal peculiarities. Good looks are not within our power, but good manners are. "Jack Wilkes," who was a very ugly man, boasted that--give him a quarter of an hour's start--he would cut out the handsomest man in England in winning the favour of any lady he was courting simply by the attraction of his manners and conversation. We do not exactly wish our young people to take Jack Wilkes for their model, but they may learn something even from him--namely, that manners count for as much or more than looks in the long run. And here let me begin by drawing a distinction between the awkwardness which is the result of shyness, and really vulgar awkwardness. A shy girl may be very shy, but if she is well brought up she does not sit or stand in an ungainly way, she does not fidget nor make faces, she does not wear staring clothes, she is quiet and self-possessed; and by degrees as the shyness wears off she does not become loud and boisterous when off her guard, her laugh is not vulgar and offensive, she does not whistle about the passages, she is not slangy and noisy at one moment, nor does she at another, perhaps at meals, talk just under her breath to the person next her, as if she did not want other people to hear (a very common and very unlady-like habit). She does not take little liberties by way of being at her ease, nor is she guilty of little bits of selfishness and greediness which annoy others, and in fact betray at every step that such good breeding as she has is only skin-deep. A girl of the opposite type often has a very bad time when she leaves home. Her new associates after the first civilities are over become freezingly polite to her--keep her somehow at a distance without being exactly rude, and in fact boycott her almost as effectually as if she were an Irish landlord! Meanwhile the poor girl gets very homesick, wonders why nobody seems to like her, sees other girls of her own standing "catching on," as the phrase is, and wonders why she doesn't "catch on" too. "And yet she really is not a bad sort of girl," someone says. "If only she could be cured of that dreadful laugh, of those awkward tricks at meals, of such and such an ungainly habit. Her mother ought to have broken her of these things at five years old." Alas, poor mothers, how much is laid to your charge! Can you forgive us? But will you also pardon me if I go on to say a few words about the manners of boys and young men? If a father's or mother's responsibility is great for the girls of the family, it is even greater for the boys, because when a boy once leaves home and gets into business his manners are generally fixed for better, or worse. Is it not true that we women--hostesses especially--often suffer a great deal from the bad manners of young men? If a lad comes to call on you or me and sits in a sprawling lounging attitude on our sofa, we can't say anything to him--the only people who could were his parents, who ought to have taken home in hand in his schoolboy days; if another meets me in the street and asks to be directed to a particular house, in a blunt, off-hand manner, without even taking the trouble to raise his hat, or to apologize for detaining me--I cannot teach him better. If we see him walking with a young lady and puffing his tobacco smoke right into her face, the poor girl can hardly object--but the sight is not very creditable to our English manners. I knew an Oxford tutor once who had his wife with him on a reading party, and I well remember their difficulty in politely hinting to one of the youngsters that it was not respectful to a lady to come down to breakfast in carpet slippers!

A good deal of the unpopularity of English people on the Continent is, it may be feared, due to their want of attention to small habits of courtesy. For instance, a foreigner at a table d' hœote naturally gives a little bow and a smile on entering and on leaving to the person or persons opposite him, and the same in a railway carriage. English people for the most part look as icily at their fellow-guests or fellow-travelers as if they were one of the cruets on the table, or one of the umbrellas in the carriage net. Some of us will remember in that amusing book--The Buchholzen in Italy--which is supposed to be the experience of a middle-aged German matron abroad, how, at a junction station (Genoa), two English people get in and possess themselves of the two corner places, despite the protests of previous occupants; how, when there is a chorus of complaint, the English say not a word, but give a greenish-yellow gaze (whatever that may be!) out of their eyes, and will not budge an inch. Presently the Germans, knowing that English ladies dislike tobacco, take the only revenge in their power by lighting their pipes and filling the carriage with smoke. "The smoke (Fr. B. says) was of use. The 'Missis' began to cough, but as she sat on the draughty side the window had to be kept shut, and soon the air of the carriage grew abominably thick. Then the Englishman got up and indignantly said smoking was not allowed. We all answered him with a roar of disapproval, and, after much altercation, at the next station the guard was called. When he saw that the Englishman was complaining of us he stood by quite unmoved and forbade us to smoke. This was more than my husband could put up with. The engine-driver was fetched and he called up the stationmaster. The end of the story was that we had to get into another compartment--because, forsooth, the first was not a smoking carriage. Hardly had we done so when we beheld, if you please, the Englishman deliberately lighting a cigar for himself and pretending to look as if we were not within sight. 'Now we see,' called out my husband, 'of what consequence the English are abroad, and how the Germans are trodden down. I feel sure that English fellow is only a shoemaker or a tailor in London, who is having a continental trip, for impudence is no sign of education. But he belongs to the great British nation, and therefore he allows himself to take these intolerable liberties.'"

