Read Rough Notes of a Lesson of Stray Thoughts for Girls, free online book, by Lucy H. M. Soulsby, on

I hope to start a new lesson for some of you, and I have gathered you all here to-day, whether you will be able to come to it or not, because, in thinking over what I wished to say about this one lesson, I found I was led into describing what I should like all lessons to do for you. My new lesson will be a talk on various things in which you are, or ought to be, interested. I have tried this plan before, and have sometimes been laughed at for having such miscellaneous lessons, but I found their effect very good. I had a spare half-hour in the week, which I gave to this Talking Lesson.

Once I took Dante, and after a sketch of his life and of Florence, we went through the “Inferno;” I read the famous parts in full and told the story of the rest, and now many of those children who listened feel, when they come on anything about Dante, as if they had met an old friend.

Then I happened to go to Yorkshire and saw several of its lovely abbeys: I came back with a craze for architecture, so I and the girls did that together. Neither they, nor I, imagine that we understand architecture, or are authorities on it; but though we only took the barest outline, it made us all use our eyes and enjoy old buildings. I often get letters from those girls, saying that they have since enjoyed their travels so much more, because they now notice the architecture. You know the story of “Eyes and No Eyes” how two boys went out for a walk one saw nothing to notice, and the other found his way lined with interesting things. I am sure, architecturally, your way is lined with beauty in Oxford, which deserves both outward and “inward eyes.”

Another time we took the French writers of Louis XIV. and we all feel that Moliere and La Fontaine and Mme. de Sevigne are our personal friends, so that the value of their books is doubled to us!

We took mythology at one time, and many girls found that they understood, much better, allusions in books and various pictures in the Academy, which are often about mythological subjects. Ignorance on this point may sometimes be very awkward. I have heard of an American lady who invited her artistic friends to come and see a picture she had lately bought of “Jupiter and Ten.” The friends puzzled over her notes of invitation, and, on arriving at her house, were still more puzzled to know how to pass off the mistake gracefully, when they found that the picture was one of “Jupiter and Io.” I trust you will not cause your friends embarrassment of this kind!

Another time we took the history of Queen Victoria, as our way of celebrating the Jubilee patriotically. We began by all collecting as much patriotic poetry as we could, which was surprisingly little I wonder if you would find more and, all through, we made a special point of finding poems written about any of the events. We found Punch a valuable assistance, and we much enjoyed the cartoons and jokes which had been so mysterious to us before. Just that part of history which is not in “Bright,” and which, yet, is before our time, is so very hard to find out about, and many allusions in the newspapers and parliamentary speeches are consequently wasted on us.

Now, all this was miscellaneous, yet I had one object running through it all, and the girls helped me to carry it out by listening in the right spirit, knowing that I was only pointing out the various doors through which they might go by-and-by. Not one of them thought she had “done” a subject because we had thus talked about it, we all learnt to feel our own ignorance, and at the same time, how much there was in the world to learn.

I want to show you this morning where such a lesson should fit in, in the general plan of your education. To do that, you must first have the plan. Have you ever thought what education was to do for you, or, are you learning your lessons, day by day, just because they are set? I know what I want to do with you, but I cannot do it unless you work hand-in-hand with me, and you cannot do that unless you think about the matter and realize that, for instance, Euclid is not only Euclid, it ought to teach certain mental and moral qualities which you must have if you are ever to be worth your salt. There is a story of Dr. Johnson, which seems to me to apply to so many things. When his friend, Mr. Thrale, the great brewer, died, there was a sale of the brewery, which Dr. Johnson attended. An acquaintance expressed surprise at the great man’s honouring with his presence such an ordinary affair as the sale of a brewery. “Sir,” said Dr. Johnson, turning with crushing deliberation on the unhappy speaker, “this is not the sale of a mere brewery, but of the potentiality of growing rich beyond the dreams of avarice.” This story seems to me well worth remembering, both because it is so characteristic of the Doctor, and because it is applicable to so many things. It is so easy to go through the world not seeing the importance of things, like the common people in “Phantasies,” who never saw what a fairyland they lived in. Lessons, for instance, are not mere lessons, they are “the potentiality of growing rich in wisdom and in goodness beyond our highest dreams.”

