18. ON THE CULTURE OF BEAUTY,
GRACE, AND HEALTH IN YOUTH –III
MY DEAR SIBYL, – You ask me whether I think your girls would be benefited by gymnastic exercises, and if so, under what circumstances and with what precautions.
Children living in the country, and accustomed to outdoor games, do not certainly need gymnastic or calisthenic training so much as those who are imprisoned in towns and unable to obtain hardy exercise; but even for the former the discipline and method of orderly exercises are extremely useful as a means of drill, and of acquiring facility of controlled and graceful movement. Undisciplined exercise is apt to degenerate into mere romping and horse-play, often rude, and sometimes dangerous. The body requires training just as much as the mind, and this training can be secured only by application; the eye needs to learn quickness and precision, the hand steadiness of grasp and of aim, the limbs rhythmic and restrained gesture, the neck and head grace of poise and carriage, the whole body dignity and ease of manner and of presence. Mere running about wildly and unchecked over hills and meadows, though beneficial to pulmonary and muscular development, frequently develops also an awkward gait, hoydenish demeanour and round shoulders, so that unless such liberty is supplemented and corrected by a daily drill, it may be productive of
much that is undesirable. Graceful out-door sports, combining physical training with orderly movement and the discipline which, the acquirement of proficiency necessitates, are, in my opinion, preferable to any other form of exercise. By such methods, not only the muscles of the body and limbs are developed, but the hand and eye also are educated, alertness and intelligence are stimulated, pleasurable emulation evoked, the fresh air plentifully inhaled, and a zest and joy imparted to the exertion which is wanting, equally in the mere systematic practice of gymnastics as a school task, and in the aimless scrambling about over woods and wilds, which is the only form of physical training many country-bred children get.
Lawn tennis is a good form of sport, and one just now particularly popular among young people; so also is cricket, a game, however, unsuitable to girls who are not in robust health and endowed with excellent “staying” power. Archery, which some years ago was deservedly popular among our sex, seems at present to enjoy less favour, though it is assuredly a most graceful and delightsome pastime. I warmly commend it, as also the old English game of “bowls,” played on lawns with a netting, and hardly second to archery itself as a means of educating the eye and hand. In wet or cold weather, however, when outdoor sports are impossible for girls, or only practicable at rare intervals, indoor dancing, calisthenic and gymnastic exercises should be regularly adopted. The Swedish, or Ling system, and that of Dr. Schreber are the simplest and best, as they require no apparatus or aid of any kind, are easily taught, and do not involve any great fatigue. The method of Dr. Schreber consists solely in a series of rhythmic gestures of the body and limbs, performed in the following order: –
1st. Describe a circular movement with each arm twenty times in succession. Extend the arms forward, outward and upward, thirty times in succession, taking eight or ten deep inspirations between each series.
2nd. Execute a circular movement from the waist, swaying the upper part of the body slowly round, the hands resting on the hips, thirty times.
3rd. Extend the leg as nearly at right angles with the body as possible, twelve times each side, taking eight or ten deep inspirations between each series.
4th. Extend and bend the foot twenty times each side; perform the gesture of reaping or sawing thirty times; bend each knee rapidly twenty times; take eight or ten inspirations.
5th. Raise the arm swiftly and rapidly, as in the action of throwing a lance, twelve times in succession throw out both arms simultaneously twenty or thirty times; take eight to ten deep inspirations.
6th. Trot on one spot, resting the hands on the hips, and lifting the feet briskly, a hundred to three hundred times. Take eight or ten deep inspirations.
7th. Jump with the hands on the hips, and the head and body erect, fifty or a hundred times. Take eight or ten inspirations.
These movements, the orderly execution of which should occupy a good half-hour or more, should be performed without haste, and with intervals of repose if necessary, but with all the vigour and heartiness which can be put into them. Every gesture must be ample and resolute, well-defined, and separated by a distinct pause from the preceding and following movements. The exercise must not be pushed to the limit of the performer’s strength; all distress, pain, or exhaustion must be avoided. For weakly girls, or those suffering from
temporary and periodic indisposition, the movements must be modified and curtailed. The room chosen for this exercise should be airy, unencumbered with furniture, and, if possible, uncarpeted. The dress worn must be light, entirely without ligatures, tight heavy skirtings or impeding weights, and the feet should be shod with light heel-less boots or shoes. The time chosen for the exercise should be before breakfast, or during the forenoon, preceding by about an hour the second meal of the day.
