A Clash of Sentimentalists

A Clash of Sentimentalists  (1903) 
by Alice Duer Miller
From Scribner's Magazine, Jan 1903

We may as well face the truth; you do not want the best. Either you are one of those who love women for their pettiness and failings (which you sum up in the one offensive word "femininity", and this is the attitude that puts women in the harem), or else you ask only that a woman should present no characteristics, good or bad, so that you may wrap her about in your own idealization, ...


By Alice Duer Miller


DEAR SYDNEY: I shall not expect you to be—after the received formula—delighted to hear of my engagement. Nevertheless, I write first to you. I am going to marry Hubert Frost. "What!" you will say, "Frost's Pure, Perfect, Refreshing Ginger Ale?" You will be quite right. It is, I am proud to say, the same (not his father nor his grandfather, who were both small farmers, not too successful, from up the State). He made his money, and a great deal of it, himself. And yet, though I am tolerably mercenary, this has nothing to do with my acceptance of him. I am marrying him because he is a man. And after all the involutions of subtlety and good taste through which I have followed most of my acquaintance, simple, robust masculinity appeals to me. You will, I think, understand when you see him. Lydia.

P. S.—Come to see us, but not for two weeks. I am going to stay with his mother at Sciossett, N. Y.


But are we so sure, after all, my dear girl, that I am not glad to hear of your engagement? If you won't be mine, why not be somebody else's? This is a point of view I actually arrive at in strongly reasonable moments. Besides, even when I was urging my own mediocre suit upon you, I was acutely conscious of interfering with your fitting rôle, which is, I take it, that of a prosperous young married woman, unless, possibly, that of an independent widow. (Perish the dangerous fantasy!)

As for Hubert Frost, whom your engaging egotism seems to suggest you have discovered, he is well-known among men as a capital fellow—a good man and a good business man. I congratulate you sincerely. Leave me, however, the mild gratification of believing that there are some aspects of your nature which he will never see; some of your more potent charms that will go whizzing clean over his head; in short, that he will never understand you as I have done, and will probably on that very account be a much better companion for you.

And this, I take it, is an extremely creditable letter from a man who is still just as absurdly in love with you as ever.

S. T.


Dear Hubert: I verily believe that you had so little respect for my judgment as to doubt whether I should know a really great lady when I saw her, just because she had been the daughter and the wife of a farmer. Your mother and I are very happy together in spite of your absence. The only drawback to my enjoyment is my recognition of the fact that it is so much less to your credit to be so nice a man, since you have had so delightful a mother. "My dear," she has just said to me, "I am so glad to see you do everything to make yourself as pretty as nature intends you to be. I don't regret having had to work hard throughout my youth, but I am sorry I never wasted any time on my looks." She told me, what I could easily believe, that she had been thought a great beauty—"Before my marriage," she added. And yet how young she was! Nineteen when you were born! When I think of the women in New York, older than your mother and without her profile, who are on terms of intimate equality with the season debutantes!

To-morrow we drive out to the old farm, to which, I see, your mother's heart still yearns. She showed me a photograph of you at two, lying on top of a haycart, elegantly attired in an enormous straw hat.

As for Sciossett itself, it may be, as you say, an excellent investment as far as real estate is concerned, but I should be sorry to pass my days there. It contains nothing old enough to be dignified, nor new enough to be smart.

Of its inhabitants I have seen little; of Mrs. Stiles nothing at all, although I have waited with breathless interest for some mention of her name. That night by the sea, when you first told me about her, will always remain one of the most important in my life, more so, I think, than even the occasion on which you first asked me to marry you. You see I had never, with what someone has called my engaging egotism, thought that, while I was examining myself truly whether I cared for you enough, you had the high standard of your former love with which to compare your feeling for me. I always think the bond between two women who have both loved the same man a singularly close one. She and I out of all the world have had this thing in common, and yet we have not as much as seen each other. I look to her to present to me all that you were, and she, to me to show all that you have become. I cannot help envying her a little for having been your first romance, "Youth's vision thus made perfect," nor despising her a good deal for having at the last preferred a, I am sure, wholly inferior Stiles. I hate her for having hurt you, and love her for having, as you say, helped you in the right direction. Except for a certain worldly wisdom, I'm afraid I have no qualities that will help you in any way, so it is fortunate that I am quite content with you exactly as you are.


