23. SOBRE A CULTURA DA BELEZA,
GRAÇA E SAÚDE NA JUVENTUDE – VIII
MY DEAR SIBYL, – The culture and preservation of beauty in childhood must be supplemented by a careful supervision of the habits of the children themselves. Boys and girls when quite young frequently contract “tricks” in which they indulge more or less all day, or at any rate, during intervals not actively employed in study or play, and which, if not speedily and decidedly checked, may result in disfigurement of the face, hands or other part of the person. I refer to such habits of sucking the thumb, biting the nails, rubbing the eye brows, distorting the mouth, drawing in the lower lip and thereby protruding the under jaw, sitting with the feet habitually twisted or turned inwards, curving the shoulders and contracting the chest by crouching over books with the elbows thrust forward and the chin resting on the palms, and many other unhygienic and ugly tricks, easy to correct in their early stages, but very difficult to get rid of if suffered to become confirmed by usage. It is, of course, lost labour on the mother’s part to endeavour by pressure to mould the too-spreading cartilage of her child’s nostrils, or to push back prominent incisors into their right position, if the child itself is still more frequently and industriously addicted to thrusting its forefingers into its nose, or to sucking its thumb and
thereby dragging the teeth forward and outward. Tricks of this kind must be suppressed in early years by firm and persistent watchfulness on the part of mother and nurse, gentle reprimands and uniform censorship. Later, if new habits of a hurtful kind are acquired or old ones revived – as sometimes is the case, for children when even in their “teens” are usually imitative and conservative – argument may be used, and the rationale of the matter explained to the culprits, who will then, if well-disposed, seldom fail to correct themselves.
And here it is, I think, the place to say that the physical education of children can never be properly carried out unless the children are permitted and encouraged to co-operate in the work. When they reach a competent age – the standard of which it is impossible to fix arbitrarily, because capacity and intelligence are not equally developed in all young people – both boys and girls should be instructed in the elements of physiology and hygiene. Unhappily, mothers are too often themselves wholly ignorant of such things, and therefore unable to impart information to their children. Nor, indeed, can such instruction be given by persons who have no thorough knowledge of the subjects named, but only a smattering hastily acquired by means of some popular text-book. In order to teach even but the rudiments of any science well and adequately, the teacher must know its higher and more intricate developments, and be able to pass a tolerably stiff examination in them. Otherwise, the pupil’s questions will certainly sooner or later elicit either an honest acknowledgment of ignorance, calculated to inspire mistrust, or, what is worse, an erroneous reply. I therefore counsel mothers who are not conversant with the sciences of hygiene and physiology to send their children to private classes where
these subjects are expounded by qualified teachers in plain and simple language. Until this is done regularly and systematically, young girls will continue to regard abnormally small waists as desirable and ornamental, high French heels as elegant adjuncts of the human foot, dress improvers as graceful appendages to the hollow of the back; and, in consequence, red noses, indigestion, enlarged toe-joints, corns, crooked spines, and hysteria will continue to increase and abound.
As much as you can, my dear Sibyl, encourage your children to study nature and the natural sciences. I venture to believe that a knowledge of anatomy, of the rules of health, of the chemistry of foods, of the botany of herbs and simples, of the laws of physics, light, heat, sound, electricity, magnetism, evaporation, and so forth, of the phenomena of storm and mist, and dew and rain, and sunshine, their uses to the earth and to man, and all the many interesting and beautiful facts of the nature around and within us, would prove to be infinitely more serviceable and enlightening than the customary lessons in grammar, political economy, algebra, polite letter-writing, or even history. I would rather my child should know the composition of the air she breathes, the formation and working of the lungs in her bosom, the method of the circulation of the blood, and the necessity of pure air and plenty of it, than I would hear her discourse about the classification of prepositions and pronouns, or the articles in the indictment of Charles the First. As it is, both girls and boys learn innumerable things which are useless except as memoria technica, and neglect knowledge of the widest interest and import. Your son will fluently parse a sentence in Greek or Latin, your daughter will faultlessly recite pages of Racine or of Tasso, but neither of them can tell you the
history of this drop of dew on the grass at their feet or of the white sea-cliff gleaming in the sunshine yonder. Now the study of tongues, whether quick or dead, is doubtless a good and useful thing; but why not also study to understand and interpret the language of Mother Nature? Other people’s thoughts – especially such as Plato’s, Goethe’s, or Dante’s – may indeed be profitable to read, but it is still better to think for oneself, and thinking is learnt, not from books, but from observation and sympathetic interpretation of Nature. And of this also springs Beauty itself, the best and most abiding, for heart and mind impress and image themselves in face and form, moulding and making these in their own similitude and likeness. I recall, as I write, some lovely verses of Wordsworth’s touching this sympathetic intimacy with the world of natural things, and I think I must quote them to make my meaning clearer: –
Three years she grew in sun and shower,
Then Nature said, “A lovelier flower
On earth was never sown;
This child I to myself will take;
She shall be mine, and I will make
A lady of mine own.
