These articles will cite famous advice, wise proverbs, and prudent counsel as they appear in the classics of literature, in the words of famous characters from the good and great books of Western civilization, and in the published letters of noble men and women. Some articles will examine the world’s bad or worst advice, for example, Polonius’s words of wisdom to his son Laertes in Hamlet, as falsehoods that mislead. Because true wisdom, in Augustine’s words, is “ever ancient” and “ever new,” this treasury of the world’s knowledge, “the collected reason of ages” deposited in “the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages,” to quote from Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, will hopefully speak to many modern minds and hearts.
In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Meg, the oldest of the March sisters, has happily married and given birth to twins, Demi and Daisy. A dedicated, loving woman with a strong sense of the vocation of motherhood, Meg soon finds herself enervated and exhausted from the duties of caring for children and managing a home: “As she was a womanly little woman, the maternal instinct was very strong, and she was entirely absorbed in her children, to the utter exclusion of everything and everybody else.”
Because Meg is preoccupied and overtired, she finds no energy for conversation with her husband John even when he returns home for the evening. John, feeling like “a paternal exile,” begins to spend more time with neighbors where he enjoys friendship, plays chess, and hears the piano. When Meg complains to her mother that she feels like a neglected woman, even “a widow,” Mrs. March responds, “Don’t you neglect him?” Mother then gives daughter the benefit of her own experience. She explains that Meg, forgetting her duty to her husband in her love for her children, has created an unnecessary imbalance in her married life: “for children should draw you nearer than ever, not separate you, as if they were all yours, and John had nothing to do but support them.”
Mrs. March chides her daughter for always being in the nursery and never emotionally available for her husband, “a very natural but forgivable mistake” that needs correction. Meg does not seek the help of her husband, imagining it as an admission of weakness and a failure of duty on her part. She cautions Meg of the consequences of work without play and recreation, insisting “You need the exercise.” The mother notices the state of her daughter’s nerves and the neglect of her appearance: “too much confinement makes you nervous, and then you are unfitted for everything.” Mrs. March urges her daughter to have a social life and not neglect her basic needs as a woman and as a human being: “Go out more, keep cheerful as well as busy, for you are the sunshine maker of the family, and if you get dismal there is no fair weather.”
Just as Meg needs to correct the imbalances in her life to make herself more pleasant, attractive, and composed to create the atmosphere of “sunshine” in the home, John needs to assist his wife in every humble way so that she can reign in the home as a queen rather than be a slave to work and a captive to children. Mrs. March urges Meg to involve her husband in the domestic sphere in order to play his vital part as father of the family. A father belongs in the nursery and home in every way, Mrs. March counsels Meg: “His place is there as well as yours, and the children need him; let him feel he has his part to do, and he will do it gladly and faithfully, and it will be better for you all.” A woman must create an attractive, hospitable, pleasant atmosphere that makes the home the most inviting place of all, but she cannot perform this beautiful art of homemaking without ordering her life in a rhythm that balances work and play, domestic life and social life, and time for children, time for husband, and time for herself.
Mrs. March’s advice shows that the welcoming atmosphere of the home depends on the cheerful disposition of the mother and that the state of a woman’s mind and spirits depends on the cooperation and willingness of her husband to relieve her of the burden of work that becomes Herculean labor for one person. As she reflects on the happiness of her marriage, Mrs. March offers her choicest wisdom to Meg: “That is the secret of our home happiness: he does not let business wean him from the little cares and duties that affect us all, and I try not to let domestic worries destroy my interest in his pursuits. Each do our part alone in many things, but at home we work together always.”
Imbalance is the bane of family life and domestic peace. At least one evening a week, a woman should not have to worry about cooking or housework. Instead she deserves to enjoy the pleasure of some social or cultural event with her husband in which she can feel and dress like a woman and enrich her mind and spirit in the company of others outside of her home. All persons need to be “re-created” and step outside of the routine of their daily toil. If husbands want cheerful homes and happy marriages, they must initiate these occasions for the sanity and delight of their wives. As St. Thomas Aquinas taught, “No man can live without pleasure.”
With a few simple changes, Meg transformed her irritable, disgruntled mood from domestic drudge to a lighthearted sunshine maker. Mrs. March knew all the benefits that would follow if Meg would take these suggestions to heart: “Try it and see if he doesn’t find your society far more agreeable than Mrs. Scott’s suppers.” A woman’s world may be her domestic kingdom, but she also needs the stimulation and variety of participating in a larger world and broadening her interests: “Don’t shut yourself up in a bandbox because you are a woman, but understand what is going on, and educate yourself to take part in the world’s work, for it all affects you and yours.”