Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 4/Representative women: Wives - Madame Lavalette, Lady Fanshawe, Mrs. Patton

Once a Week, Series 1, Volume IV (1860-1861)
Representative women
Wives: Madame Lavalette, Lady Fanshawe, Mrs. Patton
by Harriet Martineau

The people discussed in this article are Émilie de Beauharnais (1781–1855), Ann, Lady Fanshawe (1625–1680), and Mary Ann Brown Patten (1837–1861).

madame lavalette, lady fanshawe, mrs. patton.

It is rather amusing, and sometimes more than amusing, to an old bachelor like me, to be reminded of the widely differing doctrines, theories, notions, or professions which have been put forward in different conditions of society in England, as to the proper characteristics of a good wife. There has been some change of view even in my time. More than once within this century, society has inclined towards this, that, or the other idea of the best sort of wife, as she would be drawn in literature. It seems to me that during the war, half a century ago, men of the middle and upper classes liked a stronger tone of mind, and more activity of habits in their wives than it has of late been the fashion to admire. Some of our literary men, at least, have been trying of late years to spread among us their taste for the wife who is always at her husband’s disposal, for his amusement in the intervals of work. This is to be the criterion of her value. She is to be at all times punctual to a moment, or in waiting for his commands: she is always to be at complete leisure—not worn or anxious about the children, for whom money can purchase attendance: she is never to be too tired or anxious for perfect brightness and comeliness: she is to do no coarse or ugly work; but is to be dressed in black velvet, or something of that kind, embroidering cambric, or nothing: to be ready to play and sing, or go to the theatre, or have a capital dinner or supper set out at short notice, without disappearing from the room, or touching the domestic burden with one of her lingers: she is to appreciate and be constantly delighted with her husband’s achievements, in whatever line they may be, from completing his stock-taking to writing his tragedy, or making his great speech of the session; and, at the same time, she must not be learned, nor fond of books, nor liable to hold any opinion which she does not know her husband to entertain. This is the ideal of a wife which has been set up before our eyes with much energy and perseverance for some years past, as other images have been adored by former generations: but it may be observed still, as at any former time, that a genuine case of supreme wifely excellence overthrows all fantastical notions and exclusive doctrines, and “makes the whole world kin” by that vital “touch of nature” upon the common heart of mankind. One writer, Lady M. Wortley Montague, or Mr. Urquhart, or Mrs. Poole, or Mr. Milnes, may write accounts of Moslem wives which set society disputing about whether women had better be shut up or live under the free heaven; a cynic may praise the Mongolian wife, who is her husband’s Jack-of-all-trades and maid-of-all work; while a saint would have women walk in long gardens, among Passionflowers, and carrying each a tall white lily: but they will feel alike, and like other people, when an incident of true conjugal heroism or devotedness occurs within their ken. There may thus be representative wives, as truly as representative soldiers, or statesmen, or adventurers; that is, there is a common agreement in regarding them as a complete exemplification of the idea of their class.

I need not spend many words on the plain fact that the good wife of one state of society is very unlike that of another, in regard to the cultivation of her mind and the employment of her time. There are Irish villages, and Scotch glens, and English towns at this day where the Mahratta or Thibetan or Red Indian wife would be regarded as the model of her sex. Such a spouse carries the tent, or rides the bullock or pony, with all her children hanging about her, while her husband rides on before, in showy trim. At the resting place she pitches the tent, or excavates an apartment in the snow; lights the fires, shampooes her husband while he smokes, and then feeds and waters and shampooes his horse; cooks the meal and serves her husband with it; and then feeds the children, collects food for the animals’ next meal, perhaps catches fish, or shoots a few wildfowl, and, long after the whole family has been asleep, lies down at her husband’s feet, or in any corner where she can find a spare bit of mat, aware that she must be the first up in the morning. This Asiatic or American wife is, in a manner, the representative of a considerable number of wives now living within the United Kingdom; but we consider that method of life a remnant of barbarism, which will disappear before the advance of education; and meantime we have no particular desire that the phase should be preserved by any express representation. Wives who do all the work for lazy husbands, and bear all humiliations from despotic ones, are not model wives in the eyes of English society, though they are regarded as inestimable conveniences by individuals of the nation.

