Mary Wollstonecraft, Preface to _The Female Reader_

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Poems 1773, Edited by Lisa Vargo and Allison Muri

from Mary Wollstonecraft, Preface to The Female Reader


           It is universally allowed that many poems, tales, and allegories, are scattered through our best authors, particularly calculated to affect a young heart and improve an opening understanding, which the gay and thoughtless seldom have patience to look for, or discernment to select; and many collections have been made, in order to present in one point of view the most useful passages of many volumes, where various other subjects are mixed that were only written for minds matured by experience.

          Before the publication of Dr. Enfield's SPEAKER, a methodical order in the arrangement of the pieces selected was not attempted, or even thought of, though it is evidently the only way to render a book of this kind extensively useful; as whatever tends to impress habits of order on the expanding mind may be reckoned the most beneficial part of education: for by this means the surest foundation of virtue is settled without a struggle, and strong restraints knit together before vice has introduced confusion. 

          In the present volume, which is principally intended for the improvement of females, the subjects are not only arranged in separate books, but are carefully disposed in a series that tends to make them illustrate each other; linking the detached pieces seemed to give an interest to the whole, which even the slightest connexion will not fail to produce. The main object of this work is to imprint some useful lessons on the mind, and cultivate the taste at the same time--to infuse a relish for a pure and simple style, by presenting natural and touching descriptions from the Scriptures, Shakspeare, etc. Simplicity and sincerity generally go hand in hand, as both proceed from a love of truth.

          In subordination to this design, passages varying in style, in verse and prose, have been chosen to enable a scholar to learn to read well: and, at a time when female accomplishments are deemed of more consequence than they ever were, the most essential demands some attention.

          Females are not educated to become public speakers or players; though many young ladies are now led by fashion to exhibit their persons on a stage, sacrificing to mere vanity that diffidence and reserve which characterizes youth, and is the most graceful ornament of the sex.

          But if it be allowed to be a breach of modesty for a woman to obtrude her person or talents on the public when necessity does not justify and spur her on, yet to be able to read with propriety is certainly a very desirable attainment: to facilitate this task, and exercise the voice, many dialogues have been selected; but not always the most beautiful with respect to composition, as the taste should very gradually be formed. A contrary method may teach young people what to say; but probably will prevent their ever learning to think. It would be needless to repeat here the trite remark which proves an undeniable fact--that the ignorant never read with propriety; and they must ever be accounted ignorant who are suddenly made wise by the experience of others, never brought to a test by their own feeble unexercised reason.

          Some little helps to elocution are necessary even for those who never aspire at being orators; but teachers should be very careful not to make scholars practice rules they cannot understand, as monotony is less disgusting than affectation.

          In the beginning only prevent their acquiring bad habits; instruct them in the common methods of observing stops and articulating each syllable; and as the mind is stored with arranged knowledge they will insensibly read well, interested by the sentiments they understand. To guard against a dull indifferent tone, they should be allowed to read amusing tales, allegories, etc. Reasoning must be tedious and irksome to those whose passions have never led them to reason; and examples of virtue will ever most forcibly illustrate precepts of morality.

          In this selection many tales and tables will be found, as it seems to be following the simple order of nature, to permit young people to peruse works addressed to the imagination, which tend to awaken the affections and fix good habits more firmly in the mind than cold arguments and mere declamation.

          It is scarcely necessary to make any apology for introducing the book which contains devotional pieces. A late amiable writer has asserted that, amidst the scenes of silent unobserved distress, in which women are very frequently involved, religion is their only solace and support. They cannot, when oppressed by sorrow, or harassed by wordly cares, fly to business or those tumultuous pleasures which dissipate, if they do not calm, the mind: condemned to fight on even ground and listen to the very echo of their grief, piety alone can still the ery echo of their grief, piety alone can still the murmurs of discontent, and give stability to their principles: but piety is not to be acquired in the hour of trouble; it must have been a cherished inmate of the soul, or it will not afford consolation when every other source fails.

          To fix devotional habits in a young mind, forms must in some degree be attended to. Those who constantly make a point of repeating a prayer at a stated time, though it may be termed mechanical devotion, yet learn to consider it as a duty; and piety may imperceptibly warm the heart that was at first unmoved by the task. It is however to be lamented that so great a stress is laid on the mere act as to lead many to imagine that they have made their peace with God, and may securely rely on his favour, only because they punctually read over a long prayer, and observe the ceremonies enjoined by religion to keep alive the vital spirit, which, amongst frail mortals, stands in need of a bodily support to give it permanency and effect. Obedience is the only daily incense pleasing to the Supreme Being. Yet many women who constantly address him do not attempt to govern their tempers, or render their dependents comfortable, though they think they are not like other women on this very account; they go to church twice a week and give alms.

          Every thing then which tends to strengthen sentiments of piety, founded on morality, not introduced in a gloomy dress, must be useful: and even the imagination and affections should not be allowed to take another course; for a character will never have any firmness or uniformity which is not governed by one main spring.

          The distinction between social and private prayers has been observed in those inserted in this volume; for private converse, even with our heavenly Father, without being familiar, ought to be more interesting than the petitions offered up by a common general voice.

