On English Literature


Charles Kingsley

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On English Literature

Introductory Lecture given at Queen’s College, London, 1848.

An introductory lecture must, I suppose, be considered as a sort of art-exhibition, or advertisement of the wares hereafter to be furnished by the lecturer. If these, on actual use, should prove to fall far short of the promise conveyed in the programme, hearers must remember that the lecturer is bound, even to his own shame, to set forth in all commencements the most perfect method of teaching which he can devise, in order that human frailty may have something at which to aim; at the same time begging all to consider that in this piecemeal world, it is sufficient not so much to have realised one’s ideal, as earnestly to have tried to realise it, according to the measure of each man’s gifts. Besides, what may not be fulfilled in a first course, or in a first generation of teachers, may still be effected by those who follow them. It is but fair to expect that if this Institution shall prove, as I pray God it may, a centre of female education worthy of the wants of the coming age, the method and the practice of the College will be developing, as years bring experience and wider eye-range, till we become truly able to teach the English woman of the nineteenth century to bear her part in an era, which, as I believe, more and more bids fair to eclipse, in faith and in art, in science and in polity, any and every period of glory which Christendom has yet beheld.

The first requisite, I think, for a modern course of English Literature is, that it be a whole course or none. The literary education of woman has too often fallen into the fault of our “Elegant Extracts,” and “Beauties of British Poetry.” It has neither begun at the beginning nor ended at the end. The young have been taught to admire the laurels of Parnassus, but only after they have been clipped and pollarded like a Dutch shrubbery. The roots which connect them with mythic antiquity, and the fresh leaves and flowers of the growing present, have been generally cut off with care, and the middle part only has been allowed to be used — too often, of course, a sufficiently tough and dry stem. This method is no doubt easy, because it saves teachers the trouble of investigating antiquity, and saves them too the still more delicate task of judging contemporaneous authors — but like all half measures, it has bred less good than evil. If we could silence a free press, and the very free tongues of modern society; if we could clip the busy, imaginative, craving mind of youth on the Procrustean bed of use and wont, the method might succeed; but we can do neither — the young will read and will hear; and the consequence is, a general complaint that the minds of young women are outgrowing their mothers’ guidance, that they are reading books which their mothers never dreamt of reading, of many of which they never heard, many at least whose good and evil they have had no means of investigating; that the authors which really interest and influence the minds of the young are just the ones which have formed no part of their education, and therefore those for judging of which they have received no adequate rules; that, in short, in literature as in many things, education in England is far behind the wants of the age.

Now this is all wrong and ruinous. The mother’s mind should be the lodestar of the daughter’s. Anything which loosens the bond of filial reverence, of filial resignation, is even more destructive, if possible, to womanhood than to manhood — the certain bane of both. And the evil fruits are evident enough — self-will and self-conceit in the less gentle, restlessness and dissatisfaction in many of the meekest and gentlest; talents seem with most a curse instead of a blessing; clever and earnest young women, like young men, are beginning to wander up and down in all sorts of eclecticisms and dilettanteisms — one year they find out that the dark ages were not altogether barbarous, and by a revulsion of feeling natural to youth, they begin to adore them as a very galaxy of light, beauty, and holiness. Then they begin to crave naturally enough for some real understanding of this strange ever-developing nineteenth century, some real sympathy with its new wonders, some real sphere of labour in it; and this drives them to devour the very newest authors — any book whatever which seems to open for them the riddle of the mighty and mysterious present, which is forcing itself on their attention through every sense. And so up and down, amid confusions and oscillations from pole to pole, and equally eclectic at either pole, from St. Augustin and Mr. Pugin to Goethe and George Sand, and all intensified and coloured by that tender enthusiasm, that craving for something to worship, which is a woman’s highest grace, or her bitterest curse — wander these poor Noah’s doves, without either ark of shelter or rest for the sole of their foot, sometimes, alas! over strange ocean-wastes, into gulfs of error — too sad to speak of here — and will wander more and more till teachers begin boldly to face reality, and interpret to them both the old and the new, lest they misinterpret them for themselves. The educators of the present generation must meet the cravings of the young spirit with the bread of life, or they will gorge themselves with poison. Telling them that they ought not to be hungry, will not stop their hunger; shutting our eyes to facts, will only make us stumble over them the sooner; hiding our eyes in the sand, like the hunted ostrich, will not hide us from the iron necessity of circumstances, or from the Almighty will of Him, who is saying in these days to society, in language unmistakable: “Educate, or fall to pieces! Speak the whole truth to the young, or take the consequences of your cowardice!”

