“Reading for Young Ladies” (reprinted from Utica Gospel Messenger; from Youth’s Magazine, July 7, 1837; pp. 236-237)
“What books would you recommend for my girls to read?” said an anxious mother, who had around her, in the morning and bloom of youth, several daughters; “they have been a great deal to school, are, as you see, quite large, and some of them often in company, and the others are “coming out,” and I wish to have them appear to the best advantage.”
“To answer your question, Madam,” said the person consulted, “requires a knowledge of what they have studied, and the kind of books that have had their attention.”
Here the kind parent began and gave a general outline of their studies, from which it appeared that her lovely daughters had spent six months in one school, three in another—one quarter with this master, and a term with that mistress, till they had gone the round of all the fashions and studies, arts, sciences, and accomplishments of the day. They had read, as she declared, “all the pretty stories, and most of the fashionable novels to be obtained.” There was another department of literature which this excellent mother had encouraged, to have her children well furnished; she had provided for them the Annuals; the table was covered with them: for expense, notwithstanding the long mourning over the dearness of the times, was really nothing. By this time the good lady had quite run through the literary catalogue of her blooming daughters, and seemed to wait for the answer to her question.
“I wonder,” said her friend, “if your children have read the Spectator, the Guardian, the Rambler, and—”
Here she exclaimed, “Here, Susan, Sophonisba—Sarah Matilda Harrietena—Clorinda Minerva—here, tell Mr. Sydney what books you have read.”
“I will save the young ladies that trouble,” said he, “for I perceive by these volumes,” pointing to several lying on the table; and then repeated his question as to their knowledge of the standard works of English literature.
The reply was, as it no doubt would be in a large number of case,—“Why, Mr. Sydney, these works are never seen now—they are entirely out of fashion. Who would think of taking time to read them old musty books, when these new, fresh, and beautiful things are coming out every day? And they are so full of tender tales, and amusing anecdotes, and they help us to carry on conversation with our friends at the parties where we meet.”
“Yes, yes,” replied Mr. S. “and when you have done what does your whole conversation amount to? A string of frivolous incidents, the relation of which is enough to sicken a man of sound sense—a strain of florid and bombastic nonsense; and if not corrupting in its tendency it will be well indeed. No, no, my young friends, if you wish to have enlarged minds, cultivated taste, a chastened and clear imagination, you must not be drinking at these paltry streams; you must spend more of your time at the fountains of English literature; you must store your minds with those counsels of wisdom, knowledge,
and virtue, which are found in the writings of those men who adorned the best days of English history, and who collected from the mines of antiquity the riches of science and the elegance of letters. I would by no means prohibit all works of fancy and fiction, nor would I ask you to be always turning over the worm eaten tomes of other ages; but I would have you read works that, while they should enlarge the understanding, might improve the heart, and cultivate purity of morals. But it really does, to my mind, augur badly for this age and country, that while this flippant tale and the little piece of meagre versification attract great applause, those masterpieces of taste and beauty, which fell from the pens of Milton, Addison, Pope, Steele, Johnson, and their mighty hosts, should be unknown, their names hardly remembered.”
By this time the young ladies, feeling the dread of a lecture that would interfere with their preparations for the next amusement, gave such signs of uneasiness as to satisfy their friend that his advice was useless; and he soon retired. As he left the house it was naturally conjectured that he uttered this remark—“What a place is this for a man of sound sense and correct taste to look for a companion who could make home a delight, who could animate exertion, soothe the hour of sorrow, and comfort the night of sickness and death!”