I should be sorry if, in after life, you should wake up and say to yourself, “How much more good my lessons would have done me if some one had shown me the real use of them and made me think, so that I might have learnt all I could, instead of just slipping through them day by day.” No one can do the thinking for you. Unless you work with me by trying to think, I cannot really do much for you. I can bring you to the water, but I cannot make you drink. Yes, after all, I can make you drink, i.e. do your lessons day by day as a matter of obedience. So a better illustration would be that I can make you eat, but I cannot make you digest your food. You can prevent its doing you any good. If you simply learn your lessons by rote and do not use your thinking powers, education is very little good, the obedience will have done you good, but, as far as mental growth is concerned, you will not gain much, for that sort of education drops off, like water off a duck’s back, when you leave school. They say “a fool and his money are soon parted,” but that is nothing to the speed with which a fool and his education are parted!

Now, I am going to take the chief subjects you learn, and show the higher things which I want you to gain when you are doing those lessons, and you must want it too, or my wanting it will not do much good. You do not learn Mathematics simply that you may know so many books of Euclid, and so many pages of Algebra; it is to give you power over your minds, to enable you to follow a chain of reasoning, to teach you to keep up continuous attention, and not to jump at conclusions. I do not say you cannot learn these things except by Mathematics; you might do it by Logic, and I know many people who have done it by mother-wit and the teaching of life; but when a person is inclined to trust to his mother-wit, and to neglect educational advantages because he can do without them, I for one feel inclined to doubt whether his share of mother-wit can be very large, after all. The people I have known who are clever, without having had the careful school-training you enjoy, used all the advantages that came in their way (though, when they were young, advantages were fewer), and unless you do the same, you cannot expect to be like them. Also, clever untrained people often feel very much hampered by their want of training; you see the cleverness, but they feel how much more they could have done if they had been trained. Therefore, do not allow yourselves to think “Euclid is no good, because ‘Aunt So-and-so’ is quite clever enough, and she never did it;” depend upon it, that is not going the right road to be like her. I feel quite sure that if this “not impossible aunt” had had opportunities of learning Euclid when she was young, she would have done it, and very well too! Of course, if you mean to read Mathematics from choice by-and-by, you will work hard at the subject now, but I can quite understand that those who are not going to do this, perhaps sometimes feel, “What is the good? I shall never look at a Euclid again after I leave school I want to learn how to hold my own in after-life, I want to be able to talk when I come out, I want to be a sensible woman, whose opinion will be asked by other people, I want to be clever at house-work or cooking, or to be able to manage a shop, I want to be strong enough and wise enough to be a support and comfort to others, I want to be a useful woman and not a mathematician!” Well! that is just what I want you to be, but I am quite sure that Mathematics will help you to this, by making you accurate and reasonable and attentive, without which qualities you will be no use and very little comfort. If you work hard at Mathematics while you are here, and gain these qualities, you have my free leave to shut your Euclid for good on the day you leave school, you will have learnt his best lessons.

Is there any great mental good which you can gain by the study of Languages, quite apart from the advantage of being able to read and speak when you go abroad? Yes; it enlarges your mind to know the various ways in which things are expressed by different nations. A person who knows no language but his own is like a man who can only see with one eye. It opens a whole new world of thought to realize that other nations have other words.

Again, it makes you know your own language. Translation gives you choice of words and trains you to appreciate delicate shades of meaning; this helps you to appreciate Poetry, for one of the main beauties of great poets, such as Milton and Tennyson, is their marvellous perception of shades of difference, and the felicity with which they choose exactly the right adjective!

It is said that barbarous tribes use a very small vocabulary; I sometimes fear we may be going back to a savage state, when I think of the vocabulary of a modern schoolgirl, and see how much ground is covered over with these two narrow words, “awfully” and “jolly.” Hannah More complained, in her day, of the indiscriminate use of the word “nice.” “Formerly,” she says, “a person was ‘charming,’ or ‘accomplished,’ or ‘distinguished,’ or ‘well-bred,’ or ‘talented,’ etc., and each word had its own shade of meaning; now, every one is ‘nice,’ which saves much thought.” “Nice” held its position, for we find Miss Austen making Henry Tilney laugh at the same misuse of the word. “Awfully” and “jolly” seem to perform the same kind office for us which “nice” did for our grandmothers, they “save us much thought,” and are used with a large disregard of their inappropriateness; I have even been told by a girl that the Christian Year was “such an awfully jolly book”! Now, I am sure of this: you will find excessive use of those two words always betokens an empty, or rather an uncultivated, mind. I do not believe in any exception; their votaries may have learning, but they have not digested it, they are not thoughtful, they are “young (or old) barbarians,” for it is the unfailing mark of a cultivated mind, to use the right word in the right place, and never “to use a sixpenny word when a threepenny one will do.”

