Friday, 2 November 2012

Seven Things I Learned from Sarah Stickney Ellis

Sarah Stickney Ellis was a Quaker turned Congregationalist who wrote numerous conduct books for women during the Victorian period (as well as other educational works).  I'm currently skimming through the sections on education and training for boys in her 1843 book The Mothers of England.  Some of her points are rather amusing, so I'm going to summarize the best ones here.

(I'm reading parts of this book because I'm writing about contemporary expectations concerning the raising and education of boys during the early Victorian period.  I'm writing about this in Chapter Three of my thesis, on Charlotte Bronte's The Professor, but will be revisiting this material when I write about Anne Bronte's Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.)

1.  Not everyone who praises your child is sincere.  "One-half of those apparently interested inquirers [...] would say pretty much the same, if the heir of the house should appear toothless, bald, shrivelled, and with every feature of his face distorted."

2. Why mothers are better teachers for their children than paid governesses or tutors: a mother's love "might weight in the balance against a little extra Latin and Greek".

3.  On choosing a school, one must remember that aim of education "should be to dignify the sphere of life to which they belong [ie: the middle class], not to creep up into another."  My, my.

4.  If your husband is "deficient in religious knowledge", children should be sent to school for a proper religious education.

5.  In opposition to the writers who claim that men and women "have equal powers, and are fitted for the same field of action", Ellis asks, don't women have "at present enough to do in their accustomed and familiar place?"  The spectre of separate spheres rises once more, but with a twist.  If women want to become members of parliament, an equal number of men must stay home and "darn stockings" or there will be a loss of "useful exertion in that department where it cannot well be spared".  Funny to think these are issues we are still dealing with today, vis a vis women's representation in the highest levels of politics, academia, and management, as well as the issue of men's place in raising children, etc.

6.  "In the first place, let it be remembered, that boys must be humoured to a certain extent.  Boys and men require this and have a right to expect it from women."  *rolls eyes*

7.  Tyranny in boys may begin "with the little boy in the nursery, when he snatches up his sister's kitten, and throws it into the nearest pond".  GASP!  Who does this?  Did little boys do this in 1843?  Yikes!  (I love, love, love cats for the record).  This energy and love of power should instead "be so directed  as to find an appropriate and delightful use in the feeling that he is the natural protector of his sisters."  Somehow, that doesn't seem quite as dramatic as throwing poor, innocent kittens into ponds.

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