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Nausicaa in London


Fresh from the Marbles of the British Museum, I went my way through London streets. My brain was still full of fair and grand forms; the forms of men and women whose every limb and attitude betokened perfect health, and grace, and power, and self- possession and self-restraint so habitual and complete that it had become unconscious, and undistinguishable from the native freedom of the savage. For I had been up and down the corridors of those Greek sculptures, which remain as a perpetual sermon to rich and poor, amid our artificial, unwholesome, and it may be decaying pseudo-civilisation, saying with looks more expressive than all words--Such men and women can be; for such they have been; and such you may be yet, if you will use that science of which you too often only boast. Above all, I had been pondering over the awful and yet tender beauty of the maiden figures from the Parthenon and its kindred temples. And these, or such as these, I thought to myself, were the sisters of the men who fought at Marathon and Salamis; the mothers of many a man among the ten thousand whom Xenophon led back from Babylon to the Black Sea shore; the ancestresses of many a man who conquered the East in Alexander's host, and fought with Porus in the far Punjab. And were these women mere dolls? These men mere gladiators? Were they not the parents of philosophy, science, poetry, the plastic arts? We talk of education now. Are we more educated than were the ancient Greeks? Do we know anything about education, physical, intellectual, or aesthetic, and I may say moral likewise-- religious education, of course, in our sense of the world, they had none--but do we know anything about education of which they have not taught us at least the rudiments? Are there not some branches of education which they perfected, once and for ever; leaving us northern barbarians to follow, or else not to follow, their example? To produce health, that is, harmony and sympathy, proportion and grace, in every faculty of mind and body--that was their notion of education. To produce that, the text-book of their childhood was the poetry of Homer, and not of--But I am treading on dangerous ground. It was for this that the seafaring Greek lad was taught to find his ideal in Ulysses; while his sister at home found hers, it may be, in Nausicaa. It was for this, that when perhaps the most complete and exquisite of all the Greeks, Sophocles the good, beloved by gods and men, represented on the Athenian stage his drama of Nausicaa, and, as usual, could not--for he had no voice--himself take a speaking part, he was content to do one thing in which he specially excelled; and dressed and masked as a girl, to play at ball amid the chorus of Nausicaa's maidens.

That drama of Nausicaa is lost; and if I dare say so of any play of Sophocles', I scarce regret it. It is well, perhaps, that we have no second conception of the scene, to interfere with the simplicity, so grand, and yet so tender, of Homer's idyllic episode.

Nausicaa, it must be remembered, is the daughter of a king. But not of a king in the exclusive modern European or old Eastern sense. Her father, Alcinous, is simply primus inter pares among a community of merchants, who are called "kings" likewise; and Mayor for life--so to speak--of a new trading city, a nascent Genoa or Venice, on the shore of the Mediterranean. But the girl Nausicaa, as she sleeps in her "carved chamber," is "like the immortals in form and face;" and two handmaidens who sleep on each side of the polished door "have beauty from the Graces."

To her there enters, in the shape of some maiden friend, none less than Pallas Athene herself, intent on saving worthily her favourite, the shipwrecked Ulysses; and bids her in a dream go forth--and wash the clothes.

Nausicaa, wherefore doth thy mother bear Child so forgetful? This long time doth rest, Like lumber in the house, much raiment fair. Soon must thou wed, and be thyself well-drest, And find thy bridegroom raiment of the best. These are the things whence good repute is born, And praises that make glad a parent's breast. Come, let us both go washing with the morn; So shalt thou have clothes becoming to be worn.

Know that thy maidenhood is not for long, Whom the Phoeacian chiefs already woo, Lords of the land whence thou thyself art sprung. Soon as the shining dawn comes forth anew, For wain and mules thy noble father sue, Which to the place of washing shall convey Girdles and shawls and rugs of splendid hue, This for thyself were better than essay Thither to walk: the place is distant a long way.

[I quote from the translation of the late lamented Philip Stanhope Worsley, of Corpus Christi College, Oxford.]

Startled by her dream, Nausicaa awakes, and goes to find her parents -

One by the hearth sat, with the maids around, And on the skeins of yarn, sea-purpled, spent Her morning toil. Him to the council bound, Called by the honoured kings, just going forth she found.

And calling him, as she might now, Pappa phile, Dear Papa, asks for the mule-waggon: but it is her father's and her five brothers' clothes she fain would wash, -

Ashamed to name her marriage to her father dear.

