FictionForest

Chapter 17 – Among The Maids

Louisa May AlcottNov 05, 2016'Command+D' Bookmark this page

Light off Small Medium Large

Although this story is about Jo’s boys, her girls cannot be
neglected, because they held a high place in this little republic,
and especial care was taken to fit them to play their parts worthily
in the great republic which offered them wider opportunities and more
serious duties. To many the social influence was the better part of
the training they received; for education is not confined to books,
and the finest characters often graduate from no college, but make
experience their master, and life their book. Others cared only for
the mental culture, and were in danger of over-studying, under the
delusion which pervades New England that learning must be had at all
costs, forgetting that health and real wisdom are better. A third
class of ambitious girls hardly knew what they wanted, but were
hungry for whatever could fit them to face the world and earn a
living, being driven by necessity, the urgency of some half-conscious
talent, or the restlessness of strong young natures to break away
from the narrow life which no longer satisfied.

At Plumfield all found something to help them; for the growing
institution had not yet made its rules as fixed as the laws of the
Medes and Persians, and believed so heartily in the right of all
sexes, colours, creeds, and ranks to education, that there was room
for everyone who knocked, and a welcome to the shabby youths from up
country, the eager girls from the West, the awkward freedman or woman
from the South, or the well-born student whose poverty made this
college a possibility when other doors were barred. There still was
prejudice, ridicule, neglect in high places, and prophecies of
failure to contend against; but the Faculty was composed of cheerful,
hopeful men and women who had seen greater reforms spring from
smaller roots, and after stormy seasons blossom beautifully, to add
prosperity and honour to the nation. So they worked on steadily and
bided their time, full of increasing faith in their attempt as year
after year their numbers grew, their plans succeeded, and the sense
of usefulness in this most vital of all professions blessed them with
its sweet rewards.

Among the various customs which had very naturally sprung up was one
especially useful and interesting to ‘the girls’, as the young women
liked to be called. It all grew out of the old sewing hour still kept
up by the three sisters long after the little work-boxes had expanded
into big baskets full of household mending. They were busy women, yet
on Saturdays they tried to meet in one of the three sewing-rooms; for
even classic Parnassus had its nook where Mrs Amy often sat among her
servants, teaching them to make and mend, thereby giving them a
respect for economy, since the rich lady did not scorn to darn her
hose, and sew on buttons. In these household retreats, with books and
work, and their daughters by them, they read and sewed and talked in
the sweet privacy that domestic women love, and can make so helpful
by a wise mixture of cooks and chemistry, table linen and theology,
prosaic duties and good poetry.

Mrs Meg was the first to propose enlarging this little circle; for as
she went her motherly rounds among the young women she found a sad
lack of order, skill, and industry in this branch of education.
Latin, Greek, the higher mathematics, and science of all sorts
prospered finely; but the dust gathered on the work-baskets, frayed
elbows went unheeded, and some of the blue stockings sadly needed
mending. Anxious lest the usual sneer at learned women should apply
to ‘our girls’, she gently lured two or three of the most untidy to
her house, and made the hour so pleasant, the lesson so kindly, that
they took the hint, were grateful for the favour, and asked to come
again. Others soon begged to make the detested weekly duty lighter by
joining the party, and soon it was a privilege so much desired that
the old museum was refitted with sewing-machines, tables,
rocking-chair, and a cheerful fireplace, so that, rain or shine, the
needles might go on undisturbed.

