No. IV

To Mrs. ———. 

My dear Madam, 

            Your eldest daughter you inform me is not entering her fifteenth year, and discovers a love of books, which gives you great pleasure, as you justly consider a taste for reading as the best foundation for moral as well as speculative improvement. Books contain the best parts of the finest human minds, in them you perceive only the excellencies of genius without those shades that must unavoidably discolor the purest human virtues. I am aware that book-knowledge has been ridicules by many, as useless in the common intercourses of life; but these sarcasms I fancy have generally been the refuge of ignorance, glorying in its shame; and that knowledge of the world which they recommend as substitute, when analyzed, I believe frequently consists in an acquaintance which chicanery and turpitude, and “to touch pitch and not be [32] defiled,” is very difficult. It certainly is not necessary for every individual to apply himself to abstract and scientific pursuits, as this would be defeating the purposes of society, which requires influences as well as heads, “And what is above us (said Socrates) doth not concern us;” but there are few situations in the lease degree superior to the lowest ranks of life, that do not allow of some leisure, and to fill up that leisure in a manner that may not only afford present entertainment, but also lay in stores for future improvement, is certainly highly laudable. Nothing is so much to be avoided in the education of young people, as the leaving too many hours of vacuity; by habits of indolence, the body, the mind, and the morals are endangered. Lavater justly observes, that “idleness is the crying sin of human nature.” It is an ancient and true maxim, “That nothing can be accomplished without labor, and every thing with it.” Those to whom the care of youth is intrusted, should be particularly sedulous to guard them from this canker of every virtue, by exciting them to exercise [33] their fancy and ingenuity, their faculties and their limbs. 

          I confess I am no advocate for cramping the minds and bodies of young girls, by keeping them for ever poring over needlework (and when I see the tapestry and tentstitch of former times, I sigh at the waste of eyes, spirits, and time); not do I think it so very important a part of female education as has generally been supposed. In well-regulated families, where nothing is left till to-morrow, which can be done today, where every department is conducted with order and economy, where the business of the day is planned in the morning, and one thing concluded before another is begun; where the day is lengthened by early hours and short temperate meals, “eating to live, not living only to eat;” I am well assured there cannot be any occasion for this laborious and sempstress-like application: surely  the covering of the body ought not to be the sole business of life. I doubt whether there will be any sewing in the next world, how then will those [34] employ themselves who have done nothing else in this? 

            Sempronia had a large family of daughters, whom she early trained with unrelenting rigour to the duties of the nonresistance and passive obedience. All attention to literature, she considered as mere waste of time, and valued herself upon being unacquainted with any other book than the Bible. The sole accomplishments which this notable lady deemed necessary to constitute a good wife and mother, were to scold and half starve her servants, to oblige her children to say their prayers and go statedly to church and to make clothes and household furniture from morning till night; while to supply them with constant employment of this nature, more money was expended and materials wasted, than would have paid for having the work done from home, and have purchased a handsome collection of books beside. The unfortunate girls submitted to this severe discipline from hard necessity, but not without murmuring; till at length, from close [35] confinement, and the dull uniformity of one tedious pursuit, the bloom faded from their cheeks and the lustre from their eyes, their tempers lost their sprightliness, and their health its vigor. Their mother who really loved them, and who thought that while she was blighting the tender blossom in its spring, she was performing the duties of a prudent and good parent, was alarmed at the change she perceived; and after vainly trying the efficacy of various quack medicines recommended as infallible restoratives, accompanied the young ladies to one of the fashionable watering places, in the hope of their receiving benefit from the salubrious effects of the sea air. 

            During their residence at Brighthelmstone, the languid charms of the elder daughter attracted the notice of the son of a wealthy citizen, who having received a liberal, though mercantile education, had been accustomed to amuse himself in the intervals of commercial business, with the study of the Belles-Lettres. His imagination has acquired by these pursuits a tincture of what [36] is commonly called romance by the generality of the trading part of mankind; he had been disgusted with the venal daughters of fashion, and the really sweet, though fading countenance of our young lady (whom I shall call Serena) the bashfulness of her manners, and the meekness of her deportment, awakened his tenderness, and flattered his vanity. The vulgar and confined notions of the mother he dignified with the name of simplicity; and as his Serena seldom ventured to converse freely in his presence her silence he construed into the effect of a delicate timidity. He could not perceive that her mind had been greatly neglected, but he consoled himself with the hope of giving it improvement and polish, and exclaimed with Rousseau, “Lovely ignorance! Happy will he be who is destined to instruct her.” Full of these ideas he hastened their union, that he might remove his charming mistress out of a family where he conceived she was degraded, and transplant her into— 