But he understood all--and she goes forth in the mule-waggon, with the clothes, after her mother has put in "a chest of all kinds of delicate food, and meat, and wine in a goatskin;" and last but not least, the indispensable cruse of oil for anointing after the bath, to which both Jews, Greeks, and Romans owed so much health and beauty. And then we read in the simple verse of a poet too refined, like the rest of his race, to see anything mean or ridiculous in that which was not ugly and unnatural, how she and her maids got into the "polished waggon," "with good wheels," and she "took the whip and the studded reins," and "beat them till they started;" and how the mules, "rattled" away, and "pulled against each other," till

When they came to the fair flowing river Which feeds good lavatories all the year, Fitted to cleanse all sullied robes soever, They from the wain the mules unharnessed there, And chased them free, to crop their juicy fare By the swift river, on the margin green; Then to the waters dashed the clothes they bare And in the stream-filled trenches stamped them clean. Which, having washed and cleansed, they spread before The sunbeams, on the beach, where most did lie Thick pebbles, by the sea-wave washed ashore. So, having left them in the heat to dry, They to the bath went down, and by-and-by, Rubbed with rich oil, their midday meal essay, Couched in green turf, the river rolling nigh. Then, throwing off their veils, at ball they play, While the white-armed Nausicaa leads the choral lay.

The mere beauty of this scene all will feel, who have the sense of beauty in them. Yet it is not on that aspect which I wish to dwell, but on its healthfulness. Exercise is taken, in measured time, to the sound of song, as a duty almost, as well as an amusement. For this game of ball, which is here mentioned for the first time in human literature, nearly three thousand years ago, was held by the Greeks and by the Romans after them, to be an almost necessary part of a liberal education; principally, doubtless, from the development which it produced in the upper half of the body, not merely to the arms, but to the chest, by raising and expanding the ribs, and to all the muscles of the torso, whether perpendicular or oblique. The elasticity and grace which it was believed to give were so much prized, that a room for ball-play, and a teacher of the art, were integral parts of every gymnasium; and the Athenians went so far as to bestow on one famous ball-player, Aristonicus of Carystia, a statue and the rights of citizenship. The rough and hardy young Spartans, when passing from boyhood into manhood, received the title of ball- players, seemingly from the game which it was then their special duty to learn. In the case of Nausicaa and her maidens, the game would just bring into their right places all that is liable to be contracted and weakened in women, so many of whose occupations must needs be sedentary and stooping; while the song which accompanied the game at once filled the lungs regularly and rhythmically, and prevented violent motion, or unseemly attitude. We, the civilised, need physiologists to remind us of these simple facts, and even then do not act on them. Those old half-barbarous Greeks had found them out for themselves, and, moreover, acted on them.

But fair Nausicaa must have been--some will say--surely a mere child of nature, and an uncultivated person?

So far from it, that her whole demeanour and speech show culture of the very highest sort, full of "sweetness and light."-- Intelligent and fearless, quick to perceive the bearings of her strange and sudden adventure, quick to perceive the character of Ulysses, quick to answer his lofty and refined pleading by words as lofty and refined, and pious withal;--for it is she who speaks to her handmaids the once so famous words:

Strangers and poor men all are sent from Zeus; And alms, though small, are sweet.

Clear of intellect, prompt of action, modest of demeanour, shrinking from the slightest breath of scandal; while she is not ashamed, when Ulysses, bathed and dressed, looks himself again, to whisper to her maidens her wish that the Gods might send her such a spouse.--This is Nausicaa as Homer draws her; and as many a scholar and poet since Homer has accepted her for the ideal of noble maidenhood. I ask my readers to study for themselves her interview with Ulysses, in Mr. Worsley's translation, or rather in the grand simplicity of the original Greek, [Odyssey, book vi. 127-315; vol. i. pp. 143-150 of Mr. Worsley's translation.] and judge whether Nausicaa is not as perfect a lady as the poet who imagined her-- or, it may be, drew her from life--must have been a perfect gentleman; both complete in those "manners" which, says the old proverb, "make the man:" but which are the woman herself; because with her--who acts more by emotion than by calculation--manners are the outward and visible tokens of her inward and spiritual grace, or disgrace; and flow instinctively, whether good or bad, from the instincts of her inner nature.

