The Story of Formation of Character

The Story of Formation of Character

1906 was a big year for Charlotte Mason. It’s the year that she completed the Home Education Series! In that fateful year Mason published the fifth and final volume of the series, entitled Some Studies in the Formation of Character. Now you may correct me and say that there are actually six volumes in the Home Education Series. But in reality, An Essay Towards a Philosophy of Education was published in 1925 as a standalone work. It was not considered to be a part of the series until The Original Home Schooling Series was published in 1989.

But in 1906 Mason wasn’t thinking about the “final summary of theory and practice” we now know of as volume 6.[1] Rather, she was thinking of all the pages left on the cutting room floor after revising volumes 1 and 2 for inclusion in her magnum opus, The Home Education Series. In the preface to volume 5, she explained:

In editing Home Education and Parents and Children for the ‘Home Education’ Series, the introduction of much new matter made it necessary to transfer a considerable part of the contents of those two members of the series to this volume, Some Studies in the Formation of Character.[2]

When she said that “a considerable part” of the first two volumes were moved to volume 5, it was no exaggeration. Indeed, nearly 40% of the original Parents and Children became part of Formation of Character. But some of the material in volume 5 was new. As Mason explained in a review of her own new book in The Parents’ Review:

Carlyle, Jörn Uhl, Gœthe at “School,” Pendennis of Boniface, and “Young Crossjay,” are among the “studies in the evolution of character” in Part IV. This volume will, it is hoped, be of use to parents and teachers who aim at helping children to get the better of some particular failing likely to stand in the way of a successful and happy life.[3]

The remarkable fact about volume 5 is that it contains material that Mason wrote across two decades from 1886 to 1906. The modern reader can easily miss this fact and assume that Mason wrote the book cover-to-cover after completing volume 4, or that the book specifically showcases Mason’s later thought. It is easy to make this mistake because Mason was so consistent in her ideas across the decades — so much so that it can be difficult to discern from internal evidence alone when Mason wrote a particular paragraph or chapter.

Mason unveiled her theory of education in a series of lectures in the winter of 1885–1886. The eight lectures were published in 1886 as Home Education. But when Home Education was revised for the Home Education Series, the final two lectures were removed; they found a new home as Part III of Formation of Character (pp. 175–269). I personally think this made volume 1 much stronger because now it ends with the profound and transcendent lecture on the divine life in the child.

After wrapping up her eight lectures in 1886, Mason continued to explore the ramifications of her theory. But she didn’t have a monthly journal to share these ideas until she launched The Parents’ Review in 1890. Prior to that, her platform of choice was apparently Murray’s Magazine, which published three of her articles in 1889.

The March issue included the article “Spoilt Lives” (pp. 349–364). It told of the affliction and recovery of “Poor Mrs. Jumeau,” a fictional character who found a permanent home in Formation of Character, Part I, chapter 8.

Then in the May issue, Mason told the story of the formation of the Parents’ Educational Union. She entitled the two-part article “A-B-C Darians” (pp. 672–683). It is not lost to us because Mason brought it to Formation of Character. The first portion of the article (pp. 672–678) became Chapter I of Part II, under the title “What a Salvage!” The second portion, aptly named “Second Evening’s Discussion” (pp. 679–683) became Chapter III, entitled “The A-B-C-Darians.”

Finally, the June issue contained a unique piece entitled “The Education of the Future” (pp. 845–855). In the tradition of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, published the year before in 1888, Mason presented her vision of a future utopia. She chose the year 1990, instead of Bellamy’s 2000; her event is a dinner discussion on September 10, 1990. I have tried to determine the significance of that particular date, but I am stymied by the fact that the article was published in 1889 — before the 1890 date the dinner was commemorating. I also can find no symbolism in the names of the characters. Nevertheless, it is one of my favorite chapters in the Home Education Series.

Although I am not aware of any significance of the September date in 1890, February of 1890 was an important month. That was the month that the first issue of The Parents’ Review was published. Mason no longer had to rely on Murray’s Magazine or other periodicals to disseminate her ideas. That first issue contained an article by Mason called “Ability” (pp. 62–68) which told the story of boy named Fred who had a problem with forgetfulness. Until mother and doctor found that habit was the cure.

