The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Miss Mason of the House of Education

by R.A.Pennethorne
Volume 34, 1923, pgs. 73-77

In Memoriam: Charlotte M. Mason

(London: PNEU, 1923)

It is an amazing thought when now it has pleased God to take from us our Head, full of years and honour, that when first I came to the House of Education and fell under her influence, she was not more than five years older than I find myself to-day. She seemed to us then ageless and immortal, a completed being, because she had self-command and a power of standing aside and leaving the young to be young, which is the rarest of all gifts at any age.

Though of course we students did not realize it then, the training of teachers for home schoolrooms was still something new and experimental, and we were unconsciously taking part in a great movement which was to raise the status of the teacher, because behind us there was a central authority and control which could uphold our interests on the one hand, and give sage advice on the other, when foolish youth had not yet mastered "the art of living in other people's houses."

When I went as a student to Ambleside it was from experiences of many different worlds. I had been dragged up by the worst types of governesses at home, I had spent a few years in what was then considered an excellent high school, and one year in a typical old-fashioned boarding-school where English did not matter and French and Music did. I had had glimpses into the great world of people who mattered and who had every earthly advantage which might lead to culture and knowledge of the world, and all through my childhood I had had the constant companionship of an old godfather who knew every building of note and every person of distinction, and I had had glimpses into the merely frivolous narrow life of a social residential town, and into the poverty and restrictions and sheer vacuity of a small country commercial town.

All this is detailed not from the biographical point of view but to show the standards of judgment and of living which I, as one type of student, brought with me to be revolutionized by that great influence. The first thing which struck me was Miss Mason's marvellous courtesy—she knew only the bare outlines of our previous lives, but she spoke to us all as "persons," and helped us to be dignified by treating us with dignity. Such varied experiences had given me the rather ugly cynicism of observant youth, and yet when in Psychology lectures our opinions were asked for and freely expressed and I rapped out some bitter half-truth, far from snubbing the distorted vision Miss Mason would always enlarge our perceptions by some word of wisdom or charity while not denying the half-truths which were all that we could see.

Once, and once only in my student days, was she confronted with one of those examples of youth's foolish rebellion which were commonplaces of school life in those days—her method of dealing with the situation gave me a marvellous insight into what she meant by discipline—nothing was "done to" the offenders—we were all simply left to talk over the situation and find a solution; the offenders having time to "come to themselves" bitterly repented, and found, I think greatly to their surprise, that public opinion had been entirely against them.

The whole atmosphere of the house was so extraordinarily good—nothing ignoble seemed natural within its doors, and moreover the actual surroundings, the books, the pictures (reproductions of old masters), the simple furniture and the wild flowers for decoration everywhere were a revelation in themselves in those days when the world either lived in a crowd of ancestral treasures or in the unutterable hideousness of the Victorian Age when prosperity had to be apparent.

No one, I am afraid, will ever enshrine Miss Mason's "Table Talk" in a book, but it was a marvellous training for young minds, her wit was so quick and her brain so trained and well-stored that ours had to take kangaroo leaps to keep up with her at all, and she had mastered the difficult art of eating and talking—in those days when heavy dinner-parties were still frequent, most people either ate or talked and neither made for true enjoyment of any meal. She would often at meals repeat once some fragment of great poetry and ask us to say it to her on the following day at luncheon, and in that way we learnt more than one treasure such as Trench's Sonnet on Prayer.

In those days too, we students received from her on Sunday afternoons the thoughts on the Gospels afterwards given a permanent form in verse in The Saviour of the World. These too were a revelation of the mental side of our faith—young people are often dogmatic, often merely narrowly pious, more often one feels conventional and indifferent, but that hour in the crowded drawing-room was an hour of thought in which we were brought suddenly to the point of asking ourselves "What do I think?" "How do I understand?" And very wise and helpful were the suggestions laid before us.

Life at the college with its many interests, in which she so marvellously shared, included, in those days, when the shadow of ill-health was not lying so heavily upon Miss Mason, the constant joy and stimulus of guests. Then we would see what the play of mind upon mind really meant, then we would be made to realize that however distinguished and clever these personages might be, they were our guests as well as hers, and sudden calls would come upon us to whip up some souffle of an entertainment for them on the spur of the moment!

It was that training in readiness and courage for which we could never be grateful enough in after years—again and again we would be asked to do something we had never dreamt of doing and be told to say "Oh, what a joke" and do it! Thus we learnt the humility which never thinks of self or fears to make a fool of "self" when the call comes in the path of duty.

But for all the lofty heights pointed out to us it was the little human touches of understanding with our weaknesses which won our hearts—no scolding when there had been some wild ebullition of noise and high spirits at one of our revels, only the next morning "My dears, weren't you a little wild last night?" no ignoring our natural love of pretty clothes (in which she always set us a delightfully good example) but "Don't try to have the hat in Church, my dears, but remember the neatness and care of Him who left the graves clothes 'folded together at the head' on Easter Morning." And I remember one of her very few personal anecdotes was a poignant little story of how she felt when one of her mother's white trousseau petticoats was made into a frock for her in childhood and she somehow felt that it was not "new" and not "right."

But it was the outlook on our future life which she gave us both by precept and example which was so marvellous—many of us came to our training as a professional necessity, anxious to teach, to use our own brains and good education, and to learn because we must, and because in those days the professions were not open to women but I think none of us left without the sense of a vocation, "I have a life to give." Teaching was to be a mission carrying the breath of life to God's children, going out "two and two" with the mothers of our children to labour in God's vineyard—not looking for results or rewards or the praise of men but praying for our children that they "might increase" even as we "decreased."

Many times since those long past years have I revisited the old scenes, and always found the same wonderful welcome and recollection of circumstances and people which made her interest so real and so living. She always looked ahead and so never belonged merely to any one "present day," for it is only the people whose opinions can be dated who ever really grow old.

We shall rejoice in later days to think that she was to the last living the ordered life of good habits which we so loved to remember and find still going on, working always, but having the self-control to rest at regular times (which few ardent workers have), reading enormously, and with extraordinary relish and width of selection, enjoying the marvellous country around her and loving her horse and her dog and her daily outing with them, which made it possible for her still to see the heron in the pool or the Globe Flower on the bank.

Only her "bairns," as she called her students, can piece together as in a precious mosaic her life of little personal kindnesses, of sage advice or admonition, of charity, and clarity of judgment—some lives are better written in the lives of those who come after them than in the pages of a biography—let us make it so with hers.

"Let us now praise famous men
Men of little shewing
For their work continueth
Broad and deep—continueth
Greater than their knowing."

Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio