What Children Read

IT is part of the irony of life that our discriminating taste for books should be built up on the ashes of an extinct enjoyment. We spend a great deal of our time in learning what literature is good, and a great deal more in attuning our minds to its reception, rightly convinced that by the training of our intellectual faculties we are unlocking one of the doors through which sweetness and light may enter. We are fond of reading, too, and have always maintained with Macaulay that we would rather be a poor man with books than a great king without, though luckily for our resolution, and perhaps for his, such a choice has never yet been offered. Books, we say, are our dearest friends, and so with true friendly acuteness we are prompt to discover their faults, and take great credit in our ingenuity. But all this time, somewhere about the house, curled up, may be, in a nursery window, or hidden in a freezing attic, a child is poring over The Three Musketeers, lost to any consciousness of his surroundings, incapable of analyzing his emotions, breathless with mingled fear and exultation over his heroes’ varying fortunes, and drinking in a host of vivid impressions that are absolutely ineffaceable from his mind. We cannot read in that fashion any longer, but we only wish we could. Thackeray used to sigh, in middle age over the lost delights of five shillings’ worth of pastry ; but what was the pleasure of eating tarts to the glamour cast over us by our first romance, to the enchanted hours we spent with Sintram by the sea-shore, or with Nydia in the darkened streets of Pompeii, or perhaps — if we were not too carefully watched — with Emily in those dreadful vaults beneath Udolpho’s walls !

Nor is it fiction only that strongly excites the imagination of a child. History is not to him what it is to us, a tangle of disputed facts, doubtful theories, and conflicting evidence. He grasps its salient points with simple directness, absorbs them into his mind with tolerable accuracy, and passes judgment on them with enviable ease. To him, historical characters are at least as real as those of romance, which they are very far from being to us, and he enters into their impressions and motives with a facile sympathy which we rarely feel. Not only does he firmly believe that Marcus Curtius leaped into the gulf, but he has not yet learned to question the expediency of the act; and, having never been enlightened by Mr. Grote, the black broth of Lykurgus is as much a matter of fact to him as the bread and butter upon his own breakfast table. Sir Walter Scott tells us that even the dinnerbell — most welcome sound to boyish ears — failed to win him from his rapt perusal of Percy’s Reliques of Ancient Poetry; but Gibbon, as a lad, found the passage of the Goths over the Danube just as engrossing, and, stifling the pangs of hunger, preferred to linger fasting in their company. The great historian’s early love for history has furnished Mr. Bagehot with one more proof of the fascination of such records for the youthful mind, and he bids us at the same time consider from what a firm and tangible standpoint it regards them. “ Youth,” he writes, “ has a principle of consolidation. In history, the whole comes in boyhood ; the details later, and in manhood. The wonderful series going far back to the times of old patriarchs with their flocks and herds, the keen-eyed Greek, the stately Roman, the watchful Jew, the uncouth Goth, the horrid Hun, the settled picture of the unchanging East, the restless shifting of the rapid West, the rise of the cold and classical civilization, its fall, the rough, impetuous Middle Ages, the vague warm picture of ourselves and home, — when did we learn these ? Not yesterday, nor to-day, but long ago, in the first dawn of reason, in the original flow of fancy. What we learn afterwards are but the accurate littlenesses of the great topic, the dates and tedious facts. Those who begin late learn only these; but the happy first feel the mystic associations and the progress of the whole.” 1

If this be true, and the child’s mind be not only singularly alive to new impressions, but quick to concentrate its knowledge into a consistent whole, the value and importance of his early reading can hardly be overestimated. That much anxiety has been felt upon the subject is proven by the cry of self-congratulation that rises on every side of us today. We are on the right track at last, the press and the publishers assure us; and with tons of healthy juvenile literature flooding the markets every year, our American boys and girls stand fully equipped for the intellectual battles of life. But if we will consider the matter in a dispassionate and less boastful light, we shall see that the good accomplished is mainly of a negative character. By providing cheap and wholesome reading for the young, we have partly succeeded in driving from the field that which was positively bad. But nothing is easier than to overdo a reformation, and through the characteristic indulgence of American parents children are drugged with a literature whose chief merit is its harmlessness. These little volumes, nicely written, nicely printed, and nicely illustrated, are very useful in their way ; but they are powerless to awaken a child’s imagination, or to stimulate his mental growth. If stories, they merely introduce him to a phase of life with which he is already familiar ; if historical, they aim at showing him a series of detached episodes, broken pictures of the mighty whole, shorn of its “ mystic associations,” and stirring within his soul no stronger impulse than that of a cheaply gratified curiosity.

Not that children’s books are to be neglected or contemned. On the contrary, they are always helpful, and in the average nursery have grown to be a recognized necessity. But when supplied with a too lavish hand, a child is tempted to read nothing else, and his mind becomes shrunken for lack of a vigorous stimulant to excite and expand it. “ Children,” wrote Sir Walter Scott, “ derive impulses of a powerful and important kind from hearing things that they cannot entirely comprehend. It is a mistake to write down to their understanding. Set them on the scent, and let them puzzle it out.” Sir Walter himself, be it observed, in common with most little people of genius, got along strikingly well without any juvenile literature at all. He shouted the ballad of Hardyknute, to the great annoyance of his aunt’s visitors, long before he knew how to read, and listened at his grandmother’s knee to her stirring tales about Watt of Harden, Wight Willie of Aikwood, Jamie Telfer of the fair Dodhead, and a host of border heroes whose picturesque robberies were the glory of their sober and respectable descendants. Two or three old books which lay in the window-seat were explored for his amusement in the dreary winter days. Ramsay’s Tea-Table Miscellany, a mutilated copy of Josephus, and Pope’s translation of the Iliad appear to have been his favorites, until, when about eight years old, a happy chance threw him under the spell of the two great poets who have swayed most powerfully the pliant imaginations of the young. “ I found,” he writes in his early memoirs, “within my mother’s dressing-room (where I slept at one time) some odd volumes of Shakespeare ; nor can I easily forget the rapture with which I sate up in my shirt reading them by the light of a fire in her apartment, until the bustle of the family rising from supper warned me it was time to creep back to my bed, where I was supposed to have been safely deposited since nine o’clock.” And a little later he adds, “ Spenser I could have read forever. Too young to trouble myself about the allegory, I considered all the knights, and ladies, and dragons, and giants in their outward and exoteric sense, and Heaven only knows how delighted I was to find myself in such society! ”

“ How much of our poetry,” it has been asked, “ owes its start to Spenser, when the Fairy Queen was a household book, and lay in the parlor window-seat ? ” And how many brilliant fancies have emanated from those same window-seats, which Montaigne so keenly despised ? There, where the smallest child could climb with ease, lay piled up in a corner, within the reach of his little hands, the few precious volumes which perhaps Comprised the literary wealth of the household. Those were not days when over-indulgence and a multiplicity of books robbed reading of its healthy zest. We know that in the window - seat of Cowley’s mother’s room lay a copy of the Fairy Queen, which to her little son was a source of unfailing delight, and Pope has recorded the ecstasy with which, as a lad, he pored over this wonderful poem ; but then neither Cowley nor Pope had the advantage of following Oliver Optic through the slums of New York, or living with some adventurous “ boy hunters ” in the jungles of Central Africa. On the other hand, there is a delicious account of Bentham, in his early childhood, climbing to the height of a huge stool, and sitting there night after night reading Rapin’s history by the light of two candles; a weird little figure, whose only counterpart in literature is the small John Ruskin propped up solemnly in his niche, “ like an idol,” and hemmed in from the family reach by the table on which his book reposed. It is quite evident that Bentham found the mental nutrition he wanted in Rapin’s rather dreary pages, just as Pope and Cowley found it in Spenser, Ruskin in the Iliad, and Burns in the marvelous stories told by that “most ignorant and superstitious old woman,” who made the poet afraid of his own shadow, and who, as he afterwards freely acknowledged, fanned within his soul the kindling fires of genius.

Look where we will, we find the author’s future work reflected in the intellectual pastimes of his childhood. Madame de Genlis, when but six years old, perused with unflagging interest the ten solid volumes of Clélie, — a task which would appall the most stout-hearted novelreader of to-day. Gibbon turned as instinctively to facts as Scott and Burns to fiction. Macaulay surely learned from his beloved Æneid the art of presenting a dubious statement with all the vigorous coloring of truth. Wordsworth congratulated himself and Coleridge that, as children, they had ranged at will

“ through vales Rich with indigenous produce, open grounds Of fancy ; ”

and Coleridge, in his turn, was wont to express his sense of superiority over those who had not read fairy tales when they were young. What a picture we have of Cardinal Newman’s sensitive and flexible mind in these few words which bear witness to his childish musings! “I used to wish,” he says in the third chapter of the Apologia, “ that the Arabian Nights were true ; my imagination ran on unknown influences, on magical powers and talismans. ... I thought life might be a dream, or I an angel, and all the world a deception, my fellow-angels, by a playful device, concealing themselves from me, and deceiving me with the semblance of a material world.” Alongside of this poetic revelation may be placed Cobbett’s sketch of himself: a sturdy country lad of eleven, in a blue smock and red garters, standing before the bookseller’s shop in Richmond, with an empty stomach, threepence in his pocket, and a certain little book called The Tale of a Tub contending with his hunger for the possession of that last bit of money. In the end, mind conquered matter: the threepence was invested in the volume, and the homeless little reader curled himself under a haystack, and forgot all about his lost supper in the strange, new pleasure he was enjoying. “ The book was so different,” he writes, “ from anything that I had ever read before, it was something so fresh to my mind, that, though I could not understand some parts of it, it delighted me beyond description, and produced what I have always considered a sort of birth of intellect. I read on till it was dark, without any thought of food or bed. When I could see no longer, I put my little book in my pocket and tumbled down by the side of the stack, where I slept till the birds of Kew Gardens awakened me in the morning. . . . I carried that volume about with me wherever I went; and when I lost it in a box that fell overboard in the Bay of Fundy, the loss gave me greater pain than I have since felt at losing thousands of pounds.”

We all know Charles Lamb’s views on the subject of early reading, as expressed in his triumphant vindication of Bridget Elia’s happily neglected education : “ She was tumbled by accident or design into a spacious closet of good old English books, without much selection or prohibition, and browsed at will upon that fair and wholesome pasturage. Had I twenty girls, they should be brought up exactly in this fashion.” It is natural that but few parents are anxious to risk so hazardous an experiment, especially as the training of “ incomparable old maids ” is hardly the recognized summit of maternal ambition ; but Bridget Elia at least ran no danger of intellectual starvation, while, if we pursue a modern school-girl along the track of her selfchosen reading, we will be astonished that so much printed matter can yield so little mental nourishment. She has begun, no doubt, with childish stories, bright and well written, probably, hut following each other in such quick succession that none of them have left any distinct impression on her mind. Books that children read but once are of scant service to them ; those that have really helped to warm our imaginations and to train our faculties are the few old friends we know so well that they have become a portion of our thinking selves. At ten or twelve the little girl aspires to something partly grown-up, — to those nondescript tales which, trembling ever on the brink of sentiment, seem afraid to risk the plunge ; and with her appetite whetted by a course of this unsatisfying diet, she is soon ripe for a little more excitement and a great deal more love, so graduates into Rhoda Broughton and the “ Duchess,” at which point her intellectual career is closed. She has no idea, even, of what she has missed in the world of books. She tells you that she “ don’t care for Dickens,” and “ can’t get interested in Scott,” with a placidity that plainly shows she lays the blame for this state of affairs on the two great masters who have amused and charmed the world. As for Northanger Abbey, or Emma, she would as soon think of finding entertainment in Henry Esmond. She has probably never read a single masterpiece of our language ; she has never been moved by a noble poem, or stirred to the quick by a well-told page of history ; she has never opened the pores of her mind for the reception of a vigorous thought, or the solution of a mental problem ; yet she may be found daily in the circulating library, and is seldom visible on the street without a book or two under her arm.

“ In the love-novels all the heroines are very desperate,” wrote little Marjorie Fleming in her diary, nearly eighty years ago, and added somewhat plaintively, “ Isabella will not allow me to speak of lovers and heroins,”—yearning, as we can see, over the forbidden topic, and mutable in her spelling, as befits her tender age. But what books had she read, this bright-eyed, healthy, winsome little girl, — eight years old when she died, — the favorite companion of Sir Walter Scott, and his comfort in many a moment of fatigue and depression? We can follow her path easily enough, thanks to those delicious, misspelt scrawls in which she has recorded her childish verdicts. “ Thomson is a beautiful author,” she writes at six, “ and Pope, but nothing to Shakespear, of which I have a little knolege. Macbeth is a pretty composition, but awful one. . . . The Newgate Calender is very instructive.” And again, “ Tom Jones and Grey’s Elegy in a country churchyard,” surely never classed together before, “ are both excellent, and much spoke of by both sex, particularly by the men. . . . Doctor Swift’s works are very funny; I got some of them by heart. . . . Miss Egward’s [Edgeworth’s] tails are very good, particularly some that are much adapted for youth, as Laz Lawrance and Tarleton.” Then with a sudden jump, “ I am reading the Mysteries of Udolpho. I am much interested in the fate of poor poor Emily. . . . Morehead’s sermons are, I hear, much praised, but I never read sermons of any kind; but I read novelettes and my Bible, and I never forget it or my prayers.”

It is quite apparent that she read a great deal which would hardly be considered desirable for little girls, but who can quarrel with the result? Had the bright young mind been starved on Dotty Dimple and Little Prudy books, we might have missed the quaintest bit of autobiography in the English tongue, those few scattered pages which, with her scraps of verse and tender little letters, were so carefully preserved by a loving sister after Pet Maidie’s death. Far too young and innocent to be harmed by Tom Jones or the “funny” Doctor Swift, we may perhaps doubt whether she had penetrated very deeply into the Newgate Calendar, notwithstanding a further assertion on her part that “ the history of all the malcontents as ever was hanged is amusing.” But that she had the “ little knolege ” of Shakespeare she boasted is proven by the fact that her recitations from King John affected Scott, to use his own words, “ as nothing else could do.” He would sob outright when the little creature on his knee repeated, quivering with suppressed emotion, those heart-breaking words of Constance : —

“ For I am sick, and capable of fears,
Oppressed with wrong, and therefore full of fears;

and, knowing the necessity of relaxing a mind so highly wrought, he took good care that she should not be without healthy childish reading. We have an amusing picture of her consoling herself with fairy tales, when exiled, for her restlessness, to the foot of her sister’s bed; and one of the first copies of Rosamond and Harry and Lucy found its way to Marjorie Fleming, with Sir Walter Scott’s name written on the fly-leaf.

Fairy tales, and Harry and Lucy! But the real, old-fashioned, earnest, halfsombre fairy tales of our youth have slipped from the hands of children into those of folk-lore students, who are busy explaining all their flavor out of them; while as for Miss Edgeworth, the little people of to-day cannot be persuaded that she is not dull and prosy. Yet what keen pleasure have her stories given to many boys and girls, who in their time have grown to be clever men and women ! Hear what Miss Thackeray, that loving student of children and of childish ways, has to record about them. “ When I look back,” she writes, “ upon my own youth, I seem to have lived in company with a delightful host of little playmates, bright, busy children, whose cheerful presence remains more vividly in my mind than that of many of the real little boys and girls who used to appear and disappear disconnectedly, as children do in childhood, when friendship and companionship depend almost entirely upon the convenience of grownup people. Now and again came little cousins or friends to share our games, but day by day, constant and unchanging, ever to be relied upon, smiled our most lovable and friendly companions: simple Susan, lame Jervas, the dear little merchants, Jem, the widow’s son, with his arms around old Lightfoot’s neck, the generous Ben, with his whipcord and his useful proverb of “ Waste not, want not,” — all of these were there in the window corner waiting our pleasure. After Parents’ Assistant, to which familiar words we attached no meaning whatever, came Popular Tales in big brown volumes off a shelf in the lumberroom of an apartment in an old house in Paris; and as we opened the books, lo! creation widened to our view. England, Ireland, America, Turkey, the mines of Golconda, the streets of Bagdad, thieves, travelers, governesses, natural philosophy, and fashionable life were all laid under contribution, and brought interest and adventure to our humdrum nursery corner.” 2

And have these bright and varied pictures, these “immortal tales,” as Mr. Matthew Arnold terms them, lost their power to charm, that they are banished from our modern nursery corners; or is it because their didactic purpose is too thinly veiled, or — as I have sometimes fancied — because their authoress took so moderate a view of children’s functions and importance ? If we place Miss Edgeworth’s and Miss Alcott’s stories side by side, we shall see that the contrast between them lies not so much in the expected dissimilarity of style and incident as in the utterly different standpoint from which their writers regard the aspirations and responsibilities of childhood. Take, for instance, Miss Edgeworth’s Rosamond and Miss Alcott’s Eight Cousins, both of them books purporting to show the gradual development of a little girl’s character under kindly and stimulating influences. Rosamond, who is said to be a portrait of Maria Edgeworth herself, is from first to last the undisputed heroine of the volume which bears her name. Laura may be much wiser, Godfrey far more clever ; but neither of them usurps for a moment their sister’s place as the central figure of the narrative, round whom our interest clings. But when we come to consider her position in her own family, we find it strangely insignificant. The foolish, warm-hearted, impetuous little girl is of importance to the household only through the love they bear her. It is plain her opinions do not carry much weight, and she is never called on to act as an especial providence to any one We do not behold her winning Godfrey away from his cigar, or Orlando from fast companions, or correcting anybody’s faults, in fact, except her own, which are numerous enough, and give her plenty of concern.

Now with Rose, the bright little heroine of Eight Cousins, and of its sequel A Rose in Bloom, everything is vastly different. She is of the utmost importance to all the grown-up people in the book, most of whom, it must be acknowledged, are extremely silly and incapable. Her aunts set the very highest value upon her society, and receive it with gratified rapture ; while among her male cousins, she is from the first like a missionary in the Feejees. It is she who cures them of their boyish vices, obtaining in return from their supine mothers “ a vote of thanks, which made her feel as if she had done a service to her country.” At thirteen she discovers that “ girls are made to take care of boys,” and with dauntless assurance sets about her self - appointed task. “You boys need somebody to look after you,” she modestly announces, — most of them are her seniors, by the way, and all have parents, — “ so I’m going to do it; for girls are nice peacemakers, and know how to manage people.” Naturally, to a young person holding these advanced views of life, Miss Edgeworth’s limited field of action seems a very spiritless affair, and we find Rose expressing herself with characteristic energy on the subject of the purple jar, declaring that Rosamond’s mother was “regularly mean,” and that she “ always wanted to shake that woman, though she was a model mamma ” ! As we read the audacious words, we half expect to see rising from the mists of story-book land the indignant ghost of little English Rosamond, burning to defend with all her old impetuosity the mother whom she so dearly loved. It is true, she had no sense of a “mission,” this commonplace but very amusing little girl. She never, like Rose, adopted a pauper baby, or made friends with a workhouse orphan; she never vetoed pretty frocks in favor of philanthropy, or announced that she would “ have nothing to do with love until she could prove that she was something beside a housekeeper and a babytender.” In fact, she was probably taught that love and matrimony and babies were not proper subjects for discussion in the polite society for which she was so carefully reared. The hints that are given her now and then on such matters by no means encourage a free expression of any unconventional views. “It is particularly amiable in a woman to be ready to yield, and avoid disputing about trifles,” says Rosamond’s father, who plainly does not consider his child in the light of a beneficent genius ; while, when she reaches her teens, she is described as being “ just at that age when girls do not join in conversation, but when they sit modestly silent, and have leisure, if they have sense, to judge of what others say, and to form by choice, and not by chance, their opinions of what goes on in that great world into which they have not yet entered.”

