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Woman's Work in a Country Parish

This lecture was one of a series of "Lectures to Ladies," given in London in 1855, at the Needlewoman's Institution.


I have been asked to speak a few words to you on a lady's work in a country parish. I shall confine myself rather to principles than to details; and the first principle which I would impress on you is, that we must all be just before we are generous. I must, indeed, speak plainly on this point. A woman's first duties are to her own family, her own servants. Be not deceived: if anyone cannot rule her own household, she cannot rule the Church of God. If anyone cannot sympathise with the servants with whom she is in contact all day long, she will not really sympathise with the poor whom she sees once a week. I know the temptation not to believe this is very great. It seems so much easier to women to do something for the poor, than for their own ladies' maids, and house-maids, and cooks. And why? Because they can treat the poor as THINGS: but they MUST treat their servants as persons. A lady can go into a poor cottage, lay down the law to the inhabitants, reprove them for sins to which she has never been tempted; tell them how to set things right, which, if she had the doing of them, I fear she would do even more confusedly and slovenly than they. She can give them a tract, as she might a pill; and then a shilling, as something sweet after the medicine; and she can go out again and see no more of them till her benevolent mood recurs: but with the servants it is not so. She knows their characters; and, what is more, they know hers; they know her private history, her little weaknesses. Perhaps she is a little in their power, and she is shy with them. She is afraid of beginning a good work with them, because, if she does, she will be forced to carry it out; and it cannot be cold, dry, perfunctory, official: it must be hearty, living, loving, personal. She must make them her friends; and perhaps she is afraid of doing that, for fear they should take liberties, as it is called--which they very probably will do, unless she keeps up a very high standard of self- restraint and earnestness in her own life--and that involves a great deal of trouble, and so she is tempted, when she wishes to do good, to fall back on the poor people in the cottages outside, who, as she fancies, know nothing about her, and will never find out whether or not she acts up to the rules which she lays down for them. Be not deceived, I say, in this case also. Fancy not that they know nothing about you. There is nothing secret which shall not be made manifest; and what you do in the closet is surely proclaimed (and often with exaggeration enough and to spare) on the house-top. These poor folks at your gate know well enough, through servants and tradesmen, what you are, how you treat your servants, how you pay your bills, what sort of temper you have; and they form a shrewd, hard estimate of your character, in the light of which they view all that you do and say to them; and believe me, that if you wish to do any real good to them, you must begin by doing good to those who lie still nearer to you than them. And believe me, too, that if you shrink from a hearty patriarchal sympathy with your own servants, because it would require too much personal human intercourse with them, you are like a man who, finding that he had not powder enough to fire off a pocket-pistol, should try to better matters by using the same quantity of ammunition in an eighty-four pound gun. For it is this human friendship, trust, affection, which is the very thing you have to employ towards the poor, and to call up in them. Clubs, societies, alms, lending libraries are but dead machinery, needful, perhaps, but, like the iron tube without the powder, unable to send the bullet forth one single inch; dead and useless lumber, without humanity; without the smile of the lip, the light of the eye, the tenderness of the voice, which makes the poor woman feel that a soul is speaking to her soul, a heart yearning after her heart; that she is not merely a THING to be improved, but a sister to be made conscious of the divine bond of her sisterhood, and taught what she means when she repeats in her Creed, "I believe in the communion of saints." This is my text, and my key-note--whatever else I may say to-day is but a carrying out into details of the one question, How may you go to these poor creatures as woman to woman?

Your next duties are to your husband's or father's servants and workmen. It is said that a clergyman's wife ought to consider the parish as HER flock as well as her husband's. It may be so: I believe the dogma to be much overstated just now. But of a landlord's, or employer's wife (I am inclined to say, too, of an officer's wife), such a doctrine is absolutely true, and cannot be overstated. A large proportion, therefore, of your parish work will be to influence the men of your family to do their duty by their dependants. You wish to cure the evils under which they labour. The greater proportion of these are in the hands of your men relatives. It is a mockery, for instance, in you to visit the fever-stricken cottage, while your husband leaves it in a state which breeds that fever. Your business is to go to him and say, "HERE IS A WRONG; RIGHT IT!" This, as many a beautiful Middle Age legend tells us, has been woman's function in all uncivilised times; not merely to melt man's heart to pity, but to awaken it to duty. But the man must see that the woman is in earnest: that if he will not repair the wrong by justice, she will, if possible (as in those old legends), by self-sacrifice. Be sure this method will conquer. Do but say: "If you will not new-roof that cottage, if you will not make that drain, I will. I will not buy a new dress till it is done; I will sell the horse you gave me, pawn the bracelet you gave me, but the thing shall be done." Let him see, I say, that you are in earnest, and he will feel that your message is a divine one, which he must obey for very shame and weariness, if for nothing else. This is in my eyes the second part of a woman's parish work. I entreat you to bear it in mind when you hear, as I trust you will, lectures in this place upon that SANITARY REFORM, without which all efforts for the bettering of the masses are in my eyes not only useless, but hypocritical.

