In the old fairy tales the envious Elder Sister and the wicked Stepmother share between them the rôle of Evil Genius. In modern fiction the Elder Sister has been treated even more cruelly than the Stepmother; in numbers of well-known novels she plays the part of tyrant and marplot to the younger girls of the family, snubbing them unmercifully, annexing their clothes, their ornaments and admirers, and, after a fashion unaccountable, keeping them in complete ignorance of their own attractions and charm, patent as these may be to all the rest of the world.
In real life the Elder Sisters we have known are not a bit like Cinderella's family, and still less like the domineering, selfish beauties of a certain style of novel; their position, to be sure, is apt to develop their characters in a special direction, but this cuts both ways, and unselfishness, high principle, and a hundred varieties of helpfulness are as likely to be its result as a tendency to snatch advantages or to administer snubs, both of which are popularly supposed to be weaknesses of the first-born.
At the outset, no doubt, the Elder Sister has the best of it. Some families, by family tradition, hold strongly to the importance of being the eldest. The eldest daughter is a sort of Princess Royal, and "Queenie" is her inherited pet name. It is natural that her parents' curiosity and interest are lavished upon her in a special degree, and if a dozen brothers and sisters follow her, all as well loved as she, they cannot excel her in this particular, or deny that she will always be "First among equals." She is apt to get more of her parents' society than the younger ones, she is more quickly promoted to sit at their meals, and Mother, herself, begins to teach her to read, generally, I may add, with very little success.
By-and-by, when the nursery and the school-room are full, and the younger children pair together according to age and tastes, "Queenie" still has little privileges which are not extended to the others. "You see, I've known her longest!" says Mother, laughing, when the others clamour to know why Queenie goes out driving, while they have to walk with the nurses? and so that excellent feudalism which is the strength of a large family, is insensibly established without any of the heartburnings that the modern novel heroines experience on their way through their three volumes.
Big brothers and small, at the same school, show the same tendency, and it is all part of that first-rate home education which members of a large family unconsciously extend to each other, during their learning years. Nothing that Colleges, or Academies, or High Schools teach is worth half as much as this.
Queenie's clothes too! She grows fast, and her frocks fly up to her knees with amazing rapidity! They must be handed over to Molly and Dolly and the twins, but she must have new ones, and the "fry," as she begins to call them, do not know what it is to have first-hand raiment so long as their stature does not exceed their elder sister's; by-and-by, for time flies fast, she goes for a year or two to a foreign school, and before it can be believed, Father brings back a tall, fashionable young lady from Paris or Dresden, who speaks foreign languages and plays and sings delightfully, does her hair in a wonderful twist, and wears high-heeled shoes with twinkling buckles.
Molly and Dolly are still in the Backfisch stage, inky-fingered, rough-headed, and occasionally tear-stained; the twins have not emerged from holland pinafores; the boys are at public schools, and are critical of "other fellows' sisters." Queenie's kingdom lies before her, and she steps into it, on her little high-heeled shoes, eager to taste its delights and genuinely ready to accept its responsibilities as soon as she can discover what they are. But the delights are obvious, and they come first.
For some elder girls there is the Presentation at Court and the "coming-out" ball; most have their own little room freshly done up and refurnished by Mother and Nurse, with a great deal of mystery and frilled muslin; their own allowance, too, comes into force, and "the world is all before them where to choose" their frocks and hats, occupations and pastimes. I think every girl begins her emancipated life with a clearly laid down code of rules for the employment of her time - she means to read so much, and practise so much, devote so much time to helping others, teaching the younger children, perhaps, and taking some domestic worries off Mother; it would seem as if the days were hardly long enough for all the duties and pleasures (so happily mixed) that had to be packed into them. But very soon the novelty of all this self-enforced method wears off - Queenie gets tired of doing the flower vases and filling the sugar-basins; she finds practising by herself dull work, and is annoyed that the twins do not grow enthusiastic over her favourite "Hermann und Dorothea," to which she has hastily advanced them because they made so little way with Ahu's Grammar: like Naaman of old, she wonders why some greater task cannot be set her, and grumbles over the Abana and Pharphar of her little daily tests. Then Mother discovers that Molly always remembers to fill up the ink-bottles which Queenie overlooks, and Father takes notice of Dolly's pretty touch on the piano, perhaps because Dolly responds so pleasantly and readily when asked to play, and the poor Elder Sister begins to realise that the younger girls are coming on, and may oust her from her "first position" if she does not take care. It is inevitable, it is a law of Nature, that those behind must press forward, and have their day in their turn; the Elder Sister must recognise this and make way generously, but she will be wise if she look to her own equipment at this juncture and satisfy herself that no inefficiency of hers causes her sisters to be put over her head.