“Ability” was the first in a series of eight stories about habit that Mason published in The Parents’ Review, culminating with “The Philosopher at Home” in September of 1892. These eight early stories, along with the story of “Poor Mrs. Jumeau,” were reprinted in “Book II” of the first edition of Parents and Children in 1897 under the heading “Essays in Practical Education.” But when volume 2 was streamlined in 1904 (to the version we have today), those stories were taken out. They found their final home as Part I of Formation of Character (“Some Studies in Treatment”).

The first volume of The Parents’ Review from 1890 supplied other material for Formation of Character. A paragraph from the first (p. 3) and fifth (p. 322) issues were each inserted into the section of Part II entitled “Home Culture—Books.” The third Parents’ Review issue (April 1890) opened with an editorial including some of Mason’s reflections on Bible teaching and the Old Testament. Two of its pages (pp. 163–164) were seamlessly embedded in Chapter IV of Part II. And then the entire Chapter II of Part II, “Where Shall We Go This Year?”, was taken directly from the opening editorial of the July 1890 issue (pp. 401–404).

A recurring feature of The Parents’ Review over the years was its “Books” section. There Miss Mason offered her own brief reviews of new publications that she thought would be of interest to her readers. She apparently decided that some of these book reviews were so important that they should be included in the Home Education Series. Twelve out of the dozens of reviews published between 1892 and 1903 were selected and incorporated as the appendix of Formation of Character. In a footnote, Mason explained this decision:

It is with diffidence that the writer ventures to reprint anything so fugitive as these short notices of books, which have appeared from time to time in the Parents’ Review. On the other hand, it may be well to keep certain useful books more permanently in mind, and also, each notice gives an opportunity to bring out, often in the author’s words, some instruction of value.[4]

In late 1902, Mason composed a weighty article for The Parents’ Review in the form of a story to elaborate her view of Bible teaching. Entitled “Die neue Zeit bedarf der neuen Schule: A Schoolmaster’s Reverie,”[5] it expanded on and reinforced the concepts she introduced in her 1890 editorial. It then became the core of Chapter IV of Part II.

The following year saw the publication of Mason’s “In Memoriam: Thomas Godolphin Rooper.”[6] This heartfelt tribute in The Parents’ Review became the closing chapter of Formation of Character, wrapping up Part IV and directly preceding the appendix.

The remainder of Part IV was apparently new material for Formation of Character. The chapters in this section are unique across all of Mason’s writings in that they alone contain detailed expositions of various works of literature to show how they relate to her philosophy of education. I find it interesting that Mason gave a caveat about this section, especially since it was the only all-new material for volume 5:

I am diffident about offering Part IV. of this volume, because, though the public is wonderfully patient with writers who ‘adorn the tale,’—half the books we read are about other books,—I am not sure of equal forbearance towards an attempt to ‘point the moral.’[7]

As far as I can tell, these wonderful expositions were never featured elsewhere in Mason’s writings, although her chapter featuring Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (“Two Peasant Boys”[8]) has an interesting twist. On April 28, 1902, a “Literary Evening” was held at the House of Education. Ellen Parish, one of Mason’s star pupils, read her original paper entitled, “The ‘Relating’ of Diogenes Teufelsdröckh.” (After Mason’s death, Parish became the principal of the House of Education.)

Parish’s paper focused on Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, in which Diogenes is the main character. The paper was published in the June 1902 Parents’ Review and spanned an impressive sixteen pages of the journal.[9] Although Mason never cited Parish in Formation of Character, it seems likely to me that Parish’s paper inspired (if not guided) Mason’s treatment of the Diogenes of Sartor Resartus across pages 279–298 of volume 5. After all, both Parish and Mason quoted some of the same passages of Carlyle’s massive 500+ page book. One passage in particular that has always struck me was quoted by Parish before it appeared in Mason’s fifth volume:

Andreas too attended Church; yet more like a parade-duty, for which he in the other world expected pay with arrears,—as, I trust, he has received; but my Mother, with a true woman’s heart, and fine though uncultivated sense, was in the strictest acceptation Religious.[10]