The favourite image of the wife in the imagination of the greatest number of civilised nations is perhaps that of the mediæval matron, at the opening of the age of chivalry. When we would think of a noble woman, under our own system of morals, our minds recur to the Crusader’s wife, living in her castle or mansion for years together, without tidings of her husband, commanding the domestic garrison, and superintending the cultivation of the lands, providing for the retainers, ruling the tenants, controlling the dependents, employing the household priest to write all despatches, as no one else could do it; revising and checking the accounts of the steward; keeping the purveyors, military and civil, up to their duty, that the place may always be fit for defence; and, when necessary, standing a siege, in her husband’s name, for her husband’s sake, and often with his ability and courage. It is true such an ideal, if now proposed from imagination, instead of history, would create a certain outcry. We should talk a good deal about woman’s sphere (comprehending the modern drawing-room with the half-forbidden outlying regions of the kitchen and the nursery); we should be shocked at the notion of women who looked after archers and cross-bows, and whose talk was of beeves; we might think it a bit of the wisdom of our ancestors that the priest should hold the pen; but we should be scandalised that a woman should mount a tower to look upon a battle, and order flights of arrows, and the discharge of hot stones and liquids; and perhaps we might even now—and certainly should, up to the time of the Crimean war—express disgust at the thought of a gentlewoman dressing the wounds of men. Yet, because this order of wives has existed, and been honoured and adored by our forefathers, and been exactly what the spirit and circumstances of the times required, we all agree in regarding the worthy mediæval wife as a model for all ages. There were ladies then, who were no more capable of administering the affairs of a domain than many a modern wife is of keeping her husband’s house. There were weak and spoiled women, who regularly aggravated all misfortunes by their grief and lamentations. There were fond brides, who insisted on accompanying their husbands to Palestine—just as too many of our countrywomen embarrassed our good soldiers in India during the mutiny, by choosing to go into a scene where they could be nothing but a burden and an anxiety: but the image of the noble wife of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries remains one of the loveliest pictures in the great gallery of history. During the preceding ages, women had been in a very low condition—the influence of the Church having been of a broadly ascetic character. The use of the worship of the Virgin, in the magnitude which it assumed after the celebration of the Immaculate Conception in a.d. 1134, had a strong effect on the social position of women throughout Christendom; and they soon rose to be the companions of their husbands in counsel as in recreation. Poets and novelists represent them as queens of beauty, and prizegivers at contests of arms and wit and poetry; but they were also the advisers of rulers, the partners of their husbands in serious responsibilities, and their representatives in all the actual business of life when military duty called them from home. Their powers, duties, and mode of life would no doubt be offensive to the artificial taste which calls itself refinement in our own time—and especially in a considerable portion of its literature—if the self-constituted appointers of woman’s sphere dared say what they feel: but the general sympathy with native nobleness, and the potency of moral tradition carry all before them, so that when we would praise a heroic or devoted woman in our own day, we say she is worthy of that olden time.

One great moral of the case should never be lost sight of. Women were more valuable then than ever before, from the slaughter of men. This opened to them the succession to lands and offices, over nearly all Europe. Their new dignity, authority, wealth, and independence certainly called forth unsuspected powers, intellectual and moral; and thus the world beheld the converse of the familiar case of women becoming less capable in proportion to the contempt with which they were regarded, and less worthy of honour as they were less respected. The deterioration of slaves and victims, at all times and everywhere, is as constant a result as any other effect of a known cause: and here we saw the reversed process,—of women rising in ability and character to the height of their loftier destiny.

In our own century we have seen something of this. One of the most striking things we found in France, when we obtained access to it after the war, was the ability of the women in practical life. They had succeeded to the business and the property of a host of men destroyed by the wars of the empire; and we thought them like no other women that we had ever seen for sense, shrewdness, independence, and accomplishment in the methods of business. They are so still, in another generation; and it seems to be generally true that French women of all ranks are more habitually in the confidence of their husbands, fathers, and brothers, about the business of life than women of other nations are. We might except the Americans—or some of them. At both ends of the country, the women have a character of efficiency which is very marked. In New England there are so many more women than men, that a considerable number of girls take early to some occupation by which they can live when their brothers, and those who should naturally be their husbands, go to the West. In the Slave States it is common for women to possess land and slaves; and the duty which then devolves upon them is that of administering the affairs of a small community. Some are idle and atrociously selfish: but some, also, are so able and up to their duty, that we may be sure that the material which made Crusaders’ wives exists still in abundance. Of German women, the general impression seems to be, that they are not to be surpassed as wives, while they are ill-adapted to single life. There can be no general rule in such a case; but if they are brought up with a view to marriage, it is natural that they should wander in sentiment and passion, or suffer from ennui when left without due occupation and interest. On the other hand, the capacity of devotedness in German wives is so great that the conjugal interest brings out, apparently, any sort of faculty that events may demand.

