The Daughters of England/Chapter VII
Society is often to the daughters of a family, what business or a profession is to the sons; at least so far as regards the importance attached to it, and the opportunity it affords of failure or success. Society! what a capacious and dignified idea this word presents to the girl just entering upon womanhood! What a field for action and sensation! What an arena for the display of all her accomplishments! How much that is now done, thought, and uttered, has society fox its object! How much is left undone, for the sake of society! But let us pause a moment, and ask what society is. Is it a community of tried and trusted friends, united together by the ties of perfect love? Listen to the remarks of those, even of your own family, who return from the evening party, or the morning call. Is it a community of beings with whom mind is all in all, and intellectual improvement the purpose for which they meet? Observe the preparations that are made—the dress, the furniture, the food, the expense that is lavished upon these. Is it a community who even love to meet, and who really enjoy the social hours they spend together? Ask them in what mood or temper they enter upon the fatigues of the evening, or how often they wish that some event would occur to render their presence unnecessary.
There is, however, one class of beings, who generally go into society with no want of inclination, but who rather esteem no trouble too great which is the means of bringing them in contact with it, or which enables them to pass with credit the ordeal which society presents. This class of beings consists of young women who have not had experience enough to know what society really is, or what is the place assigned to them by the unanimous opinion of society, in the circles with which they exchange visits. What an event to them is an evening party! One would think each of the young aspirants to distinction expected to be the centre of a circle, so intense is the interest exhibited by every act of preparation. The consequence of all this, is a more than ordinary degree of causeless depression on the following day, or else an equal degree of causeless elevation, arising perhaps out of some foolish attention, or flattering remark, which has been repeated to half the ladies in the room.Of all the passions which take possession of the female breast, a passion for society is one of the most inimical to domestic enjoyment. Yet, how often does this exist in connection with an amiable exterior! It is not easy to say, whether we ought most to pity or to blame a woman who lives for society—a woman who reserves all her good spirits, all her becoming dresses, her animated looks, her interesting conversation, her bland behaviour, her smiles, her forbearance, her gentleness for society—what imposition does she practise upon those who meet her there! Follow the same individual home, she is impatient, fretful, sullen, weary, oppressed with headache, uninterested in all that passes around her, and dreaming only of the last evening's excitement, or of what may constitute the amusement of the next; while the mortification of her friends at home, is increased by the contrast her behaviour exhibits in the two different situations, and her expenditure upon comparative strangers, of feelings to which they consider themselves as having a natural and inalienable right.
As a cure for this passion, I would propose a few remarks, founded both on observation and experience. In the first place, then, we seldom find that society affords us more pleasing or instructive intercourse than awaits us at home; and as to kindly feeling towards ourselves, if not excited in our nearest connections, how can we expect it from those who know us less, without having practised upon them some deception?
In the next place, we ought never to forget our own extreme insignificance in society. Indeed, it may be taken as a rule with young people in ordinary cases, that one-half of of the persons they meet with in society are not aware of their having been present, nor even conscious of the fact of to their existence; that another half of the remaining number have seen them without any favourable impression; that another half of those who still remain, have seen them with rather unfavourable feelings than otherwise; while, of those who remain beyond these, the affectionate feelings, indulgence, and cordial interest, can be as nothing, compared with what they might enjoy at home.
"How can this be?" exclaims the young visitor, "when so many persons look pleased to see me, when so many invitations are sent me, when some persons pay me such flattering compliments, and others appear so decidedly struck with my appearance?" I should be truly sorry to do anything to cool down the natural warmth and confidence of youth; but, in such cases, my rule for judging is a very simple one, depending upon the result of the following inquiries:—What is the proportion of persons you have noticed in the same company? What is the proportion of those by whom you have felt yourself repelled? What is the proportion of those you have really admired? and the proportion of those to whom you have been attracted by sympathy, or affection? Ask yourselves these questions, and remember, that whatever may be the flattering aspect of society, you nave no right to expect to receive, in admiration, or good-will, more than you give.
