Sunday 11 October 2020

Why Little Girls Shouldn't Play Dido with their Dolls


On UN International Day of the Girl Child, by total coincidence I’ve read one of the memories recorded by Jane Welsh, later to marry Thomas Carlyle, of her childhood. Her yearning to be allowed to do things boys did, like learn Latin, while also to be allowed maternal feelings and girlish entertainment, feel powerfully relevant. The role of her mother in recycling sexist views and holding her back needs to be well noted. It is all too often the case.

The clever daughter of a Haddington doctor, Jane desperately wanted ‘to learn Latin like a boy! 'But’, writes her early biographer, ‘Mrs Alexander Ireland’, ‘there was a difference of opinion on the subject at home. Mrs. Welsh opposed her; but her father, who thought well of her talents, was willing she should have her way.

‘Jeannie took the matter into her own hands. She found out a lad in Haddington school who taught her to repeat a Latin noun of the first declension. Armed with this weapon, she hid herself, one  night when she was supposed to be in bed, under the drawing-room table. When opportunity offered, her small voice, from under the tablecover, broke silence with 'penna, a pen; pennae, of a pen,' &c. And, amid the general amusement, she crept out, ran to her father, and repeated her simple petition, 'I want to learn Latin; please let me be a boy!’…which settled the Latin question. At nine years old Jeannie was being taught ‘Virgil by a young schoolteacher. The effect was, she wrote, to change her religion, and make her into a sort of pagan.’   

One day she was told that a young lady in the world of Virgil would disdain to play with dolls. So she decided to destroy her doll, taking inspiration from Dido’s death in Aeneid 4. Her own words are too thrilling—and sad—to be paraphrased:

‘She should end as Dido ended, that doll as the doll of a young lady in ‘Virgil' should end. With her dresses, which were many and sumptuous, her four-posted bed, a faggot or two of cedar allumettes, a few sticks of cinnamon and a nutmeg, I, non ignara futuri, constructed her funeral pile sub auras, of course; and this new Dido, being placed in the bed with my help, spoke through my lips the sad last words of Dido the First, which I had then all by heart. . . . The doll having thus spoken, pallida morte futura, kindled the pile, and stabbed herself with a penknife, by way of Tyrian sword. Then, however, in the moment of seeing my poor doll blaze up for, being stuffed with bran, she took fire, and was all over in no time.

‘In that supreme moment my affection for her blazed up also, and I shrieked, and would have saved her, and could not, and went on shrieking till everybody within hearing flew to me and bore me off in a plunge of tears an epitome of most of one's 'heroic sacrifices,' it strikes me, magnanimously resolved on, ostentatiously gone about, repented of at the last moment, and bewailed with an outcry. Thus was my inner world at that period three-fourths old Roman and one-fourth old Fairy’.

Jane faced a choice no girl, woman or indeed human being should ever be asked to make. I always wanted dolls and books, children and an interesting job. It is really not too much to ask.

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