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Good Words 1860
A Woman's Work

On Tuesday, the 5th of the April of last year, at an early hour of the morning, a stranger in Hamburgh, passing through one of its squares, might have observed with some surprise standing at the door of a corner-house, the simple bier destined to carry paupers to their churchyard-rest. And stopping for a moment, while the coffin, formed of four black, rudely joined boards, was laid upon that bier, and borne away by the appointed parish officials, we can imagine such a stranger inquiring how it came to pass that the inmate of that comfortable-looking house should have no other than a pauper's funeral. The answer made to him would have been that the departed, the friend and lover of the poor throughout her life, had loved them to the end; and knowing, from her long experience among them, how painfully to many of them the privations of their latter years were embittered by the prospect of a parish burial, she had not only often expressed her wishes on the subject, but left written directions that hers might be a pauper's funeral, in the hopes thus to diminisn a prejudice too strong to be reasoned away, and to reconcile some of her poor friends to the rude bier on which her own honoured remains had lain. Struck by such a reply, we can further imagine our stranger following the quick tread of the bearers to the Horn Cemetery, where they deposit their light burden on the church steps and retire. There crowds of rich and poor, young and old, friends and acquaintances, pupil and fellow-workers, are waiting for it; the unsightly boards are soon covered with wreaths and spring-flowers, and eight brothers of the Rauhe Haus carry it to the family vault. Hymns are sung, and solemn words spoken; the coffin lowered, all eagerly press round for one last look more, aged eyes drop tears, and little hands fling flowers into the grave, and then all disperse with faces sorrowful indeed, and yet rejoicing too. Again we imagine the question put: Who then was this Amelia Sieveking that Hamburgh mourns to-day? Was she the centre of a happy home, distinguished by position, wealth, genius? No, she was an unmarried woman of the middle class; of small means and fair average intellect, nothing more. And yet her influence was not only a power in her native town, but it has radiated far beyond it. In Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Switzerland, many have arisen who call her blessed, not only among the poor, who reap the benefits of a more considerate and comprehensive charity, but still more amongst women of her own class, who have been stirred up by her example to such a career of systematic and successful beneficence as would scarce have been practicable but for the charitable organization of which she in Hamburgh was the founder.

We feel that the life of such a woman, however poor in outward incident, cannot fail especially to interest the earnest-minded of her own sex; and therefore we purpose, in the present article, to indicate its quiet course from her thoughtful childhood upwards, not pausing to comment upon the deepening religious convictions, in the happy strength of which she lived and laboured, but merely endeavouring to give a faithful sketch of the striking portrait drawn by a female friend in the German volume now before us.

Bom in Hamburgh, in 1794, of a family loved and honoured there for many generations, Amelia Sieveking appears to have been from childhood singularly conscientious and persevering in her endeavours after self-culture. Her own impression of her early days was not a happy one. She could but indistinctly remember her mother, who died when she was only five years old, and she seems to have missed a mother's tenderness; but perhaps this very experience had something to do with her own sweet indulgence to the children under her care; perhaps the desultory nature of the education she received, and her freedom from all external restraint, aided the development of her energies better than any other training could have done. Here is a passage of one of her latest works, in which she describes herself at the very time when her brothers found the wild little girl a capital playfellow in their out-door sports, and her young spirit was secretly vexed with rationalistic doubts and difficulties; yet even then, "When I was quite a child," wrote the earnest Christian woman; "before I knew Christ as the Son of God and my Redeemer, the wish to be good and virtuous had already arisen within me. I carried about a moral diary, I devised small penalties (e.g., little pebbles put into my shoes) by way of expiation for certain faults. I was also anxious to do good, and secretly gave some of my pocket-money to the poor ; but I was surprised to find that the prospect of these penances had so little power to deter, and that these private acts of mercy did not give me nearly so much pleasure as those for which I was praised by others." At the age of fourteen, Amelia, or Malchen, as her German friends called her, lost her father, her home, and the companionship of her brothers; and being left totally unprovided for, had to adopt plans formed by her relatives, to give up the French, English, and other lessons in which her active mind had taken such delight, and to practise many small economies and self-denials, trying at the time, but all calculated to bring out her native strength of character. We have a glimpse given us of a dreary season—not uncommon among the young, for whose encouragement we record it here—when all occupations within reach appeared so insignificant and so distasteful, that she would lie upon her bed for hours and hours, idly dreaming of great things to be done in the future. But this did not last long with our brave and thoughtful Malchen. "I felt," she writes at a later period, "that in order not to deteriorate morally, I needed a stronger incentive to systematic activity than I found in my own circle. I looked around me for some pursuit that would satisfy both heart and mind, and the Lord permitted me to find it in the instruction of the young." Accordingly, at the age of nineteen, Malchen opened her first little school. She had an especial love for children, and an instinctive love for teaching, which had from time to time broken out before; but, undecided as her own opinions were, it was rather a perplexing matter to her to know what religious teaching to give them. "I resolved," she said, ''that at least I would not profess to them more certainly than I possessed. Before their confirmation I explained to them the orthodox views of the atonement, adding that I myself did not hold them, but that I considered my opinions on that head immature as yet, and begged that their minds might not be prejudiced by them." Meanwhile, Malchen's lot was a busy if not a happy one. Like other girls, she had her preferences and illusions, but she had, as early as eighteen, aspirations after higher than mere personal good, and schemes for making an ''untenanted life " useful to others.

