No. VII. 


                                             To Mrs. ———. 


         Be not too much alarmed, my friend, at your daughter’s predilection for novels and romances; nor think of restraining her by authority from this her favourite pursuit; as by so doing, you would probably lose her confidence, without correcting her taste; in which case the mischief might indeed become serious. She is now advancing towards womanhood, and will expect to be treated no longer as a child, but as a reasonable being; and this expectation is just. The reciprocal duties between parents and children, though they ought never to cease, yet change their nature at different periods of life. A good mother, who has both by [87] example and precept trained her offspring in the principles and practice of virtue, will have nothing to fear from this change. While she proves herself by her whole conduct the friend of her children, and entitles herself to their love and reverence, her influence will be unbounded, because the habits of obedience, which were acquired in childhood, will be strengthened by reason and affection; and her empire will be over the heart and understanding. A disposition to act in opposition to coercive and arbitrary measures, has been frequently attributed to a perverseness in human nature: this appears to me a false and injurious notion. Does it not rather indicate that love of freedom, and generous disdain of imposition, that ever glow in an elevated and noble mind? I should tremble for the future moral conduct of the child, whom force and blows only could restrain from doing what was wrong; should he ever arrive at maturity, if he break not the laws of his country, it will be merely because he is with-held by sordid and selfish motives. [88]

         I have scarce ever known an amiable young mind that has not been a little tinctured, with what “the sons of interest deem romance.” If the first steps into life are marked by coldness, and caution, such a character will never possess any other than negative virtues, though it may incur few hazards.

 

         “Youth’s the lovely source of generous foibles.” 

 

Where nothing is risqued, nothing can be gained. We shall certainly be subjected to disappointment, by forming flushed and ardent expectations; and find perhaps a brake of thorns, were we expected a parterre of flowers. Yet, “the exertion of our own faculties (says a sensible writer) will be the blessed fruit of a disappointed hope. 

         My revered, and deceased friend Mr. Robinson, of Cambridge, writing to me on the advantages of early affliction, observes “that, before he met with it in Shakespear, he had been convinced that — 

 

         “There was some soul of good, in things evil, 

         Would mean observingly distil it out.” [89]

 

He goes on to add, — “I am of opinion, that if it be good for mankind to bear the yoke, it is chiefly so by bearing it in their youth. Notice the most of those, who have grown to maturity without any exercises of this kind! Absolute strangers to themselves, and to the world in which they live! the latent powers of their own minds unknown, diamonds in rocks unconvulsed! Strangers to the feelings of others, and never impregnated with sympathy, the ferment of the soul! Nothing is so conducive to the knowledge of God, to the dignity of man, to the world in which we live, to that to which we are going, as a smarting course of providential discipline.”1

         But the age of chivalry (as a certain rhetorician laments) is no more! The present race of young people are too vapid, and too dissipated to be captivated by sublime descriptions of heroic virtue; and too much engrossed by the important pursuit, of varying their outward appearance with the constant fluctuation of mode, to have leisure to [90] attend to the dangerous refinements of sentiment. Yet do not mistake me, nor suppose that I mean to recommend the indiscriminate perusal of romances and novels; on the contrary, I think with you, that the generality of works of this kind are frivolous, if not pernicious; though there are undoubtedly, many exceptions. But the love of the marvellous, or out of the extraordinary, and unexpected coincidences, is natural to young minds, that have any degree of energy and fancy. I would only wish them to be fond of books, and I should have no doubt of being able to lead their taste, from the pursuit of mere amusement, to solid improvement. Awaken but the desire of information, and the gradation from pursuing “the mazes of some wonderous tale,” up to the highest degree of interesting and useful knowledge, is easy and natural. Accustom your daughters by a cheerful and amiable frankness, to do nothing without consulting you; let them read with you, and let the choice of their books be free. Converse with them on the merits of the various authors, and accustom them to critical, [91] and literary discussions. They will soon be emulous of gaining your approbation by entering into your ideas and be ashamed of being pleased with what you ridicule as absurd, and out of nature, or disapprove, as having an improper and immoral tendency. You have only to persuade them that you have a confidence in their principles, and good sense, and they will be eager to justify your favourable opinion. The human heart in early life, before the world, the mean, unfeeling, selfish world, breaks in upon its gay mistakes, is naturally grateful, and susceptible of lively treatment. This sensibility properly cherished, and cultivated, may be made to produce the noblest fruits. I often shudder, when I observe in large families the little attention that is paid to the minds of the children, because by an education equally defective, the parents are themselves incapacitated for this most important change. “How should a woman unused to reflection, be capable of educating children? How will she be able to discern what is proper for them? [92] How shall she train them to virtues, to which she is herself a stranger, or to any kind of merit she has no idea? She will only know how to sooth, or to menace them, to render them either insolent or timorous; she will either make them mannerly monkeys, or wild idle boys; but they never will shew any marks of good sense, or behave as amiable children.” Rousseau. 