There is another class of young women, who appear to think the only reason for their being invited into society, is, that another place may be occupied, another chair filled, and another knife and fork employed; for as to any effort they make in return for the compliment of inviting them, they might, to all intents and purposes, have been at home. Now, where persons cannot, or dare not, converse—or where that which alone deserves the name of conversation is not suited to the habits or the ways of thinking of those who have been at the trouble of inviting guests—I am a great advocate for cheerful, easy, social chat; provided only, it gives place the instant that something better worth listening to is commenced. That all ingenuous, warm-hearted, unaffected young women, can chat, and some of them very pleasantly too, witness their moments of unrestrained confidence in the company of their friends. There is, then, no excuse for those who go into company, and return from it, without having contributed in any way to the enjoyment of the party they had been invited to meet.
All young persons, however insignificant, must occasionally meet the eye of the mistress of the house where they are visiting, and then is the time to say something expressive of interest in her, or her's; such as inquiring for some absent member of the family; or, at any rate, proving in some way or other, that she and her household have interests with which you are not wholly unacquainted.
One of the most genuine, and at the same time one of the most pleasing compliments ever paid, is that of proving to those we visit, or receive as visitors, that we have been previously aware of their existence. There are many delicate ways of doing this; and while it injures no one, it seldom fails to afford a certain degree of gratification. Social chat, is that which sets people at liberty to talk on their favourite subjects, whatever they may be. In society, too, we meet with a large proportion of persons, who want listeners; and the young, who cannot be supposed to have amassed so large a sum of information as others, ought to consider themselves as peculiarly called upon to fill this respectable department in society, remembering at the same time, that the office of a good listener can never be that of a perfectly silent one. There must be occasionally an animated and intelligent response, intervals of attentive and patient hearing, with a succession of questions, earnestly, but modestly put, and arising naturally out of the subject, to render the part of the listener of any value in general conversation. The vapid response effectually repels; the flat and Uninterested expression of countenance soon wearies; and the question not adapted to the subject cuts short the narration.
Let me not, however, be understood to recommend the mere affectation of interest, or attention; though perfectly aware that such affectation is the current coin, by which the good-will of society is generally purchased. My view of the case is this—that the absence of vanity and selfishness in our own feelings, and benevolence towards others, will induce a real interest in everything which concerns them, at least, so far as it may occupy the conversation of an evening; and are we not as much bound in duty to be social, frank, and talkative to little-minded and common-place persons, provided they have been at the pains to invite and to entertain us, as if they were more intellectual, or more distinguished. Besides, how often do we find in conversation with such persons, that they are able to give us much useful information, which individuals of a higher grade of intellect would never have condescended to give; and, after all, there is a vast sum of practical and moral good effected by persons of this description, whose unvarnished details of common things afford us clearer views of right and wrong, than more elaborate statements.
I have said, already, that the indulgence of mere chat should never be carried too far. In the society of intelligent and enlightened men, nothing can be more at variance with good taste, than for women to occupy the attention of the company with their own little affairs; but especially when serious conversation is carried on, no woman of right feeling would wish to interrupt it with that which is less important. Nor ought this humble substitute for conversation, which I have recommended to those who cannot do better, or appreciate what is higher, on any occasion to be considered as the chief end at which to aim in society. Women possess pre-eminently the power of conversing well, if this power is rightly improved and exercised; but as this subject is one which occupies so large a portion of a previous work, I will only add, that my opinion remains the same as therein expressed, that the talent of conversation is one which it is woman's especial duty to cultivate, because the duties of conversation are amongst those for which she is peculiarly responsible.
When we think of what society might be to the young, and to the old, it becomes a painful task to speak to the in- experienced, the trusting, and the ardent, of what it is. When we think of the seasons of mental and spiritual refreshment, which might thus be enjoyed, the interchange of mutual trust and kindness, the awakening of new ideas, the correction of old ones, the sweeping away of prejudice, and the establishment of truth, the general enlargement of thought, the extension of benevolence, and the increase of sympathy, confidence, and good faith, which might thus be Drought about amongst the families of mankind; we long to send forth the young and the joyous spirit, buoyant with the energies of untried life, and warm with the generous flow of unchecked feeling, to exercise each growing faculty, and prove each genuine impulse, upon the fair and flowery field which society throws open, alike for action, for feeling, and for thought.
