Laura's First Composition

Funky ornament found in one of Charlotte Mason's boxes at the Armitt in Ambleside

It is always interesting to come across descriptions of schools and learning in the past.  Here is the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder's first composition!  It's from These Happy Golden Years (p. 96-98.)  I can imagine  how her unhurried upbringing, love and attention to the natural world,  limited but quality reading, and numerous recitations probably helped her in this area. Oh, please note that she is 15 and has never had a composition lesson. (And doesn't her composition sound like something straight out of Ourselves by Charlotte Mason?)


Then the girls began to talk about their compositions, and Laura discovered that Mr. Owen had told the grammar class to write, for that day's lesson, a composition on "Ambition."...Laura was in a panic. She had never written a composition, and now she must do in a few minutes what the others had been working at since yesterday...She found herself staring at the yellow leather cover of the dictionary on its stand by Mr. Owen's desk. Perhaps, she thought, she might get an idea from reading the definition of ambition. Her fingers were chilly as she hurriedly turned the A pages, but the definition was interesting..At last Mr. Owen said, "Laura Ingalls," and all the class rustled as everyone looked at her expectantly. Laura stood up, and made herself read aloud what she had written.  It was the best that she had been able to do.

Ambition is necessary to accomplishment.  Without an ambition to gain an end, nothing would be done.  Without an ambition to excel others and to surpass one's self there would be no superior merit.  To win anything, we must have the ambition to do so.

Ambition is a good servant but a bad master.  So long as we control our ambition, it is good, but if there is danger or our being ruled by it, then I should say in the words of Shakespeare, "Cromwell, I charge thee, fling away ambition.  By that sin fell the angels."  Act III, scene 2, King Henry VIII

That was all. Laura stood miserably waiting for Mr. Owen's comment. He looked at her sharply and said, "You have written compositions before?"

"No, sir," Laura said. "This is my first."

"Well, you should write more of them, I would not have believed that anyone could do so well the first time," Mr. Owen told her.


That story goes along with Mason's famous quote about composition lessons:
 "Lessons on 'composition' should follow the model of that famous essay on 'Snakes in Ireland'-'There are none.' "(Vol. 1, p. 247)

I look forward to Sandy Rusby Bell's thoughts on this that she will be sharing at the Living Education Retreat.  Meanwhile, there are some informative posts at The Common Room about how Mason went about her very comprehensive plan for teaching composition. 


-HT to Alison for bringing that passage to my attention long ago!


  1. Those of us in Southern Ontario can hear Sandy's talk this weekend at the K-W Home Educators' Conference. :-)

  2. PS - That ornament is very interesting!!! :D Also, I had a sharp shooting pain at the mention of LER. :) Can't wait to hear more about the sessions you will be having this year!

  3. That is a great ornament! Like always, thank you for sharing Nancy!

  4. We just finished listening to These Happy Golden Years last week, and I too was so struck by this passage. It is a testament to the power of content- rather than skills-based learning, I think. I was also amazed by the students' ability to do long, complicated (and I mean complicated!) sums mentally--the power of visualization!

  5. Nancy, I just poked around last night in all your Shakespeare posts. So helpful. Thanks.

  6. Thank you for writing this up. How good to know that what we are doing is not 'new' or 'untried' but very much 'the old ways'.