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The Decline Of The Graces
by [?]

Have you read The Young Lady’s Book? You have had plenty of time to do so, for it was published in 1829. It was described by the two anonymous Gentlewomen who compiled it as `A Manual for Elegant Recreations, Exercises, and Pursuits.’ You wonder they had nothing better to think of? You suspect them of having been triflers? They were not, believe me. They were careful to explain, at the outset, that the Virtues of Character were what a young lady should most assiduously cultivate. They, in their day, labouring under the shadow of the eighteenth century, had somehow in themselves that high moral fervour which marks the opening of the twentieth century, and is said to have come in with Mr. George Bernard Shaw. But, unlike us, they were not concerned wholly with the inward and spiritual side of life. They cared for the material surface, too. They were learned in the frills and furbelows of things. They gave, indeed, a whole chapter to `Embroidery.’ Another they gave to `Archery,’ another to `The Aviary,’ another to `The Escrutoire.’ Young ladies do not now keep birds, nor shoot with bow and arrow; but they do still, in some measure, write letters; and so, for sake of historical comparison, let me give you a glance at `The Escrutoire.’ It is not light reading.

‘For careless scrawls ye boast of no pretence;
Fair Russell wrote, as well as spoke, with sense.’

Thus is the chapter headed, with a delightful little wood engraving of `Fair Russell,’ looking pre-eminently sensible, at her desk, to prepare the reader for the imminent welter of rules for `decorous composition.’ Not that pedantry is approved. `Ease and simplicity, an even flow of unlaboured diction, and an artless arrangement of obvious sentiments’ is the ideal to be striven for. `A metaphor may be used with advantage’ by any young lady, but only `if it occur naturally.’ And `allusions are elegant,’ but only `when introduced with ease, and when they are well understood by those to whom they are addressed.’ `An antithesis renders a passage piquant’; but the dire results of a too-frequent indulgence in it are relentlessly set forth. Pages and pages are devoted to a minute survey of the pit-falls of punctuation. But when the young lady of that period had skirted all these, and had observed all the manifold rules of caligraphy that were here laid down for her, she was not, even then, out of the wood. Very special stress was laid on `the use of the seal.’ Bitter scorn was poured on young ladies who misused the seal. `It is a habit of some to thrust the wax into the flame of the candle, and the moment a morsel of it is melted, to daub it on the paper; and when an unsightly mass is gathered together, to pass the seal over the tongue with ridiculous haste– press it with all the strength which the sealing party possesses–and the result is, an impression which raises a blush on her cheek.’

Well! The young ladies of that day were ever expected to exhibit sensibility, and used to blush, just as they wept or fainted, for very slight causes. Their tears and their swoons did not necessarily betoken much grief or agitation; nor did a rush of colour to the cheek mean necessarily that they were overwhelmed with shame. To exhibit various emotions in the drawing-room was one of the Elegant Exercises in which these young ladies were drilled thoroughly. And their habit of simulation was so rooted in sense of duty that it merged into sincerity. If a young lady did not swoon at the breakfast-table when her Papa read aloud from The Times that the Duke of Wellington was suffering from a slight chill, the chances were that she would swoon quite unaffectedly when she realised her omission. Even so, we may be sure that a young lady whose cheek burned not at sight of the letter she had sealed untidily–`unworthily’ the Manual calls it–would anon be blushing for her shamelessness. Such a thing as the blurring of the family crest, or as the pollution of the profile of Pallas Athene with the smoke of the taper, was hardly, indeed, one of those `very slight causes’ to which I have referred. The Georgian young lady was imbued through and through with the sense that it was her duty to be gracefully efficient in whatsoever she set her hand to. To the young lady of to-day, belike, she will seem accordingly ridiculous–seem poor-spirited, and a pettifogger. True, she set her hand to no grandiose tasks. She was not allowed to become a hospital nurse, for example, or an actress. The young lady of to-day, when she hears in herself a `vocation’ for tending the sick, would willingly, without an instant’s preparation, assume responsibility for the lives of a whole ward at St. Thomas’s. This responsibility is not, however, thrust on her. She has to submit to a long and tedious course of training before she may do so much as smooth a pillow. The boards of the theatre are less jealously hedged in than those of the hospital. If our young lady have a wealthy father, and retain her schoolroom faculty for learning poetry by heart, there is no power on earth to prevent her from making her de’but, somewhere, as Juliet–if she be so inclined; and such is usually her inclination. That her voice is untrained, that she cannot scan blank-verse, that she cannot gesticulate with grace and propriety, nor move with propriety and grace across the stage, matters not a little bit–to our young lady. `Feeling,’ she will say, `is everything’; and, of course, she, at the age of eighteen, has more feeling than Juliet, that `flapper,’ could have had. All those other things–those little technical tricks–`can be picked up,’ or `will come.’ But no; I misrepresent our young lady. If she be conscious that there are such tricks to be played, she despises them. When, later, she finds the need to learn them, she still despises them. It seems to her ridiculous that one should not speak and comport oneself as artlessly on the stage as one does off it. The notion of speaking or comporting oneself with conscious art in real life would seem to her quite monstrous. It would puzzle her as much as her grandmother would have been puzzled by the contrary notion.