But, alas! such is society as it now exists, that no mother venturing upon this experiment, would receive back to the peaceful nest the wing so lately fledged unruffled by its flight, the snowy breast unstained, or the beating heart as true as when it first went forth, elated with the glowing hope of finding in society what it never yet was rich enough to yield.An old and long-established charge is brought against society for its flattery and its falsehood, and we go on from year to year complaining in the same strain; those who have expected most, and have been the most deceived, complaining in the bitterest terms. But, suppose the daughters of England should now determine that they would bring about a reformation in society, how easily would this be done! for, whether they know it or not, they have the social morals of their country in their power. If the excellent, but humble maxim, 'Let each one mend one,' were acted up to in this case, we should have no room left to find fault with others, for all would be too busily and too well occupied in examining their own motives, and regulating their own conduct, to make any calculations upon what might be done or left undone by others.
In the first place, each young woman acting upon this rule, would live for home, trusting that society would take care of its own interests. She would, however, enter into it as a social duty, rather than a personal gratification, and she would do this with kind and generous feelings, determined to think the best she could of her fellow-creatures, and where she could not understand their motives, to give them credit for good ones. She would mix with society, not for the purpose of shining before others, but of adding her share to the general enjoyment; she would consider every one whom she met there, as having equal claims upon her attentions; but her sympathies would be especially called forth by the diffident, the unattractive, or the neglected. Above all, she would remember that for the opportunities thus afforded her, of doing or receiving good, she would have to render an account as a Christian, and a woman; that for every wrong feeling not studiously checked, for every falsehood however trifling or calculated to please, for every moral truth kept back or disguised for want of moral courage to divulge it, for every uncharitable insinuation, for every idle or amusing jest at the expense of religious principle, and for every chance omitted of supporting the cause of virtue however unpopular, or discountenancing vice, however well received, her situation was that of a responsible being, of whom an account of all the good capable of being derived from opportunities like these, would be required.
Need we question for a moment whether such are the feelings, and such the resolutions, of those who enter into society in general. We doubt not but some are thus influenced, and that they have their reward; but with others, old associations and old habits are strong, and they think that one can do nothing against the many; and thus they wait, and wish things were otherwise, but never set about the reformation themselves. Yet, surely these are times for renovated effort on the part of women, to whom the interests of society belong; for let men rule, as they unquestionably have a right to do, in the senate, the camp, and the court; it is women whose sentiments and feelings give tone to society, and society which in its turn influences the sentiments and feelings of mankind. Each generation, as it arises, matures, and consolidates into another series of social intercourse, bears the impress which society has stamped upon the last; and so powerful is the influence thus derived, that the laws of a nation would be useless in defence of virtue, if the voice of society was raised against it.
How often has the tender and anxious mother had to deplore this influence upon the minds of her children! Until they mingled with society, they were respectful, attentive, and obedient to her injunctions, confiding implicitly in the rectitude and the reasonableness of her requirements. But society soon taught them that the views of their parents were unenlightened, old-fashioned, or absurd; that even the motives for enforcing them might not be altogether pure; and that none who mixed in good society, ought to submit to regulations so childish and humiliating.
If, then, such be the influence of society, how important is it that so powerful an agent should be engaged on the side of virtue and of truth. And that it already is so in many most important cases, I acknowledge, to the honour of my country, believing that the general tone of society is highly favourable to that high moral standard, for which England is pre-eminent over every nation of the world. I allude particularly to the preservation of the character of woman from the slightest taint. The rules, or rather the opinions of society, as to what is correct or incorrect in female conduct, extending down to the most minute points of behaviour, are sometimes considered to be too strict, and even rebelled against by high-spirited ignorant young women as being too severe. But let no one, in her blindness or temerity, venture upon the slightest transgression of these rules, because in her young wisdom she sees no cause for their existence. Society has good reasons for planting this friendly hedge beside the path of woman, and the day will come when she will be thankful—truly thankful that her own conduct, even in minute and apparently trifling matters, was not left in early life to the decision of her own judgment, or the guidance of her own will.
It ought rather to be the pride of every English woman, that such are the conditions of society in her native land, that whether motherless or undisciplined in her domestic lot, she cannot become a member of good society, or at least retain her place there, without submitting to restrictions; which, while they deprive her of no real gratification, are at once the safeguard of her peace, the support of her moral dignity, and the protection of her influence as a sister, a wife, a mother, and a friend.
