Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/Starving gentility


The attention of the public has recently been called to the distresses incident to unmarried women of gentle birth and refined habits, but whom circumstances have left dependent on their own exertions. The public was reluctantly surprised—as it usually is when grievances are indicated wherewith it is so familiarised as to be insensible of them—but the public was also interested; for the painful narrative had a personal application to the auditors, many of whom vaguely apprehended the like future contingency for their relatives, and pondered how it might be averted.

That in this wealthy land so large a proportion of those claiming our tenderness should remain in enforced celibacy; that they should with such difficulty earn distressful bread; that by social usage all employ should be closed to them except tuition—and that that should involve personal humiliation and exhausting labour that would not patiently be submitted to by a kitchen drudge—is a bitter sarcasm on our civilisation that may partially account for the pale phantoms that haunt the steps and sadden the heart of a thoughtful observer in our cities.

The impression produced by these sad revelations augurs favourably for the abolition of this wrong. And, as this is not to be effected by indolent or ostentatious subscriptions to Governesses’ Institutions, but by earnest personal effort, some remarks may be permitted on the objectionable peculiarities of the social system whence it has arisen. For, after making all reasonable allowance for contingencies beyond man’s control, for the scanty incomes of many of the middle class, and the frequent difficulty of adequately providing for a family, yet, that the death of the parent should so often entail utter destitution on the delicate daughters, argues error in the social system much more than in the individual.

Such is the artificiality of our society, and the tyrannous pressure of public opinion, that, on pain of ostracism and ruinous loss of social position, a gentleman is enforced to conform to the habits of his immediate circle, and to regulate his expenditure by an arbitrary standard rather than by his own taste or means. Though neither needing nor admiring the fripperies of Vanity Fair, he must exchange his peace and comfort for them, in the struggle for decorous appearances. The calm enjoyments of home must be sacrificed to a society neither loved nor esteemed; his family must practise painful economies that he may give ostentatious entertainments, which Mrs. Grundy accepts to spy out accidental deficiencies or to institute envious comparisons, and whence Smith, Brown, and Robinson retire to inveigh against the extravagance and exaggerate the liabilities of their host. Did they not involve such present suffering and ultimate evil, how laughable would be the petty economies, meannesses, trickeries, and obliquities of genteel life, simulating affluence, and sillily endeavouring to deceive the sharp-sighted world that will not be deceived! However averse he may once have been, yet, insensibly ceding to example and other influences, Paterfamilias ends in approving a system from which he is too weak to disenthral himself, speaks with dignity of his duty to society, inculcates that duty on those around him, and, though occasionally, when called on to pay for flimsy millinery and gew-gaws, he vents a sarcasm on feminine vanity, yet he feels a secret pride in the beauty and fashion of his family, and firmly resolves that it shall not be eclipsed. Thus he satisfies his personal vanity and, dying unexpectedly—as most men die—leaves his destitute daughters to the barren and insulting pity of those who had always foreseen such an issue.

Had Paterfamilias given to his daughters the education that would have qualified them for domestic life, or the solitary struggle with the world, his improvidence and deference to usage would partially have been atoned. But, indifferent to the development of the latent beauty and power of their hearts or intellects, he has been solicitous only about appearances and artificial refinement, preferring that, like courtesans, they should attract insolent admiration rather than manly esteem. Their youth has been occupied in frivolous acquirements of no practical value: without reference to their respective tastes or capacities, all have pursued the same silly routine, and attained to a certain mechanical skill in music or drawing, a superficial knowledge of continental tongues—the key to treasures whereof they seldom avail themselves—and some aptitude at embroidery, Berlin-wool, and such like aids to ingenious indolence. To the homely pursuits of their grandmothers, the chief object of which was the comfort and happiness of home, they are scornfully indifferent.

Nurtured in conventionalities, concealments, simulations, and meretricious arts, and taught to esteem a wealthy marriage the object of her existence, it is surprising that the English maiden preserves her loving heart and ingenuous nature; and, considering her inexperience and ignorance of the harsh realities of life, that, when married, she should so earnestly devote herself to her new duties, and struggle with such sweet patience against difficulties hitherto unknown, is an evidence of the angelic element in woman’s nature that demands our tenderest admiration.