On these grounds I should wish to see established in this College a really entire course of English Literature, such as shall give correct, reverent, and loving views of every period, from the earliest legends and poetry of the Middle Age, up to the latest of our modern authors, and in the case of the higher classes, if it should hereafter be found practicable, lectures devoted to the criticism of such authors as may be exercising any real influence upon the minds of English women. This, I think, should be our ideal. It must be attempted cautiously and step by step. It will not be attained at the first trial, certainly not by the first lecturer. Sufficient, if each succeeding teacher shall leave something more taught, some fresh extension of the range of knowledge which is thought fit for his scholars.

I said that the ages of history were analogous to the ages of man, and that each age of literature was the truest picture of the history of its day; and for this very reason English literature is the best perhaps, the only teacher of English history, to women especially. For it seems to me that it is principally by the help of such an extended literary course, that we can cultivate a just and enlarged taste, which will connect education with the deepest feelings of the heart. It seems hardly fair, or reasonable either, to confine the reading of the young to any certain fancied Augustan age of authors, I mean those of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; especially when that age requires, in order to appreciate it, a far more developed mind, a far greater experience of mankind and of the world, than falls to the lot of one young woman out of a thousand. Strong meat for men, and milk for babes. But why are we to force on any age spiritual food unfitted for it? If we do we shall be likely only to engender a lasting disgust for that by which our pupils might have fully profited, had they only been introduced to it when they were ready for it. And this actually happens with English literature: by having the so-called standard works thrust upon them too early, and then only in a fragmentary form, not fresh and whole, but cut up into the very driest hay, the young too often neglect in after-life the very books which then might become the guides of their taste. Hence proceed in the minds of the young sudden and irregular revulsions of affection for different schools of writing: and all revolutions in the individual as well as in the nation are sure to be accompanied by some dead loss of what has been already gained, some disruption of feelings, some renunciation of principles, which ought to have been preserved; something which might have borne fruit is sure to be crushed in the earthquake. Many before me must surely have felt this. Do none here remember how, when they first escaped from the dry class-drudgery of Pope and Johnson, they snatched greedily at the forbidden fruit of Byron, perhaps of Shelley, and sentimental novel-writers innumerable? How when the luscious melancholy of their morbid self-consciousness began to pall on the appetite, they fled for refuge as suddenly to mere poetry of description and action, to Southey, Scott, the ballad-literature of all ages? How when the craving returned (perhaps unconsciously to themselves) to understand the wondrous heart of man, they tried to satisfy it with deep draughts of Wordsworth’s celestial and pure simplicity? How again, they tired of that too gentle and unworldly strain, and sought in Shakespeare something more exciting, more genial, more rich in the facts and passions of daily life? How even his all-embracing genius failed to satisfy them, because he did not palpably connect for them their fancy and their passions with their religious faith — and so they wandered out again over the sea of literature, heaven only knows whither, in search of a school of authors yet, alas! unborn. For the true literature of the nineteenth century, the literature which shall set forth in worthy strains the relation of the two greatest facts, namely, of the universe and of Christ, which shall transfigure all our enlarged knowledge of science and of society, of nature, of art, and man, with the eternal truths of the gospel, that poetry of the future is not yet here: but it is coming, ay even at the doors, when this great era shall become conscious of its high vocation, and the author too shall claim his priestly calling, and the poets of the world, like the kingdoms of the world, shall become the poets of God and of His Christ.