Let us then be thankful to society for the good it has done, and is doing, to thousands who have perhaps no watchful eye at home, no warning voice to tell them how far to. go, and when to go no farther. Nor can we for a moment hesitate to yield our assent to these restrictions imposed upon our sex, when we look at the high moral standing of the women of England, and think how much the tone of society has to do with the maintenance of their true interests. Let us not, however, stop here. If there is so much that is good in society, why should there not be more? Why should there still remain the trifling, the slander, the envy, the low suspicion, the falsehood, the flattery, which ruffle and disfigure the surface of society, and render it too much like a treacherous ocean, on which no well-wisher to the young would desire to trust an untried bark.
A feeling of moral dignity taken with us into society, would be a great preservative against much of this; because it would lift us out of the littleness of low observations, and petty cavillings about dress and manners. A spirit of love would do more, extending through all the different channels of forbearance, benevolence, and mutual trust. But a Christian spirit would do still more; because it would embrace the whole law of love, at the same time that it would impress the seal of truth upon all we might venture to say or do. Thus might a great moral reformation be effected, and effected by the young—by young women too, and effected without presumption, and without display; for the humble and unobtrusive working out of these principles, would be as much at variance with ostentation, as they would be favourable to the cultivation of all that is estimable in the female character, both at home and abroad.
One of the greatest drawbacks to the good influence of society, is the almost unrivalled power of fashion upon the female mind. Wherever civilized society exists, fashion exercises her all-pervading influence. All stoop to it, more or less, and appear to esteem it a merit to do so; while a really fashionable woman, though both reprobated and ridiculed, has an influence in society which is little less than absolute. Yet, if we would choose out the most worthless, the most contemptible, and the least efficient of moral agents, it would be the slave of fashion.
Say the best we can of fashion, it is only an imaginary or conventional rule, by which a certain degree of order and uniformity is maintained; while the successive and frequent variations in this rule, are considered to be the means of keeping in constant exercise our arts and manufactures. I am not political economist enough to know whether the same happy results might not be brought about by purer motives, and nobler means; but it has always appeared to me one of the greatest of existing absurdities, that a whole community of people, differing in complexion, form, and feature, as widely as the same species can diner, should not only desire to wear precisely the same kind of dress, but should often labour, strive, and struggle, deceive, envy, and cheat, and spend their own substance, and often more than they can lawfully call their own—to do what? To obtain a dress, which to them is most unbecoming, or an article of furniture wholly unsuited to themselves and their establishment.
My own idea, and I believe it is founded upon a long-cherished, and perhaps too ardent admiration of personal beauty, is, that fashion ought to favour all which is most becoming. It is true, we should at first be greatly at a loss to know what was becoming, because we should have the power and the prejudice of fashion to contend with; but there can be no doubt that individual, as well as public taste, would be improved by such exercise, and that our manufactures would in the end be equally benefited, though for some time it might be difficult to calculate upon the probable demand. Nor can I think that female vanity would be more encouraged than it now is, by thus consulting personal and relative fitness; because the young woman who now goes into company fashionably disfigured, believes herself to be quite as beautiful as if she was really so. Neither can I see that we are not bound to study how to make the best of our appearance, for the sake of our friends, as well as how to make the best of our manners, our furniture, and our food.
Fashion, however, never takes this into account. According to her arbitrary law, the woman of sallow complexion must wear the same colour as the Hebe; the contracted or misshapen forehead must be laid as bare as that which displays the fairest page of beauty; the form with square and awkward shoulders must wear the same costume as that which boasts the contour of the Graces; and, oh! most pitiful of all, old age must be "pranked up" in the light drapery, the flowers, and gauds of youth! In addition to all this, each one, as an indispensable requisite, must possess a waist considerably below the dimensions which are consistent either with symmetry or health.
It will be an auspicious era in the experience of the daughters of England, when they shall be convinced, that the Grecians had a higher standard of taste in female beauty, than that of the shopkeepers and dressmakers of London. They will then be willing to believe, that to be with- in the exact rule of proportion, is as important a deviation from perfect beauty, as to be beyond it; and that nothing which destroys the grace of easy and natural movement, which deprives any bodily function of its necessary exercise, which robs the youthful cheek of its bloom, or, in short, which ungratefully throws back from our possession the invaluable blessing of health, can be consistent with the good taste or right feeling of an amiable, intelligent, or rational woman.These remarks are applicable, in their fullest force, to every deviation which is sanctioned by fashion, from the strict and holy law of modesty and decorum. And of this most injurious tendency of fashion, how insidious is every encroachment, yet how certain its effect upon the female mind! It is no uncommon thing to hear women express the utmost abhorrence of the costume of some old portrait, who, in the course of a few years, perhaps months, are induced by fashion to adopt, with unblushing satisfaction, an equally, or more objectionable dress.