Here Mrs Meg was in her glory, and stood wielding her big shears like
a queen as she cut out white work, fitted dresses, and directed
Daisy, her special aide, about the trimming of hats, and completing
the lace and ribbon trifles which add grace to the simplest costume
and save poor or busy girls so much money and time. Mrs Amy
contributed taste, and decided the great question of colours and
complexions; for few women, even the most learned, are without that
desire to look well which makes many a plain face comely, as well as
many a pretty one ugly for want of skill and knowledge of the fitness
of things. She also took her turn to provide books for the readings,
and as art was her forte she gave them selections from Ruskin,
Hamerton, and Mrs Jameson, who is never old. Bess read these aloud as
her contribution, and Josie took her turn at the romances, poetry,
and plays her uncles recommended. Mrs Jo gave little lectures on
health, religion, politics, and the various questions in which all
should be interested, with copious extracts from Miss Cobbe’s Duties
of Women, Miss Brackett’s Education of American Girls, Mrs Duffy’s No
Sex in Education, Mrs Woolson’s Dress Reform, and many of the other
excellent books wise women write for their sisters, now that they are
waking up and asking: ‘What shall we do?’

It was curious to see the prejudices melt away as ignorance was
enlightened, indifference change to interest, and intelligent minds
set thinking, while quick wits and lively tongues added spice to the
discussions which inevitably followed. So the feet that wore the
neatly mended hose carried wiser heads than before, the pretty gowns
covered hearts warmed with higher purposes, and the hands that
dropped the thimbles for pens, lexicons, and celestial globes, were
better fitted for life’s work, whether to rock cradles, tend the
sick, or help on the great work of the world.

One day a brisk discussion arose concerning careers for women. Mrs
Jo had read something on the subject and asked each of the dozen
girls sitting about the room, what she intended to do on leaving
college. The answers were as usual: ‘I shall teach, help mother,
study medicine, art,’ etc.; but nearly all ended with:

‘Till I marry.’

‘But if you don’t marry, what then?’ asked Mrs Jo, feeling like a
girl again as she listened to the answers, and watched the
thoughtful, gay, or eager faces.

‘Be old maids, I suppose. Horrid, but inevitable, since there are so
many superfluous women,’ answered a lively lass, too pretty to fear
single blessedness unless she chose it.

‘It is well to consider that fact, and fit yourselves to be useful,
not superfluous women. That class, by the way, is largely made up of
widows, I find; so don’t consider it a slur on maidenhood.’

‘That’s a comfort! Old maids aren’t sneered at half as much as they
used to be, since some of them have grown famous and proved that
woman isn’t a half but a whole human being, and can stand alone.’

‘Don’t like it all the same. We can’t all be like Miss Nightingale,
Miss Phelps, and the rest.’

So what can we do but sit in a corner and look on?’ asked a plain
girl with a dissatisfied expression.

‘Cultivate cheerfulness and content, if nothing else. But there are
so many little odd jobs waiting to be done that nobody need "sit idle
and look on", unless she chooses,’ said Mrs Meg, with a smile, laying
on the girl’s head the new hat she had just trimmed.

‘Thank you very much. Yes, Mrs Brooke, I see; it’s a little job, but
it makes me neat and happy – and grateful,’ she added, looking up with
brighter eyes as she accepted the labour of love and the lesson as
sweetly as they were given.

‘One of the best and most beloved women I know has been doing odd
jobs for the Lord for years, and will keep at it till her dear hands
are folded in her coffin. All sorts of things she does – picks up
neglected children and puts them in safe homes, saves lost girls,
nurses poor women in trouble, sews, knits, trots, begs, works for the
poor day after day with no reward but the thanks of the needy, the
love and honour of the rich who make Saint Matilda their almoner.
That’s a life worth living; and I think that quiet little woman will
get a higher seat in Heaven than many of those of whom the world has
heard.’

‘I know it’s lovely, Mrs Bhaer; but it’s dull for young folks. We do
want a little fun before we buckle to,’ said a Western girl with a
wide-awake face.

‘Have your fun, my dear; but if you must earn your bread, try to make
it sweet with cheerfulness, not bitter with the daily regret that it
isn’t cake. I used to think mine was a very hard fate because I had
to amuse a somewhat fretful old lady; but the books I read in that
lonely library have been of immense use to me since, and the dear old
soul bequeathed me Plumfield for my "cheerful service and
affectionate care". I didn’t deserve it, but I did use to try to be
jolly and kind, and get as much honey out of duty as I could, thanks
to my dear mother’s help and advice.’

