Modesty Inside and Out
“. . . and Anne an extremely pretty girl, with gentleness, modesty, taste, and feeling.”
Isn’t this a lovely string of adjectives? It is Jane Austen’s description of 19-yr-old Anne Elliot of Persuasion. In the setting of the story, however, Anne has reached her late twenties. She has supposedly lost the “bloom” of youth, and is likely past marrying age. If not youth, Anne has other fine qualities. Her inward beauty makes her exceptionally attractive to a certain honorable man who recognizes it, admires it, and loves her for it.
When we come across a young lady like Anne, who is refreshingly modest, we find that this quality exists only in a girl who is given to looking outside of herself. She is sensitive to the needs around her. Perhaps someone in her circle could use a word of cheer, a kind gesture of some gift of service, a few handpicked flowers, a handwritten note, or an hour of unhurried companionship.
It is only in looking outside of herself that a girl can worship God. The beauty of nature does not escape her notice, either. Modest girls make the best daughters, the best sisters, the best wives, the best mothers, the best Christians, the best citizens.
They are not full of themselves. Rather, they are un-self-conscious.*1
Little Children Are Not Self-conscious
This is how little children are. They are not self-conscious. Unaware and unconcerned with what others think of them, they will emulate what they see around them because they are objective and curious to learn (by experience if they can) a great many “objects” outside of themselves.
The world is so full of a number of things
I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.
R L Stevenson
Charlotte Mason says that parents can safeguard a child’s inborn lack of self-regard, by training. For instance, “Thoughtful parents are agreed that children’s meals should be so regularly pleasant and various that the child naturally eats with satisfaction and thinks little or nothing of what he is eating; that is, parents are careful that, in the matter of food, children shall not be self-regardful.”*2
Just as it is good manners to talk about things at the table other than our plates of food, we needn’t call undue attention to our children’s clothing. Young children who give thanks and eat what is put before them are usually the same children who wear what is in the closet without comment.
The humble state of un-self-consciousness in childhood is the example given to us by our Lord Jesus when He said, “Unless you . . .become as little children you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” *3 Miss Mason says that this humility is “a blessed state only now and then attained by us elders - but in which the children perpetually dwell, and in which it is the will of God that we should keep them.”*4
Modesty is Meek Not Weak
“Strength and honor are her clothing. . .” *5
Do you like Anne of Persausion? I do. She has an open ear. Those around her come to confide in her. And she serves. This is “nicely symbolized by her piano playing. Instead of actually dancing, she plays the piano to enable others to dance." *6
Breaking the code of society-etiquette her father is fiercely attached to, Anne associates with an old school friend. Mrs. Smith, once married to a wealthy man, was left little when he died, and is a poor widow suffering from rheumatism. In her friendship with Mrs. Smith, Anne sees a different sort of nobility – one of noble character. The friendship is a “gift of Heaven.” Anne does not look down her nose at Mrs. Smith, a woman who wears strength and kindness as her clothing. Mrs. Smith’s patient disposition and her ability to keep occupied “carried her out of herself.” The friendship opens Anne’s eyes, enabling her to have an “elastic” perspective of her own life and relationships.
In the beginning of the book Anne is quiet (near silent). More and more she shows the courage of her opinion. “Her willingness to speak marks the final turning point in her love affair with Wentworth.” *7
What Happened to “Ladylike?”
Immodesty in young people is widespread. The thorough pre-occupation of self goes hand-in-hand with immodest clothing. Immodest girls seem to think boys are hormone-free. Revealing clothing creates an atmosphere of forced intimacy. Perhaps these girls have never had it explained to them that a man is designed by God to – in an atmosphere of intimacy – take intoxicating pleasure in the roundness of the female form - in the woman he loves devotedly – his wife. Song of Solomon chapter seven will make a girl blush. But when read at the right time it has educational benefits.
The highest concern of some girls is up-to-the-minute fashion, to be competitively attractive, part of the in-crowd. With a real fear of appearing fat or dowdy they may choose an outfit that extends barely beyond the undergarments or one that is primarily spandex. My fingertips on the keyboard are poised to type a list of dos and don’ts (sigh). But I am stepping aside. I wish to be gracious, not over zealous. If the reader is a Christian she has the Holy Spirit. He is in the business of guiding every thoughtful and prayerful heart.
As opinions go, I agree with Edith Head.
Who is Edith Head? She was a costume designer for Paramount Pictures who won 8 Academy Awards - a favorite among leading female stars of the 1940 and 50s, such as Ginger Rogers, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and Loretta Young. Not all the film stars she designed for, and the characters they played, were modest women. But Edith Head’s personal opinion was:
“Your dresses should be tight enough to show you’re a woman and loose enough to show you’re a lady.”
I sat in the dentist chair. The hygienist was young, a natural blond, and cheerful. Her uniform was cheerful, too. Its pastels, cartoon characters and orange flowers seemed to match her personality. While she clipped the bib around my neck we shared some small talk. She probably asked me what I do. And I probably mentioned writing for home educators because our talk hopped onto the subject.
“I attended Catholic school until 8th grade,” she volunteered. Afterwards she entered the mega-size high school in the area.
“How did that go?” I asked. It was the last thing I could say before I was required to hold my mouth ajar.
Deftly selecting a metal tool she said, “My biggest difficulty was trying to decide, each morning, what to wear.”
“Uh,” I vocalized but could say no more. But I understood far more than my “uh,” let on. I surmised that the transition from her schooldays in uniform to freedom-of-choice was a sore trial. Why?
How does a girl blend in without compromising her modesty? Clothes-choice can be deeply, emotionally trying to the coming-of-age Christian person. Peers impose the fashion status quo. Everything one does in the fish bowl of a government school is conspicuous. Nothing escapes notice. Any deviation from the status quo – especially one that takes a step toward modesty - can all-too-easily be made the subject of a joke, condescension, ridicule or gossip.
This trial of self-consciousness is something we lived without. In our little home school I was able to keep my children un-self-conscious a little longer. On second thought, it was a lot longer than children today. In the rural Maine church most of their friends were home educated for high school and had siblings. Therefore their peers were of mixed ages. And most of them, thankfully, were modest inside and out. They were blissfully ignorant of the domineering pull of immodest fashion in the sub-culture of the teen-age world. *8
I know the circumstance is different in large metropolitan churches. I see it sadly. It is one reason I have written this post.
Blessings Down the Road
In our early years I was busy focusing on the day-to-day how to of educating. I wasn’t looking very far down the road. But when we got there I embraced the added blessing that the freedom to be modest would bestow. In reflection I see it to be another aspect of “The Gentle Art of Learning.”
The writer is still working on modesty. She seeks to:
"There should be as little merit in loving a woman for her beauty, as a man for his prosperity, both being subject to change." Alexander Pope
Comments are Welcome
Feel free to send an email if this post is too sensitive a subject for you to comment publicly. I avoided the use of certain terminology in order to talk safely outside the radar of google’s index. Please do likewise. Thank you.
*1 Philippians 4:12
*2 Charlotte Mason, Parents and Children, page 284
*3 Mathew 18:3
*4 Charlotte Mason, Parents and Children, page 284
*5 Proverbs 31:25
*6 and *7, Peter J. Leithart, Miniatures and Morals – the Christian Novels of Jane Austen, Canon Press, page 182
*8 I Timothy 2: 9-10
Bible verses are from the New King James Version, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, TN.