The young girl cannot too scrupulously shroud her modest feelings from the unsparing test of fashion. The bloom of modesty is soon rubbed off by vulgar contact; but what is thus lost to the young female can never be restored. And let her look to the risk she incurs. What is it? On the one hand, to be thought a little less fashionable than her friends and neighbours—on the other, to be thought a little more exposed than a delicate woman ought to be. Is there any comparison between the two? Or is there one of the daughters of England, who would not rather be known to choose the former?
If possessed of any genuine feeling on these important points, a young woman will know by a kind of instinct, that a bare shoulder protruding into sight, is neither a delicate nor a lovely object; that a dress, either so made, or so put on, as not to look secure and neat, is, to say the least of it, in bad taste; and that the highest standard at which a rightly-minded woman can aim with regard to dress, is, that it should be becoming, and not conspicuous. In order to secure this last point of excellence, it is unquestionably necessary to conform in some measure to the fashion of the times in which we live, and the circle of society in which we move; yet, surely this may be done to an extent sufficient to avoid the charge of singularity, without the sacrifice either of modesty or good taste.
Whatever may be the beneficial influence of fashion upon the interests of the country at large, its effects upon individual happiness are injurious in proportion to their extent; and in what region of the world, or amongst what grade of humanity, has not this idol of the gilded shrine, this divinity of lace and ribbons, not wielded the sceptre of a sovereign, and asserted her dominion over mankind? All bow before her, though many of her subjects disclaim her title, and profess to despise her authority. Nor is her territory less extensive, because her empire is one of trifles. From the ermine of the monarch, to the sandal of the clown; from the bishop's lawn, to the itinerant's cravat; from the hero's mantle, to the mechanic's apron; it is fashion alone which regulates the form, the quality, and the cost.
Fashion is unjustly spoken of as presiding only in the festive dance, the lighted hall, the crowded court. Would that her influence were confined to these alone! but, alas! we find her in the most sedate assemblies, cooling down each tint of colouring that else might glow too warmly, smoothing off excrescences, and rounding angles to one general uniformity of shape and tone. Her task, however, is but a short one here, and she passes on through all the busy haunts of life, neglecting neither high nor low, nor rich nor poor, until she enters the very sanctuary, and bows before the altar, not only walking with the multitude who keep holy day, but bending in sable sorrow over the last and dearest friend committed to the tomb. Yes, there is something monstrous in the thought, that we cannot weep for the dead, but fashion must disguise our grief; and that we cannot stand before the altar, and pronounce that solemn vow, which the deep heart of woman alone can fully comprehend, but fashion must be especially consulted there.
Yet worse even than all this, is the influence which our love of fashion has upon our servants, and upon the poor. Every Christian woman sees and deplores the evil, and many wholesome restrictions are laid upon poor girls, in their attendance at Sunday-schools, and other establishments for their instruction; but are not the plans most frequently adopted for the correction of this evil, like telling little children at table that good things are not safe for them, yet eating them ourselves, and making much of them too, as if they were the greatest treat.
Christians, I believe, will find they have much to give up yet, before the cause of Christ will prosper as they wish it in our native land. Never will the young servant cease to walk the streets with pride and satisfaction, in the exhibition of her newly purchased and fashionable attire, so long as she sees the young ladies in the family she serves, make it their greatest object to be fashionably dressed. They may say, and with some justice, that she has no right to regulate her conduct by their rule; they may reason with, and even reprove her too; but neither reasoning nor reproof will have the power to correct, so long as example weighs down the opposite scale. The vanity, the weakness of woman is the same in the kitchen as in the drawing-room; and if fashion is omnipotent in one, we can not expect it to be powerless in the other.The question then has come to this—shall we continue to compete with our servants in dress, now that excess has become an evil; or shall we endeavour, for their sakes well as our own, to compete with them in self-denial, and in courage to do right? How can we pause—how can we hesitate in such a choice? Our decision once made on this important point, we shall soon find that fashion has been with us, as well as with them, a hard mistress. Yes, fashion, has often demanded of us the only sum of money we had been able to lay by for the needy poor; while with them it has wrung the father's scanty pittance from his hand, to supply the daughter with the trappings of her own disgrace. Fashion with us has often set on fire the flame of envy, and imbittered the shafts of ridicule; while with them it has been a fruitful source of deceit, dishonesty, and crime. Fashion with us has often broken old connexions, made us ashamed of valuable friends, and proud of those whose friendship was our bane; while with them it has been the means of introducing the young and the unwary to the companionship of the treacherous and the depraved.