True, Nausicaa could neither read nor write. No more, most probably, could the author of the Odyssey. No more, for that matter, could Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, though they were plainly, both in mind and manners, most highly-cultivated men. Reading and writing, of course, have now become necessaries of humanity; and are to be given to every human being, that he may start fair in the race of life. But I am not aware that Greek women improved much, either in manners, morals, or happiness, by acquiring them in after centuries. A wise man would sooner see his daughter a Nausicaa than a Sappho, an Aspasia, a Cleopatra, or even an Hypatia.

Full of such thoughts, I went through London streets, among the Nausicaas of the present day; the girls of the period; the daughters and hereafter mothers of our future rulers, the great Demos or commercial middle class of the greatest mercantile city in the world: and noted what I had noted with fear and sorrow, many a day, for many a year; a type, and an increasing type, of young women who certainly had not had the "advantages," "educational" and other, of that Greek Nausicaa of old.

Of course, in such a city as London, to which the best of everything, physical and other, gravitates, I could not but pass, now and then, beautiful persons, who made me proud of those grandes Anglaises aux joues rouges, whom the Parisiennes ridicule- -and envy. But I could not help suspecting that their looks showed them to be either country-bred, or born of country parents; and this suspicion was strengthened by the fact that, when compared with their mothers, the mother's physique was, in the majority of cases, superior to the daughters'. Painful it was, to one accustomed to the ruddy well-grown peasant girl, stalwart, even when, as often, squat and plain, to remark the exceedingly small size of the average young woman; by which I do not mean mere want of height--that is a little matter--but want of breadth likewise; a general want of those large frames, which indicate usually a power of keeping strong and healthy not merely the muscles, but the brain itself.

Poor little things. I passed hundreds--I pass hundreds every day- -trying to hide their littleness by the nasty mass of false hair-- or what does duty for it; and by the ugly and useless hat which is stuck upon it, making the head thereby look ridiculously large and heavy; and by the high heels on which they totter onward, having forgotten, or never learnt, the simple art of walking; their bodies tilted forward in that ungraceful attitude which is called- -why that name of all others?--a "Grecian bend;" seemingly kept on their feet, and kept together at all, in that strange attitude, by tight stays which prevented all graceful and healthy motion of the hips or sides; their raiment, meanwhile, being purposely misshapen in this direction and in that, to hide--it must be presumed-- deficiencies of form. If that chignon and those heels had been taken off, the figure which would have remained would have been that too often of a puny girl of sixteen. And yet there was no doubt that these women were not only full grown, but some of them, alas! wives and mothers.

Poor little things.--And this they have gained by so-called civilisation: the power of aping the "fashions" by which the worn-out "Parisienne" hides her own personal defects; and of making themselves, by innate want of that taste which the "Parisienne" possesses, only the cause of something like a sneer from many a cultivated man; and of something like a sneer, too, from yonder gipsy woman who passes by, with bold bright face, and swinging hip, and footstep stately and elastic; far better dressed, according to all true canons of taste, than most town- girls; and thanking her fate that she and her "Rom" are no house- dwellers and gaslight-sightseers, but fatten on free air upon the open moor.

But the face which is beneath that chignon and that hat? Well--it is sometimes pretty: but how seldom handsome, which is a higher quality by far. It is not, strange to say, a well-fed face. Plenty of money, and perhaps too much, is spent on those fine clothes. It had been better, to judge from the complexion, if some of that money had been spent in solid wholesome food. She looks as if she lived--as she too often does, I hear--on tea and bread-and-butter, or rather on bread with the minimum of butter. For as the want of bone indicates a deficiency of phosphatic food, so does the want of flesh about the cheeks indicate a deficiency of hydrocarbon. Poor little Nausicaa:- that is not her fault. Our boasted civilisation has not even taught her what to eat, as it certainly has not increased her appetite; and she knows not-- what every country fellow knows--that without plenty of butter and other fatty matters, she is not likely to keep even warm. Better to eat nasty fat bacon now, than to supply the want of it some few years hence by nastier cod-liver oil. But there is no one yet to tell her that, and a dozen other equally simple facts, for her own sake, and for the sake of that coming Demos which she is to bring into the world; a Demos which, if we can only keep it healthy in body and brain, has before it so splendid a future: but which, if body and brain degrade beneath the influence of modern barbarism, is but too likely to follow the Demos of ancient Byzantium, or of modern Paris.

Ay, but her intellect. She is so clever, and she reads so much, and she is going to be taught to read so much more.

