The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Marcel Prevost—Moralist

by W. Osborne Brigstocke
Volume 14, 1903, pgs. 330-334

It may come to some as a revelation to hear that M. Marcel Prevost is a moralist—undoubtedly one. Psychologists as bold and realistic as are many writers of modern French novels can hardly expect to win the epithet moral in this country. But it is not of M. Prevost's novels that I am now thinking; though I cannot help taking this opportunity of saying that he is certainly one of the novelists in France who does not look upon writing as a means of making money (who was the mercenary critic, who, a short while ago, insinuated that Bourget writes to swell his purse?), but considers it a powerful weapon to be used in the service of right. The realistic method of fighting vice may be discussed, its efficacy deemed doubtful; but when once the purpose of an author is known to be on the right side, we must all feel that his aim is one which enlists our sympathy.

Now M. Prevost has written a book so frankly and undeniably moral, that no one who has read it can wonder why I have chosen to say a few words about it. It is a collection of letters dealing with subjects of great interest to readers of The Parents' Review: namely, questions regarding the education of girls. The letters are said to be written to the author's niece "Frances," and I cannot do better than quote the preface, which explains in a few words what the volume is meant to be, and how it came to be published (Lettres a Francoise, par Marcel Prevost. Paris, 1902. Felix Juven, edit.).

"You will find collected here, Frances, the letters I wrote to you once a fortnight during your last year at school."

"The last of these letters was written only a few days ago; whereas the first ones seemed to me, when I read them again, already scented with memory's past perfume. They have only just escaped being of the nineteenth century: received by you when the Exhibition was celebrating in Paris the dawn of this new century. And does not the Exhibition already seem far away in the past—at least to you, little niece? By means of a few alterations, I might have been rid of all mention of these current events, already become, as it were, milestones upon the road of time. The truths I endeavoured to unfold to you, the words of advice I gave you then, are indeed of no particular time. Whenever there happens to be in the world an uncle given to sermonising and a young niece patient enough to listen to him, the same advice, or much the same, has passed from him to her. It might be published, according to the period, either as 'Letters to Eucharis' or 'Letters to Blandine,' or, in the nearer past—only a hundred years ago—'Letters to Sylvia.'

"But, just as that sweet, national name of yours, Frances, reminds one of a certain country, of a certain epoch, so do the words of counsel in the following pages, useful it might be to a Eucharis, a Sylvia, or a Blandine, seem likely to be of more interest to a young French girl who, like yourself, is bringing her studies to a close at the beginning of the twentieth century.

"The twentieth century! what charm lurks in that simple phrase for waking minds of your age! Just as in the olden days when Mantua's poet sang the coming of the Child, so now a new order is being brought about. Nations are stirred by powerful forces, in the midst of which the old theory of 'might is right' and the new conception of justice show in a clearer light than ever their antagonism. Science, which during the nineteenth century brought the whole world within each individual ken or touch, is now about to open up the regions of the air. The idea of what is owed by the fortunate to the less favoured or the outcast is quitting the sphere of abstract charity to become definitely cast in the form of a code. Lastly, and above all, woman who, according to the profound epigram of the Prince de Ligne, makes morals whilst man makes the laws—woman is determined to enlarge her part in the society of the future. She, without doubt, will be the chief object of the coming transformations. She, too, will be the more active worker, for she brings to the task an untouched reserve of hope and energy. Amidst the weary nations, women are, as it were, a new great people. The young girl of to-day foresees instinctively the destiny of her sex. When she comes in contact with the world, she apprehends at once what seems still vague and questionable even to her teachers: to wit, that the present moment of our history is a solemn one.

"More especially does this refer to the young French girl who, having been educated by methods which for several centuries have not been modified to any perceptible extent, notices at once the discrepancy between her education and her calling in life. Brought up in the penumbral atmosphere of school or convent, she is dazzled by the bright light of the world until she can open wide her eyes and thus enlarge the horizon of her ideals; at the same time she will learn to take more careful note of practical necessities. It seems as if from some pure dawn a light is flowing into all her mind; the far horizons widen and the near objects gradually become more definitely outlined.