And is it really only ninety years since this delicious sentence was penned in sober earnest, as representing an existing state of things! There is an antique, musty, long-secluded flavor about it, that would suggest a monograph copied from an Egyptian tomb with thirty centuries of dust upon its hoary head. Yet Rosamond, sitting “ modestly silent,” under the delusion that grown-up people are worth listening to, can talk fluently enough when occasion demands it, though at all times her strength lies rather in her heart than in her head. She represents that tranquil, unquestioning, unselfish family love, which Miss Edgeworth could describe so well because she felt it so sincerely. The girl who had three stepmothers and nineteen brothers and sisters, and managed to be fond of them all, should be good authority on the subject of domestic affections; and that warm, happy, loving atmosphere which charms us in her stories, and which brought tears to Sir Walter Scott’s eyes when he laid down Simple Susan, is only the reflection of the cheerful home life she steadfastly helped to brighten.

Her restrictions as a writer are perhaps most felt by those who admire her most. Her pet virtue — after prudence — is honesty; and yet how poor a sentiment it becomes under her treatment! — no virtue at all, in fact, but merely a policy working for its own gain. Take the long conversation between the little Italian merchants on the respective merits of integrity and sharpness in their childish traffic. Each disputant exhausts his wits in trying to prove the superior wisdom of his own course, but not: once does the virtuous Francisco make use of the only argument which is of any real value, — I do not cheat because it is not right. There is more to be learned about honesty, real unselfish, unrequited honesty, in Charles Lamb’s little sketch of Barbara Sthan in all Miss Edgeworth has written on the subject in a dozen different tales.

“ Taking up one’s cross does not at all mean having ovations at dinner parties, and being put over everybody else’s head,” says Ruskin, with visible impatience at the smooth and easy manner in which Miss Edgeworth persists in grinding the mills of the gods, and distributing poetical justice to each and every comer. It may be very nice to see the generous Laura, who gave away her half sovereign, extolled to the skies by a whole room full of company, “ disturbed for the purpose,” while “poor dear little Rosamond ” — he too has a weakness for this small blunderer — is left in the lurch, without either shoes or jar ; but it is not real generosity that needs so much commendation, and it is not real life that can be depended on for giving it. Yet Ruskin admits that Harry and Lucy were his earliest friends, to the extent even of inspiring him with an ambitious desire to continue their history ; and he cannot say too much in praise of an authoress “ whose every page is so full and so delightful. I can read her over and over again, without ever tiring. No one brings you into the company of pleasanter or wiser people ; no one tells you more truly how to do right.” 3

He might have added that no one ever was more moderate in her exactions. The little people who brighten Miss Edgeworth’s pages are not expected, like the children in more recent books, to take upon their shoulders a load of grown-up duties and responsibilities. Life is simplified for them by an old-fashioned habit of trusting in the wisdom of their parents, and these parents, instead of being foolish and wrong-headed, so as to set off more strikingly the child’s sagacious energy, are apt to be very sensible and kind, and remarkably well able to take care of themselves and their families. This is the more refreshing because, after reading a few modern stories, either English or American, one is troubled with serious doubts as to the moral usefulness of adults ; and we begin to feel that as we approach the age of Mentor it behooves us to find some wise young Telemachus who will consent to be our protector and our guide. There is no more charming writer for the young than Flora Shaw; yet Hector and Phyllis Browne, and even that group of merry Irish children in Castle Blair, are all convinced it is their duty to do some difficult or dangerous work in the interests of humanity, and all are afflicted with a premature consciousness of social evils.

