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A Memoir of the Reverend Sydney Smith
Chapter XII
Sydney Smith to an anonymous correspondent, on education, [1800 c.?]

Author's Preface
Chapter I
Chapter II
Chapter III
Chapter IV
Chapter V
Chapter VI
Chapter VII
Chapter VIII
Chapter IX
Chapter X
Chapter XI
Chapter XII
Editor’s Preface
Letters 1801
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“I am afraid, my dear Madam, you will find in these few hints little which you have not already anticipated, and that their only merit will be, that intention of being useful to your children by which they are dictated. Your daughters will have a great deal to do, and you will have a great deal to superintend; and exertion on their part, and inspection on yours, will lose very much of their effects without a systematic distribution of time. I cannot compliment you with having been a great economist of life. In your own instance indeed it is not of much importance; but the education of your daughters ought to (and I am sure will) impose upon you a restraint of natural propensities. If you wish to be useful to them, you must be active, persevering, and systematic; you must lay out the day in regular plots and parterres; and toil and relax at intervals, fixed as much as your other affairs will permit. The consideration of religion may perhaps be brought too frequently before the minds of young people. Pleasure and consolation through life may be derived from a judicious religious education; a mistaken zeal may embitter the future days of a child with superstition, melancholy, and terror. Short prayers at rising and going to bed; a regular attendance at church; the precepts of a mo-
ther as a friend, sparingly and opportunely applied, appear to me to be the best kind of foundation for the superstructure of religion. It will be wise perhaps to teach them very early, that Sunday is a day on which their ordinary studies should be laid aside, and others of a more serious nature attended to. What the religious books are which are to be put into the hands of children, you know best; but there are some which, when their understandings become more enlarged, your daughters should certainly read, such as* . . .

“God has made us with strong passions and little wisdom. To inspire the notion that infallible vengeance will be the consequence of every little deviation from our duty is to encourage melancholy and despair. Women have often ill health and irritable nerves; they want moreover that strong coercion over the fancy which judgment exercises in the minds of men; hence they are apt to cloud their minds with secret fears and superstitious presentiments. Check, my dear Madam, as you value their future comfort, every appearance of this in your daughters; dispel that prophetic gloom which dives into futurity, to extract sorrow from days and years to come, and which considers its own unhappy visions as the decrees of Providence. We know nothing of tomorrow; our business is to be good and happy today.

“One of the great practical goods which Christi-

* Omitted, because, since this period, works fitted for the young have become so numerous and are so improved, that the list is of little use.

anity is every day producing to society is that extreme attention to the necessities of the poor, for which this country is so remarkable. I hope you will give your daughters a taste for active interference of this kind; nothing makes a woman so amiable and respectable.

“I would keep from my daughters immoral books, sceptical books, and novels; from which last I except Sir C. Grandison. I confess I have a very great dread of novels; the general moral may be good, but they dwell on subjects and scenes which it appears to me it is the great object of female education to exclude. A woman’s heart does not want softening; it is a strange composition of tears, sighs, sorrows, ecstasies, fears, smiles, etc. etc.;—a man is all flesh and blood.

“I hope at the proper time you will take your children into the world. It will please them, relieve them from that painful shyness and embarrassment inseparable from a retired life, and give them the fair chance they ought to have of settling to advantage.

“The accomplishments are of use, as they embellish and occupy the mind; but after all, they are subordinate points of education, and too much time may very easily be given to them. It is very agreeable to look at good drawings; it is very delightful to hear good music; but good sense, sound judgment, and cultivated understanding, are superior to everything else;—they make the good wife, the enlightened mother, the interesting companion. Do not suppose I am decrying accomplishments. I am only giving them their just rank, and guarding against that exclusive
care and absorbent eagerness with which it is at present the fashion to cultivate them.

“You mean to give your girls a taste for reading. Nothing else can so well enable them to pass their lives with dignity, with innocence, and with interest. Let us go into detail, and see if we can chalk out a convenient plan for them. They must learn French; do you know enough of this language to instruct them, or must they have a master? If the latter, the grammar, pronunciation, etc., will be his affair. In the choice of books it will be very much in your power to direct them; the first will be easy, and suitable to children in point of language; such books abound,—you cannot mistake them; then the whole field of French literature is open for you to select from. For example, when you think them old enough, and sufficiently acquainted with the language, let them read Bourdaloue and Massillon’s Sermons, Bossuet’s Oraisons Funebres, Sermons of Father Elisée, as specimens of the sacred eloquence of the French; let them read some of the best plays of Pierre Corneille, Racine, Moliere, Voltaire’s tragedies, some of Boileau, particularly the Lutrin, the Henriade of Voltaire. Supposing they wish to read French history, always take care to make geography and chronology go hand in hand with history, without which it is nothing but a confused jumble of places and events. When they have read the history of Greece and Rome, they should not fail to read Plutarch’s Lives; one of the most delightful books antiquity has left us. They will of course pay an early
attention to the history of their own country, which they will find curiously detailed in
Henry, philosophically in Hume, drily and accurately in Rapin. With the poets and dramatic writers of our own country you are as well acquainted as myself. I hope they will learn Italian. In arithmetic it does not appear to be of consequence that they should go far, not further perhaps than compound division; but I would certainly endeavour, by much practice, to make them very dexterous in the common operations of subtracting, multiplying, and adding. It is of great importance to give them correct notions in the common elements of geography and astronomy, and to make them quite at their ease in the use of maps;—this will be done in very little time. In the order of study, the acquirement of what is preparatory to general literature will first require your attention, as well as those which are of indispensable necessity; I mean writing, ciphering, French, geography, spelling, etc. When these first difficulties are got over, put them boldly on the Greek and Roman history in the mornings, and poetry or belles lettres—English or French—in the afternoons. Remark to them, encourage them to make their remarks to you; applaud, blame, encourage, and use every little pious artifice in your power to give them that sure, best, and happiest of all worldly attainments—a taste for literary improvement.

“I have recommended a division of studies into those of the morning and evening, because I think it can be very easily done without producing confusion,
and it is tedious to dwell upon one subject for a whole day. If you can get them to read in a connected method, you will have gained a point of great importance. For example,
Spenser precedes Dryden, Pope, etc.; and by following this order of precedence, you see the improvement of language, and remark how each poet is indebted to those who went before him. Voyages and travels, and the history of modern Europe, would exhaust the longest life. Botany they will be delighted with.

“I have given a list of some few books in the principal departments of knowledge, in case they should strike into any one of them. The truth is, it is not important what part of knowledge they love best. A woman who loves history, is not more respectable than a woman who loves natural philosophy; either will afford innocent, dignified, improving occupation. If they show no predilection, then give them one: if they do, follow it. We move most quickly to that point where we wish to go.

“Let your children see that you are sorry to restrain them, happy to indulge them. Confess your ignorance when they put questions to you which you cannot answer, and refer them elsewhere; and relax from your instruction and authority in proportion as your children want them less. I write positively, my dear Madam, to avoid the long and circuitous language of diffidence, not because I attach any value to my opinions.

“I have contented myself with general hints, be-
cause in writing on these subjects it is no very difficult thing to slip into a folio volume. I have omitted the mention of many things which I know you will do well, and have purposely introduced that of others where I have some apprehensions of you. If it were not to make you an oner unworthy of acceptance, I should say that my serious and most zealous advice is always at your command.

“Adieu, my dear Madam; take courage, exert yourself. If there be one sight on earth which commands interest, respect, and assistance from men, it is that of a good mother, who, under the providence of God, exerts her whole strength for the advantage and improvement of her children.

“Your most sincere well-wisher,
“Sydney Smith.”