Another important and frequently neglected item of physical training is the culture of the voice. Nothing is more favourable to the healthy development of the lungs and chest than the daily exercises of singing and reading aloud. In cases of hereditary tendency to delicacy of the lungs, consumption, or susceptibility of the throat and bronchial tubes to catarrh and cold, this method of training is of sovereign importance, and too much stress cannot be laid on its value as a remedial agent. Let your girls sing their scales and voice exercises every morning for half an hour, and in the evening let them read aloud for a full hour at least.
To read aloud well is an art requiring careful and patient application. It does not, for instance, suffice to sit in a cramped position before a table, the elbows thrust forward – perhaps resting on each side of the book – and the head bent over it, jabbering rapidly sentence after sentence in a half-audible voice. The reader should sit in a comfortable and easy attitude – or even stand, if she is a strong girl – in front of a book-rest, the shoulders thrown well back and the chest forward, the arms by the sides, or resting, if she sits, loosely in her lap. The voice must be measured, resonant, and clearly distinct in its enunciation,
every syllable must be pronounced with precision, the sound must not be suffered to drop towards the end of the word or sentence, the breath must be well sustained, the stops carefully observed, and a pause of a half minute or more, allowed at the end of the paragraphs. Most girls have a tendency to gabble; this defect is due chiefly to shyness and nervous feeling, and it can be cured only by the acquirement of confidence and dignity.
During holiday time, when there are no lessons to be got up, girls might be encouraged to learn poems or short prose compositions for recitation, and to entertain one another and their friends by declaiming selected pieces in the evening, standing in the centre of the room and accompanying the recital with appropriate but restrained gestures, modulating the voice and facial expression according to the theme. The bane of all uncultured girls consists in the propensities to giggle, to grimace, and to gabble, especially whenever anything methodical or serious is demanded of them. When I was at school, a certain gentleman who professed literature at one of our Universities used to come occasionally to read Shakespeare with us. The members of the class, composed of girls between the ages of fourteen and eighteen, read aloud in turn, and if by chance one of them, momentarily moved by the sentiment of the lines, suffered her voice to be betrayed into tones less rapid and meaningless than the usual wont, the suppressed tittering of her companions speedily covered her face with the blush of confusion, and against their mirth the encouragement of the Professor went for nothing. It was considered the correct thing to gabble, and we each gabbled accordingly, else the rest were sure to giggle. “Alas,” as Walter Besant’s French Professor would
pathetically exclaim, “alas for Girl, gaunt, ungainly and ungracious Girl!”
It is quite as necessary for the cultivation of the voice and the development thereby of the chest and breathing apparatus, that the waist should be free from artificial compression, as we have already seen it to be when other exercises are concerned. The lungs cannot be properly inflated, nor the voice sustained if the thorax is laced in by means of stays, or squeezed by tight frocks. I have already said that no corsets ought to be worn before the age of fifteen, but a mere band of jean only. After womanhood is reached a pair of very light stays may be adopted with the view of supporting and sustaining the figure, not of compressing it. Neither whalebones nor metallic side-pieces need be used; the corsets ought to be boneless and elastic, fastening in front by means of a light and narrow busk, easily adjusted and perfectly flexible, so that the body can be bent and swayed about in all directions with absolute freedom and grace. No young woman, unless, unhappily, deformed or diseased, requires bones in her stays. It would take up a whole page of my letter-paper even to enumerate all the complaints and troubles engendered by the pernicious fashion of tight-lacing. And knowing how great and how deadly are the evils entailed by this practice on our women and their offspring, I rejoice at the spreading of the gospel of hygiene, and at the tendency of modern art to revert to the delineation of the undraped form. In my opinion, girls should be familiarised with the outline and contour of the human body as Nature makes it and as painters and sculptors best love to show it, and taught to regard it with purified eyes, as being in itself a beautiful and divine creation, worthy of their highest reverence and admiration; not as a mere lay figure on
which to hang skirts and paniers, to pinch, to pad, and to distort, as though it ought not to be thought of respectfully or dutifully, but rather with contempt, or, perhaps, with a sense of shameful annoyance and mortification. Raiment should be for the body, not the body for raiment. And the best and purest taste in dress is that which moulds itself on natural forms, and seeks neither to exaggerate nor to suppress, but to follow and preserve them, ministering thus to the interests alike of beauty, of comfort, and of sound health. Educate your girls in these maxims, my dear Sibyl, and be sure they will grow up comely, tall, and full of grace, and will live long to bless the wisdom of an admirable mother.