But to return. Should we not rather in education follow that method which Providence has already mapped out for us? If we are bound, as of course we are, to teach our pupils to breathe freely on the highest mountain-peaks of Shakespeare’s art, how can we more certainly train them to do so, than by leading them along the same upward path by which Shakespeare himself rose — through the various changes of taste, the gradual developments of literature, through which the English mind had been passing before Shakespeare’s time? For there was a literature before Shakespeare. Had there not been, neither would there have been a Shakespeare. Critics are now beginning to see that the old fancy which made Shakespeare spring up at once, a self-perfected poet, like Minerva full-armed from the head of Jove, was a superstition of pedants, who neither knew the ages before the great poet, nor the man himself, except that little of him which seemed to square with their shallow mechanical taste. The old fairy superstition, the old legends and ballads, the old chronicles of feudal war and chivalry, the earlier moralities and mysteries, and tragi-comic attempts — these were the roots of his poetic tree — they must be the roots of any literary education which can teach us to appreciate him. These fed Shakespeare’s youth; why should they not feed our children’s? Why indeed? That inborn delight of the young in all that is marvellous and fantastic — has that a merely evil root? No surely! It is a most pure part of their spiritual nature; a part of “the heaven which lies about us in our infancy;” angel-wings with which the free child leaps the prison-walls of sense and custom, and the drudgery of earthly life — like the wild dreams of childhood, it is a God-appointed means for keeping alive what noble Wordsworth calls

those obstinate questionings

Of sense and outward things,

Fallings from us, vanishings;

Blank misgivings of a creature

Moving about in worlds not realised;

by which

Though inland far we be,

Our souls have sight of that immortal sea

Which brought us hither:

Can in a moment travel thither,

And see the children sporting on the shore,

And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.

And those old dreams of our ancestors in the childhood of England, they are fantastic enough, no doubt, and unreal, but yet they are most true and most practical, if we but use them as parables and symbols of human feeling and everlasting truth. What, after all, is any event of earth, palpable as it may seem, but, like them, a shadow and a ghostly dream, till it has touched our hearts, till we have found out and obeyed its spiritual lesson? Be sure that one really pure legend or ballad may bring God’s truth and heaven’s beauty more directly home to the young spirit than whole volumes of dry abstract didactic morality. Outward things, beauty, action, nature, are the great problems for the young. God has put them in a visible world, that by what they see they may learn to know the unseen; and we must begin to feed their minds with that literature which deals most with visible things, with passion manifested in action, which we shall find in the early writing of our Middle Ages; for then the collective mind of our nation was passing through its natural stages of childhood and budding youth, as every nation and every single individual must at some time or other do; a true “young England,” always significant and precious to the young. I said there was a literary art before Shakespeare — an art more simple, more childlike, more girlish as it were, and therefore all the more adapted for young minds. But also an art most vigorous and pure in point of style: thoroughly fitted to give its readers the first elements of taste, which must lie at the root of even the most complex æsthetics. I know no higher specimens of poetic style, considering the subject, and the belief of the time about them, than may be found in many of our old ballads. How many poets are there in England now, who could have written “The Twa Bairns,” or “Sir Patrick Spens?” How many such histories as old William of Malmesbury, in spite of all his foolish monk miracles? As few now as there were then; and as for lying legends — they had their superstitions, and we have ours; and the next generation will stare at our strange doings as much as we stare at our forefathers. For our forefathers they were; we owe them filial reverence, thoughtful attention, and more — we must know them ere we can know ourselves. The only key to the present is the past.

But I must go farther still, and after premising that the English classics, so called, of the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries will of course form the bulk of the lectures, I must plead for some instruction in the works of recent and living authors. I cannot see why we are to teach the young about the past and not about the present. After all, they have to live now, and at no other time; in this same nineteenth century lies their work: it may be unfortunate, but we cannot help it. I do not see why we should wish to help it. I know no century which the world has yet seen so well worth living in. Let us thank God that we are here now, and joyfully try to understand where we are, and what our work is here. As for all superstitions about “the good old times,” and fancies that they belonged to God, while this age belongs only to man, blind chance, and the Evil One, let us cast them from us as the suggestions of an evil lying spirit, as the natural parents of laziness, pedantry, popery, and unbelief. And therefore let us not fear to tell our children the meaning of this present day, and of all its different voices. Let us not be content to say to them, as we have been doing: “We will see you well instructed in the past, but you must make out the present for yourselves.” Why, if the past is worth explaining, far more is the present — the pressing, noisy, complex present, where our work-field lies, the most intricate of all states of society, and of all schools of literature yet known, and therefore the very one requiring most explanation.

