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XX. “quite rustic.”

There lies before me a letter from one of those women who are doing more, as I sometimes think, to mould the future of America than any other class of women, or than any men; They are the higher grade of teachers in the high-schools, academies, and colleges of our Western States. They are as well trained, intellectually, for the most part, as their sisters of the Eastern States, have quite as often had the advantages of foreign travel; and derive from the life of newer communities, and from the more varied material under their charge a certain breadth of view and freedom from tradition which are rarer at the East. The Eastern colleges, and conspicuously Wellesley, draw much of their supply of teachers from this class, who thus give back to the East that benefit of culture which was formerly supposed to flow westward. Thus much for my authority; the passage in the letter that most strikes me is this; “We have in school a lovely girl from the country. She is rustic, shy, lovely, and dainty. She reminds me of what Ruskin says somewhere, that perhaps [101] the time will come when we shall say, ‘He has beautiful manners; he is really quite rustic.’ ”

I dare say that this writer may not know, for she may not have been in France just at that time, how a good deal of what Ruskin suggests as possible became actual during the last French Empire. A friend of mine who was in Paris during that period was repeating to an accomplished Frenchman a delicate witticism. “Ha!” said his hearer, “that is admirable — that smacks of the provinces” (cela sent les provinces). My friend expressed surprise at the remark, having always supposed that, to a Parisian, all that was provincial seemed dull or vulgar; but his companion explained that so many of the more refined and cultivated families had confined themselves to their country residences in order to escape the carnival of vulgar wealth under Louis Napoleon, that it had become the habit to attribute any very fine touch of wit or manners to the country instead of, as formerly, to the city. In Ruskin's phrase, these things were considered “really quite rustic.”

My friend the teacher speaks for the West. In the secluded plantation life of the Southern States it is not at all uncommon to meet young people-young girls especially — who have never been twenty miles from home, and yet have sweet and gracious manners, manners that are as essentially rustic as an [102] anemone or a cluster of trailing arbutus. In the Eastern and Middle States, where town is more accessible, one nevertheless finds not infrequently the same quality, either in cultivated families living by preference in the country, or in what is distinctly and unquestionably the local population. It is rare to go into any school-house of a country town in New England, and not see some one child who has a genuine and winning gracefulness of manner. She may be of foreign parentage or she may be descended from those who came in the Mayflower; she may have inaccuracies of speech, and these may or may not add to her naive attractions; but the type is there, and it will be recognized by every observant person in connection with our Eastern and Middle States. Howells rarely deals with it-his Lydia Blood comes the nearest to it, but it is unquestionably there, and the effect of its presence, even as exhibited among children, is to make the rural life of New England far more attractive than our novelists usually paint it.

Rusticity, on the whole, fares well in English literature. When we think of it as depicted by Shakespeare, we think less of his dull or vulgar Audreys and Mopsas than of Miranda and Perdita. Both these last heroines represent a life absolutely removed from all that cities can offer; both are in part idealized, but Miranda the more so; we think of [103] Perdita as a woman, but can hardly classify Miranda except in the real where Ariel dwells. Yet both are painted with strong qualities-Perdita with deep conscientiousness, as Mrs. Jameson has pointed out, and Miranda with absolute self-devotion. In that reversion to country life which is going on side by side with the increased tendency to cities — a combination which is making us all into a nation that dwells half the year on the pavements and the other half in the wilderness-we may go back to that poetic side of existence which suggested his Perditas and Mirandas to Shakespeare. We shall never get back to the fantastic shepherdesses of French and Italian song, for these never were on sea or land; but we may at least hope to find, in the rural types of character, a corrective to the dangers of a purely metropolitan society.

Perhaps I shall do well to draw again upon the wide observation of my Western teacher to paint the class of young girls in America most remote from true rusticity — a class whom all may recognize in her description. “The type which troubles me most,” she says, “is the smart, quick-witted girl, who takes the tone of any company she is with; who sees the fine points of literature or history without feeling any of them, who has girlishness without maidenliness, and who has absolutely no reverence — in short, the type of Maud Matchin in [104] ‘The Bread — Winners.’ Of course Maud Matchin was a type, and as such more odious than any single approach to it; but I know plenty of girls who contain the Maud Matchin ingredients. I have seen but one really developed good specimen.” Of this unpleasing class also we have all seen suggestions; and we sometimes observe its traits in those who have risen to conspicuous social position. By way of correction of its perilous tendencies, nothing is better than a pure and wholesome admixture of rusticity.

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