After Carlyle, Mason moved on to Goethe. Despite her diffidence about “Part IV. of this volume,” the words she was writing were apparently burning in her heart as Formation of Character was going to press. In the September 1906 issue of The Parents’ Review, she included an excerpt from the Goethe chapter (although as far as I can tell, she did not state that it was taken from her new release). Entitled “The Effect of Bible Knowledge on a Child,” it is essentially subchapter X of “A Genius at ‘School.’” I remember discovering this article at the Armitt Museum and hastily photographing its pages, only to realize later that the words had been in my pink volumes all along.

The 87-page chapter about Goethe impacted me profoundly. It formed a major section of my paper on “Charlotte Mason’s Call to Parents” which I first presented in June of 2014. In my talk, I suggested that this extended treatment of a homeschooling father was so valuable that it could be published as a separate book.

Volume 5 has always been especially important to me. I recall that one year I participated in a Q&A panel at a Charlotte Mason conference. After the session ended, another panelist pointed out to me that in every answer I gave, I shared a quote or insight from Formation of Character.

My affection for volume 5 is something I have in common with Elsie Kitching. Kitching was Mason’s most trusted assistant who became the editor of The Parents’ Review and the head of the Parents’ Union School after Mason’s death. In the mid-1930s, Kitching was involved in the development of a pamphlet which was apparently an updated synopsis of Mason’s philosophy of education. The pamphlet seems to have included several references to Formation of Character.

The archives at the Armitt Museum include a letter that is not found in the digital collection. The letter is from Henrietta Franklin, Organising Secretary of the PNEU, to Elsie Kitching. It is dated February 18, 1935 and is very critical of Kitching’s new pamphlet. The letter first challenges Kitching’s authority to produce such a paper on behalf of PNEU. But then it goes on to present this shocking attack:

To the greater part of this pamphlet, if I had been asked, I should have agreed, but there are passages that positively disturb me. It is not to the glory of Miss Mason that we should once again emphasise the volume, “Some Studies in the Formation of Character,”—written at odd moments. She was never very proud of it and, with the exception of, “He has a temper” all of it should be buried — in my opinion — in oblivion. It is contrary to modern scientific thought and Miss Mason was always up-to-date.[11]

I have not seen the disputed pamphlet, nor have I seen Kitching’s reply to this harsh rejection of Mason’s fifth volume. However, I can guess how Kitching replied based on a letter she had sent to Franklin fourteen months earlier. On November 20, 1933, she had written:

We believe that what will ultimately survive all changes and chances will be her philosophy, and our danger at the present moment is the limiting of it to fit current conditions of thought and practice of life generally, that of “schooling” in particular.[12]

In 1935 Mrs. Franklin, then head of the PNEU, asserted that Mason’s Formation of Character was already “contrary to modern scientific thought.” But Kitching had anticipated this objection and in 1933 she took her own stance on faith. “We believe,” she wrote. The problem, she said, with adapting Mason’s thought to the latest scientific research is that we risk losing the heart and soul of the method itself.

I think the entire Charlotte Mason community needs to take a step back and consider this exchange. Whose camp are you in? Do you agree with Mrs. Franklin, that since Mason herself was “always up-to-date,” we should follow her example and bury “in oblivion” all elements of her thought that appear to contradict modern research? Or do you agree with Miss Kitching, that Mason’s philosophy “will ultimately survive all changes and chances”? In a time when Mason’s method is being redefined and reinterpreted by leading Charlotte Mason organizations, no question is more relevant.

In the Idyll Challenge, discussions about Formation of Character have been heated. I have listened patiently as men and women have challenged the so-called insensitivity of Mason in Part I. “She just doesn’t get it,” they have said. She doesn’t “get” depression and mental health issues. A favorite target is “Poor Mrs. Jumeau.” Just by changing her thoughts, she can cure her problem and get out of bed? Ridiculous!