How rich in strange and touching utterances have been the last fifty years of English literature. Do you think that God has been teaching us nothing in them? Will He not make our children listen to that teaching, whether we like or not? And suppose our most modern writers had added nothing to the stock of national knowledge, which I most fervently deny, yet are they not actually influencing the minds of the young? and can we prevent their doing so either directly or indirectly? If we do not find them right teaching about their own day, will they not be sure to find self-chosen teachers about it themselves, who will be almost certainly the first who may come to hand, and therefore as likely as not to be bad teachers? And do we not see every day that it is just the most tender, the most enthusiastic, the most precious spirits, who are most likely to be misled, because their honest disgust at the follies of the day has most utterly outgrown their critical training? And that lazy wholesale disapprobation of living writers, so common and convenient, what does it do but injure all reverence for parents and teachers, when the young find out that the poet, who, as they were told, was a bungler and a charlatan, somehow continues to touch the purest and noblest nerves of their souls, and that the author who was said to be dangerous and unchristian, somehow makes them more dutiful, more earnest, more industrious, more loving to the poor? I speak of actual cases. Would to God they were not daily ones!

Is it not then the wiser, because the more simple and trustful method, both to God and our children, to say: “You shall read living authors, and we will teach you how to read them; you, like every child that is born into the world, must eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil; we will see that you have your senses exercised to discern between that good and that evil. You shall have the writers for whom you long, as far as consists with common prudence and morality, and more, you shall be taught them: all we ask of you is to be patient and humble; believe us, you will never really appreciate these writers, you will not even rationally enjoy their beauties, unless you submit to a course of intellectual training like that through which most of them have passed, and through which certainly this nation which produced them has passed, in the successive stages of its growth.”

The best method, I think, of working out these principles would be to devote a few lectures in the last term of every complete course, to the examination of some select works of recent writers, chosen under the sanction of the Educational Committee. But I must plead for whole works. “Extracts” and “Select Beauties” are about as practical as the worthy in the old story, who, wishing to sell his house, brought one of the bricks to market as a specimen. It is equally unfair on the author and on the pupil; for it is impossible to show the merits or demerits of a work of art, even to explain the truth or falsehood of any particular passage, except by viewing the book as an organic whole. And as for the fear of raising a desire to read more of an author than may be proper — when a work has once been pointed out as really hurtful, the rest must be left to the best safeguard which I have yet discovered, in man or woman — the pupil’s own honour.

Such a knowledge of English literature would tend no less, I think, to the spread of healthy historic views among us. The literature of every nation is its autobiography. Even in its most complex and artistic forms, it is still a wonderfully artless and unconscious record of its doubts and its faith, its sorrows and its triumphs, at each era of its existence. Wonderfully artless and correct — because all utterances which were not faithful to their time, which did not touch some sympathetic chord in their heart’s souls, are pretty sure to have been swept out into wholesome oblivion, and only the most genuine and earnest left behind for posterity. The history of England indeed is the literature of England — but one very different from any school history or other now in vogue. You will find it neither a mere list of acts of parliament and record-office, like some; nor yet an antiquarian gallery of costumes and armour, like others; nor a mere war-gazette and report of killed and wounded from time to time; least of all not a “Debrett’s Peerage,” and catalogue of kings and queens (whose names are given, while their souls are ignored), but a true spiritual history of England — a picture of the spirits of our old forefathers, who worked, and fought, and sorrowed, and died for us; on whose accumulated labours we now here stand. That I call a history — not of one class of offices or events, but of the living human souls of English men and English women. And therefore one most adapted to the mind of woman; one which will call into fullest exercise her blessed faculty of sympathy, that pure and tender heart of flesh, which teaches her always to find her highest interest in mankind, simply as mankind; to see the Divine most completely in the human; to prefer the incarnate to the disembodied, the personal to the abstract, the pathetic to the intellectual; to see, and truly, in the most common tale of village love or sorrow, a mystery deeper and more divine than lies in all the theories of politicians or the fixed ideas of the sage.

Such a course of history would quicken women’s inborn personal interest in the actors of this life-drama, and be quickened by it in return, as indeed it ought: for it is thus that God intended woman to look instinctively at the world. Would to God that she would teach us men to look at it thus likewise! Would to God that she would in these days claim and fulfil to the uttermost her vocation as the priestess of charity! — that woman’s heart would help to deliver man from bondage to his own tyrannous and all-too-exclusive brain — from our idolatry of mere dead laws and printed books — from our daily sin of looking at men, not as our struggling and suffering brothers, but as mere symbols of certain formulæ), incarnations of sets of opinions, wheels in some iron liberty-grinding or Christianity-spinning machine, which we miscall society, or civilisation, or, worst misnomer of all, the Church!