I will suppose, then, that you are fulfilling home duties in self- restraint, and love, and in the fear of God. I will suppose that you are using all your woman's influence on the mind of your family, in behalf of tenants and workmen; and I tell you frankly, that unless this be first done, you are paying a tithe of mint and anise, and neglecting common righteousness and mercy. But you wish to do more: you wish for personal contact with the poor round you, for the pure enjoyment of doing good to them with your own hands. How are you to set about it? First, there are clubs-- clothing-clubs, shoe-clubs, maternal-clubs; all very good in their way. But do not fancy that they are the greater part of your parish work. Rather watch and fear lest they become substitutes for your real parish work; lest the bustle and amusement of playing at shopkeeper, or penny-collector, once a week, should blind you to your real power--your real treasure, by spending which you become all the richer. What you have to do is to ennoble and purify the WOMANHOOD of these poor women; to make them better daughters, sisters, wives, mothers: and all the clubs in the world will not do that; they are but palliatives of a great evil, which they do not touch; cloaks for almsgiving, clumsy means of eking out insufficient wages; at best, kindly contrivances for tricking into temporary thriftiness a degraded and reckless peasantry. Miserable, miserable state of things! out of which the longer I live I see less hope of escape, saving by an emigration, which shall drain us of all the healthy, strong, and brave among the lower classes, and leave us, as a just punishment for our sins, only the cripple, the drunkard, and the beggar.

Yet these clubs MUST be carried on. They make life a little more possible; they lighten hearts, if but for a moment; they inculcate habits of order and self-restraint, which may be useful when the poor man finds himself in Canada or Australia. And it is a cruel utilitarianism to refuse to palliate the symptoms because you cannot cure the disease itself. You will give opiates to the suffering, who must die nevertheless. Let him slip into his grave at least as painlessly as you can. And so you must use these charitable societies, remembering all along what a fearful and humbling sign the necessity for them is of the diseased state of this England, as the sportula and universal almsgiving was of the decadence of Rome.

However, the work has to be done; and such as it is, it is especially fitted for young unmarried ladies. It requires no deep knowledge of human nature. It makes them aware of the amount of suffering and struggling which lies around them, without bringing them in that most undesirable contact with the coarser forms of evil which house-visitation must do; and the mere business habits of accuracy and patience to which it compels them, are a valuable practical schooling for them themselves in after-life. It is tiresome and unsentimental drudgery, no doubt; but perhaps all the better training on that account. And, after all, the magic of sweetness, grace, and courtesy may shed a hallowing and humanising light over the meanest work, and the smile of God may spread from lip to lip, and the light of God from eye to eye, even between the giver and receiver of a penny, till the poor woman goes home, saying in her heart, "I have not only found the life of my hand--I have found a sister for time and for eternity."