"Whenever I talked with you, Frances, of your hopes, of your dreams, even of your doubts and troubles, I fancied I could see in your eyes that faint light as of dawn. If a pale reflex of it glimmer on the following pages, it will be their most appropriate ornament. During the early splendours of the morning even the fisherman's coarse net as it lies drying on the beach seems for a while bright like a golden web.

"That is my reason for wishing to preserve some clear and evident indication of the epoch during which I undertook to write down a few truths which are independent of the time when the great cosmopolitan crowd was bustling round the Eiffel tower, when Kruger, like a patriarch, was setting out on his pilgrimage to Europe.

"But, these being humble truths, trite like most useful truths—noted and commented on in the first instance for your use only—was it advisable to have them sewn and printed and turned into a volume to offer to the public?

"I had not thought of doing so; but amongst those who read them at the same time as yourself were many who asked me to let them have these letters in some more permanent form. Frankly, I must confess that such requests delight me. To please one's readers, is much; to seem necessary to them, to have suggested to them the thought of keeping one's ideas within constant reach, how much more pleasing! And I am sure that any right-minded author must needs satisfy requests that are so precious to him.

"And so I yielded. Here's the volume. I know, Frances, that it will still be your friend, even though you are now free from constraint of college and full of the joy of marriage. But these letters no longer belong to you alone. What do I say? Why, my desire is that they may belong at once to all young girls of your age. If it were possible, I should send them all a copy with a well-turned word of dedication and a note, saying: 'Young lady, here's a book meant for you. You will find nothing in it which will shock your modesty or trouble your affection. Read it first as a story—as a romance of actual life—and I am so bold as to assure you that no novel treats of a more beautiful subject. It is the story of a young girl like yourself, who, during her last year in college, fell in love with a young friend, was engaged to him, and is now married to him. You remind me that this lovely subject is not particularly new? I answer that I am aware of that, and that nevertheless I prefer it to every other.

"Then, having read in this way the story of Frances, skipping all that bores you, all that seems to disconnect the thread (and that is the best way to read a novel), do not discard the book completely, I entreat you. Keep it in your room, somewhere within reach. Perhaps in chance spare moments you may open it and find food for meditation and reflection. Your quick girlish mind is better able than I to give life to these dry subjects. And whenever you happen to discuss with a friend such subjects as sport, dresses, dancing, marriage, education, consult this friendly volume. It will give you its opinion: and a third disputant sometimes unites two arguers, even if only by making them agree and say, How is it possible for anyone to talk such nonsense? In a word, I do not recommend you to use these letters as a breviary, but rather as an inventory of the questions which are of most interest to your life. The essential thing in the book is not the opinion that I offer, but the subject I discuss—yourself.

"If someone, seeing this book in your hands, say to you perchance: There's nothing new or curious in it—agree with him; but ask that critic to tell you of another book (a good one, mind) in which these questions are discussed. Let me know the title and I will go at once to my bookseller, for I have searched for it with great pains and have not yet been able to find it.

"If that good book do not exist, I give this as the excuse for mine, that it at least can claim the advantage of existing. Without false modesty, I assure you that it is most imperfect, very far from my ideal. Will you help me to make it better? Write down your criticisms, make a note of things I have omitted, suggest alterations and post them all to me. I will be sincerely thankful, and promise that each new edition, thanks to co-operators like yourself, will be a little better than the last.'

"Such, my dear niece, is the way in which I should like to see this little volume received and made use of by its natural readers. If they receive it in this spirit, I shall be more proud of it than of a novel sold a hundred thousand times."

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The letters themselves are charming: not only on account of their matter and form, but also because they give us a French view of questions in which all parents are so deeply interested. The French are perhaps looked upon by the present generation as somewhat behind-hand as regards the education of women: a rash conclusion; for we must not forget that it is the country that gave birth to the "grandes dames."

This present volume proves how eager is the French mind to grapple with the new order of things and to discover the best means of turning new customs to good account. M. Prevost distrusts Frenchmen who want their daughters to behave like English or American girls. The right course to adopt is one of independence. Foreign ways can teach: but each nation has its own individuality, and France, perhaps, as much as any other country. The chief interest of these letters lies then, in my opinion, not so much in the style and subject as in the explanation of the way in which a French thinker proposes to make use of the sweeping reforms that have taken place in recent years with respect to the education of girls.

Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, December 2008