But the middle class is specially distinguished by its undue proportion of unmarried women, and this celibacy involves consequences unknown elsewhere. As it seldom originates in lack of means in the instances occurring in the aristocracy or the labouring classes, so neither does it necessarily entail impoverishment or loneliness, and a life without sympathy. It is otherwise with the middle class. Sons may shift for themselves—they have muscle and energy—but what becomes of unmarried daughters, thrown on their own resources? Miss Parkes informs us.

As all possible contingencies and conditions of life are susceptible of calculation, statistics may be called in to aid our inquiry. From these it appears that, in England and Wales, of those between the ages of twenty and forty, 41 per cent, of the women are spinsters, while 30 per cent, of the men are bachelors, showing a remarkable preponderance of celibacy among the fair sex. No returns show the distribution of this sisterhood among the different classes of society, but the personal experience of each will suffice to indicate it. From the returns available, the probabilities of marriage of a maiden at twenty are slightly superior to those of a bachelor, and incomparably greater than those of a widow of the same age:—but, with the lapse of years, these ratios change; the probabilities of marriage at thirty-five being, for a bachelor, one to twenty-seven; for a spinster, one to thirty-five; and for a widow, one to five—the attractions of the widow standing to those of the spinster in the surprising relation of five to one—or, perchance, that number mystically representing her comparative readiness to matrimony. Thus the chance of finding happiness and a home diminishes with years.

The growing disposition to celibacy among young men of this class, though in some measure attributable to a selfish and luxurious cynicism, is chiefly due to the irrational expenditure consequent on marriage, and the unattractiveness of prospective association with women so unlikely from their artificial habits to yield domestic happiness. If this celibacy frequently defeats the economical considerations deciding to it (as it should), and ends in much immorality and unhappiness among men, how immeasurably evil must be its influence on the other sex; and what a violation of natural law must that social organisation be which so harshly represses the affections, and bereaves so large a class of the support and sympathy they are entitled to from man! Is the Rajpoot pride that slays a female infant, lest in after-life it should dishonour its parentage by a plebeian marriage, more cruel than the selfish social system that devotes it to a solitary and weary life of penury and regrets?

When death has deprived her of her natural protectors, what can a girl of gentle birth, delicately nurtured, as sensitive to a slight as to physical inconvenience, do for support? As a drowning wretch catches desperately at flimsiest straws, so does she cling to her accomplishments, and under all endurances is punctilious about her gentility, in a way that would be ludicrous were it not so sad. Usually she resorts to tuition, and tries to impart to others the fragmentary knowledge she possesses,—being an object of envious dislike to ladies’ maids, and treated by her employers often with a cruel superciliousness. An attempt to sell her drawings will, in most cases, convince her of her deficiencies. Embroidery and fancy-work are as poorly paid for as slop-work. Yet, by such resources, do unknown thousands of faded women, fallen from affluence, exist in proud and respectable poverty, supporting on their labour some aged mother or decrepit sister;—enduring with a divine constancy on their behalf, toils and privations, unknown beyond the precincts of their crazy garret, but which the angels must contemplate with tearful approval. Positive manual labour is rarely resorted to; while from many employments that would seem specially adapted to the quick intelligence and delicate hand of woman, she is excluded by our social and commercial customs.

It may, however, be questioned whether women might not, in many cases, advantageously replace the spruce young men now effeminated by confinement to the counter. When England recently raised a foreign legion to supply the place of those engaged in such safe duties, other nations, with not unreasonable sarcasm, inquired in the words of Petrarch to his degenerate countrymen:—

Che far qui tante pellegrine spade!

enviously asserting that the martial spirit of England had decayed for ever. That such a reproach should have been incurred, may not be unconnected with this tame preference for feminine duties that disincline to manly pursuits and athletic sports.

When some years ago the public was informed that the thousand operatives of the Lowell Mills (U.S) were young women of respectable connections, who had voluntarily exchanged comfortable homes for that laborious independence, it stared at such disregard of propriety; and shook its head in grave disapprobation of factory-girls who wore silk-stockings, associated like clusters of fragrant flowers, in houses furnished with pianos and choice books—relaxed from severer labour in literary pursuits—attended scientific lectures in a Lyceum founded by themselves, and like industrious bees, as they were, had stored up 20,000l. in their own bank.