Ah well--there was once a science called Physiognomy. The Greeks, from what I can learn, knew more of it than any people since: though the Italian painters and sculptors must have known much; far more than we. In a more scientific civilisation there will be such a science once more: but its laws, though still in the empiric stage, are not altogether forgotten by some. Little children have often a fine and clear instinct of them. Many cultivated and experienced women have a fine and clear instinct of them likewise. And some such would tell us that there is intellect in plenty in the modern Nausicaa: but not of the quality which they desire for their country's future good. Self- consciousness, eagerness, volubility, petulance in countenance, in gesture, and in voice--which last is too often most harsh and artificial, the breath being sent forth through the closed teeth, and almost entirely at the corners of the mouth--and, with all this, a weariness often about the wrinkling forehead and the drooping lids;--all these, which are growing too common, not among the Demos only, nor only in the towns, are signs, they think, of the unrest of unhealth, physical, intellectual, spiritual. At least they are as different as two types of physiognomy in the same race can be, from the expression both of face and gesture, in those old Greek sculptures, and in the old Italian painters; and, it must be said, in the portraits of Reynolds, and Gainsborough, Copley, and Romney. Not such, one thinks, must have been the mothers of Britain during the latter half of the last century and the beginning of the present; when their sons, at times, were holding half the world at bay.

And if Nausicaa has become such in town: what is she when she goes to the seaside, not to wash the clothes in fresh-water, but herself in salt--the very salt-water, laden with decaying organisms, from which, though not polluted further by a dozen sewers, Ulysses had to cleanse himself, anointing, too, with oil, ere he was fit to appear in the company of Nausicaa of Greece? She dirties herself with the dirty saltwater; and probably chills and tires herself by walking thither and back, and staying in too long; and then flaunts on the pier, bedizened in garments which, for monstrosity of form and disharmony of colours, would have set that Greek Nausicaa's teeth on edge, or those of any average Hindoo woman now. Or, even sadder still, she sits on chairs and benches all the weary afternoon, her head drooped on her chest, over some novel from the "Library;" and then returns to tea and shrimps, and lodgings of which the fragrance is not unsuggestive, sometimes not unproductive, of typhoid fever. Ah, poor Nausicaa of England! That is a sad sight to some who think about the present, and have read about the past. It is not a sad sight to see your old father--tradesman, or clerk, or what not--who has done good work in his day, and hopes to do some more, sitting by your old mother, who has done good work in her day--among the rest, that heaviest work of all, the bringing you into the world and keeping you in it till now--honest, kindly, cheerful folk enough, and not inefficient in their own calling; though an average Northumbrian, or Highlander, or Irish Easterling, beside carrying a brain of five times the intellectual force, could drive five such men over the cliff with his bare hands. It is not a sad sight, I say, to see them sitting about upon those seaside benches, looking out listlessly at the water, and the ships, and the sunlight, and enjoying, like so many flies upon a wall, the novel act of doing nothing. It is not the old for whom wise men are sad: but for you. Where is your vitality? Where is your "Lebens-gluckseligkeit," your enjoyment of superfluous life and power? Why you cannot even dance and sing, till now and then, at night, perhaps, when you ought to lie safe in bed, but when the weak brain, after receiving the day's nourishment, has roused itself a second time into a false excitement of gaslight pleasure. What there is left of it is all going into that foolish book, which the womanly element in you, still healthy and alive, delights in; because it places you in fancy in situations in which you will never stand, and inspires you with emotions, some of which, it may be, you had better never feel. Poor Nausicaa--old, some men think, before you have been ever young.

And now they are going to "develop" you; and let you have your share in "the higher education of women," by making you read more books, and do more sums, and pass examinations, and stoop over desks at night after stooping over some other employment all day; and to teach you Latin, and even Greek!

Well, we will gladly teach you Greek, if you learn thereby to read the history of Nausicaa of old, and what manner of maiden she was, and what was her education. You will admire her, doubtless. But do not let your admiration limit itself to drawing a meagre half- mediaevalised design of her--as she never looked. Copy in your own person; and even if you do not descend as low--or rise as high--as washing the household clothes, at least learn to play at ball; and sing, in the open air and sunshine, not in theatres and concert-rooms by gaslight; and take decent care of your own health; and dress not like a "Parisienne"--nor, of course, like Nausicaa of old, for that is to ask too much: --but somewhat more like an average Highland lassie; and try to look like her, and be like her, of whom Wordsworth sang:

A mien and face In which full plainly I can trace Benignity, and home-bred sense, Ripening in perfect innocence. Here scattered, like a random seed, Remote from men, thou dost not need The embarrassed look of shy distress And maidenly shamefacedness. Thou wear'st upon thy forehead clear The freedom of a mountaineer. A face with gladness overspread, Soft smiles, by human kindness bred, And seemliness complete, that sways Thy courtesies, about thee plays. With no restraint, save such as springs From quick and eager visitings Of thoughts that lie beyond the reach Of thy few words of English speech. A bondage sweetly brooked, a strife That gives thy gestures grace and life.