My Dearest Lydia: How can I thank you for a letter that has made me very happy. I never doubted that you would appreciate my mother, but the thing that has been a special pleasure to me was your expression about Winnefred Stiles. Although I shall never see her again if I can avoid such a meeting, I can think of nothing in this world which I could more earnestly desire than a friendship between you and her. However grateful I might feel, therefore, I should deeply deplore too great resentment on your part of the pain she has caused me in the past. How much I have suffered you only perhaps understand, because you only have consoled me. Nevertheless, remember that I brought it on myself by insisting that she should enter into an engagement with me, when I should have known that I was too much her inferior in every way to make its consummation possible. I have, too, to thank her courage and clearsightedness for sparing as much pain as could be spared. That you should have to envy anyone hurts me. I would to God I could bring you the first love of my youth, for surely you deserve all a man's best. Still, you realize that if my heart has suffered one total ship-wreck, it is now entirely your own.

H. F.


Ever since you went away this morning, dear Hubert, I have been thinking over our conversation of Sunday. Don't ever fancy I do not know how painful it is to you to go over all the story again, nor that I am not abjectly grateful to you for withholding nothing. Ah, dear, if only it had been I! If I had only met you first, I could have made you really happy!

I have been tormented all day by the knowledge that I have not treated you with a like generosity. You have been so open about the past that it is inexcusable in me to have been silent about the present. Yet even with the best intentions in the world, I find some difficulty in finding the exact words, the precise shade of meaning to express the situation. There is a man who is, shall I say, important to me. At first I felt that, as I had refused to marry him before I ever met you, I was justified in not mentioning the incident, although I still see and like to see him. Now, of course, I understand that no such incident is ever wholly past, and that it is always monstrously important. With this man, dear Hubert, I am not in love, yet there is a side of me, a little bit of my nature, that will always pine for his society—just that little bit precisely that you haven't had time to take in as yet. I am not in love with him, yet the moment when I see him in love with someone else will be disagreeable. And rest assured he is a man I might be proud to care for—a gentleman, a man of the world. He has been and always will be an element in my life. That's all. Not very much, you will see, but I could not rest while I felt I had been second to you up honesty.

I wish you and Saturday were here once more.



O, Hubert, how can I write to you! How have you deceived me, or must I say allowed me to deceive myself! I have seen your Winnefred, O, how appropriately Mrs. Stiles! Is this the woman for whom your past passion so shook me that evening on the rocks? Is this the woman to whom five years ago you were engaged, and for whom to-day I am barely able to console you, the woman whom I am fancying as so noble, or at least so dazzling a creature, that I might be proud to be her successor-—this crystallization of everything in you which I have most tried to ignore!

I need not tell you I should not write like this if I felt that anything further between us were possible, but it is not. You know I have been waiting patiently all this time for you to get round to appreciating my better qualities. I see now that if ever you should be so unfortunate as to discover them they would hopelessly alienate you. We may as well face the truth; you do not want the best. For this is what your Winnefred has shown me. Either you are one of those who love women for their pettiness and failings (which you sum up in the one offensive word "femininity", and this is the attitude that puts women in the harem), or else you ask only that a woman should present no characteristics, good or bad, so that you may wrap her about in your own idealization, and this is the attitude that renders love after marriage impossible. To one of these alternatives, it seems to me, the thoroughly commonplace, trivial, selfish little woman whom I have just seen and whom you have so worshipped, must commit you. Either one would make me unhappy as your wife, and let me say, as a dispassionate outsider, neither is a point of view which commands my respect.

This you will say is not a kind letter. I do not feel kind—the situation scarcely admits of kindness. I have put myself in a painful and ridiculous position by deliberately blinding myself to the obvious fact that you and I are as far apart as the poles.