But there is another field of parish usefulness which I cannot recommend too earnestly, and that is, the school. There you may work as hard as you will, and how you will--provided you do it in a loving, hearty, cheerful, HUMAN way, playful and yet earnest; two qualities which, when they exist in their highest power, are sure to go together. I say, how you will. I am no pedant about schools; I care less what is taught than how it is taught. The merest rudiments of Christianity, the merest rudiments of popular instruction, are enough, provided they be given by lips which speak as if they believed what they said, and with a look which shows real love for the pupil. Manner is everything--matter a secondary consideration; for in matter, brain only speaks to brain; in manner, soul speaks to soul. If you want Christ's lost- lambs really to believe that He died for them, you will do it better by one little act of interest and affection, than by making them learn by heart whole commentaries--even as Miss Nightingale has preached Christ crucified to those poor soldiers by acts of plain outward drudgery, more livingly, and really, and convincingly than she could have done by ten thousand sermons, and made many a noble lad, I doubt not, say in his heart, for the first time in his wild life, "I can believe now that Christ died for me, for here is one whom He has taught to die for me in like wise." And this blessed effect of school-work, remember, is not confined to the children. It goes home with them to the parents. The child becomes an object of interest and respect in their eyes, when they see it an object of interest and respect in yours. If they see that you look on it as an awful and glorious being, the child of God, the co-heir of Christ, they learn gradually to look on it in the same light. They become afraid and ashamed (and it is a noble fear and shame) to do and say before it what they used to do and say; afraid to ill-use it. It becomes to them a mysterious visitor (sad that it should be so, but true as sad) from a higher and purer sphere, who must be treated with something of courtesy and respect, who must even be asked to teach them something of its new knowledge; and the school, and the ladies' interest in the school, become to the degraded parents a living sign that those children's angels do indeed behold the face of their Father which is in heaven.

Now, there is one thing in school-work which I wish to press on you; and that is, that you should not confine your work to the girls; but bestow it as freely on those who need it more, and who (paradoxical as it may seem) will respond to it more deeply and freely--THE BOYS. I am not going to enter into the reasons WHY. I only entreat you to believe me, that by helping to educate the boys, or even (when old enough), by taking a class (as I have seen done with admirable effect) of grown-up lads, you may influence for ever not only the happiness of your pupils, but of the girls whom they will hereafter marry. It will be a boon to your own sex as well as to ours to teach them courtesy, self-restraint, reverence for physical weakness, admiration of tenderness and gentleness; and it is one which only a lady can bestow. Only by being accustomed in youth to converse with ladies, will the boy learn to treat hereafter his sweetheart or his wife like a gentleman. There is a latent chivalry, doubt it not, in the heart of every untutored clod; if it dies out in him (as it too often does), it were better for him, I often think, if he had never been born: but the only talisman which will keep it alive, much more develop it into its fulness, is friendly and revering intercourse with women of higher rank than himself, between whom and him there is a great and yet a blessed gulf fixed.

I have left to the last the most important subject of all; and that is, what is called "visiting the poor." It is an endless subject; if you go into details, you might write volumes on it. All I can do this afternoon is to keep to my own key-note, and say, Visit whom, when, and where you will; but let your visits be those of woman to woman. Consider to whom you go--to poor souls whose life, compared with yours, is one long malaise of body, and soul, and spirit--and do as you would be done by; instead of reproving and fault-finding, encourage. In God's name, encourage. They scramble through life's rocks, bogs, and thornbrakes, clumsily enough, and have many a fall, poor things! But why, in the name of a God of love and justice, is the lady, rolling along the smooth turnpike-road in her comfortable carriage, to be calling out all day long to the poor soul who drags on beside her over hedge and ditch, moss and moor, bare-footed and weary- hearted, with half-a-dozen children at her back: "You ought not to have fallen here; and it was very cowardly to lie down there; and it was your duty, as a mother, to have helped that child through the puddle; while, as for sleeping under that bush, it is most imprudent and inadmissible?" Why not encourage her, praise her, cheer her on her weary way by loving words, and keep your reproofs for yourself--even your advice; for SHE does get on her way, after all, where YOU could not travel a step forward; and she knows what she is about perhaps better than you do, and what she has to endure, and what God thinks of her life-journey. The heart knoweth its own bitterness, and a stranger intermeddleth not with its joy. But do not be a stranger to her. Be a sister to her. I do not ask you to take her up in your carriage. You cannot; perhaps it is good for her that you cannot. It is good sometimes for Lazarus that he is not fit to sit at Dives's feast--good for him that he should receive his evil things in this life, and be comforted in the life to come. All I ask is, do to the poor soul as you would have her do to you in her place. Do not interrupt and vex her (for she is busy enough already) with remedies which she does not understand, for troubles which you do not understand. But speak comfortably to her, and say: "I cannot feel WITH you, but I do feel FOR you: I should enjoy helping you, but I do not know how--tell me. Tell me where the yoke galls; tell me why that forehead is grown old before its time: I may be able to ease the burden, to put fresh light into the eyes; and if not, still tell me, simply because I am a woman, and know the relief of pouring out my own soul into loving ears, even though in the depths of despair." Yes, paradoxical as it may seem, I am convinced that the only way to help these poor women humanly and really, is to begin by confessing to them that you do not know how to help them; to humble yourself to them, and to ask their counsel for the good of themselves and of their neighbours, instead of coming proudly to them, with nostrums ready compounded, as if a doctor should be so confident in his own knowledge of books and medicine as to give physic before asking the patient's symptoms.

