What a pity that a girl who could think so well, should behave so ill! that one who knew so exactly how to do right, should almost always chuse to do wrong! When both lay before her, it was equally in her power to determine on either, right or wrong: with this advantage, that with the right, happiness always attended.
Little is known of the life of Maria Elizabeth Budden, but in the early years of the 19th century she gained a reputation as a writer for children, both via her didactic fiction, of which 1818’s Right And Wrong is a prime example, and her True Stories, a series of history books intended for the young. Her books hammer home precepts of obedience, industry, humility and striving for self-improvement, invariably insisting that these only are the way to virtue and therefore to happiness.
One would think that Mrs Budden more or less defined the expression “unexceptional”, but evidently in doing so one reckons without the literary critics of the time. We have seen before the seemingly ridiculous lengths to which female novelists went in an effort to turn away the wrath of the critics, deprecating their own efforts, insisting that writing was merely a way of filling their few – their very few – moments of leisure, and disclaiming in tones of horror any thought that they were seeking fame. Given its relentless determination to inculcate lessons, and the aphorisms which head every chapter in this thankfully slender volume – Chapter 1: Idleness and Industry—We can chuse either of these, but we must expect Vexation to attend Idleness, and Pleasure to follow Industry – it seems incredible to contemplate that anyone could nevertheless take exception to Mrs Budden’s literary endeavours; yet her preface clearly finds her expecting to be attacked for neglecting her motherly and household duties in order to write. One wonders what reception met her three earlier novels, that she felt compelled to head off criticism of her fourth with this?—
…the Author, who, superintending the claims of a numerous family, found little leisure for excursive employments. The earliest hours of morning, stolen from her pillow, and the seasons of relaxation when her children played around her and she directed their sports, or settled their differences whilst placed at her writing desk. These were the only moments she allowed herself to devote to her pen. That under such circumstances she wrote at all may be ground for censure, perhaps for sarcasm; but let the importance of her motives extenuate her from the charge of presumption.
Of course, to look at it the other way around, it was only the fact of Mrs Budden writing that could possibly be attacked; even the most determinedly hostile critic would struggle to find anything to condemn in the text of Right And Wrong, which devotes every page, every passage, every word to life-lessons for the young. Her argument, encapsulated in the quote up above, is that children are very well able to understand what is required of them and to behave accordingly; that virtue, although not always easy, is indeed its own reward; and that the neglect of duty must invariably lead to disaster:
Rosa and Agnes were twin sisters… Although receiving the same management from their excellent parents, and living constantly together, yet these two little girls grew up to be very different women. How could this happen? I will tell you. They managed themselves very differently: one scorned the advice of her friends, gave way to her passions, would not attend to her lessons, and fancied she should grow wise and good without trying to be either. The other always minded what was said to her, when she found herself beginning to behave ill, would stop, and behave better, patiently learnt her lessons, and by always trying, became in time a clever, amiable woman… It is only by constant endeavours, by patience, and by perseverance that knowledge and virtue are acquired. Is it not wonderful that every body does not try to improve themselves in learning and goodness, since, by being well informed and good, are the only chances of being happy?
At the outset of Right And Wrong, and in spite of that quotation, I had some hopes that “right” and “wrong” might be dispensed with an even hand between the sisters. The early phases favour Agnes, in a series of passages dealing with the small garden plots the girls have been given to tend on their own. Agnes works assiduously at hers, accepting her father’s maxim that, “Nothing is gained without industry”, and is rewarded with a fine crop of flowers; Rosa neglects hers, reaps weeds instead of flowers, and is mortified when a friend of her parents’ is brought out to see what the girls have done with their ground.
