Book Review: The Mirror of True Womanhood
By Rt. Rev. Monsignor Bernard O’Reilly, D.D., L.D.
“At the present day, I swear to thee, that there are Women in the World of such excellence, that I have more envy of the life which they lead in secret, than of all the Sciences which the Ancients taught in public.” – Antonio de Guevara
The above quote encapsulates the sentiments in Bernard O’Reilly’s The Mirror of True Womanhood, a practical and beautifully-crafted book of instruction for women in the world.
Published in 1886, the book imparts not only constructive advice for women on leading a virtuous life, specific to their nature and duties, but offers readers a picture of the influence and power of a woman who is the "loved and worshipped queen of her little kingdom." These words, along with other lovely descriptions of a woman's rule over her home – how her face is to light up all things, and how she is the source of domestic happiness – puts to shame the modern world’s view of this role in the home as unimportant or undesirable.
The book does not give us a picture of the domineering, “empowered” modern woman, but, at the same time, neither are we given the shallow notion of a housewife who lacks substance and is simply an ornament. O’Reilly criticises both of these flawed conceptions of womanhood, and readers are instead encouraged to appreciate the magnitude of a woman’s true responsibilities and duties to her family and community.
Throughout the book, there is emphasis on the home-life of the Christian woman, described as a kingdom and a sacred sphere, which has the image of the Crucified God always at the centre. Chapter III illustrates this holiness of the home by evoking the image of a fire burning atop a family altar, which the household maintains as they maintain the flame of piety and love for God and their neighbour. In such homes, God is not an afterthought, but the knowledge of God and his mysteries is the grounding and centre of their domestic life, as expressed in the following quote:
“Faith was the very principle and breath of life in the old Catholic homes, – and the great central mystery of faith, the Crucifixion, and its memorial sacrifice, the Eucharist and the Mass, were to the youngest children, as to their parents, teachings brought home to the mind and heart, not for mere sterile admiration, but for practical gratitude and imitation.”
Throughout the book, the author gives many examples of virtuous ladies whose homes were fruitful nurseries of noble men and women. Special attention is given to the raising and moral education of children, and the responsibility to lay in children’s hearts the foundations of a solid religious character. The author encourages mothers to begin early to destroy selfishness in their children’s hearts – to instil a notion of duty and of doing things not because they are pleasant, but because they are right – as the fulfilment of one’s duty should be done in service of God: “Duty is always toward God, even when the immediate object of the action performed is only one’s self or one’s neighbour.”
Yet the author does not neglect, in explaining the duties of a mother, to encourage the cultivation of goodness in her own soul, as, he explains, a person cannot expect to teach a quality or habit that she has not first developed in herself. “No mistress of a household ever governed children and servants, so as to maintain order, discipline, obedience, and industry… who was not perfect mistress in the house of her own soul.”
Although there is a focus on the role of a wife and mother, the book also speaks of womanhood more broadly, discussing the role of daughters and sisters in contributing to the joy and function of their family homes. We are told of a woman’s responsibilities not just in the education of children, love of husband, and tending to her household, but also duties towards her neighbour, the Church, and other social environments in which her influence can produce some goodness. Being a product of the 1800s, the text at times comments on positions such as governesses and servants; but nevertheless, readers may still find great value in the advice given if they adapt it to their own circumstances.
Besides, in some ways the author’s guidance and instruction are all the more weighty and applicable to the mind of the modern reader. After all, they address the practice of feminine virtue in a world more wanting of it than the one the author laments, where the mission of a woman is loftier, and the effort required is greater to guard her home and family from the abundant pitfalls beyond the front door.
Though the instruction given is practical and straightforward, the eloquence with which the author writes about the "little Eden," created by a woman's love for her family indicates his purpose to not just to instruct, but to persuade and encourage. His evocative language, although a product of its time, seems also designed to touch the reader's heart and provoke a desire to emulate the qualities described. In doing so, it may move the reader’s heart into greater alignment with the picture of womanhood illustrated in the pages – and in this sense, the book can really be called a mirror of true womanhood.
We can also perceive another aim underpinning every chapter: to push away the influence of a naturalistic world, instead moving wives, mothers, and daughters to be “supernatural women” who live lives of faith and self-sacrifice. In the Author’s Preface, the author states his chief objective: to aid in withstanding the spread of Naturalism, which, however needful back in the time of publication, is all the more necessary for us today. It is especially important, then, no matter if we are sisters, mothers, wives, or daughters, to understand our role in withstanding the growing modern mind-viruses and properly guarding our homes, minds, and families – not being “worldly women” who live for self, human opinion, and simple enjoyment, but “women of the world” who perform our duties faithfully and make conformity to the divine will our first and last aim of every hour and every day.
We are afforded this understanding when we read The Mirror of True Womanhood, a worthwhile book for any woman on how she may try to conform her life to the pictures of womanly virtue illustrated by the great female saints and ultimately exemplified in the life of the Mother of God.