It is, after all, the devotedness that captivates us every one, in the contemplation of special conjugal cases. The devotedness is the vivifying power of the ability, and therefore greater than the ability; and it is full of sacredness and charm where the superior faculty does not exist. We could not possibly feel more than we do for the wife who would not leave her husband when he was broken on the wheel, but tended him, wiped the sweat from his face, upheld his courage, and promised him speedy relief when death was near. We could not honour her more than we do, if we knew her intellect to have been as great as her heart. Perhaps we might say that it requires a universal greatness of character and capacity to exercise so stupendous a self-control as this. But, put it as we may, it is the devotedness which occupies us wholly in thinking of that first of wives.

So it is in the case of wives who have risked their lives to save their husbands, like Madame Lavalette and many others. The one incident absorbs us, and we inquire no further than the capacity to do the deed. M. Lavalette lay under sentence of death for high treason at Paris, in 1815. His wife was in such miserable health, through her anxieties and terrors, and her efforts on his behalf, that she could hardly stand. She made this weakness available for M. Lavalette’s escape. She went to the prison in a sedan chair, and was carried without stopping to a passage within the turnkey’s department; and when she went home, she entered the chair at the same place. On the December day in 1815 which was to have been the last of her husband’s life, she went to the prison at four in the afternoon, her daughter, eleven years old, walking beside the chair. The fashion of the time, in regard to head-dress, was favourable to disguise. We do not forget the remark made when the Duchesse d’Angoulême entered the Tuileries, on the return of the Bourbons, and appeared there as the heroine of the most mournful story in all royal experience: the remark of the by-standers was,—“She wears the small bonnet!”—the small bonnet being the English mode, and the French a particularly large one. In such a large bonnet, and moreover with an ample veil, Madame Lavalette stepped out of the chair; and the turnkey supported her on one side, and her child on the other, upstairs and to the door of her husband’s apartment. She dined with her husband; and in an hour and a half from her arrival, the turnkey was summoned to assist her to her chair. The veil was down; and no doubt the man was silent from compassion. It was an hour before any one entered the prisoner’s room; and then the prisoner, wrapped in the well-known cloak, appeared to be reading by the light of a candle on the table behind him. The gaoler spoke twice, and, receiving no answer, advanced into the room, and went to the front of the prisoner. Further concealment was impossible. Madame Lavalette looked up with a smile, saying, “He is gone,” and immediately fell into convulsions. She had been full of dread of the treatment she should receive when discovered; and the solitary hour of watching and terror she had passed had been too much for an exhausted invalid. She rejoined her husband, however, beyond the frontiers of France, whence he had escaped by the agency of Sir Robert Wilson and Mr. Bruce, whose trials for the act (only half-voluntary on their part, and an act of simple benevolence), all elderly Englishmen remember.

There is no end to the true stories of the devotedness of wives of political prisoners, whether they could effect deliverance, like Madame Lavalette and Madame Kinkel, or could only mitigate, more or less, the sufferings of captivity. The sympathies of a whole generation were with the Countess Confalonieri, in her incessant struggles for her husband’s release from the atrocious inflictions of the late Emperor of Austria; and when her reason gave way, and then her life, so that she had no enjoyment of his freedom at last, her fate was felt almost as a personal sorrow by more than one nation.

