Strong-Minded Gentlewomen of Long Ago Before the Blue Stockings. By
Ada Graham Wallas. (Allen
and Unwin. 8s. 6d.)
THE social power of money would seem to have been quite as strong in the seventeenth century as it is now. The younger sons of landowners had no social position at all. Their daughters married quite outside the land-owning class, and when, as was often the case, they did not marry at all, were reduced to earning their own livings as governesses or " waiting women." Few of them had any education in the usual sense of the word, but many had very good abilities, and constitute a living proof of the saying of the educational critic Norris that a clear head is better than a full one and that " stuffage of the mind " may be overrated.
Mrs. Graham Wallas in the first of her charming chapters introduces us to one of these penniless gentlewomen—Hannah Woolley. An exceptionally strong-minded woman, she began to make her own living by teaching before she was fifteen, made it successfully for ten years, and then married a school- master, working harder than ever as the mother of a family and head matron to " three score boarders." In a busy life, however, she found time to write five books and to be very happy. True she had, as she tells us, many troubles but never an unbearable affliction, never an " ill-husband or undutiful children." " I have been married to two worthy Eminent and brave Persons ; and I have four Sons as good Children as ever woman did bear." The larger part of her literary output concerns cookery and the care of health, but she finds space for a great deal of good advice as to the conduct of life. At seventeen she became governess in the family of " a Noble Lady," and in the capacity of teacher, secretary, and compa- nion she saw something of life at Court, and gives her opinions very confidently upon the fashions, the management of children and how to hold one's own in a subordinate position. In the matter of dress, good taste forbids extremes. Indeed, " in all things (except Piety) Mediocrity, and the Golden 'Mean, is to be observed," while no woman's expenditure " should exceed the Arithmetic of her Revenues." Her advice to those who have come down in the world is austere. They should look upon their position not " as what it bath been, but what it is."
The most interesting of her books is The Gentlewoman's Companion, which she desOribes in her Fireface as a " guide to the Female Sex, in all Relations, Companies, Conditions, and States of Lives, even from childhood down to old age ; from the Lady at the Court, to the Cook-maid in the countri." Her advice is very shrewd and very feminine. She deals with all sorts of delicate situations. For instance, how to bring to " a 'better understanding a Female, Friend whom you suspect of youthful excursions," how mildly and " in an insinuating manner ." to" lay open her, errors, " how " elegantly to
complain of injuries done," and how to correct in a young gentlewoman the fault of " a wandering eye."
With regard to the upbringing of children her point of view is modern. We hope the schoolmaster benefited by her counsel. In her extreme youth she was, she says, too- severe. " Tenderness to youth " came to her with her own children. " Let them," she advises, " be lovingly and quietly governed." She exhorts nursemaids " not to be churlish, or dogged to them, but be merry and pleasant and contrive or invent pretty pastimes agreeable to their age." Relations between parents and children do not seem to have been altogether different in those days. Even then it was common for children "not only to deride the imperfections of their parents but forge and pretend more than they have."
In Lord Halifax's well-known Advice to a Daughter, with which Mrs. Graham Wallas deals in another chapter, the same modern note sounds where children are concerned. " The first thought of your children," he assures the little girl " whose understanding is not yet very tall," will have " no small ad- mixture of mutiny. You must not be angry except you would increase it, deny them as seldom as you can, and when there is no avoiding it, you must do it gently." The great John Locke when directing the education of his friend Lady Masham's son, is of course still more in front of his time. The secret of education is, he says, to find a way " how to keep a child's spirits easy, active, and free, and yet at the same time to restrain him from many things he has a mind to, and to draw him to things that are uneasy to him."
But we are digressing. Mrs. Wallas does not keep us long with Locke, but brings us back to a spiritual progenitor of the Blue-stockings, one Mary Astel, a somewhat bitter old maid who dreamed in Queen Anne's reign of a " seminary " for women, " a place of retirement for ladies of quality who, under the supervision of other ladies of quality, would have time to cultivate their minds," withdrawn from " the cumber- some and infectious world." She does not wish in any way to put them against their natural lot, but merely to rescue as many as may be " from that meanness of spirit into which the generality of them are sunk." Such Seminarists would be free to marry if they liked. Their training would help them, she is sure, to bring up their children, about whose early education many fathers trouble themselves not at all, " nor are the greater part of them like to do much good, since Pre- cepts contradicted by Example seldom prove effectual." Know- ledge, as she truly says, " will not lie dead " upon a woman's hands because she has no children. " The whole World is a single Ladie's Family." -All the same this good spinster cannot be said to have taken the whole world to her breast. She required of all her daughters that they should belong to the Church of England, and turned a very sour face to those whom she looked on " as the dearest spawn of the Church of Rome, our English Dissenters." Certainly she was an adept at backhanders for all her philanthropic zeal ! Poor woman ! Her dream never materialized. She founded no College. Her single-minded efforts remained barren to the end.