Her first great sorrow was the death of her favourite brother Gustavus, a young theological student of great promise, with whom she had been used freely to correspond upon the religious subjects on which they still differed; though, as might be expected in one whose office it was to teach children, she was steadily becoming more and more positive in her creed. Her brother's peaceful, hopeful end, and the blank he left in her affections, all tended to deepen her piety, and to give earnestness to her prayers. Then came the disappointment of a cherished hope; and we find her writing in her diary: "After all, could any earthly good satisfy the longings of the immortal spirit? Father, if thy purpose be, by the denial of my dearest hopes, to educate me for eternal life,—Father, thy will be done! Only let me be thy obedient child; free and strong in spirit, and filled with thy love: it is for this I long; lead thou me to it." It was about this time that Thomas a Kempis fell into her hands, and its holy, self-abnegating tone was peculiarly congenial to her subdued and humble mood. Her naturally ambitious and independent nature had yearned for guidance and direction, and she would have gladly resorted to a confession if such could be in a Protestant Church. Here are some of her utterances at this period, showing the same habit of introspection and desire for improvement we remarked in the little girl twelve years before, united to a far firmer faith, though not as yet to full "joy in believing."

''How poor and barren my virtue, if indeed I dare to speak of any virtue of mine ! Well do I know my two chief hindrances, if only I knew how to overcome them. They are excessive desire for enjoyment and anxiety for praise. ... I contradict too often and too positively. The most different views may yet converge to some point of union. Why, instead of seeking for this, do I always fix upon the points of extremest divergence, and rend them still wider apart? . . . Alas! shall I ever attain the art of self-forgetting? My nature is too deficient in love. I am cold and proud; but I throw myself upon God's guidance. He who is Love itself will draw me to himself."

And now comes what Malchen herself always looked upon as the most important era of her life. She shall relate it in her own words:—"29th August 1819.—O what a foretaste of heaven's bliss fills my heart! A glorious light has dawned on me, which will, I feel, glorify my whole existence. I was undecided in my belief. I felt the necessity of getting at the truth respecting the doctrine of the Atonement, so long foolishness in my estimate, and came to the blessed resolve of referring all my difficulties to R—.[A theological friend of her late brother.] He has just been with me; I have laid bare my heart to him, and his replies have, as it were, awakened a new sense within, and brought me much nearer to God and Christ, whom I now recognise to be God indeed. Be my future ever so dark, I have a light within, that, faithfully kept up, will guide me through the gloom. And will not this light glorify a single life as well as any other? . . . Yes, it is sweet, it is holy to believe. Where Reason can only reveal the darkness and the chill of death, Faith sheds light and warmth on our heart."

From this time forth Malchen's life became increasingly busy and increasingly cheerful. All her energies, absolved now from the task of doubtfully inquiring after truth, went forth in communicating it, and thus her intercourse with the children under her care became to her a source of unmixed satisfaction. Her own strenuous endeavours after personal holiness were both more humble and more hopeful than before, when her self-reliance was her whole support. Now we find her writing: "The sense of my own powerlessness but brings me nearer to Him whose strength is made perfect in weakness. I give myself up to His guidance, in cheerful trust that He will finish the work He has begun, and help the poor stumbling child again and again to rise, ay, should it stumble a hundred times a day. Sometimes I feel as though I must lay bare to others the whole accumulated amount of my guilt, that they may with me admire the riches of divine long-suffering."

As might be expected from such a feeling as this, in one long accustomed to write down her own experiences, Malchen's present happiness overflowed the limits of billets and diaries. She published her first book, Meditations on certain Passages of Holy Writ, which excited a good deal of attention. Many accused it of mysticism, and some parents removed their elder children from her care. Still worse, a spirit of controversy crept into her school-classes; but there was the compensation of sympathy and appreciation, and having once taken up the pen, Malchen, to the end of her busy career, did not lay it down.