And yet in the Idyll Challenge I hear other voices. A participant shared with me a podcast featuring Johann Hari. In it Hari explains how “recognized symptom pools” prompt certain psychosomatic behaviors. My friend and I saw how Hari’s words justified Mason’s treatment of poor Mrs. Jumeau. It is one example of many. Every month and every year brings more scientific confirmation of neuroplasticity. Confirmation that Mason was right.

There is a choice which every follower of Miss Mason must make. Do we keep reading Formation of Character or do we throw it away? But if we do throw it away as Mrs. Franklin advised, what next? Should we throw away habit formation? Dictation? Picture study? Because Miss Mason just didn’t “get” it?

That’s not what I choose. I have the faith of Miss Kitching. And I am not alone. A Charlotte Mason interpreter with whom I often disagree once wrote something that struck me. Speaking of volume 5, she wrote, “But really it’s my favorite volume because of the wealth of wisdom which is found here and no where else in the series.”[13] I am glad we found some common ground. Volume 5 is unique. And in my view, it is timeless.

In the spirit of Elsie Kitching’s faith, the Charlotte Mason Poetry transcription team has made a new version of volume 5 available to the world. As with our editions of Home Education, Parents and Children, School Education, and Ourselves, this new edition of Formation of Character features several unique characteristics:

1. It is designed first and foremost for online viewing. Page numbers are consistent with contemporary published versions but are inserted inline with the text so as not to interrupt the reader. This allows the best in readability while still making it possible to share with others what page you are on.

2. It contains no editorial additions or clarifications. You only see what Charlotte Mason herself approved. Everything was transcribed directly from editions published in Mason’s lifetime.

3. It contains everything: All the front matter, the table of contents, and the appendix; everything that greeted the historical reader of these volumes.

4. It was developed using the Charlotte Mason Poetry transcription process which has proven to result in very high-quality transcriptions with very few errors. We wanted to create a text that you could copy and paste with confidence.

5. It incorporates the formatting of the original edition. This includes typeface alterations such as bold, italics, and small-caps. It also includes indentation and line spacing to match the original as closely as possible. Why did we follow this formatting so carefully? Because just as facial expression accompanies the spoken word and gives it shades of meaning, so do typeface customizations deliver a shade of meaning to the written word. Now you can see a transcribed version that has the formatting attributes that consistently match the original.

6. It supports direct hyperlinks to individual pages. Now you can email a friend or post in social media with a link to the exact page where you found a particular quote. Simply append the page number to the URL. For example, to share a link to page 340, append #p340 to the URL as follows:

7. It is absolutely free. By that we mean it is free for you to use in any way you want, with no strings attached. What do we mean by that? We mean that you can translate it, print it, and even publish it commercially. The text is our gift for the community. Charlotte Mason Poetry is a labor of love. Our goal is to promote Charlotte Mason’s ideas. And we hope that an absolutely free edition of Formation of Character will go a long way to getting these words and ideas into the hands of more people.

If you agree with Kitching that Mason’s ideas will survive, read Formation of Character at this link:


[1] The Parents’ Review, vol. 39, p. 525.

[2] Formation of Character, p. xvii.

[3] The Parents’ Review, vol. 18 p. 70.

[4] Formation of Character, p. 431.

[5] The Parents’ Review, vol. 13, pp. 928–934.

[6] The Parents’ Review, vol. 14, pp. 481–488.

[7] Formation of Character, p. xviii-xix.

[8] Formation of Character, p. 273.

[9] The Parents’ Review, vol. 13, pp. 425–440.

[10] The Parents’ Review, vol. 13, p. 432; compare to Formation of Character p. 287.

[11] Letter from Henrietta Franklin to Elsie Kitching, dated February 18, 1935. Item i6p2cmc266 in the Charlotte Mason archive. See also item i7cmc266.

[12] Letter from Elsie Kitching to Henrietta Franklin, dated November 20, 1933. Item i2p5cmc266 in the Charlotte Mason archive.


2 Replies to “The Story of Formation of Character”

  1. This was fascinating and really colored all the volumes and Miss Mason as the professional she was. It’s so important to see the discrepancies of thought even in Miss Mason’s time. We are all human and the process of learning, knowing and deciding is imperfect but these working out of ideas is so important. Thank you Art.

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