Madame Kinkel’s health also gave way under the stress of terror and grief, inflicted by the late King of Prussia himself and by his too faithful servants, in their passion of alarm and wrath at the events of 1848; but she lived a few happy years with her husband in his exile before the heart-disease which she had incurred in the struggle caused her death by a fall from a window, to which she had rushed for air in a spasm. Again and again she had been told that he had only one day to live, or that he had been shot that morning; and her persistence in moving heaven and earth on his behalf was met with intolerable insolence, indifference, or cruelty. The indignity to which M. Kinkel was subjected, of being made to spend his days in spinning wool, was at length converted into a retribution on his oppressors. The yarn he had spun during the day hung from his window at night, to fetch up the implements by which he effected his escape. I believe the method of escape has never been made known. All the gaolers knew was that the bird had flown, and then that he had joined his patient and constant mate; and again, that they had made a nest for themselves in a region where the liming and snaring of the best birds of the wood is an unknown practice.

When we speak or hear of wives attending on their imprisoned husbands, all minds revert to the two wives whose interests were engaged on opposite sides during the great rebellion,—Mrs. Hutchinson and Lady Fanshawe. Lucy Hutchinson’s life is so well known by her Memoirs of her husband, that her mere name and her husband’s mention of her with his dying breath are enough. “Let her,” said he, “as she is above other women, show herself, on this occasion, a good Christian, and above the pitch of ordinary women.” She was his friend and partner in all transactions in which she could share; his deputy when two offices had to be fulfilled at once; and her superiority in judgment, knowledge, and ability was a subject of gentle and dignified exultation to him,—in striking contrast to the sense and experience of a great man at the very moment.

Milton has left us his testimony of the need that such men have of intellectual capacity and cultivation in a wife. Without it, he says, “there must come that unspeakable weariness and despair of all sociable delight which turn the blessed ordinance of God into ‘a sore evil under the sun,’ or at least to a familiar mischief, a drooping and disconsolate household,—captivity without refuge or redemption.”

Lady Fanshawe candidly tells us how she went to work to be her husband’s, Sir Richard Fanshawe’s, political comrade; or rather how she—a mere girl—was wrought upon by designing persons, to try to get at his secrets, when the fate of the Stuarts was trembling in the balance, and an indiscreet word from man or woman might possibly determine the fate of an empire. She tells us ingenuously and merrily how she pouted and sulked, and how her husband gaily and lovingly bore with her, and gave her time to recover her good sense; and then spoke a few wise and kind words of explanation of his duty to his prince which set her right for life. “So great was his reason and goodness,” she writes, “that, upon consideration, it made my folly appear tome so vile, that, from that day, until the day of his death, I never thought fit to ask him any business but what he communicated freely to me, in order to his estate or family.” About such things he did communicate freely from the day when they married upon twenty pounds, in the most private way at Oxford, where the king’s servants began their training in hardship, to the last of their joint lives: and when they could no longer converse and consult in privacy, at home, they daringly talked in the open air from the window to the ground. Of course, this was in the dark, and when they could communicate in no other way. He was imprisoned at Whitehall; and she went there from Chancery Lane every morning before daybreak, with a dark lantern, on foot, alone, and in all weathers, slipped into the entry upon which her husband’s window opened, carried him news, and received his directions. After the first time, when he did not expect her at four in the morning, he never failed to put out his head instantly, in answer to her soft call. Sometimes she was so wet with the rain that it went in at her neck and out at her heels; but that was no matter, if she could learn how best to make application to Cromwell on her husband’s behalf—a thing which she did successfully, owing, as she told her children, to the Protector’s great respect for their father.

She once showed an equal disregard of another kind of rain,—an iron shower from an enemy at sea. A Turkish galley menaced the vessel in which the Fanshawes were going to Spain; and the only chance of escape from slavery was by putting on a warlike appearance, and hiding all the women and the merchandise. So the ladies were locked into the cabin, whence indeed Lady Fanshawe had been too sick to move. Now, however, when her husband was in danger on deck, she never rested till she had brought a cabin-boy to the door, got him to open it, and possessed herself of his blue thrum cap and his tarred coat. She put half-a-crown in his hand, and he let her pass up to the deck, where she stole softly to her husband’s side, “as free from sickness and fear,” she tells her children, “as, I confess, from discretion.” This time her husband had no rebuke ready for her indiscretion. Looking upon her he blessed himself, and snatched her up in his arms, saying, “Good God! that love can make this change!” He bethought himself at length of chiding her; but it was with a laughing and a glistening eye,—both then and ever after.

