Practical Hints from a Father to His Daughter

William Sprague, 1835

Forming the MANNERS

Next in importance to the culture of your heart and understanding, is the formation of your manners. You shall have the grounds on which I form this opinion.

There are multitudes who will have no other criterion than your manners by which to judge of your character. In the varied interaction of society, you meet many people, perhaps only for a single time in the course of your life. They of course form some opinion of you; and that opinion is built upon what they witness of your general appearance. With good manners, you may leave an impression upon a stranger from a casual meeting with him, which may cause him to hold you in grateful remembrance through life. With manners of an opposite character, you would either be passed unnoticed, or perhaps remembered only as a glaring specimen of affectation or crudeness.

It deserves also to be borne in mind, that in nearly every case, the first impressions of the character are gathered from the manners and every one knows that first impressions are not easily eradicated!

Instances are not uncommon in which an individual, on the first introduction to another, has been struck with some apparent defect of disposition, as indicated by the manners; and though he may have been subsequently convinced that the impression was a mistaken one he has found it next to impossible to forget it, in the estimate he forms of the character. If your manners are as they should be it will give you this great advantage in respect to every acquaintance you form that the individual, from the beginning, will be biased in your favor. If otherwise, the best you can hope is, that in finding your way ultimately into the favorable regards of other people, you will have to encounter a mass of negative prejudice.

But, leaving first impressions out of view, there is something in the very constitution of human nature which inclines us to form a judgment of character from manners. It is always taken for granted, unless there is decisive evidence to the contrary that the manners are the genuine expression of the feelings. And even where such evidence exists, that is, where we have every reason to believe that the external appearance does injustice to the moral dispositions, or, on the other hand, where the heart is too favorably represented by the manners there is still a bias forced upon the mind, by what passes under the eye, which it is not easy to resist.

You may take two individuals of precisely the same degree of intellectual and moral worth, and let the manners of the one be gracious and attractive, and those of the other distant or awkward and you will find that the former will pass through life with far more ease and comfort than the latter. For though good manners will never effectually conceal a bad heart, and are, in no case, any atonement for it yet, taken in connection with amiable and virtuous dispositions, they naturally and necessarily gain upon the respect and good will of mankind.

You will instantly perceive, if the preceding remarks are correct, that it is not only your interest to cultivate good manners, as you hereby recommend yourself to the favorable regards of others but also your duty as it increases, in no small degree, your means of usefulness. It will give you access to many people, and give you an influence over those, whom you could otherwise never approach, much less whose feelings and purposes you could never hope, in any measure, to control.

There is yet another reason why this subject is deserving of your attention. It is, that as the manners derive their complexion in a great degree from the feelings so the feelings are in turn influenced by the manners. Suppose, from your partiality to some friend, you should undertake to adopt some weak peculiarity in her deportment it is more than probable, if the foolish experiment should succeed, that you would find yourself, at no distant period, with a set of feelings strongly assimilated to those of the individual whom you had sought to copy. Cultivate good manners then, as one means of improving your dispositions, and imparting real excellence to your character!

That you may attain the object which I am recommending, let me advise you to lay the foundation aright by cultivating good and amiable feelings. Without these, though you should attain what may pass with the world for good manners they will only serve to convict you of hypocrisy! For, however it may be with others you must yourself know that they do not indicate your real character. Endeavor then to banish from your heart all evil dispositions and to nourish every temper that is loving and praiseworthy. Resist with unyielding firmness the operations of pride, envy, jealousy, and every other bad passion.

There are, indeed, infinitely higher motives which urge you to this course, than are derived from its influence in forming your manners; though it is with reference to this exclusively, that I direct your attention to it now.

In connection with the cultivation of benevolent feelings, it is necessary that you should acquire that habit of self-possession which will enable you at all times to act out your feelings without embarrassment. Where the manners indicate amiable moral qualities, and a gentle and kind spirit this will go far to atone for any lesser imperfections by which they may be marked. Nevertheless, it is desirable that you should appear not only amiable, but unconstrained; that you should feel at ease yourself, and be able to put others at ease around you.

You will be placed, almost of course, in a variety of situations so it is important that you should have that habitual self-command which will enable you readily to accommodate yourself to the peculiarities of each situation and at least to conceal from those around you, the secret that you are not perfectly at home. I do not say that this is essential to your passing in good society but it certainly is essential to the perfection of good manners.

I must not omit to mention that it is of great importance to the formation of good manners that you should be accustomed to mingle in good society. I do not mean that you should select all your associates from the more elevated walks of life; for this would be likely to unfit you for mingling with ease and advantage among the less refined; but I would have you so much in cultivated society, that you shall feel perfectly at home, and that your manners shall appear to have been formed upon a model of elegance and refinement. It is a rare instance indeed, that a young girl, who is habitually accustomed to society of a crude or groveling character ever becomes graceful or dignified in her own manners. And on the other hand, where her intimate associates are people of intelligence and refinement it is almost a matter of course that she becomes conformed, in a good degree, to the models with which she is conversant.