In 1823, a fresh impetus was given to her early wish of founding a Sisterhood of Mercy, by her meeting with Professor Hartmann, a fervent-hearted and superior man, who strongly advocated such institutions, and at once discovered Malchen's fitness to be at the head of one. When we remember that from the age of eighteen this had been her favourite dream; that in later years, when the "setting of a great hope" left life for awhile blank and dreary, her cry had been, "If not a happy wife and mother, then a Sister of Charity;" that her constitutional love of authority, her desire for distinction, her yearning wish to elevate the tone and enlarge the usefulness of unmarried women, as well as her desire to spend and be spent in her Master's service, were all in favour of such a scheme, —we think it an instructive instance of sober-minded self-conquest, that she did not throw herself headlong into it, but steadily balanced all conflicting claims, and having determined that she was free to follow her own bent, still further resolved to wait till her own character was more in harmony with her ideal. "As yet," she writes to her brother, "I feel myself an unworthy instrument for so high an undertaking. How much is still lacking! How much hardness there still is in me! how much pride!—ready to govern without knowing how to obey;—-how much more or less latent self-love! Sometimes I fancy that I might do better once admitted into the holy community; but I soon see the fallacy of such a hope. As long as I am not a Sister of Mercy out of a community, I am not fitted to be the founder of one." Nevertheless, the prospect still continued to be a favourite one with her,—a cherished hope, disciplining, supporting, cheering ; never indeed destined to be itself realized, but fitting her for other work to which she was appointed. Her love and pity for the empty lives of many lonely sister women around her, and her desire to raise the unmarried lot into more of dignity and contentment, had been, as we have seen, a main element in the sisterhood scheme : pending the fulfilment of that, they must work out some other way to their end. In addition to her various school-classes, Malchen now began to organize female societies for the care of the sick and poor. When the cholera broke out in 1830, she at once offered her services at the hospital, and nursed the female patients with an intelligent devotedness which awoke the medical men to the value of feminine co-operation, and much increased her moral influence. In 1833, the society was in full and successful operation. Here is a sketch of one of Malchen's busy days at this period:—"I must confess," she writes, "that I have some difficulty in overtaking all I have to do. At seven in the' morning I walk into town (three miles off) with a basket of books, and visit the poor; then my school occupies me till three. . . . Four days in the week I go without any regular dinner : one of the children brings me six pennyworth of butter-milk, with which I eat a slice of bread. In the evening, I read aloud from six to eleven."

Evidently she was working too hard for her health, but she saw the fruit of her labours. In 1842, the society numbered fifty-three members ; and at the time of the great Hamburgh fire, Mal-chen's Tenth Annual Report contained expressions of gratitude to seventeen branch societies organized in the same manner, for their contributions and sympathy with the parent society which she had founded; and so she went on from year to year, blessed and a blessing. Foremost in every charitable undertaking in her native city; appealed to as an authority by fellow-workers in different countries; keeping up an extensive correspondence; undertaking the education of six successive sets of pupils, from the age of six or eight up to the time of their confirmation, paying visits to her brother settled in England, to the Queens of Denmark and Prussia, and publishing book after book on the subjects most congenial to her own mind,—it is difficult to imagine a life of fuller energy, which is but another word for the best happiness God gives his creatures here below. She hardly seems to have known discouragement and disappointment from the time when she found the settled conviction she so long and earnestly sought. Always cheerful, always hopeful, everywhere she found more good and more gratitude than she looked for ; and if sometimes in the course of her charitable ministrations she had to sorrow over the hardened in sin, she never sorrowed without hope, for it was her stedfast belief—a belief so clear, that she could not calmly bear difference of opinion on this head— that " In humanity, when most sunken, there was a something divine;" and that "when, in some remote eternity perhaps, the spark now hid in ashes should kindle into flame, it would be made manifest that there was no loving agency—however it might now seem labour lost—but had worked together toward that final salvation."

We have seen how lavishly Malchen taxed her health and strength. It is therefore with no surprise, though with much sorrow, that we read of consumption setting in, and the valuable life closing at the age of sixty-five. There was no melancholy in. the room of this good woman's last sickness. She tells, in her farewell letter to her brother, written about three weeks before the end, how she lay there on her sofa, with the spring sun streaming in, surrounded by constantly renewed flowers, and ministered to by loving friends of all classes. "The loud sports and teasing ways of children" had never vexed her, and as long as her physical strength could endure it, their laughter rang around her where she lay. " The bond," she writes, '' that most firmly held me to earth is now loosed. Yesterday, Sunday, the 5th of March, I took leave of my children. I spoke to them for half an hour on 1 Peter ii. 10-17. Naturally they were a good deal overcome, and I too was twice obliged to pause. Yet I hope to have attained my object, which was to give them as cheerful an idea as possible of death."

We will not dwell on the last sufferings of the worn-out frame. Nor can we help regretting that biographers so often think it necessary minutely to detail these: enough to know that "Death was swallowed up in victory."

We close our short notice in the closing words of the Memoir: "In more than one respect Amelia Sieveking deserves to be an example to her sex. Not that all can closely imitate her career, for that there must be a special calling ; but her truthfulness, conscientiousness, and habitual self-control; the earnestness which she carried into the smallest occupations; the strenuous pursuit of the good; her severity to herself, and the leniency with which she judged of others,—these are qualities which all may successfully strive after, not indeed in their own strength, but in His who was the life of her life."

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