On Poor Boring Norah, Learned Girl

The last time I was in Victoria, about a year ago, my mother gave me a copy of Ideals for Girls by H. R. Haweis, published in 1897. It consists of cloying lectures, clearly intended to be edifying, on Untidy Girls, Musical Girls, Parochial Girls, Learned Girls, Mannish Girls, Engaged Girls, and Brides. They’re hilarious to read now but I’m guessing it wasn’t particularly amusing to be subjected to them as a young woman a hundred years ago. Today’s selection is on the subject of Learned Girls:

In general society Norah was rather glum — not bad-looking, but glum. She did not fall in with games, or ever clap her hands, or go into fits of merriment like Juliet, or care to amuse children, or put herself out for any one. She did not like boating — she liked long walks with some one who did not want her to talk too much; but she could always listen, only then you could not be quite sure whether she was attending to you; her answers were usually brief and not very suggestive. Some people thought she was shy; but Professor Blinkum said, after she had been through the course neglected by Juliet, that her Scandinavian paper was wonderful, and she must have a prodigious memory; and yet although she stored facts and phrases — for a time, at least — she was not good at an essay, and never by any chance emitted an idea or a reflection she had not heard from somebody else, or read in some book. Still, most people admitted that Norah was very learned. It was wonderful what she knew when it came to an examination on paper, but no one would have gathered this from her monosyllabic conversation, in which she never seemed to give out anything; but then there was something so lofty and superior about her silence, and she had such an evident contempt for those who were not under ‘higher education,’ that people were usually impressed, and in very much the same way. They said, ‘Wonderfully clever! so learned, you know — and (but this was not always uttered) so dull!’ And it was true! Somehow Norah was a mistake, with all her knowledge. Norah should have developed in a different way, and then she would have been all right, or at least more right than she was. Her mind should have been a little more let alone and her heart a little more moved, and her timid rudimentary sympathies a little more drawn forth in childhood; but not being very attractive, she was rather mulct of the affection she most needed.

In her early girlhood she was reserved and a little prim, although there was a dash of angular decision about her, and it was certain she had a will of her own; but she was singularly unemotional, hardly ever cried, and only laughed under protest. She seemed afraid of spontaneity and self-revelation of any kind, but she doubtless had energy and purpose. She collected postage stamps at nine with avidity, then she had a perfect craze for picking up pins, removing orange peel from the pavement, and collecting windfalls in autumn — heaps of windfalls, which the cook made into pies. She liked the garden and on wet days she used to read almanacs full of dates and events, but never opened a storybook. At school her progress in arithmetic was wonderful and she did her sums twice as fast as the teacher at the blackboard, and thus became the envy of the class and a terror to the young mistress fresh from the training college…

You feel inclined to leave off reading about Norah, my dear.

‘Poor Norah!’ you say. ‘I like Juliet much better. Your Norah bores me.’ Yes, and she bores other people, and bores herself too…

Would you like to see how Norah ends? Norah will never marry.

There was just one chance but it never came off — it never really quite came on — but there was for at least six months an unusual, an alarming flutter in Norah’s almost impenetrable breast. One evening he left the garden, and turned as he went down the lane. But Norah never turned to look at him, or wave adieu; her features were rigid, and her poor heart, somewhere beneath its ice-bound covering, was almost breaking, or as near breaking as such a heart, beneath such a covering, could be. Then he lighted a cigar, and muttering, ‘Not a bit of a use,’ gulped down something like a sob, and the next day he left for Egypt, and he never saw her again.

Every girl has her serious romance, and that was yours, Norah, and you never had another.

You were a difficult girl for a romance. Your pent-up nature will lavish itself henceforth upon neither men, women, nor children. You would prove an admirable secretary to some Herbert Spencer, Darwin, or an assistant-librarian — anything connected with the accumulation and tabulation of detail — but you will always want direction, some one to do the thinking for you, and then you will slave like a cart horse. Your education has never taught you to think. Shall I indulge in speculation and look for a moment with a prophetic eye into the future? Your emotional nature, developing capriciously and too late, will lavish itself wildly on pet dogs or cats, and you will keep birds and pigeons, and your garden in the country will be neatly edged with innumerable cockle shells, and you will know the Latin name for every flower in the garden, but few will know that you know. You will be good to the poor out of a sense of duty, but they won’t care much about you, and the village children will bob curtseys to you out of sheer terror, and you will be known as ‘old Miss Norah,’ and always wear black silk, summer and winter, and go to church regularly, and leave your money to a hospital.

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