We have some of us heard a story lately—full of a more solemn sweetness than this—a story as animating as it is mournful, of such a wife with her husband at sea. Each age has its own mode of disclosure of the moral greatness of the men and women of the time; and in this case, through the ways and circumstances of our century—of even the latter half of it—we see in Mrs. Patton the mind and soul of the best wife of the noblest Crusader of six centuries ago.

One February day, four years since, the people who happened to be on the Battery at New York, saw that a sick person was being carried in a litter from a ship to the Battery Hotel. Beside the litter walked a young girl, as a careless passenger might have supposed: but others were struck by the strangeness of such youthfulness in one with so careworn a face. She was also obviously near her confinement. She was twenty, in fact, and had been married three years to the man in the litter. She had been brought up in gaiety and indulgence in a prosperous home in East Boston, and had married a gallant young sea captain. In the first days of the honeymoon, Captain Patton was offered the command of the Neptune’s Car, a ship fitted out for the circumnavigation of the globe, and delayed by the illness of the commander. Captain Patton declined this great piece of professional advancement, on the ground that he could not leave his bride, for so long a time, at an hour’s warning. He was told she might go with him; she was willing, and they were established on board within twelve hours from the first proposal being made.

They were absent a year and five months; and from the outset she made herself her husband’s pupil, companion and helper, to his great delight. She studied navigation, and learned everything that he could teach her, and was soon habituated to take observations, steer by the chart, and keep the ship’s reckoning. In August 1856, they sailed again in their beloved vessel for California, making sure that the ship they were so proud of, and so familiar with, would beat two others which started at the same time. The race which ensued disclosed to Captain Patton the evil temper and designs of his first mate, who was evidently bent on defeating his purpose, and, for some unknown reason, on carrying the ship into Valparaiso. Before Cape Horn was reached, the captain was suffering from anxiety and vigilance. There it was necessary to depose the mate; and under the toil of supplying his place, Captain Patton’s health gave way entirely. A fever was followed by congestion of the brain; but he had had time to put his wife in full possession of his purposes. The ship was by no means to go to Valparaiso; for the crew would desert, and the cargo be lost before the consignees could arrive. His honour and conscience were concerned, he said, in going to the right port. This settled everything in his wife’s mind. The ship should go to her destined port, and no other.

Her husband became hopelessly delirious; and the mate seized the opportunity to assume authority. He wrote a letter to Mrs. Patton, warning her not to oppose him, and charging her with the responsibility of the fate of every man in the vessel, if she presumed to interfere. She replied that her husband had not trusted him while he was well; and she should not trust him now that her husband was ill. She assembled the crew, told them the facts, and appealed to them. Would they accept her authority in her husband’s place, disregard the first mate, and work the ship under the orders of the second? Every man of them agreed, and she had nothing to complain of from them. They did what they could to sustain her. They saw her at her studies, as they passed the cabin windows, and regarded her with reverence and pity,—a young wife, soon to be a mother, alone among men, with her husband to nurse and control, the crew to command, and their lives to preserve by her learning and professional skill! There she sat at her desk by lamplight,—now studying medical books which could instruct her on her husband’s case; now keeping the reckoning, and making entries in the log. At noon and at midnight she was on deck, taking an observation. She marked the charts, made no mistakes, and carried the ship into port in fine condition on the 13th of November.

Captain Patton was a Freemason: and the Freemasons at San Francisco were kind, sending them back to New York by the first ship that could take them. They arrived wholly destitute,—the husband, blind, deaf, delirious, dying;—the wife grave and composed, but bent upon reaching Boston before her confinement. This aim she could not accomplish: her husband was too ill to be removed, and her child was born in a strange place. The New York underwriters immediately sent her 1000 dollars as a gift; and the owners of the vessel and cargo at once took steps to testify their sense of her conduct. Under singular extremity, she had considered the interests of the crew, and saved a vast amount of property to the owners; and the valour and conscientiousness of this lonely young creature were thoroughly appreciated. The truth was, it was to her husband that she devoted herself. She wrought out his purpose, and saved his honour.

From the verge of his grave she disappears from sight. We may never hear of her again: but we scarcely need to know more. What could we ask further, after being presented with the true image of a perfect wife, heroic in proportion to the extremity of her trial? I, for one, am thankful to know that a Mary Patton has shown the full glory and beauty of wifehood in our day.

Ingleby Scott.