Happily for us we live in an age when every woman can cultivate her individual bent, and family jealousy is very uncommon, but to avoid friction on small points I would earnestly advise Elder Sisters to "make room" gracefully for the growing-up girls, and I would counsel Molly and Dolly not to be over eager to usurp Queenie's duties, even though they recollect more accurately than she which is "sugar-basin morning," or how grandpapa likes his coffee!
Coming out of the region of small domesticities, we are next bound to encounter the girls' admirers! Of course it would be the right thing if, after Laban's excellent rule, Queenie became engaged first, but unluckily things do not always go thus even in the best regulated families, and perhaps one of the "fry" sets up an admirer before any one expects it. Molly goes off on a summer visit, and comes home unaccountably shy about a fellow visitor; she shamefacedly tells her mother that young Mr So-and-so has asked leave to call, and though she professes to Dolly that she does not suppose he will remember the address, she is apt to grow scarlet when the front-door bell rings about tea-time! When poor young So-and-so does make his appearance she is strangely dumb and ill-at-ease, and here is Queenie's opportunity to be helpful and tactful to both, seeing neither too much nor too little, giving the bashful pair occasions for mutual acquaintance and understanding, showing her sister in her best and sweetest light. At such a time an Elder Sister has more in her power than the mother herself: if difficulties arise she is less formidable to confide in; she is on both sides, as it were, and her innocent matchmaking is a matter to be proud of. Her delight in Molly's happy engagement is only second to that of Molly herself!
At the same time no properly constituted girls ever think that their brothers-in-law are good enough to be the husbands of their sisters! Brothers-in-law tumble into the intimacy of an unbroken family circle in all sorts of unexpected manners, and suddenly become part of it without having any of its associations, or "ways" to build their new connexion upon. The bride-elect naturally finds everything "young So-and-so" - now become "dear So-and-so" - does charming, but the sisters do not care to have all their old family jokes explained to a stranger and, worse still, perhaps imitated by him with good-natured but clumsy participation. Here the tact of the Elder Sister is specially wanted; if "Molly's young man" irritates the others with his easy-going assumption of their "ways," or perhaps with his indifference to them altogether - another form of possible annoyance on his part! - Queenie is the person to save the situation, to keep the poor fiancée from being mortified and her lover from being mystified over some unintentional offence; to check too much unnecessary criticism of small points of difference, to try and show every one in their best light. She can do this better even than her parents, who are not likely to be aware of the little pin-pricks of constant daily comparisons to which girls give so much importance.
We hope Queenie marries too, as happily as Molly with her boy and girl romance, but in a family of (say) five girls the average of marriages is only two, and it is possible that the Elder Sister may be called upon to watch the wooing and winning of the younger girls without herself finding a mate to her mind. In such a case, the circumstances add age and gravity to Queenie beyond her years; the "fry" begin to talk of her, with careless affection, as "old Queenie," new acquaintances take her for older than she is, because of the married younger sisters and the increasing tribes of small nephews and nieces. Some girls are born aunts, and enjoy their sisters' children as much as the mothers do themselves; but the situation is apt to be a difficult one, and the Elder Sister needs all her steering tact again to hold her course pleasantly among the shoals and shallows of the collateral families.
The young married women think she must be old-maidish because she is unmarried; they expect she will interfere when they spoil their children or let their husbands smoke in the drawing-room. In their secret hearts they still feel that the old allegiance of their school-room days is her due, though their husbands may cry "Pooh! nonsense, my dear; what can Queenie know about it?" But they grow shy of consulting her until sorrow or sickness or perplexity sends them flying to her for tender sympathy and practical help. She has her own views, clear and single-minded, by which to unravel the tangle of their family complications; she has her own money with which to assist a harassed matron over a temporary difficulty. Her standard is very high, but then she is pitiful in the extreme; her conscience has never deflected towards expediency, but neither has her charity ever failed; she is a little prim, perhaps, for has she not been setting an example all her life? But her very primness is a refreshment in these days of lax opinions and lawless self-confidence. The character built up in girlhood is not found wanting now by the brothers and sisters, who instinctively fall back on her strength and purity, and in her middle age she is once more all-important as the Elder Sister.
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