          In the preface to a book designed for females we may, with the greatest propriety, introduce a quotation from an essay which does honour to a female pen:

'Philosophy represents the Deity in too abstracted a manner to engage our affections.
'A Being without hatred and without fondness, going on in one steady course of even benevolence, neither delighted with praises, nor moved by importunity, does not interest us so much as a character open to the feelings of indignation, the soft relentings of mercy, and the partialities of particular affections. We require some common nature, or at least the appearance of it, on which to build our intercourse. It is also a fault of which philosophers are often guilty, that they dwell too much in generals. Accustomed to reduce e every thing to the operation of general laws, they turn our attention to larger views, attempt to grasp the whole order of the universe; and, in the zeal of a systematic spirit, seldom leave room for those / particular and personal mercies which are the food of gratitude. They trace the great outline of nature, but neglect the colouring which gives warmth and beauty to the piece. As in poetry it is not vague and general description, but a few striking circumstances clearly related and strongly worked up; as in a landscape it is not such a vast extensive range of country as pains the eye to stretch to its limits, but a beautiful well-defined prospect, which gives the most pleasure--so neither are those unbounded views, in which philosophy delights, so much calculated to touch the heart as home views and nearer objects. The philosopher offers up general praises on the altar of universal nature; the devout man, on the altar of his heart, presents his own sighs, his own thanksgivings, his own earnest desires: the former worship is more grand, the latter more personal and affecting.
          'He has impressed me with the idea of trust and confidence, and my heart flies to him in danger; of mercy to forgive, and I melt before him in penitence; of bounty to bestow, and I ask of him all I want or wish for. I may make use of an inaccurate expression, I may paint him to my imagination too much in the fashion of humanity; but, while my heart is pure, while I depart not from the line of moral duty, the error is not dangerous. Too critical a spirit is the bane of every thing great or pathetic. In our creeds let us be guarded, let us there weigh every syllable; but, in compositions addressed to the heart, let us give freer scope to the language of the affections, and the overfiowing of a warm and generous disposition.'

It has been a custom too prevalent to make children learn by rote long passages from authors, to whose very expressions they could not annex an idea, not considering how vain, and indeed cruel it is, to compel them to repeat a round of unintelligible words. Parents are often led astray by the eelfish desire of having a wonderful child to exhibit; but these monsters very seldom make sensible men or women: the wheels are impaired by being set in motion before the time pointed out by nature, and both mind and body are ever after feeble. If, however, a girl be inclined to commit poems, etc. to memory, let me warn the fond mother not to persuade her to display this trifling attainment in company; for the young and thoughtless will seldom endeavour, by virtue and propriety of behaviour, to deserve praise, when they can obtain it at such an easy rate. Nay, if they wished them to learn to read well, they would not require them to run over emphatical expressions with the same voice: to teach them just tones, as far as a parrot can be taught, is still worse; for it will infallibly render them affected: and though we do not see the wires we discern that they are mere puppets. Should it then be thought necessary to exercise the memory--pray chuse a simple tale or fable, and many children will find them so entertaining that they will instinctively vary their tones; but let them only be repeated to a mother or governess, if you do not mean to light a spark you will not easily extinguish when it has quietly spread through the whole mass.

          When a girl arrives at a more advanced age it would be still more useful to make her read a short lesson, and then transcribe it from her memory; and afterwards let her copy the original, and lead her to remark the mistakes she has made. This method would exercise the memory and form the judgment at the same time: she would learn to write correctly, and retain the precepts which in some measure she has composed herself, and a kind of emulation would be excited from which no bad consequences could possibly flow. If this employment is allowed to occupy two mornings every week, at the end of four or five years the understanding will have received great strength, and the pupil will express herself both in speaking and writing, provided she has a tolerable capacity, with a degree of propriety that will astonish those that have not adopted the same plan. She will understand English, and express her sentiments in her native tongue; instead of which our young ladies of fashion write a mixture of French and Italian, and speak the same jargon.

          If my young readers, for whom this collection is principally intended, would listen to me a few moments, I would endeavour to prove to them that the most sedulous attention to the person will never improve it, whilst a cultivated mind renders the most graceful form more pleasing:--What do I say?--there is no grace without it; nor any beauty, that will charm for half an hour, which does not arise from an artless display of virtue or sense.--But it is not necessary to speak to display mental charms--the eye will quickly inform us if an active soul resides within; and a blush is far more eloquent than the best turned period.

          Exterior accomplishments are not to be obtained by imitation, they must result from the mind, or the deception is soon detected, and admiration gives place to contempt. If you wish to be loved by your relations and friends, prove that you can love them by governing your temper; good humour and cheerful gaiety will then enliven every feature and dimple your cheeks - but this my young friends is not the work of a day. An attention to truth gives dignity to the manners: and a dependence on Providence banishes those fears which render many girls very ridiculous, and make them appear as insignificant as they are helpless; if they do not endeavour to conquer them they will forfeit the esteem of those whose protection they most want--the good and the wise.

          Another observation I must here be allowed to dwell on; supposing a young lady has received the best education, she has advanced but a few steps towards the improvement of her mind and heart--that is the business of her whole life; she must not mistake and call blossoms fruit, for the summer often proves the hopes of spring fallacious; and it must ripen the most promising to give it real value. The plenty of autumn only rewards the industrious, and industry is never irksome when it becomes habitual.

          As we are created accountable creatures we must run the race ourselves, and by our own exertions acquire virtue: the utmost our friends can do is to point out the right road, and clear away some of the loose rubbish which might at first retard our progress. - If, conquering indolence and a desire of present enjoyment, we push forward, not only the tranquil joy of an approving conscience will cheer us here, but we shall anticipate in some degree, while we advance to it, that happiness of which we can form no conception in our present state, except when we have some faint glimpse from the pleasures arising from benevolence, and the hope of attaining more perfect knowledge.--We are indeed all children educated by a beneficent Father for his kingdom--some are nearer the awful close than others, to their advice the young should listen--for respectable is the hoary head when found in the path of virtue.

Published @ RC

April 2000