This I take to be one of the highest aims of woman — to preach charity, love, and brotherhood: but in this nineteenth century, hunting everywhere for law and organisation, refusing loyalty to anything which cannot range itself under its theories, she will never get a hearing, till her knowledge of the past becomes more organised and methodic. As it is now, for want of large many-sided views of the past, her admiration is too apt to attach itself to some two or three characters only in the hero-list of all the ages. Then comes the temptation to thrust aside all which interferes with her favourite idols, and so the very heart given her for universal sympathy becomes the organ of an exclusive bigotry, and she who should have taught man to love, too often only embitters his hate. I claim, therefore, as necessary for the education of the future, that woman should be initiated into the thoughts and feelings of her countrymen in every age, from the wildest legends of the past to the most palpable naturalism of the present; and that not merely in a chronological order, sometimes not in chronological order at all; but in a true spiritual sequence; that knowing the hearts of many, she may in after life be able to comfort the hearts of all.

But there is yet another advantage in an extended study of English literature — I mean the more national tone which it ought to give the thoughts of the rising generation. Of course to repress the reading of foreign books, to strive after any national exclusiveness, or mere John-Bullism of mind, in an age of railroads and free press, would be simply absurd — and more, it would be fighting against the will of God revealed in events. He has put the literary treasures of the Continent into our hands; we must joyfully accept them, and earnestly exhaust them. This age is craving for what it calls catholicity; for more complete interchange and brotherhood of thought between all the nations of the earth. This spirit is stirring in the young especially, and I believe that God Himself has inspired it, because I see that He has first revealed the means of gratifying the desire, at that very time in which it has arisen.

But every observant person must be aware that this tendency has produced its evils as well as its good. There is a general complaint that the minds of young women are becoming un-English; that their foreign reading does not merely supply the deficiencies of their English studies, but too often completely supersedes them; that the whole tone of their thoughts is too often taken from French or German writings; that by some means or other, the standard works of English literature are becoming very much undervalued and neglected by the young people of this day; and that self-will and irregular eclecticism are the natural results.

I must say that I consider the greater part of these evils as the natural consequence of past mis-education; as the just punishment of the old system, which attached the most disproportionate importance to mere acquirements, and those mostly of foreign languages, foreign music, and so forth, while the “well of English undefiled,” and not only that, but English literature, history, patriotism, too often English religion, have been made quite minor considerations. Therefore so few of the young have any healthy and firm English standard whereby to try and judge foreign thought. Therefore they fancy, when they meet with anything deep and attractive in foreign works, that because they have no such thoughts put before them in English authors, no such thoughts exist in them.

But happily we may do much towards mending this state of things, by making our pupils thoroughly conversant with the æsthetic treasures of English literature. From them I firmly believe they may derive sufficient rules whereby to separate in foreign books the true from the false, the necessary from the accidental, the eternal truth from its peculiar national vesture. Above all, we shall give them a better chance of seeing things from that side from which God intended English women to see them: for as surely as there is an English view of everything, so surely God intends us to take that view; and He who gave us our English character intends us to develop its peculiarities, as He intends the French woman to develop hers, that so each nation by learning to understand itself, may learn to understand, and therefore to profit, by its neighbour. He who has not cultivated his own plot of ground will hardly know much about the tillage of his neighbour’s land. And she who does not appreciate the mind of her own countrymen will never form any true judgment of the mind of foreigners. Let English women be sure that the best way to understand the heroines of the Continent is not by mimicking them, however noble they may be, not by trying to become a sham Rahel, or a sham De Sévigné, but a real Elizabeth Fry, Felicia Hemans, or Hannah More. What indeed entitles either Madame de Sévigné or Rahel to fame, but their very nationality — that intensely local style of language and feeling which clothes their genius with a living body instead of leaving it in the abstractions of a dreary cosmopolitism? The one I suppose would be called the very beau-ideal, not of woman, but of the French woman — the other the ideal, not even of the Jewess, but of the German Jewess. We may admire wherever we find worth; but if we try to imitate, we only caricature. Excellence grows in all climes, transplants to none: the palm luxuriates only in the tropics, the Alp-rose only beside eternal snows. Only by standing on our own native earth can we enjoy or even see aright the distant stars: if we try to reach them, we shall at once lose sight of them, and drop helpless in a new element, unfitted for our limbs.