This state of things is not peculiar to Lowell, but prevails generally through the American Republic, where labour is honourable, and only vice and sloth discreditable. Wherever quick intelligence and adroitness suffice to the necessities of the case, the preference is considerately given to female industry, and it speaks volumes for American manliness that it should be so. However reluctant to domestic servitude, the American girl feels no humiliation in other labour; it involves no loss of social consideration;—it enables her to live with comfort, and to enjoy many refined pleasures, and is no bar to her forming a respectable connection. Some adopt this means of freeing their family from pecuniary embarrassment or the patrimonial farm from mortgage; some to afford to a brother the advantages of a collage education; some to bring dowry to their toiling suitors, and others simply from an honorable pride. Nor are any of these girls, in after life, so weak as to conceal or be ashamed of having, at one time, supported themselves by their own labour; nor are instances unfrequent of their marrying men of eminence in a land where respectable men are not snobbishly ashamed of honourable exertion, and where such statesmen as Daniel Webster, like Cincinnatus, frequently guide the plough and share the harvest labours on their own farms. In Australia, where manliness is in demand—where Crœsus is attired in a wide-a-wake hat and flannel shirt, and eyes fine dress with suspicion, women of the middle class reputably fill many offices here monopolised by the other sex. In France and Germany women are freed from ungenerous disabilities, and share the labours of the desk, warehouse, and workshop, with their fathers, husbands, and brothers, and are never subject to distresses such as engage our attention, nor does it appear that they thence become less deserving of love and esteem.

Her readiness to adopt from other nations aught that might advantageously replace her own defective institutions, was a primary element of the greatness of Rome, and England should follow the example. Since no wrong exists but to the benefit of some one, many will doubtless exclaim that a profane hand is extended towards the sacred ark, when any one interferes with those sleek proprieties and time-honoured abuses which they mistake for morality and decorum. But no progress in any direction is possible without offending some susceptibilities, while it is a cruel and weak kindness that hesitates to probe a wound; and though England is reasonably averse to harsh innovation, she is too just in intent, and wise in action, to tolerate a manifest evil if it can be safely and conveniently got rid of; while every gentleman of the middle-class, who has a wife and daughters, has a direct personal interest in its abolition. Therefore let us boldly express the conclusions to be inferred from what has been premised.

In what respect, as influencing this question, does our social polity need reform?

The education of an English gentlewoman should qualify her to provide for herself in case of isolation. To this end, with discreet estimation of individual tastes and capacities, she should acquire some art, handicraft, or business adapted to the feminine idiosyncracy and powers. Tuition requires a special training as much as any other duty, and the present pretentious and superficial state of female education is due to the multitude of inefficient teachers who thus unintentionally avenge the mean economy of parents. It is hard to say why women should not occupy the counter or the desk, provided that they are expert at accounts. Female taste and intelligence might be profitably engaged in lithography, wood-engraving, modelling, designing for manufacturers, jewellery, watch-making, and delicate metal-work of various kinds. But, that women should devote themselves to such duties, or analogous ones, public opinion must support them by affirming that labour is honourable to all; it must act as though believing it, and facilitate to them the means of labour.

Meanwhile, until the advent of that social millennium, let the woman, eager to escape from social bondage, and anxious for employment, but met everywhere by ungenerous disabilities—if she can muster 10l.—tear off these useless and encumbering rags of gentility, and emigrate to the United States. It would be preferable that she should select the western states to dwell in; but in any of the large cities she will have no difficulty in discovering and obtaining employment on application, provided her attire be decorously neat, and her address modest and unaffected. She will be liable of course to criticism; and she will find some difference between the social habits of a foreign land, and those to which she has been accustomed; but as an Englishwoman she will receive singular kindness, and she will secure all the material comforts and many of the luxuries of life—an improvement certainly on genteel destitution.

If such would be the counsel that the writer would offer to a sister whom, dying, he was about to leave friendless and poor, it becomes a duty to give it to his countrywomen at large under similar circumstances; and, having so acted—liberavit animam.

F. Morton.