‘Gracious! if I could earn a place like this, I’d sing all day and be
an angel; but you have to take your chance, and get nothing for your
pains, perhaps. I never do,’ said the Westerner, who had a hard time
with small means and large aspirations.

‘Don’t do it for the reward; but be sure it will come, though not in
the shape you expect. I worked hard for fame and money one winter;
but I got neither, and was much disappointed. A year afterwards I
found I had earned two prizes: skill with my pen, and Professor
Bhaer.’

Mrs Jo’s laugh was echoed blithely by the girls, who liked to have
these conversations enlivened by illustrations from life.

‘You are a very lucky woman,’ began the discontented damsel, whose
soul soared above new hats, welcome as they were, but did not quite
know where to steer.

‘Yet her name used to be "Luckless Jo", and she never had what she
wanted till she had given up hoping for it,’ said Mrs Meg.

‘I’ll give up hoping, then, right away, and see if my wishes will
come. I only want to help my folks, and get a good school.’

‘Take this proverb for your guide: "Get the distaff ready, and the
Lord will send the flax",’ answered Mrs Jo.

‘We’d better all do that, if we are to be spinsters,’ said the pretty
one, adding gaily, ‘I think I should like it, on the whole – they are
so independent. My Aunt Jenny can do just what she likes, and ask no
one’s leave; but Ma has to consult Pa about everything. Yes, I’ll
give you my chance, Sally, and be a "superfluum", as Mr Plock says.’

‘You’ll be one of the first to go into bondage, see if you aren’t.
Much obliged, all the same.’

‘Well, I’ll get my distaff ready, and take whatever flax the Fates
send – single, or double-twisted, as the powers please.’

‘That is the right spirit, Nelly. Keep it up, and see how happy life
will be with a brave heart, a willing hand, and plenty to do.’

‘No one objects to plenty of domestic work or fashionable pleasure, I
find; but the minute we begin to study, people tell us we can’t bear
it, and warn us to be very careful. I’ve tried the other things, and
got so tired I came to college; though my people predict nervous
exhaustion and an early death. Do you think there is any danger?’
asked a stately girl, with an anxious glance at the blooming face
reflected in the mirror opposite.

‘Are you stronger or weaker than when you came two years ago, Miss
Winthrop?’

‘Stronger in body, and much happier in mind. I think I was dying of
ennui; but the doctors called it inherited delicacy of constitution.
That is why mamma is so anxious, and I wish not to go too fast.’

‘Don’t worry, my dear; that active brain of yours was starving for
good food; it has plenty now, and plain living suits you better than
luxury and dissipation. It is all nonsense about girls not being able
to study as well as boys. Neither can bear cramming; but with proper
care both are better for it; so enjoy the life your instinct led you
to, and we will prove that wise headwork is a better cure for that
sort of delicacy than tonics, and novels on the sofa, where far too
many of our girls go to wreck nowadays. They burn the candle at both
ends; and when they break down they blame the books, not the balls.’

‘Dr Nan was telling me about a patient of hers who thought she had
heart-complaint, till Nan made her take off her corsets, stopped her
coffee and dancing all night, and made her eat, sleep, walk, and live
regularly for a time; and now she’s a brilliant cure. Common sense
versus custom, Nan said.’

‘I’ve had no headaches since I came here, and can do twice as much
studying as I did at home. It’s the air, I think, and the fun of
going ahead of the boys,’ said another girl, tapping her big forehead
with her thimble, as if the lively brain inside was in good working
order and enjoyed the daily gymnastics she gave it.