Teach, then, the young, by an extended knowledge of English literature, thoroughly to comprehend the English spirit, thoroughly to see that the English mind has its peculiar calling on God’s earth, which alone, and no other, it can fulfil. Teach them thoroughly to appreciate the artistic and intellectual excellences of their own country; but by no means in a spirit of narrow bigotry: tell them fairly our national faults — teach them to unravel those faults from our national virtues; and then there will be no danger of the prejudiced English woman becoming by a sudden revulsion an equally prejudiced cosmopolite and eclectic, as soon as she discovers that her own nation does not monopolise all human perfections; and so trying to become German, Italian, French woman, all at once — a heterogeneous chaos of imitations, very probably with the faults of all three characters, and the graces of none. God has given us our own prophets, our own heroines. To recognise those prophets, to imitate those heroines, is the duty which lies nearest to the English woman, and therefore the duty which God intends her to fulfil.

I should wish therefore in the first few lectures on English literature to glance at the character of our old Saxon ancestors, and the legends connected with their first invasion of the country; and above all at the magnificent fables of King Arthur and his times which exercised so great an influence on the English mind, and were in fact, although originally Celtic, so thoroughly adopted and naturalised by the Saxon, as to reappear under different forms in every age, and form the keynote of most of our fictions, from Geoffrey of Monmouth and the medieval ballads, up to Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, and at last Milton and Blackmore. This series of legends will, I think, as we trace its development, bring us in contact one by one with the corresponding developments of the English character; and, unless I am much mistaken, enable us to explain many of its peculiarities.

Of course nothing more than sketches can be given; but I think nothing more is required for any one but the professed historian. For young people especially, it is sufficient to understand the tone of human feeling expressed by legends, rather than to enter into any critical dissertations on their historic truth. They need, after all, principles rather than facts. To educate them truly we must give them inductive habits of thought, and teach them to deduce from a few facts a law which makes plain all similar ones, and so acquire the habit of extracting from every story somewhat of its kernel of spiritual meaning. But again, to educate them truly we must ourselves have faith; we must believe that in every one there is a spiritual eye which can perceive those great principles when they are once fairly presented to it, that in all there are some noble instincts, some pure yearnings after wisdom, and taste, and usefulness, which, if we only appeal to them trustfully through the examples of the past, and the excitements of the present, will wake into conscious life. Above all, both pupils and teachers must never forget that all these things were written for their examples; that though circumstances and creeds, schools and tastes, may alter, yet the heart of man, and the duty of man, remain unchanged; and that while

The old order changes, giving place to the new,

And God fulfils himself in many ways —

yet again

Through the ages one unaltered purpose runs —

and the principles of truth and beauty are the same as when the everlasting Spirit from whom they come “brooded upon the face” of the primeval seas.

But once more, we must and will by God’s help try to realise the purpose of this College, by boldly facing the facts of the age and of our own office. And therefore we shall not shrink from the task, however delicate and difficult, of speaking to our hearers as to women. Our teaching must be no sexless, heartless abstraction. We must try to make all which we tell them bear on the great purpose of unfolding to woman her own calling in all ages — her especial calling in this one. We must incite them to realise the chivalrous belief of our old forefathers among their Saxon forests, that something Divine dwelt in the counsels of woman; but, on the other hand, we must continually remind them that they will attain that divine instinct, not by renouncing their sex, but by fulfilling it; by becoming true women, and not bad imitations of men; by educating their heads for the sake of their hearts, not their hearts for the sake of their heads; by claiming woman’s divine vocation, as the priestess of purity, of beauty, and of love; by educating themselves to become, with God’s blessing, worthy wives and mothers of a mighty nation of workers, in an age when the voice of the ever-working God is proclaiming through the thunder of falling dynasties, and crumbling idols: “He that will not work, neither shall he eat.”

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