What is Nature without the pied beauty of the four seasons? What is a home without paint, pictures, flowers, and interior decoration? What are human beings without tasteful, dignified clothing?
What is an attractive human appearance without gracious manners and kind words? What is a human life devoid of music, theater, games, sports, painting, poetry, sculpture, and liturgy?
The art of living requires the beautification of all aspects of life from a person’s room and house to his body and soul to his whole environment.
Jack and Jill
Louisa May Alcott’s novel Jack and Jill portrays the ordinary lives of families in a small New England town during the late nineteenth century. Parents manage their families and earn their livelihoods with regularity, and young men and women follow the daily regimen of school.
With the exception of a serious sledding accident that hospitalizes Jack and Jill in their homes with broken bones, the events in the book do not portray major crises in the lives of the characters. Spectacular events and high drama do not abound in the novel. However, common life does not need to be humdrum or prosaic if the art of living transforms the plain into the beautiful and adorns daily life by its creative touches.
When bare rooms are painted with lively colors and undecorated homes are arranged with lovely flowers, the art of living makes life human, civilized, and attractive to dispel monotonous dullness.
The beautification of the plain and bare, however, goes beyond paint, pictures, and flowers. The art of living encompasses many forms of beautification that transform not only a room or home but an environment or atmosphere to prevent ordinary life from becoming dingy and drab. Gracious manners, cheerful spirits, welcoming homes, and acts of friendship all classify as “the touch of elegance” mentioned in the novel.
A Cheerful Convalescent
While Jill convalesces in bed from her accident, she observes the dreariness of her room: “It was very neat, but so plain that there was not even a picture on the walls, nor an ornament upon the mantel, except the necessary clock, lamp, and match-box. The paper was ugly . . . and makes one nervous to look at day after day.”
Merry, the only sister in a family of boys, notices the dullness of the kitchen, a room which “though as neat as wax, had nothing lovely in it, except a red geranium blooming at the window.”
Merry also notices the absence of table manners “as they sat about the table shoveling in pork and beans with their knives, drinking tea from their saucers, and laughing out with a hearty ‘Haw, haw,’ when anything amused them.” A sister in another family, Molly, “finding such disorder everywhere,” complains about the housekeeper’s negligence in maintaining an orderly home, in dressing her younger brother in proper clothing, and in organizing the household in a presentable manner: “I will not have my brother look like a pig” she protests to her widowed father.
A home without embellishments, manners, cleanliness, or order soon grows lackluster and loses all appeal.
Visits in Recovery
While Jack and Jill recover from the sledding episode and lie in bed for months without the normal activities of attending school and outdoor recreation, their friends make regular visits to cheer the patients and change their bedroom (“Ward No. 1” and “Ward No. 2”) into scenes of lively mirth. They arrive as welcome guests who bring friendship and conviviality into the uneventful days of the recovering patients.
To pay the compliment of a visit, to extend oneself to comfort a person in sickness or sorrow, or simply to find the time to cultivate a human relationship with the gift of one’s company and presence make a world of difference in the quality of the day.
One of the boys, Ralph, pays a handsome compliment to Merry when he departs after accepting an invitation for dinner. Walking home in the dark, he notices the lamp on the wall and tells Merry that the light burns like a beacon that never fails to cheer him. She explains that she selected this fixture because of her interest in “household art,” but Ralph praises her for beautifying an entire home by her graciousness: “You’ve got a better sort of household art, I think, for you make people happy and places pretty, without fussing over it.”
Ed, another young man, fills a room with a pleasant, good-natured amiability that exerts an irresistible appeal among his friends. The other boys marvel at his “happy and contented” nature and the “unusually sunny and fresh expression of Ed’s face,” and everyone appreciates his “quiet well-doing” and natural thoughtfulness that “seems to come from the inside, somehow.”
Ed’s deep joyfulness, kind manners, and readiness to help touched many lives at home and at school. Even Jill, whose long days as a patient breed irritability and impatience, soon learns that she can affect the mood of her household by singing instead of complaining. Instead of beating her wings “like a wild bird in a cage,” she begins to sing during the day, learns the patience of Saint Lucy, and fills the palace with music “till the queen could not do without it… and the princes called the girl their nightingale.”
The chapter “May Baskets” that depicts the custom of bringing flowers to friends on May Day provides a perfect lesson captures the essence of the simple but elegant beautification of life.
When Jill admires how “all the world looked beautiful” in May and delights in making bouquets and bringing flowers to the doors of neighbors because “it would please and surprise them,” she recognizes the art of living as the playful spontaneity of fairies who delight in making people happy by bringing “a bit of spring left at their doors by the May elves.”
Header Image CC Werner Kunz