         “A richer foil, where vernal suns and flowers, 

         Diffuse their warmest, largest influence.” [37]


Serena, by sea-bathing, recreation, and the attentions of her lover, which gave her thoughts a new turn, in some measure recovered her health and beauty, in a few weeks became the wife of Melville, who now believed himself as the summit of human felicity. After the first congratulations and compliments were over, he conducted his bride to a pleasant villa, situated on the banks of the Thames, a few miles from the metropolis, intending before he introduced her to his connections (many of whom were among the polite and the literary) to devote his leisure hours to the cultivation and enlargement of her understanding. 

          For this purpose he furnished a commodious library with an elegant assortment of books, and when after business of the day he returned from town, he would endeavor to entertain his Serena, by reading select passages from the best English authors, particularly the works of the Poets, and moral Essayists. But to his great mortification, when after repeating with enthusiasm some of the finest passages in Shakespear, he [38] glanced his eyes on his lady to perceive the effect it produced; the settled vacuity of her features announced the blank within. She seemed to listen, and faintly smiled, but it was the forced smile of lassitude; she had no associations that could make her feel any interest in the glowing pictures of genius, and would interrupt the soul-harrowing scene between Hamlet and his guilty mother, to observe upon a phaeton that passed the window, or return the caresses of a favorite lap-dog. Poor Melville shuddered! The visionary scene of bliss began to fade from his imagination, he threw down his book, and to hide his chagrin, proposed to his wife a walk, as she had yet seen but little of the adjacent country. She readily agreed to the accompany him. Happy to be relieved from the irksome task, of giving a feigned attention to what she could not comprehend. Melville endeavoured to direct her view as they passed to every sublime and beautiful feature in nature, the wood and the water, the hill and the valley, the wild heath and the cultivated garden— 


         “The sun-shine gleaming as through amber clouds, 

         O’er all the western sky.” [39]


But alas! the varied “shews and forms”* of nature were lost on the sterile fancy that had never received— “fair cultures kind enlivening aid.” She entreated that they might return to the high road, for she was sure the path they had taken must be equally unsafe as dull and difficult, and she was every moment in terror, left a robber should start out of the thicket. Her disgusted companion sighed as he silently acceded to her proposal, and began unwillingly to be convinced that the true beauty must depend upon moral sentiment, and that the mere varnish of a fair complexion could make no amends for a weak and empty mind. 

           Vain was every subsequent attempt to give fire to this breathing clay, early habits had rendered the mental organs callous; the pretty insipid Serena would smile when he smiled, and weep when he frowned, but her [40] tenderness flattered not; for there was no distinction in it. She had no will of her own (for the little energy she inherited from nature, had been quenched by the despotic discipline of the good lady her mother) and Melville wearied by the uniformity of her compliances, which gratified neither his judgement nor his heart, vainly exhorted her sometimes to have a taste of her own; for he would even have preferred opposition to the dead calm in which their days languished, and he dreaded to enliven them by society; for the gross inaccuracies, and frivolity of his lady’s conversation, exposed him to the ridicule of his acquaintance, and covered him with confusion. 

            Nor did the domestic management of his affairs afford him any consolation. His wife sought amusement in the company of her servants, she preserved no dignity of character, and acted not upon any plan; consequently her authority was despised, nothing was conducted with regularity, and while she sat whole days in loose dishabille to supernumerary needle-work, which turned [41] to little account, her house was filled with litter and disorder, her children ran wild, and her domestics quarreled among themselves, and defrauded their master, as amid frequent changes, the certain consequence of mismanagement, it could not be expected that they would all be honest. 

         The unfortunate Melville, whose mind was formed for elegant and domestic tenderness, execrated his fate in the bitterness of his foul, and desperately sought to forget his disappointment in scenes of dissipation and extravagance; and in a few years his expenses abroad, and the want of the order and economy at home, involved them in the miseries of insolvency. 

            This little history requires no comment; your Elizabeth, for whose entertainment it is intended, will perhaps be stimulated by it to new ardor in mental pursuits. That I interest myself in her happiness, you need not now be informed, and that I am affectionately, &c. yours. [42] 


* Oh! nature, all thy shews and forms, 

 For pensive feeling hearts have charms. 

                      Burn’s Poems.