Practical Hints from a Father to His Daughter
William Sprague, 1835
Interaction with the WORLD
In several of the preceding chapters, I have taken for granted that you are to mingle, in a greater or less degree, in society. It is equally essential to your respectability and usefulness — that you should not live the life of a recluse. The constitution of your nature, and the circumstances of your condition — clearly indicate that you were made to be social. As it is a subject, however, in relation to which there is a strong tendency to extremes, and on which you will be in great danger of being misled — I shall suggest a few thoughts in the present chapter which may serve to aid in forming your opinions and directing your conduct.
I begin my advice to you on this subject, by a caution that you should not make your entrance into society at too early a period. It too often happens that girls, long before they have completed their education, and even at a comparatively early stage of it — have contracted a strong relish for being in the world. And unless prevented by the influence of parents or instructors, they are found thus prematurely in the mirthful circles of fashion. The consequence of this is that at best, a divided attention is rendered to their studies; that their opportunities for intellectual improvement are enjoyed to little purpose; and that the period in which should be laid the foundation of a solid and useful character — is perverted to the formation of a habit of mental inaction, and not improbably, to nourish a spirit of intolerable vanity.
Now I do not insist that you should actually decline all society up to the time of completing your education; but I wish that your visiting, previous to that period, should be, for the most part, of an informal character; and that you should not generally consider yourself at liberty to accept invitations, even if you should receive them, to mingle in set circles. This accidental interaction of which I have spoken, is all that will be necessary during the period of your education, to aid you in the formation of your manners. And anything beyond it will almost inevitably interfere with your intellectual improvement, and of course detract from your ultimate estimation in society.
Let me assure you too, that you will be far less acceptable in society, if you make your appearance prematurely, than if you wait until a proper period. The common sense of the world is quick to discern any impropriety on this subject; and if, while you are yet a child, you are seen among those of mature age, virtually claiming to be as old as they — you can expect nothing else but that you will be set down as deficient either in modesty or good sense. Better for your reputation that you should come too late into society — than too early. For though in the one case you might lose something in point of manners — yet in the other case, you would lose more, in the estimation of the world, on the score of delicacy and correct judgment.
It is not more important that you should avoid going into society too early, than it is, that when you do enter it — you should avoid mingling in it too much. One bad effect of this would be, that it would leave you with too little time for the discharge of your private and domestic duties. The culture of your mind and heart, in connection with the ordinary cares of domestic life — requires that a large part of your time should be spent at home; and you cannot, without great injustice to yourself, and those with whom you are connected, neglect these more private duties, for the sake of being always in the bustle of the world.
It is a rare thing that you will find a lady who devotes an undue proportion of her time in visiting — but that if you follow her into the domestic circle, to the chamber and the fireside — you will find that she evinces a proportional neglect of some of her domestic duties. She is either neglecting to cultivate her mind, or neglecting to keep her heart, or neglecting to use the means which Providence has put into her hands for the intellectual and moral improvement of those with whom she is immediately connected.
Recollect also, that the error against which I am endeavoring to put you on your guard, would not only prevent your attention to more important duties, by occupying the time which should be allotted to them — but it would serve actually to give you a distaste for those duties. Indulge yourself in a constant round of company, even for a short period — and it will be strange indeed if you do not begin to feel that company is your only element; if you do not, in a great degree, lose your relish for the pleasures of the domestic fireside; if you do not find yourself complaining of boredom, when you happen for a season to be providentially shut up at home. I need not stop to show how entirely such a habit of feeling, must disqualify a girl for the most important relations she can ever sustain.
Moreover, an extravagant fondness for society, and an excessive indulgence of this inclination — are almost sure to create a habit of dissipation, both as it respects the intellect and the moral feelings.
The mind, by being constantly conversant with the ever varying scenes of social life — loses, in a great degree, the command of its own powers; and the attempt to concentrate them on any particular subject, were scarcely more likely to succeed, than would be an attempt to collect every mote that was floating in the surrounding atmosphere, while the atmosphere was agitated by a whirlwind.