However, we are then given an interlude in which Agnes is guilty of idleness—or rather, in which she is distracted from her lessons in a manner after my own heart:
Agnes, unluckily, did not so well keep the resolution she had made. The butterfly indeed was gone, but a few flies were fluttering on the windowpanes. Agnes thought she would just look at them, and then return to her seat. It is better never to begin doing wrong. Agnes, from watching the flies, discovered a large spider, weaving its ensnaring web. Instead of copying the busy spider, she followed the silly example of the idle flies. The consequence was such as might have been expected…
No, alas, that does not mean that Agnes ends up a shrivelled, bloodless husk; rather, that she does not complete her lessons in time, and is therefore deprived of a promised treat, being left behind to finish her work while her mother and sister go out to pay a call on a neighbourhood friend. This brings on a fit of passionate crying, which earns her no sympathy at all from her father, but rather a scolding for foolishness. This brings Agnes up short; she knuckles down, finishes all her outstanding sewing, completes the neglected lesson, and can face her returning mother with a clear conscience. Likewise the spider:
“Ah!’ thought she, “I can now look at you, Mrs Spider, with an easy conscience, your industry does not reproach me for my idleness. I have done all I ought to have done, and my heart no longer keeps twitching me, as it did just now. I find we must finish business before we expect pleasure, or pleasure will only half please.”
And alas again, Agnes takes her lessons learned wholly on board: this is the only transgression of any sort committed by her over the course of Right And Wrong, although there are numerous instances of her finding herself on the brink of “doing wrong” and pulling up in time—usually by recalling some piece of wisdom imparted by her father.
Rosa, on the other hand, spends the entire novel lurching from indiscretion to indiscretion, falling into trouble on account of her laziness / temper / impatience / greediness / selfishness / vanity / envy. She goes through phases of trying harder and even of examining her own faults, occasional rising to what we might call Agnes-like heights, as when she sets out to improve her French:
Her own three extra mistakes all arose from one error: the neglect of a rule, which she now remembered the French-master had particularly explained. She smiled at having so easily discovered the cause of her deficiency. “All my own inattention,” thought she. The next consideration was, how the evil could be remedied: nothing could be more simple, by paying a more earnest attention in future. A pleasing sensation filled her breast on this conviction…
This resolution is rewarded when the French teacher commends Rosa’s “quickness of apprehension”:
Rosa was delighted with this praise, and turned with an air of triumph towards her sister and her friend. They smiled upon her with perfect kindness, unmixed with envy. Rosa half coveted them the well-regulated benevolence with which they heard another’s praise. “It would not have been so with me,” thought she; and why? “because I should have indulged my anger instead of my sympathy. I should have made that a torment which they consider a pleasure.”
But these moments of clarity are few and far between. Rosa’s tragedy, according to Mrs Budden, is that she does wrong in full knowledge of what is right. Rosa herself is inclined to put her shortcomings down to an ingrained character fault: she is just “like that”—“I cannot help it!” is her eternal cry. Mrs Budden’s inexorable reply, which comes courtesy of the girls’ mother, is that everyone can indeed “help it”, if they exert themselves and acquire good habits; and that to neglect these fundamental duties will invariably lead to grief, if not tragedy. Again and again she tries to impart these critical lessons to the resistant Rosa, whose dreams (possibly fuelled by – gasp! – novels, although she denies it when questioned) anticipate a life of great events, and leave her with little patience for day-to-day reality:
“Those that are storing up their virtues for great occasions alone, and allow the petty incidents of life to pass unnoticed and unenjoyed, may be very fit to be heroes and heroines of romance, but are by no means calculated to make worthy and useful characters in human life.”
“I have often thought, mamma, I should like to be a heroine; they are so superior, so faultless.”
“You make me smile, Rosa. Would the bare title of heroine necessarily make you superior and faultless?”
Rosa laughed at her mother’s questions. “I fear not, mamma.”
“What would be necessary to make you a heroine then?”
“Oh! I ought to bear pain without complaining, ought to return good for evil, love my enemies, be very kind to my friends, perhaps give up my rightful fortune to a younger sister, and refuse to marry the man I love, because my parents desire me…”
“Suppose we put your heroics into plain English. To bear pain without complaining; that means to be patient: to return good for evil, to be a Christian; love our enemies, be kind to friends, prefer a sister’s interest to your own, means disinterestedness and generosity, and to refuse a man you love, because your parents desire you, is to be obedient. I congratulate you, Rosa; you can be a complete heroine whenever you please.”