Of course there is a touch, but only a touch, of caricature in this. Certain it is, that for some reason or other, the English are very much disliked on the Continent, and if we are the wise people we take ourselves to be, we shall not lay all the blame of it on the French or the Germans, but remember that there is no smoke without fire, and ask ourselves whether we could do nothing to improve ourselves and the rising generation. Now, may I repeat it, that those of us who are concerned with school and college education (though we ought to do all we can, and more than we do), yet are very helpless by the side of parents and home influences. One can't put on good manners like a Sunday coat or Sunday bonnet. We ought really to imbibe them, as the phrase is, with our mother's milk. A child of seven years old ought to have all the instincts and customs of good breeding, just as he or she ought to have of talking habitually good, grammatical English, and of speaking plainly and articulately--another thing, by the way, which is sadly neglected in these days, and specially important to young men. However much taken by surprise we may be by some quite sudden or unexpected event, our instincts of courtesy, of unselfishness (for that is what courtesy really means), of refinement, of self-control! Think what these words mean! They mean some of the very highest of Christian virtues. It is the same unselfishness which makes you courteous to your neighbour in a railway carriage, which at another time makes you sit up all night with a sick or dying friend. It is this same self-control which makes a boy or girl not take the nicest helping at dinner, or the most comfortable seat in the room, which helps him or her check a bad and vulgar word, an evil thought, a coarse appetite, or an all but ungovernable passion.

It must be owned however, that sometimes very kind-hearted people do say very tactless things. I was much amused by a story I read the other day of the celebrated Lord Shaftesbury, the philanthropist, who on one occasion was at a great Royal entertainment, I think in Buckingham Palace. He had been sitting by the Duchess of Sutherland and he suddenly got up, crossed the room, and sat down by (let us say) the Duchess of Inverness. After an interval, he observed to a friend, "I had to run away from the duchess of Sutherland--the fire near her was so intolerably hot, and I wanted to cool myself." "Did you tell her why you deserted her?" asked his friend. "No, I didn't, but I told the Duchess of Inverness why I came and sat by her!" This may be called putting one's foot into it twice over, and I venture to think if Lord Shaftesbury had had a kind and clever mother instead of having a far from happy childhood, she would have laughed him out of blunders like this at a much earlier age.

But, to return. The foundation of stones of character are laid in the home, aye, in the nursery--one might almost say in the infant's cradle: and may I say one thing in conclusion? There is a good deal of sentimental talk about a father's love, and still more about a mother's love, and, thank God, there is a blessed reality behind it. But do let us remember that love ought to be very fearless, very true, very just, very farsighted. Mothers are so much afraid of forfeiting their children's--especially their boys'--affection that they do not always find fault, and, to use a familiar phrase, "put their foot down" when they ought--many and many a lad has been ruined by too fond a mother. I sometimes think that phrase we sometimes smile at in the marriage service, of not being afraid with any amazement, is quite as applicable to mothers as to wives. They are, perhaps, not exactly afraid of their children, but they are afraid of some dreadful thing happening if they are too strict with them. Now, dare I say that this shews a very imperfect knowledge of human nature? Children like strictness. They like something that they can lean their whole weight against, or pull as hard at as they please, without its giving way. They like something firmer and stronger than themselves. In these days when our young men, and to a certain extent our young women, are going out to the four quarters of the world, how important is it that they should do justice to themselves and to their homes! In these days when even the son of a working man may come to be an archbishop or member of Parliament, or high in some other profession, how much he may have to thank his mother for if his manners are good; how much to regret if they are bad. How hard it is to put up with even a distinguished man if he is unpunctual, keeps people waiting, does not answer his letters, is awkward and uncouth in his personal habits, rude and discourteous in his manners; if he cannot speak a few words clearly and collectedly in public, or, on the other hand, if he is tiresome, prosy, and long-winded, and how often parents can make or mar their children in these ways!

But I must hurry on the conclusion. May I venture to say one other thing? and that is that fathers should never treat mothers, or mothers fathers disrespectfully before the children. If a man flatly contradicts his wife, or a woman her husband, how can they expect the children not to follow suit? The habit of reverence is almost dying out in some quarters. How, for instance, can children look up to their clergyman or their teachers if parents criticise and laugh at them in their presence? I know this calls for very disagreeable self-restraint sometimes on the part of us grown-up people--but is not such self-restraint very good for us? Providence sends children into this world to educate the grown-up people, quite as much as to be educated by them, and though we have no children of our own we can still very often say in the words of the poet:--

"O dearest, dearest boy, my heart
For better lore would seldom yearn--
Could I but teach the hundredth part
Of what from thee I learn."

Typed by Lena Cole June 2021