Madame de Fleury, by Maria Edgeworth

Chapter 6.

“Knowledge for them unlocks her useful page,

And virtue blossoms for a better age.”— BARBAULD.

A few days after Mad. de Fleury had told Victoire the fable of the lion and the mouse, she was informed by Sister Frances that Victoire had put the fable into verse. It was wonderfully well done for a child of nine years old, and Mad. de Fleury was tempted to praise the lines; but, checking the enthusiasm of the moment, she considered whether it would be advantageous to cultivate her pupil’s talent for poetry. Excellence in the poetic art cannot be obtained without a degree of application for which a girl in her situation could not have leisure. To encourage her to become a mere rhyming scribbler, without any chance of obtaining celebrity or securing subsistence, would be folly and cruelty. Early prodigies, in the lower ranks of life, are seldom permanently successful; they are cried up one day, and cried down the next. Their productions rarely have that superiority which secures a fair preference in the great literary market. Their performances are, perhaps, said to be —wonderful, all things considered, &c. Charitable allowances are made; the books are purchased by associations of complaisant friends or opulent patrons; a kind of forced demand is raised, but this can be only temporary and delusive. In spite of bounties and of all the arts of protection, nothing but what is intrinsically good will long be preferred, when it must be purchased. But granting that positive excellence is attained, there is always danger that for works of fancy the taste of the public may suddenly vary; there is a fashion in these things; and when the mode changes, the mere literary manufacturer is thrown out of employment; he is unable to turn his hand to another trade, or to any but his own peculiar branch of the business. The powers of the mind are often partially cultivated in these self-taught geniuses. We often see that one part of their understanding is nourished to the prejudice of the rest — the imagination, for instance, at the expense of the judgment: so that, whilst they have acquired talents for show, they have none for use. In the affairs of common life, they are utterly ignorant and imbecile — or worse than imbecile. Early called into public notice, probably before their moral habits are formed, they are extolled for some play of fancy or of wit, as Bacon calls it, some juggler’s trick of the intellect; they immediately take an aversion to plodding labour, they feel raised above their situation; possessed by the notion that genius exempts them, not only from labour, but from vulgar rules of prudence, they soon disgrace themselves by their conduct, are deserted by their patrons, and sink into despair, or plunge into profligacy.15

15 To these observations there are honourable exceptions.]

Convinced of these melancholy truths, Mad. de Fleury was determined not to add to the number of those imprudent or ostentatious patrons, who sacrifice to their own amusement and vanity the future happiness of their favourites. Victoire’s verses were not handed about in fashionable circles, nor was she called upon to recite them before a brilliant audience, nor was she produced in public as a prodigy; she was educated in private, and by slow and sure degrees, to be a good, useful, and happy member of society. Upon the same principles which decided Mad. de Fleury against encouraging Victoire to be a poetess, she refrained from giving any of her little pupils accomplishments unsuited to their situation. Some had a fine ear for music, others showed powers of dancing; but they were taught neither dancing nor music — talents which in their station were more likely to be dangerous than serviceable. They were not intended for actresses or opera-girls, but for shop-girls, mantua-makers, work-women, and servants of different sorts; consequently they were instructed in things which would be most necessary and useful to young women in their rank of life. Before they were ten years old, they could do all kinds of plain needlework, they could read and write well, and they were mistresses of the common rules of arithmetic. After this age, they were practised by a writing-master in drawing out bills neatly, keeping accounts, and applying to every-day use their knowledge of arithmetic. Some were taught by a laundress to wash, and get up fine linen and lace; others were instructed by a neighbouring traiteur in those culinary mysteries with which Sister Frances was unacquainted. In sweetmeats and confectionaries she yielded to no one; and she made her pupils as expert as herself. Those who were intended for ladies’ maids were taught mantua-making, and had lessons from Mad. de Fleury’s own woman in hair-dressing.