‘Quality, not quantity, wins the day, you know. Our brains may be
smaller, but I don’t see that they fall short of what is required of
them; and if I’m not mistaken, the largest-headed man in our class is
the dullest,’ said Nelly, with a solemn air which produced a gale of
merriment; for all knew that the young Goliath she mentioned had been
metaphorically slain by this quick-witted David on many a
battle-field, to the great disgust of himself and his mates.

‘Mrs Brooke, do I gauge on the right or the wrong side?’ asked the
best Greek scholar of her class, eyeing a black silk apron with a
lost expression.

‘The right, Miss Pierson; and leave a space between the tucks; it
looks prettier so.’

‘I’ll never make another; but it will save my dresses from
ink-stains, so I’m glad I’ve got it’; and the erudite Miss Pierson
laboured on, finding it a harder task than any Greek root she ever
dug up.

‘We paper-stainers must learn how to make shields, or we are lost.
I’ll give you a pattern of the pinafore I used to wear in my
"blood-and-thunder days", as we call them,’ said Mrs Jo, trying to
remember what became of the old tin-kitchen which used to hold her
works.

‘Speaking of writers reminds me that my ambition is to be a George
Eliot, and thrill the world! It must be so splendid to know that one
has such power, and to hear people own that one possesses a
"masculine intellect"! I don’t care for most women’s novels, but hers
are immense; don’t you think so, Mrs Bhaer?’ asked the girl with the
big forehead, and torn braid on her skirt.

‘Yes; but they don’t thrill me as little Charlotte Bronte’s books do.
The brain is there, but the heart seems left out. I admire, but I
don’t love, George Eliot; and her life is far sadder to me than Miss
Bronte’s, because, in spite of the genius, love, and fame, she missed
the light without which no soul is truly great, good, or happy.’

‘Yes’m, I know; but still it’s so romantic and sort of new and
mysterious, and she was great in one sense. Her nerves and dyspepsia
do rather destroy the illusion; but I adore famous people and mean to
go and see all I can scare up in London some day.’

‘You will find some of the best of them busy about just the work I
recommend to you; and if you want to see a great lady, I’ll tell you
that Mrs Laurence means to bring one here today. Lady Abercrombie is
lunching with her, and after seeing the college is to call on us. She
especially wanted to see our sewing-school, as she is interested in
things of this sort, and gets them up at home.’

‘Bless me! I always imagined lords and ladies did nothing but ride
round in a coach and six, go to balls, and be presented to the Queen
in cocked hats, and trains and feathers,’ exclaimed an artless young
person from the wilds of Maine, whither an illustrated paper
occasionally wandered.

‘Not at all; Lord Abercrombie is over here studying up our American
prison system, and my lady is busy with the schools – both very
high-born, but the simplest and most sensible people I’ve met this
long time. They are neither of them young nor handsome, and dress
plainly; so don’t expect anything splendid. Mr Laurence was telling
me last night about a friend of his who met my lord in the hall, and
owing to a rough greatcoat and a red face, mistook him for a
coachman, and said: "Now, my man, what do you want here?" Lord
Abercrombie mildly mentioned who he was, and that he had come to
dinner. And the poor host was much afflicted, saying afterward: "Why
didn’t he wear his stars and garters? then a fellow would know he was
a lord."’

The girls laughed again, and a general rustle betrayed that each was
prinking a bit before the titled guest arrived. Even Mrs Jo settled
her collar, and Mrs Meg felt if her cap was right, while Bess shook
out her curls and Josie boldly consulted the glass; for they were
women, in spite of philosophy and philanthropy.

‘Shall we all rise?’ asked one girl, deeply impressed by the
impending honour.

‘It would be courteous.’

‘Shall we shake hands?’

‘No, I’ll present you en masse, and your pleasant faces will be
introduction enough.’

‘I wish I’d worn my best dress. Ought to have told us,’ whispered
Sally.

‘Won’t my folks be surprised when I tell them we have had a real lady
to call on us?’ said another.