“Myself will to my darling be
Both law and impulse; and with me
The girl, in rock and plain,
In earth and heaven, in glade and bower,
Shall feel an overseeing power
To kindle or restrain.
“She shall be sportive as the fawn
That, wild with glee, across the lawn
Or up the mountain springs;
And hers shall be the breathing balm,
And hers the silence and the calm
Of mute insensate things.
“The floating clouds their state shall lend
To her; for her the willow bend;
Nor shall she fail to see
Even in the motions of the storm
Grace that shall mould the maiden’s form
By silent sympathy.
“The stars of midnight shall be dear
To her; and she shall lean her ear
In many a secret place
Where rivulets dance their wayward round,
And Beauty, born of murmuring sound,
Shall pass into her face.
“And vital feelings of delight
Shall rear her form to stately height,
Her virgin bosom swell;
Such thoughts to Lucy I will give
While she and I together live
Here in this happy dell.”
Lay these stanzas up in your heart, Sibyl, for there is an excellent sermon in them. Teach your children to know and to love Nature, and to have sympathy for all creatures, great and small, wild and tame. Let them be taught the history and ways of birds and of all the little clever, wise animals of field and wood and moor, so that by-and-by they may see in them something better than mere living marks for their guns, or quarry to be run to death by horse and hound. And, as much as possible, accustom your boys and girls to associate together, whether for study or for play. The sexes complete and counterbalance each other, the boys encouraging their sisters to healthy exercise and stimulating enterprise, the girls restraining their brothers from acts of foolhardiness or thoughtless cruelty. If education were shared in common, and sport more generally participated in by youths and maidens together, our young men would be far more chivalrous and clean-hearted than they now are, and our girls would be less frivolous and artificial. The separation of the sexes in the morning of life is to my mind, a fruitful cause of mischief, physical, moral, and intellectual.
There are some forms of amusement and sport which, of course, are less suited for girls than for boys, such as cricket, rowing, and cycling. But for the loss of
these the girl can be amply compensated by the exercise which domestic work at home involves. I think it is Mr. Buskin who advises that every girl should do a certain amount of house-cleaning or cooking daily, if only to give her an idea of the pleasure of labour. And, apart from the “pleasure” all young women ought to serve an apprenticeship in home duties, else how, by-and-by, when they come to be heads of households, will they know how to instruct and oversee their servants? Every girl, no matter what her station in life, ought, before she is eighteen, to have learnt how to cook simple dishes, how to make beds, to lay a table for dinner, and, generally, to superintend with knowledge the common daily duties of the housemaid, parlourmaid, and other domestics. All these things are holiday tasks that may well and agreeably fill the interval of vacation time when graver studies are laid aside. Wet days, which would otherwise prove wearisome, and which cannot be wholly occupied by sedentary pursuits, may be pleasantly and wholesomely diversified by means of a little indoor activity with broom, duster, or rolling-pin. In the country, too, there are usually the dairy, the laundry, and the bread-oven, all representing so many centres of energy and interest to lively girls. And there is often more fun to be got out of these domestic departments than out of the lathe or the carpenter’s tool-box, with which, meanwhile, their brothers are amusing themselves.