         I cannot help, on every occasion, joining my feeble efforts to those of the admirable assertor of female rights, in endeavouring to stimulate, and rouse my sex from the state of mental degradation, and bondage, in which they have so long been held. Like monarchs, we have been flattered into imbecility, by those who wish to take advantage of our weakness. It was said by Christina, Queen of Sweden, that she sought the company of men, merely because they were not women. A severe, and pointed sarcasm! Be not, my fair friends, and companions, satisfied with the poor praise of being pretty; the empire of beauty gives [93] but a transient power; no sooner has it arrived at maturity, than it begins to droop and fade. Entitle yourselves to respect and admiration, by cultivating those virtues, that will improve with time, and will shed a lustre over sickness and age, when every external charm is fled. Remember, you are born for immortality (not merely for the solace of man, but for those regions where there will be neither marrying, nor giving in marriage;) and that you must give an account of the talents committed to your charge! Pardon this digression. 

         Your Elizabeth, you tell me, is reading the Sorrows of Werter (notwithstanding your remonstrances) and seems much affected by it: at which I am not surprised the flowery, and enthusiastic style, in which it is written, is calculated to catch the imagination, and move the passions; but when this tumult of the senses subsides, and we calmly reflect on the events, by which we have suffered ourselves to be agitated, we blush to find we have been sympathising with the extravagant, and fastidious [95] distresses of a madman, made up of pride, caprice, and passion; full of erroneous sentiments, sophistical notions, and real vices; slightly varnished over by superficial, and fanciful perfections; indulging without restraint, an impetuous and criminal attachment, from which he makes no efforts to free himself; consuming the season for active life in enervating indolence; justifying, and allowing himself in flights of vehement and extravagant passions, by which he is ever on the brink of the most fatal, and cruel outrages. Yet this man so weak, so wicked! dignifies his excesses by the names of sentiment, delicacy, and tenderness; and deliberately talks of entering with a pure heart, into the presence of his Creator, while arraigning his dispensations, and contemning his power, by resolving to terminate his own existence, and impiously— “To pluck from God’s right hand, his instruments of death.”* 

 

* Some years ago, when “the Sorrows of Werter” were a subject of general conversation, from the number of elegant engravings, which it had occasioned, I wrote [95] some observations upon it, which were inserted by a friend in the Universal Magazine, with my name affixed to them. A little time after, I found them to my great surprise (with some additions) as the conclusion of a new edition of the work, without being marked as a quotation, or any acknowledgement being made from whence they were taken.

 