I have said, that fashion is a hard mistress: when we contemplate some scenes exhibited, not to the eye of the stranger, but within the circle of private families in this prosperous and enlightened country, we are often led to doubt, whether its boasted happiness is really so universal as patriot poets and patriot orators would teach us to believe. There is a state of things existing behind the scenes in many English homes, an under-current beneath the fair surface of domestic peace, to which belong some of the most pressing anxieties, the darkest forebodings, and the bitterest reflections of which the human mind is capable, and all arising out of the great national evil of competing with our neighbours in the luxuries and elegances of life, so as to be living constantly up to the extent of our pecuniary means, and too frequently beyond them.
It is not likely that young women should understand this evil in its full extent, or be aware of the many sad consequences resulting from it, but they do understand that it is not necessity, nor comfort, nor yet respectability, which makes them press upon their parents the often-repeated demand for money, where there is none to spare. No; it is fashion, the tyrant-mistress upon whose service they have entered, who calls upon them to be dressed in the appointed livery of all her slaves; and thus they wring a father's heart with sorrow, perhaps deprive him of the necessary comforts of old age; or they send away unpaid a poor and honest tradesman, because they cannot, "absolutely cannot," appear in company with an unfashionable dress.
Now, does it never occur to the amiable, and the affectionate, that a particular colour or form of dress is hardly worth a parent's heart-ache? I know it does; and they feel sorry sometimes to be thus the cause of what they would persuade themselves was unnecessary pain. But fashion is a cruel, as well as a hard mistress; and she tells them that, despite the remonstrances of parental love, despite the legal claims of those whose need is greater than their own, despite the stain upon their father's house and name, if found unable to discharge his lawful debts, her rule is absolute, and she must be obeyed. Yes, I know it does come home to the hearts of the feeling and the kind, to make these frequent and these urgent applications, where they know that the pecuniary means of the family are small; and sometimes they do try to go forth into company again, with a dress not cut according to the newest mode. But fashion is revengeful, as she is cruel; and she turns upon them with the ridicule of gayer friends, and asks whether the garb they wear was the costume of the ark; and, instantly, all that is noble, and generous, and disinterested in their nature, sinks, and they become subject, perhaps, to as much real suffering for the time, as if they had destroyed a mother's peace, or involved a father in pecuniary difficulty.
But let them not be discouraged at thus being deprived for an instant of moral dignity, and moral power. The better feelings of their nature will rally, the vitality of higher principles will revive, if they will but make a stand against the enemy; or, rather, if they will but reflect, that fashion, under whose tyranny they are quailing, is, in reality, an enemy, and not a friend. She is an enemy, because she has incited them to much evil, and to no good. She is an enemy, because when they sink into poverty or distress, led on by her instigation, she immediately forsakes, and leaves them to their fate. Fashion never yet was on the side of suffering, of sorrow, or of want. Her favourite subjects are the successful, the arrogant, the vain-glorious; the objects of her contempt are the humble, the afflicted, and the poor.
Let the young, then, bear about with them the remembrance of this fact, that there are strong influences which obtain even in good society, hut which are not really to be weighed in the balance against the minutest fraction of Christian duty; and that fashion, although approved, and even courted by all classes and denominations of mankind, and present, by general invitation, at all places of public resort, even on occasions the most sacred and solemn, so far from having part or lot in any thing pertaining to religion, can only display the symbols of her triumph in the house of prayer, as a badge of human weakness, and a proof that our follies and infirmities are with us even there.