History should not be bare facts; it illustrates and explains politics of our own day; it teaches sympathy and large-mindedness, and the power of admiring virtues which are not of our own type. The Royalist learns to see the strength of Cromwell, and the Roundhead to see the beauty of “the White King.” It ought to make the world bigger to us by helping us to realize other places and other times. If we are to live quiet stay-at-home lives afterwards, it is very important that we should try not to be narrow and “provincial,” and history and geography should help us in this matter.

Poetry in the same way helps to make us imaginative, which is necessary, if we are to have the Christian graces of tact and sympathy. It is very important to learn the best poetry by heart; it is dull perhaps at first, but new meanings unfold themselves every time we say it. Mr. Ruskin says we ought to read a few verses every day, as we should do with the Bible, to keep our lives from getting choked with commonplace dust, to remind us that the Ideal exists. It certainly puts new beauty into life if we know what poets have said about it, and how they expressed themselves, and this might save us from unworthy expression. I have heard an intelligent schoolgirl, looking at a glorious sunset, say concisely, “How awfully jolly!” I have heard a schoolboy say, “How rum!” I believe they were both touched, but I think they would have expressed themselves differently and have got more pleasure out of it if they had been taught to see, by having it reflected from poets and painters, and had known more of “the best that has been thought and said.”

There was so much I wanted to say that it is difficult to stop. I have given only general ideas, but bear in mind as the main point of what I have said that I want you to educate yourselves, to get ready for life, and to use your lessons here to bring out those qualities which you will want afterwards in everyday life.

Now, how will such general lessons help you in after-life?

First, I want them to help you to be interested in the things you will meet with in books and newspapers and conversation; you will not hear much about some lessons, but you will about these things they are things that it “becomes a young woman to know.”

Then, too, I want you to leave school with introductions to all sorts of nice people in books; you will find it do you as much good as social introductions. Schoolgirls are often “out of it” for a time, when they go home, because they had only “lesson-book” interests; I should like to begin outside interests with you.

Also, this kind of general interest makes the world seem bigger and more interesting; we get an idea of how many delightful things there are in it, and so our pleasures are increased, which is always a great advantage. Happiness is a duty, and sensible interests are a wonderful help to it.

Touching on many interests shows us our ignorance. I have known schoolgirls, who were kept to their lessons, Algebra and Latin and periods of History, and who thought they knew a good deal, because they measured by a schoolroom standard. When they came in contact with the number of things that cultivated people of society care for and appreciate, they learnt a good deal of humility. Certainly the more I read on general subjects the more I feel my own ignorance, and I think it would be very odd if it did not have the same effect on you.

The next reason for this sort of lesson, and one of the best, is that it ought to raise our taste. It is not enough to like or dislike a book: we ought to train ourselves to like the best books. We do not think ourselves born judges in music or art; we submit to being trained before we think our opinion worth giving. It would be just so with a book, but you often hear girls quite sorry for the author if they find a book dull; they feel he is to blame! When I find an author dull, whom good critics admire, I feel pretty sure that I am deficient on that point, and I try to learn to see in him what they do. I speak from experience; when I found Wordsworth dull, I knew it was my own fault, and I read and re-read him, and listened to those who could appreciate him, and now I am rewarded by his being a real part of the pleasures of my life. We need not leave off liking the merely pretty writers, such as Miss Procter and Longfellow. I love Longfellow and admire Miss Procter, but I cared for them both quite as much when I was seven, and an author who can be in some measure appreciated at seven ought to give way to deeper authors by-and-by. Like Guinevere, it is our duty “to love the highest.” The great good of cultivated homes is that we learn to “put away childish things” and to admire the better things which we hear talked of. Some of you may not have this advantage; your people may be too busy for talking about books and such things, and some of you may be cut off from interesting talks by having school lessons to prepare when you would like to listen. Therefore, I should like you to get some talk in school on such subjects to spend some “Half-hours with the best Authors.”