Dora B. Montefiore, New Age November 1904
Source: New Age, p. 699, 3 November 1904;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
Well, as regards Mrs. Craigie, and her suggestion of Tom Jones for girls, I consider that Mrs. Craigie has, like many of us, suffered from an hysterical Press, some members of which will offend, over and over again, in the same way, by tearing a sentence from its context, and quoting it in an unnaturally bald form. Mrs. Craigie’s idea, as I gather from an interview accorded by her to a Daily News reporter, is that “Fielding would act as a corrective to the erotic novels that are so ravenously devoured by the young women of to-day”; and this point of view is surely worth discussing in a calm and philosophic spirit, and with fairness to the able woman writer who has propounded it. Mrs. Craigie says, further, “that a wave of hysteria is passing over the women of this country”; might not the men, I would suggest, be included in the indictment? There is little doubt that for those who are interested in the study of “the psychology of crowds” there is much too much “suggestion-ability” in the air – too much incipient hysteria, both amongst men and women. The mass of trashy, erotic novels that both young men and young women consume, may have something to do with it, as may also the startling alliterative headlines and posters which keep modern nerves in a constant state of “jump.” But the fact remains that our resisting power, as a race, against outside suggestions – of noxious suggestions more especially – is being whittled down to something very near “nil.” Whether the reading of Tom Jones and similar classics will have the effect of steadying the judgment and nerves of girls who have passed their eighteenth year is a question the answering of which depends upon the girl! I have no doubt in my own mind that good literature and the classics of all times are better reading for youths and maidens than are the modern nerve-titilating romances, where the heroine evolves and gyrates through a series of epidermic experiences, which have no basis of reality in the every-day life of the ordinary woman.
Amongst the correspondence that seemed to pour in on the editor who was bold enough to allow Mrs. Craigie to suggest her heroic remedy for an undoubted evil, was a letter signed “Commonplace,” and dated from Bayswater. I kept that letter, and pondered over it, for it pulled me up with a round turn; and made me realise how far we had yet to travel before our boys and girls have the chance, which is their due during the educational years of life. Mrs. Craigie having written, amongst other wise things, that “girls know nothing of the facts of life, and that they should be taught them”; “Commonplace” comments that “if mothers neglect this duty, then the remedy for such neglect may, to some degree, be found in a dry and scientific teaching of physiology in schools”; and continues: “It may be objected that this is a nauseous remedy. It is; but it is better than to leave the teaching of the girls to novelists or to chance.” “Nauseous"! What a remarkable adjective to apply to the study of ourselves! To that marvellous product of evolution the female of the human race. “Nauseous"! I look up nauseous in the dictionary, and find its meaning given as “producing nausea, disgusting, loathsome.” And this is the unchallenged attitude of mind of women towards the study of that body, which is the shrine of motherhood, and of the brain and nervous system, the right exercise of which lifts that motherhood above the level of the unconscious animals, up to the level of the conscious partner in creation. Can we wonder at the tiny coffin being almost as common as the cradle in thousands of households; can we wonder at the tragedies that centre round the seduced girl-mother, or round the overburdened household drudge and martyr, who ignorantly believes that legalised wedlock implies child-bearing to the point of self-destruction – if this is, indeed, the accepted creed of the majority of Women, that an elementary, but scientific knowledge of their own physiology, and psycho-physiology, is “nauseating,” disgusting, and loathsome?
These two notable writers and thinkers go even further than the suggestion of Mrs. Craigie, which has served to unearth so much prurient ignorance. Turn a young girl into a good library as you would turn a young calf into a pasture; the natural instincts of both will teach them to avoid what is noxious and assimilate what is wholesome. This is the advice of Chares Lamb; and Ruskin practically gave the same. I would, make a reservation of restricting the advice to most young girls, for there are unfortunately some born with bad tendencies, who need other, and less liberal, treatment; but for the mass of healthy-minded young girls, the rule doubtless holds good. Ignorance, let us remember, is the only sin. Nature and life make no allowances for the ignorant, but visit the lack of knowledge on the third and fourth generation. What can be more clearly the heritage of every child than that scientific knowledge of itself, of its place in Nature, of its mission, in life, which its elders alone can give it? “Now,” writes Maeterlinck, “that the mission of the race is becoming more clearly defined, the duty is on us to leave on one side whatever is not directly helpful to the spiritual part of our being.... Into the elysian fields of thought enters no satisfaction but brings with it youth, and strength and ardour; nor is there a thing in this world on which the mind thrives more readily than the ecstacy, nay, the debauch, of eagerness, comprehension, and wonder.” This joy of comprehension and of wonder must go hand in hand with will training, with the object of inducing what Sully describes as “the ability to check impulse or postpone action, and to deliberate and choose; which is the characteristic of a calm, enlightened and regulated will. Its development is a slow process, and only commences in early life. Disciplined strength depends on a combination of active vigour, strength of desire and impulse, on the one side, and of cautiousness on the other.” It is this disciplined will that we must help our youth of both sexes to attain, in order consciously to resist the insidious suggestiveness born of crowd contact, and the over-stimulating life and rush of great cities. I have always held that two or more years of secluded, “conventional” education (if it could be obtained minus clericalisin and with a basis of co-education) are of value in the training of the young. If town amusements, town journalism, and town stimulus could be eliminated from the influences brought to bear on young people between the ages of 14 and 17, there might be some chance of reviving a general taste for good literature, of sowing the seeds of distaste for “inferior enjoyments,” and of strengthening, and forming character capable of resisting the hysterical tendency of the suggestions that assail, on all sides, our ears and eyes.
DORA B. MONTEFIORE.