“ The time is out of joint; oh, cursed spite!
That ever I was born to set it right! ”

cries Hamlet wearily ; but it is at thirty, and not at thirteen, that he makes this unpleasant discovery.

In religions stories, of which there are many hundreds published every year, these peculiar views are even more defined, presenting themselves often in the form of a spiritual contest between highly endowed, sensitive children and their narrow-minded parents and guardians, who, of course, are always in the wrong. The clever authoress of Thrown Together is by no means innocent of this unwholesome tone ; but the chief offender, and one who has had a host of dismal imitators, is Susan Warner, —Miss Wetherell, — who plainly considered that virtue, especially in the young, was of no avail unless constantly undergoing persecution. Her supernaturally righteous little girls, who pin notes on their fathers’ dressing-tables requesting them to become Christians, and who endure the most brutal treatment — at their parents’ hands — rather than sing songs on Sunday evening, are equaled only by her older heroines, who divide their time impartially between flirting and praying, between indiscriminate kisses and passionate searching for light. A Blackwood critic declares that there is more kissing done in The Old Helmet than in all of Sir Walter Scott’s novels put together, and utters an energetic protest against the penetrating glances, and earnest pressing of hands, and brotherly embraces, and the whole vulgar paraphernalia of pious flirtation, so immeasurably hurtful to the undisciplined fancy of the young. “ They have good reason to expect,” he growls, “ from these pictures of life, that if they are very good, and very pious, and very busy in doing grownup work, when they reach the mature age of sixteen or so some young gentleman who has been in love with them all along will declare himself at the very nick of time ; and they may then look to find themselves, all the struggles of life over, reposing a weary head on his stalwart shoulder. . . . Mothers, never in great favor with novelists, are sinking deeper and deeper in their black books, — there is a positive jealousy of their influence; while the father in the religious tale, as opposed to the moral or sentimental, is commonly either a scamp or nowhere. The heroine has, so to say, to do her work single-handed.”

1 Ethics of the Dust.

In some of these stories, moreover, the end justifies the means to an alarmingextent. Girls who steal money from their relatives in order to go as missionaries among the Indians, and young women who pretend to sit up with the sick that they may slip off unattended to hear some inspired preacher in a barn, are not safe companions even in books ; while, if no grave indiscretion be committed, the lesson of self-righteousness is taught on every page. Not very long ago I had the pleasure of reading a tale in which the youthful heroine considers it her mission in life to convert her grandparents ; and while there is nothing to prevent an honest girl from desiring such a thing, the idea is not a happy one for a narrative, in view of certain homely old adages irresistibly associated with the notion. “ Girls,” wrote Hannah More, “ should be led to distrust their own judgment; ” but if they have the conversion of their grandparents on their hands, how can they afford to be distrustful ? Hannah More is unquestionably out of date, and so, we fear, is that English humorist who said, If all the grownup people in the world should suddenly fail, what a frightful thing would society become, reconstructed by boys ! ” Evidently he had in mind a land given over to toffy and foot-ball, but he was strangely mistaken in his notions. Perhaps the carnal little hero of Vice Versâ might have managed matters in this disgraceful fashion ; but with Flora Shaw’s earnest children at the helm, society would be reconstructed on a more serious basis than it is already, and Heaven knows this is not a change of which we stand in need. In fact, if the young people who live and breathe around us are one third as capable, as strenuous, as clearsighted, as independent, as patronizing, and as undeniably our superiors as their modern counterparts in literature, who can doubt that the eternal cause of progress would be furthered by the change ? And is it, after all, mere pique which inclines us to Miss Edgeworth’s ordinary little boys and girls, who, standing half dazed on the threshold of life, stretch out their hands with childish confidence for help ?

Agnes Repplier.

  1. Literary Studies, vol. ii.
  2. A Book of Sibyls.