You ask, if I would advise you to put Richardson’s Clarissa into the hands of your daughters, which they seem very desirous of perusing? If we may judge of the merit of work by the effects by which it produces on the mind, I confess, this is a book, which I would recommend to the attention of any young persons under my care. I read it repeatedly in very early life, and ever found my mind more pure, more chastened, more elevated after the perusal of it. The extreme youth and beauty, fine talents, and exalted piety of the heroine, render her character, I allow, something like the fine ideal beauty of the ancients. Yet in contemplating the perfect model, the imagination is raised, and the soul affected; we perceive the pencil of genius, and while we admire, catch the glorious enthusiasm, the characters are well preserved, and the [96] epistolary style of the several writers marked with peculiar distinction. It is generally (and perhaps not without reason, thought too prolix, but I own, I ever felt myself more interested from this minuteness, and perceived, in the nicer shades and touches, the hand of a master. The closing scenes of the lives of Clarissa, Belton, Sinclair, and Lovelace, afford an affecting and admirable lesson. The vivacity of Miss Howe, the virtue and piety of Clarissa, the brilliant wit of Lovelace, and the manly integrity and good sense of the reformed Belford, enliven the narrative with a beautiful variety, and keep up the attention. Rousseau’s Heloise seems written I would never pretend to give a cook judgement; for such are the graces of his style, that it is scarcely possible to read them dispassionately. The man of feeling, by the author of the Mirrour, is an elegant and picturesque little performance; it has all the pathos of Sterne, without any of his faults. Would it not be easy to lead young persons from these works to the periodical [97] Essays, which are continually interspersed with lively, and entertaining narrations, and where instruction comes in the dress of amusement. From thence, the transition to biography would not be difficult; the Life of Petrarch, as translated by Mrs. Dobson, is an interesting and charming work, that cannot fail to engage a youthful and sensible heart. Voltaire’s History of Charles the Twelfth of Sweden, and Peter the Great, and Rollins’s Account of Cyrus and Alexander, are highly calculated to gratify a love of the marvellous, by the uncommon and striking incidents with which they are abound. Sully’s Memoirs of Henty the Fourth of France, and Stuart’s History of the unfortunate Mary, Queen of Scots, at once excite our sympathy, engage our affections, and awaken our curiosity. Wraxhall’s Memoirs of the Kings of France, and Voltaire’s Account of the Reign of Louis the Fourteenth, are also composed in a manner to amuse and instruct, and to generate a taste for historical reading: when the mind expanded, and liberalized by tracing the fate of nations, and the rise and fall of empires, [98] will proceed to studies still more interesting; to philosophical, political, moral, and religious truth. The love of information will by innumerable associations, become at length almost disinterested, and every interval from active employment will be devoted to mental improvement. 

         “The more of mind there is in your solitary employments, (says Lavater) the more dignity there is in your character.” Truly wretched, and contemptible must be that being, who has no resources in himself, but is necessitated to be an useless and insupportable burthen upon society! 

         Yet, while I would inculcate a taste for literature on young minds, I do not wish them to become mere bookworms. It is of the utmost consequence to habituate youth to a regular arrangement of their several employments, so that one duty may not supercede, or interfere with another. The love of order, is the foundation of every virtue. Early hours are at once beneficial to the health, and intellect, and afford [99] time for an active mind to perform the whole circle of its duties. The late Mr. Robinson, of Cambridge, in a beautiful morning exercise on industry, affixed to his village sermons, affirms, “That lying late in bed, is an intemperance of the most pernicious kind; it attacks life in its essential powers, makes the blood forget its way, and creep lazy along the veins; relaxes the fibres, unstrings the nerves, evaporates the animals spirits, saddens the soul, dulls the fancy, and subdues, and stupefies the man.” 

         The Pythagorean method, of reviewing every night the actions of the past day, should in one sense be reversed, and every morning the employments of the ensuing day be regularly planned, with as little deviation as possible. By this means, all things may be conducted and accomplished without confusion, and our several duties (making allowance for human frailty) to our Creator, to ourselves, and to our fellow-creatures be discharged. I never hear people complaining of want of time, but I [100] suspect there must be some bad management, however multifarious the business, (if we do not undertake what exceeds our capacity to perform) it may be accomplished by method and regularity; and without it, nothing will ever be performed well. 

         Habituate your children, if possible, to order in their conduct, their studies, their employments, their dress, their furniture, and their domestic concerns; and they will have made more than half their way to virtue. “I have heard nothing but what is good of such an one, (observes Lavater) yet I cannot love him heartily; that is, I can have no dependence on his taste, his love of order, his rectitude, because he suffers two ornaments of dimensions exactly similar, to hang together the one two inches higher than the other.” This aphorism is founded on truth, however ridiculous at first view it may appear. 

         Excuse the freedom with which I have written, and be assured I am, &c. 

 



See Robinson’s letter to Hays, 4 March 1789.