Therefore, I entreat you to bear in mind (for without this all visiting of the poor will be utterly void and useless), that you must regulate your conduct to them, and in their houses, even to the most minute particulars, by the very same rules which apply to persons of your own class. Never let any woman say of you (thought fatal to all confidence, all influence!): "Yes, it is all very kind: but she does not behave to me as she would to one of her own quality." Piety, earnestness, affectionateness, eloquence--all may be nullified and stultified by simply keeping a poor woman standing in her own cottage while you sit, or entering her house, even at her own request, while she is at meals. She may decline to sit; she may beg you to come in, all the more reason for refusing utterly to obey her, because it shows that that very inward gulf between you and her still exists in her mind, which it is the object of your visit to bridge over. If you know her to be in trouble, touch on that trouble as you would with a lady. Woman's heart is alike in all ranks, and the deepest sorrow is the one of which she speaks the last and least. We should not like anyone--no, not an angel from heaven, to come into our houses without knocking at the door, and say: "I hear you are very ill off--I will lend you a hundred pounds. I think you are very careless of money, I will take your accounts into my own hands;" and still less again: "Your son is a very bad, profligate, disgraceful fellow, who is not fit to be mentioned; I intend to take him out of your hands and reform him myself." Neither do the poor like such unceremonious mercy, such untender tenderness, benevolence at horse-play, mistaking kicks for caresses. They do not like it, they will not respond to it, save in parishes which have been demoralised by officious and indiscriminate benevolence, and where the last remaining virtues of the poor, savage self-help and independence, have been exchanged (as I have too often seen them exchanged) for organised begging and hypocrisy.

I would that you would all read, ladies, and consider well the traits of an opposite character which have just come to light (to me, I am ashamed to say, for the first time) in the Biography of Sidney Smith. The love and admiration which that truly brave and loving man won from everyone, rich or poor, with whom he came in contact, seems to me to have arisen from the one fact, that without perhaps having any such conscious intention, he treated rich and poor, his own servants and the noblemen his guests, alike, and ALIKE courteously, considerately, cheerfully, affectionately--so leaving a blessing and reaping a blessing wheresoever he went.

Approach, then, these poor women as sisters, and you will be able gradually to reverse the hard saying of which I made use just now: "Do not apply remedies which they do not understand, to diseases which you do not understand." Learn lovingly and patiently (aye, and reverently, for there is that in every human being which deserves reverence, and must be reverenced if we wish to understand it)--learn, I say, to understand their troubles, and by that time they will have learnt to understand your remedies, and they will appreciate them. For you HAVE remedies. I do not undervalue your position. No man on earth is less inclined to undervalue the real power of wealth, rank, accomplishments, manners--even physical beauty. All are talents from God, and I give God thanks when I see them possessed by any human being; for I know that they, too, can be used in His service, and brought to bear on the true emancipation of woman--her emancipation, not from man (as some foolish persons fancy), but from the devil, "the slanderer and divider" who divides her from man, and makes her live a life-long tragedy, which goes on in more cottages than in palaces--a vie e part, a vie incomprise--a life made up half of ill-usage, half of unnecessary, self-willed, self-conceited martyrdom, instead of being (as God intended) half of the human universe, a helpmeet for man, and the one bright spot which makes this world endurable. Towards making her that, and so realising the primeval mission by every cottage hearth, each of you can do something; for each of you have some talent, power, knowledge, attraction between soul and soul, which the cottager's wife has not, and by which you may draw her to you with (as the prophet says) human bonds and the cords of love: but she must be drawn by them alone, or your work is nothing, and though you give the treasures of Ind, they are valueless equally to her and to Christ; for they are not given in His name, which is that boundless tenderness, consideration, patience, self-sacrifice, by which even the cup of cold water is a precious offering--as God grant your labour may be!


Charles Kingsley

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