But while you ought highly to estimate the privilege of good society, as a means of forming your manners you cannot too cautiously guard against servile imitation. You may have a friend, whose manners seem to you to combine every quality that is necessary to render them a perfect model; who unites elegant simplicity with generous frankness, and dignified address with winning condescension; who, in short, is everything, in this respect, that you could wish to be yourself. But after all, it would be unwise in you to become a servile copyist even of such good manners. For you are to remember that a certain cast of manners suits a certain cast of character; and unless your character were precisely that of the individual whom you should imitate you would, in attempting to assume her manners, deservedly expose yourself to the charge of affectation.

You will therefore do yourself much better service by looking at good models in a general manner, and by endeavoring to become imbued with their spirit than by making any direct efforts to become exactly conformed to them. Indeed, it may be doubted whether you will not reap every possible advantage, by simply mingling in their society, without even thinking of them as models.

Let me caution you here more particularly, to be on your guard against affectation. This is very easily acquired, and is so common a fault that the absence of it is always remarked as a great excellence. I have known girls of many amiable qualities, and considerable intelligence who have been absolutely spoiled for society, by attempting to assume in their manners, what did not belong to them. Wherever anything of this kind exists, it requires but little sagacity to detect it; and even those who are not exactly sensible where the evil lies, are still aware that there is something which needs to be corrected. It happens, however, too frequently, that what is quite palpable to everybody else, escapes the observation of the individual who is the subject of it! And I have known glaring cases, in which the kindest intimation of the fact, from a friend, has been met with expressions of resentment. I beg that you will not only have your ears open to any admonition you may ever receive on this subject but your eyes open, to inspect narrowly your own conduct, that you may detect the fault, if it really does exist. Affectation is always regarded, and justly regarded as an indication of consummate folly. And unless it happens to be associated with an unusual cluster of real excellencies, it brings upon the individual little less than absolute contempt. Let your manners be as much improved as they may but regard it as an essential matter, that they should be your own.

Beware also of an ostentatious manner. By this, I mean that kind of manner . . .
which savors too much of display;
which indicates a disposition to make yourself too conspicuous;
and which, in short, is the acting out of a spirit of self-conceit and excessive self-confidence.

This appears badly enough when revealed in a man; but in a female, and especially in a young female it is absolutely intolerable. Not that I wish to see you awkwardly bashful, or liable to embarrassment from every slight change of circumstances; but between this, and the ostentatious manner which I am condemning there is a happy medium, consisting of a due mixture of confidence and modesty, which will be equally pleasant to yourself and those with whom you associate. But if you must err on either extreme, I had rather it would be on that of shyness, than of ostentation. I had rather you should excite, by your bashfulness a feeling of compassion; than by your excessive confidence a feeling of disgust.

But while you are carefully to avoid ostentation, you are to guard with no less caution against a studied reserve. We sometimes meet with people whose manners leave upon our minds the painful impression that they are afraid to trust us; and that they regard both our actions and words with suspicion. Wherever this trait appears, it is almost certain to excite anger or disgust. Most people will bear anything with more patience, than to be told, either directly or indirectly that they are unworthy of trust.

A significant smile, or nod, or look, with a third person, which is intended not to be understood by the individual with whom you are conversing is a gross violation of propriety, and has often cost a deeply wounded sensibility, and sometimes a valued friendship. While you studiously avoid everything of this kind, let your manners be characterized by a noble frankness which, in whatever circumstances you are placed, shall leave no doubt of your sincerity.

I will only add, that you should avoid every approach to a haughty and overbearing manner. It is an exhibition of pride, which is one of the most hateful of all dispositions and of pride in one of its most odious forms. If you should be so unhappy as to furnish an example of it, whatever variety of feeling it might excite among your associates you may rely on it, that they would all agree to despise you. I entreat you, therefore, as you value your character or usefulness, that you will always be courteous and kind.

If I should point you to the finest model of female manners which it has ever been my privilege to observe, and one which will compare with the most perfect models of this or any other age I should repeat a venerated name, that of Mrs. Hannah More. It was my privilege, a few years ago, to make a visit to the residence of this distinguished female; a visit which I have ever since regarded as among the happiest incidents of my life. At that time she numbered more than eighty years old; but the vigor of her intellect was scarcely at all impaired; and from what she was, I could easily conceive what she had been when her sun was at its meridian. In her person she was rather small but was a specimen of admirable symmetry. In her manners she united the dignity and refinement of the court, with the most exquisite courtesy and gentleness which the female character in its loveliest forms ever exhibited. She impressed me continually with a sense of the high intellectual and moral qualities, by which she was distinguished but still left me as unconstrained as if I had been conversing with my beloved child! There was . . .
an air of graceful and unaffected ease,
an instinctive regard to the most delicate proprieties of social fellowship,
a readiness to communicate and yet a desire to listen,
the dignity of conscious merit united with the humility of the devoted Christian.

In short, there was such an assemblage of intellectual and moral excellencies beaming forth in every expression, and look, and attitude that I could scarcely conceive of a more perfect exhibition of human character!

I rejoice that it is the privilege of all to know Mrs. More through her written works; and I can form no better wish for you than that you may imbibe her spirit, and walk in her footsteps!