‘Don’t look as if you’d never seen a gentlewoman before, Milly. We
are not all fresh from the wilderness,’ added the stately damsel who,
having Mayflower ancestors, felt that she was the equal of all the
crowned heads of Europe.

‘Hush, she’s coming! Oh, my heart, what a bonnet!’ cried the gay girl
in a stage whisper; and every eye was demurely fixed upon the busy
hands as the door opened to admit Mrs Laurence and her guest.

It was rather a shock to find, after the general introduction was
over, that this daughter of a hundred earls was a stout lady in a
plain gown, and a rather weather-beaten bonnet, with a bag of papers
in one hand and a note-book in the other. But the face was full of
benevolence, the sonorous voice very kind, the genial manners very
winning, and about the whole person an indescribable air of high
breeding which made beauty of no consequence, costume soon forgotten,
and the moment memorable to the keen-eyed girls whom nothing escaped.

A little chat about the rise, growth, and success of this particular
class, and then Mrs Jo led the conversation to the English lady’s
work, anxious to show her pupils how rank dignifies labour, and
charity blesses wealth.

It was good for these girls to hear of the evening-schools supported
and taught by women whom they knew and honoured; of Miss Cobbe’s
eloquent protest winning the protection of the law for abused wives;
Mrs Butler saving the lost; Mrs Taylor, who devoted one room in her
historic house to a library for the servants; Lord Shaftesbury, busy
with his new tenement-houses in the slums of London; of prison
reforms; and all the brave work being done in God’s name by the rich
and great for the humble and the poor. It impressed them more than
many quiet home lectures would have done, and roused an ambition to
help when their time should come, well knowing that even in glorious
America there is still plenty to be done before she is what she
should be – truly just, and free, and great. They were also quick to
see that Lady Abercrombie treated all there as her equals, from
stately Mrs Laurence, to little Josie, taking notes of everything and
privately resolving to have some thick-soled English boots as soon as
possible. No one would have guessed that she had a big house in
London, a castle in Wales, and a grand country seat in Scotland, as
she spoke of Parnassus with admiration, Plumfield as a ‘dear old
home’, and the college as an honour to all concerned in it. At that,
of course, every head went up a little, and when my lady left, every
hand was ready for the hearty shake the noble Englishwoman gave them,
with words they long remembered:

‘I am very pleased to see this much-neglected branch of a woman’s
education so well conducted here, and I have to thank my friend Mrs
Laurence for one of the most charming pictures I’ve seen in
America – Penelope among her maids.’

A group of smiling faces watched the stout boots trudge away,
respectful glances followed the shabby bonnet till it was out of
sight, and the girls felt a truer respect for their titled guest than
if she had come in the coach and six, with all her diamonds on.

‘I feel better about the "odd jobs" now. I only wish I could do them
as well as Lady Abercrombie does,’ said one.

‘I thanked my stars my buttonholes were nice, for she looked at them
and said: "Quite workmanlike, upon my word," added another, feeling
that her gingham gown had come to honour.

‘Her manners were as sweet and kind as Mrs Brooke’s. Not a bit stiff
or condescending, as I expected. I see now what you meant, Mrs Bhaer,
when you said once that well-bred people were the same all the world
over.’

Mrs Meg bowed her thanks for the compliment, and Mrs Bhaer said:

‘I know them when I see them, but never shall be a model of
deportment myself. I’m glad you enjoyed the little visit. Now, if you
young people don’t want England to get ahead of us in many ways, you
must bestir yourselves and keep abreast; for our sisters are in
earnest, you see, and don’t waste time worrying about their sphere,
but make it wherever duty calls them.’

‘We will do our best, ma’am,’ answered the girls heartily, and
trooped away with their work-baskets, feeling that though they might
never be Harriet Martineaus, Elizabeth Brownings, or George Eliots,
they might become noble, useful, and independent women, and earn for
themselves some sweet title from the grateful lips of the poor,
better than any a queen could bestow.

 

Leave a Reply