The contrasting theories of Rosa and her mother are put to the test soon afterwards. Agnes injures her arm and must undergo a painful operation, which she bears with as much fortitude as she can muster, to avoid distressing her parents. Rosa, meanwhile, develops toothache, but flees in terror from the thought of an extraction, even while ceaselessly complaining about “the torture”.
Comments Mrs Budden tartly:
So much for heroines. Very fine people in travels and romances, but in real life, fantastic, worthless, miserable creatures; when, like Rosa, they talk of great things, but fail even in small ones.
And persistently scornful of “small things”, Rosa carries on down the path of neglect, even as Agnes strives to improve herself day by day, in each case with what Mrs Budden considers the inevitable outcome.
She did not, like her sister, see her own faults, and not resolve to correct them. She remembered the satisfaction she had received from her labours in her garden. She therefore knew that “pleasure follows industry”. She determined in future to be industrious, and though she found it difficult at first, yet, by firmly persisting in her resolution, she became an active, skilful, useful woman. Her house was neat and comfortable, her servants copied their mistress, were clean, notable, and bustling. Every body treated her with respect, and whoever visited her, admired the comfort of her house, and the propriety of her table… With new virtues she gained new happiness. She lived beloved and happy, and died calm and regretted.
And for Rosa:
Many times, at different periods of her life, she plainly saw she was doing very wrong. How easily, therefore, could she have changed from wrong to right. But no—she would not. She was obstinate, she would not turn from her evil ways. What was the consequence? She went on from bad to worse, and the ill-nature and passion that made her destroy her sister’s garden, as she grew up, rendered her a perfect fury to her neighbours and a noisy scold to her servants… Always in a hurry and always doing things by halves, she was a sad slattern in her dress, and, though often buying handsome clothes, generally looked mean and untidy… Rosa would not condescend to do what was always in her power, and what every body ought to do. Thus she neglected all the best, though little duties of life… With her virtue, she lost her happiness. She lived despised, and died unlamented.
(She lost her virtue!? I’m sure we must be talking “virtue” in the more general sense…)
The hard-core didacticism of Right And Wrong leaves little room in Mrs Budden’s narrative for anything else, though a couple of random passages do stand out. Early in the novel Budden launches into a sudden diatribe against chimney-sweeps; or rather, against the treatment of the sweeps’ boys, and those people who make it their business to decoy young children into this brutal profession. The sweeping trade itself is viewed as a necessary evil – for the present. The stance taken by the father of Rosa and Agnes is rather interesting:
“I only regret no thing has yet been discovered to supply the place of these poor suffering innocents; that no such contrivance has been effected, is a disgrace to human invention… I never will believe but, in this age of improvement and invention, something might be contrived to fully answer the purpose, and I think some public-spirited individual, or patriotic society, have only to offer a considerable reward, and this important contrivance would be effected: a contrivance not only important to humanity, but good morals, which at one stroke would snatch a thousand victims from misery and oppression, and for ever put a stop to the avarice, the tyranny, the cunning, that are ever at work to entrap and subdue them. Let us not say that, with the ‘slave trade’, we have abolished, all means of cruelty from the British dominions, whilst, in every village and town of this island, so many feeble, suffering victims hold up their hands for mercy in vain.”
While at the other end of the spectrum, we find this hilarious bit of class-obliviousness:
The tolling bell now proclaimed the hour of worship. The smiling family, with eager haste, prepared to obey the welcome summons; the little ones walked before, the grateful parents followed, their hearts swelling with unutterable content.
After service they enjoyed a short walk, and met crowds of well-dressed people indulging themselves in strolling through the beautiful fields and lanes that skirted the busy town. On their return home, they found a smoking dinner on the table…
—which must have appeared by magic. Because no good Christian family would keep its servants from attending church just to prepare their lunch – right?