You may wonder that under the circumstances I do not at once leave your mother's house. She has asked some people to meet me at luncheon on Friday, and I could not go before then without entering into a full explanation, which I do not wish to do until I have seen you. I assume you will wish to see me, although it would be easier for both of us if you didn't. I return to town on Friday afternoon, and shall expect you about six-thirty



My dear Love: I don't believe you have any idea what a dreadful night your letter has given me, or you would not have been so cruel. This morning, however, I think I see things in a little juster proportion. Of course I am sorry and disappointed that you and Winnefred did not hit it off a little better, but it isn't possible, is it, dear, that a woman who at the present moment does not enter in the smallest way into my life should be able to make any real difference between us? Last night your position seemed inexplicable, but this morning I think I am right in believing that my Dear Lady Disdain has paid me the compliment of being a little bit jealous of me. Dear, is not this a little ungenerous, considering how uncomplainingly I have borbe your revelation of another influence than my own? Second thoughts have probably already shown you that you have no occasion to be jealous of Winnefred, although, indeed, I love you all the better for wanting to be reassured. I cannot, even for you, belittle my past love for her. While it lasted it was the deepest, most acute experience of my life, but it is absolutely over. This I am sure you do not seriously doubt.

In short, dearest, you have my full permission to be as jealous as you please every day in the week when we are together, but never, I pray you, again write me such a letter, when I must wait two days before I can see you and straighten things out. Another time I might not understand so well.



Understand! My dear Hubert, you understand just about as well as you do cuneiform inscriptions! If my disposition were a better one I should weep. As it is I can only smile hatefully. And "jealous!" If I only could be! It is, I had almost said, what I had hoped. One is jealous of one's peers, but now— If I deplored a taste on your part for caraway-seeds, you would not call me jealous. (To avoid misconceptions, let me say that I do not accuse you of this weakness.) Don't you see I could have followed gladly in the wake of an Empress, but to be the successor of a Mrs. Stiles, to bind up the wounds made by the mother of a Frankie! (He was brought to see me and is, I take it, the most disagreeable child of his age extant.) Heavens, shall I ever forget my feelings as I first saw her, settled heavily in the corner of the sofa, staring about her with those fierce, round, unintelligent eyes of hers? Her clothes, which it would be spiteful to describe and impossible to forget! These things you will quite justly say are trivial; but what is not trivial is that her mind never wandered from herself and her own importance, with which she at once attempted to impress me, gradually revealing the greatness of her position—yes, even of her income, and the selectness of Frankie's kindergarten. She hated me for living in New York and, as her inordinate vanity suggested, looking down on her on that account. When, recognizing this alarm, I spoke of the pleasure of my visit, she intimated with more relish than delicacy that I was scarcely in a position to speak of the inner circles of Sciossett society, and rejoiced inwardly to have been able to say as much to a bloated metropolitan. I don't know why I write like this, why I attempt to break the ideal figure from whose contemplation I am about to withdraw. You will only lament again that we did not "hit it off" (though, believe me, she enjoyed herself hugely). Criticism is so useless, with a person like yourself. For you are among those who, when accident has caused your affection to adhere, when chance has picked out a subject for idealization, care so little for truth as to call all criticism abuse.

You speak of not belittling your past feeling, "even for me." don't you see, my dear Hubert, that is the last thing in the world that I should want you to do—that indeed the quantity of your feeling for her is the only thing that now remains to my liking: the quality, since I have seen her, I but too readily recognize. It is not of a sort that I value in the original, and the second brew, which you offer me, I will have none of.

I am writing this on the train, so that you may get it at your Club, and be spared the pain of coming under a misconception of the exact position of affairs.



Dear Sydney: If you should hear any misinformed persons wondering whether I am really engaged to Hubert Frost, you have my authority to say that the rumor is without foundation. Nobody knows why my engagement is broken but myself, not even Hubert, though I have spent two hours and not a little letter paper trying to explain. My family have arrived at, and are now trying to conceal their opinion that I couldn't stand his relations. Than this nothing could be more untrue. I should be proud to be his mother's daughter-in-law. You, perhaps only, out of all my acquaintance, would thoroughly understand my motives; and you, I shall never tell. Nevertheless, you might come to see me this afternoon, that we may together deplore the over-subtlety that we have contrived to cultivate in each other.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1942, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 75 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.