The moral feelings too are subject to a similar influence; for not only is there usually an entire absence of self-reflection, and all that secret discipline of the affections, which is essential to the right keeping of the heart — but too often there are the levities of the world, scenes from which there is a studied exclusion of true religion, and even a designed introduction of much that is fitted to bring piety into contempt. I do not say that this evil, in its whole extent, is commonly found in any of the walks of decent society; but I do say that it sometimes exists in the frightful dimensions which I have attributed to it; and that it commonly exists in so great a degree, as to render an excessive interaction with the world a fruitful source of mischief!
You will anticipate me when I say, in this connection, that it befits you to use the utmost caution in selecting the circle with which you are to associate. I hardly need admonish you to set it down as a fixed purpose — that you will never, intentionally, be found in any circle in which there is anything to encourage immorality, or any lack of reverence for the sacred principles and precepts of true religion.
I would have you, moreover, beware of mingling in the mirthful crowd; in scenes which are designed to produce an unnatural and feverish excitement of the spirits, which are fraught with no intellectual or moral advantage, and in which the introduction of grave or useful discourse — would be the signal for disquietude or disgust! I do not, by any means, insist that your associates should all be from the number of those who are professedly or actually pious; nor do I object at all to your interaction with them being of a cheerful, and sometimes, if you please, an amusing character. But I do insist that they should be people of correct moral views and habits, and that your associating with them should be for some higher purpose than merely to kill time, or to cultivate a spirit of trifling!
It were desirable, too, as I have had occasion elsewhere to remark concerning your particular friends, that the circle with which you chiefly associate, should possess a good degree of intelligence — that thus your social interaction may be instrumental in improving not only your heart, but your understanding. If you take due precautions on this subject, the time that you pass in society, instead of being lost — may subserve, in a high degree, your most important interests. While the neglect of such precautions, will render the same hours a mere blank.
There is one other point involved in the general subject of this chapter which is too important to be omitted — I refer to the deportment which it befits you to maintain towards the other gender. The importance of this, both as it respects yourself and others — you can scarcely estimate too highly. On the one hand — it has much to do in forming your own character. And I need not say that any lack of prudence in this respect, even for a single hour, may expose you to evils which no subsequent caution could enable you effectually to repair!
On the other hand, the conduct of every girl may be expected to exert an influence on the character of every gentleman with whom she associates. And that influence will be for good or evil, as she exhibits, or fails to exhibit, a deportment that befits her. Indeed, so commanding is this influence, that it is safe to calculate upon the character of any community — from knowing the prevailing standard of female character; and that can scarcely be regarded as an exaggerated maxim, which declares that 'women rule the world!'
Let me counsel you then, never to utter an expression, or do an act — that even looks like soliciting any gentleman's attention. Remember that every expression of civility, to be of any value, must be perfectly voluntary; and any wish on your part, whether directly or indirectly expressed, to make yourself a favorite, will be certain to awaken the disgust of all who know it. I would not recommend to you anything like a prudish or affected reserve; but even this is not so unfortunate an extreme — as an excessive forwardness. While you modestly accept any attentions which propriety warrants, let there be no attempt at artful insinuation on the one hand, or at taking a man's heart by storm on the other.
Do not be ambitious to be considered a 'belle' — a lady of superior beauty to be admired. Indeed I had rather you would be almost anything else, than this. It is the fate of most belles that they become foolishly vain, think of nothing, and care for nothing, beyond personal display, and frequently sacrifice themselves in a mad bargain, which involves their destinies for life.
The more of solid and enduring esteem you enjoy, the better; and you ought to gain whatever of this you can by honorable means. But to be admired, and caressed, and flattered for mere physical qualities, which involve nothing of intellectual or moral worth — ought to render any girl who is the subject of it, an object of pity! You are at liberty to desire the good opinion of every gentleman of your acquaintance; but it would be worse than folly in you, to be ambitious of a blind admiration based on your looks!
I will only add that you ought to be on your guard against the influence of flattery. Rely on it, the man who flatters you, whatever he may profess, is not your friend! It would be a much kinder office, and a real mark of friendship — to admonish you tenderly, yet honestly, of your faults. If you yield a little to flattery, you have placed yourself on dangerous ground! If you continue to yield — you are probably undone!