Amongst her numerous friends and acquaintances, and amongst the shopkeepers whom she was in the habit of employing, Mad. de Fleury had means of placing and establishing her pupils suitably and advantageously: of this both they and their parents were aware, so that there was a constant and great motive operating continually to induce them to exert themselves, and to behave well. This reasonable hope of reaping the fruits of their education, and of being immediately rewarded for their good conduct; this perception of the connexion between what they are taught and what they are to become, is necessary to make young people assiduous: for want of attending to these principles, many splendid establishments have failed to produce pupils answerable to the expectations which had been formed of them.

During seven years that Mad. de Fleury persevered uniformly on the same plan, only one girl forfeited her protection — a girl of the name of Manon; she was Victoire’s cousin, but totally unlike her in character.

When very young, her beautiful eyes and hair caught the fancy of a rich lady, who took her into her family as a sort of humble playfellow for her children. She was taught to dance and to sing: she soon excelled in these accomplishments, and was admired, and produced as a prodigy of talent. The lady of the house gave herself great credit for having discerned, and having brought forward, such talents. Manon’s moral character was in the mean time neglected. In this house, where there was a constant scene of hurry and dissipation, the child had frequent opportunities and temptations to be dishonest. For some time she was not detected; her caressing manners pleased her patroness, and servile compliance with the humours of the children of the family secured their good-will. Encouraged by daily petty successes in the art of deceit, she became a complete hypocrite. With culpable negligence, her mistress trusted implicitly to appearances; and without examining whether she were really honest, she suffered her to have free access to unlocked drawers and valuable cabinets. Several articles of dress were missed from time to time; but Manon managed so artfully, that she averted from herself all suspicion. Emboldened by this fatal impunity, she at last attempted depredations of more importance. She purloined a valuable, snuff-box — was detected in disposing of the broken parts of it at a pawnbroker’s, and was immediately discarded in disgrace; but by her tears and vehement expressions of remorse, she so far worked upon the weakness of the lady of the house, as to prevail upon her to conceal the circumstance that occasioned her dismissal. Some months afterwards Manon, pleading that she was thoroughly reformed, obtained from this lady a recommendation to Mad. de Fleury’s school. It is wonderful that people, who in other respects profess and practise integrity, can be so culpably weak as to give good characters to those who do not deserve them: this is really one of the worst species of forgery. Imposed upon by this treacherous recommendation, Mad. de Fleury received into the midst of her innocent young pupils one who might have corrupted their minds secretly and irrecoverably. Fortunately a discovery was made in time of Manon’s real disposition. A mere trifle led to the detection of her habits of falsehood. As she could not do any kind of needlework, she was employed in winding cotton; she was negligent, and did not in the course of the week wind the same number of balls as her companions; and to conceal this, she pretended that she had delivered the proper number to the woman, who regularly called at the end of the week for the cotton. The woman persisted in her account; the children in theirs; and Manon would not retract her assertion. The poor woman gave up the point; but she declared that she would the next time send her brother to make up the account, because he was sharper than herself, and would not be imposed upon so easily. The ensuing week the brother came, and he proved to be the very pawnbroker to whom Manon formerly offered the stolen box: he knew her immediately; it was in vain that she attempted to puzzle him, and to persuade him that she was not the same person. The man was clear and firm. Sister Frances could scarcely believe what she heard. Struck with horror, the children shrunk back from Manon, and stood in silence. Mad. de Fleury immediately wrote to the lady who had recommended this girl, and inquired into the truth of the pawnbroker’s assertions. The lady, who had given Manon a false character, could not deny the facts, and could apologize for herself only by saying, that “she believed the girl to be partly reformed, and that she hoped, under Mad. de Fleury’s judicious care, she would become an amiable and respectable woman.”

Mad. de Fleury, however, wisely judged, that the hazard of corrupting all her pupils should not be incurred for the slight chance of correcting one, whose had habits were of such long standing. Manon was expelled from this happy little community — even Sister Frances, the most mild of human beings, could never think of the danger to which they had been exposed without expressing indignation against the lady who recommended such a girl as a fit companion for her blameless and beloved pupils.

Last updated Sunday, March 2, 2014 at 13:58