Ah, yet unspoilt Nausicaa of the North; descendant of the dark tender-hearted Celtic girl, and the fair deep-hearted Scandinavian Viking, thank God for thy heather and fresh air, and the kine thou tendest, and the wool thou spinnest; and come not to seek thy fortune, child, in wicked London town; nor import, as they tell me thou art doing fast, the ugly fashions of that London town, clumsy copies of Parisian cockneydom, into thy Highland home; nor give up the healthful and graceful, free and modest dress of thy mother and thy mother's mother, to disfigure the little kirk on Sabbath days with crinoline and corset, high-heeled boots, and other women's hair.

It is proposed, just now, to assimilate the education of girls more and more to that of boys. If that means that girls are merely to learn more lessons, and to study what their brothers are taught, in addition to what their mothers were taught; then it is to be hoped, at least by physiologists and patriots, that the scheme will sink into that limbo whither, in a free and tolerably rational country, all imperfect and ill-considered schemes are sure to gravitate. But if the proposal be a bona-fide one: then it must be borne in mind that in the Public schools of England, and in all private schools, I presume, which take their tone from them, cricket and football are more or less compulsory, being considered integral parts of an Englishman's education; and that they are likely to remain so, in spite of all reclamations: because masters and boys alike know that games do not, in the long run, interfere with a boy's work; that the same boy will very often excel in both; that the games keep him in health for his work; and the spirit with which he takes to his games when in the lower school, is a fair test of the spirit with which he will take to his work when he rises into the higher school; and that nothing is worse for a boy than to fall into that loafing, tuck-shop- haunting set, who neither play hard nor work hard, and are usually extravagant, and often vicious. Moreover, they know well that games conduce, not merely to physical, but to moral health; that in the playing-field boys acquire virtues which no books can give them; not merely daring and endurance, but, better still, temper, self-restraint, fairness, honour, unenvious approbation of another's success, and all that "give and take" of life which stand a man in such good stead when he goes forth into the world, and without which, indeed, his success is always maimed and partial.

Now: if the promoters of higher education for women will compel girls to any training analogous to our public-school games; if, for instance, they will insist on that most natural and wholesome of all exercises, dancing, in order to develop the lower half of the body; on singing, to expand the lungs and regulate the breath; and on some games--ball or what not--which will ensure that raised chest, and upright carriage, and general strength of the upper torso, without which full oxygenation of the blood, and therefore general health, is impossible; if they will sternly forbid tight stays, high heels, and all which interferes with free growth and free motion; if they will consider carefully all which has been written on the "half-time system" by Mr. Chadwick and others; and accept the certain physical law that, in order to renovate the brain day by day, the growing creature must have plenty of fresh air and play, and that the child who learns for four hours and plays for four hours, will learn more, and learn it more easily, than the child who learns for the whole eight hours; if, in short, they will teach girls not merely to understand the Greek tongue, but to copy somewhat of the Greek physical training, of that "music and gymnastic" which helped to make the cleverest race of the old world the ablest race likewise; then they will earn the gratitude of the patriot and the physiologists, by doing their best to stay the downward tendencies of the physique, and therefore ultimately of the morale, in the coming generation of English women.

I am sorry to say that, as yet, I hear of but one movement in this direction among the promoters of the "higher education of women." I trust that the subject will be taken up methodically by those gifted ladies, who have acquainted themselves, and are labouring to acquaint other women, with the first principles of health; and that they may avail to prevent the coming generations, under the unwholesome stimulant of competitive examinations, and so forth, from "developing" into so many Chinese--dwarfs--or idiots.

October, 1873.

Since this essay was written, I have been sincerely delighted to find that my wishes had been anticipated at Girton College, near Cambridge, and previously at Hitchin, whence the college was removed: and that the wise ladies who superintend that establishment propose also that most excellent institution--a swimming-bath. A paper, moreover, read before the London Association of School-mistresses in 1866, on "Physical Exercises and Recreation for Girls," deserves all attention. May those who promote such things prosper as they deserve.

Charles Kingsley

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