Beyond the love of fashion, which is common to all classes of society, there sometimes exists in the female breast a passion of a deeper and still more dangerous nature, which society has a powerful tendency to call forth; I mean the love of distinction. In man, this passion is ambition. In woman, it is a selfish desire to stand apart from the many; to be something of, and by, herself; to enjoy what she does enjoy, and to appropriate the tribute which society offers her, distinct from the sisterhood to which she belongs. Of such women it may truly be said, "they have their reward."
The first and most frequent aim to which this passion directs itself, is to be the idol of society; which is synonymous with being the butt of ridicule, and the mock of envy, to all who witness her pretensions, especially to all who have failed in the same career. No sooner does a woman begin to feel herself the idol of society, than she finds around her daily path innumerable temptations, of which she had never dreamed before. Her exalted position is maintained, not by the universal suffrage of her friends for at least one half of them would pluck her down if they were able; but by the indefatigable exercise of her ingenuity in the way of evading, stooping, conciliating, and sometimes deceiving; as well as by a continued series of efforts to be cheerful when depressed, witty when absolutely dull, and animated, brilliant, and amusing, when disappointed, weary, or distressed.
When we think that all this must be gone through, evening after evening, in the same company, as well as amongst strangers, and without excitement as well as with, in order to prevent the title of the occupant of that distinguished place from being disputed, we are led to exclaim, that the miner, the convict, and the slave have an easier and a happier lot than her's. Nor is this all. The very eminence on which she stands, renders all her faults and failures so much the more conspicuous; while it enables every stander-by to test the validity of her pretensions, and to triumph over every flaw.
What a situation for a woman!—for a young, affectionate, trusting, and simple-hearted woman! No, never yet was simplicity of heart allied to ambition. And the woman who aspires to be the idol of society, must be satisfied to give up this fair handmaid from her train—this pearl from her coronet—this white rose from her wreath. When a woman's simplicity of heart is gone, she is no longer safe as a friend, faithful as a sister, or tender and true as a wife. But as a mother! nature revolts from the thought, that infant weakness should be cradled in the bosom whose simplicity is gone.
Another form which the love of distinction assumes, is that of singularity. I have already said much on the subject of good taste, to show that it holds an important place amongst the excellencies of woman, so much so, as almost to supply the want of judgment, where that quality is deficient. Nothing, however, can more effectually prove the absence of good taste in women, than to be singular by design. Many are so constituted as to be unavoidably singular; but even this is only reconciled by their friends on the ground that they would lose much in originality and strength of character, by studying to be more like the generality of women.
One of the most wholesome and effectual checks upon this juvenile and ill-judged desire to be singular, might be derived from the fact, that singularity in woman invariably excites remarks, that such remarks almost as invariably degenerate into scandal, and that scandal always destroys good influence. However innocent a woman may be, how much soever she may desire to be useful to others, the fact of her being the subject of scandal effectually destroys her power; for no one likes to be dictated to by a person of whom strange things are spoken; and the agent of Christian benevolence is airways less efficient, for being generally considered odd. Still, if the world would pause here, all might be well. But our oddities, while they provoke the laughter of the gay, seem unaccountably to have the effect of awakening the anger of the grave; so that we not unfrequently find persons more severely reflected upon for comparatively innocent peculiarities, than for acts of real culpability.
A repetition of such reflections and injurious remarks passing through society, upon the principle of a snow-ball over a drifted plain, obtains in time a sort of bad name, or questionable character, for the individual against whom they are directed, which no explanation can do anything to clear away; because founded on facts of so singular a nature, that few people understand how, in the common course of things, they could have happened, and consequently few have charity enough to believe they could originate in anything but evil. It is thus that the character of woman so often suffers unjustly from her oddities. Strangers cannot understand why we acted as we did, enemies suggest a bad motive as the most probable, gossips take up the scandal, and friends in their turn believe it true; while we, surprised and indignant that so innocent a mode of action should bear so injurious a construction, are unable to defend it, simply because it was out of the ordinary pale of human conduct, though prompted by the same motives which influence the rest of mankind.
It may justly be said of the world, that in one sense it is a cruel censor of woman; but in another it is kind. It is, as I have just described, unjustly severe upon individual singularity; but by its harsh and ready censures, how many does it deter from entering upon the same course of folly, so sure to end in wounded feeling, if not in loss of influence and respectability.Let it then, be kept in mind, that woman, if she would preserve her peace, her safe footing in society, her influence, and her unblemished purity, must avoid remark as an individual, at least in public. The piquant amusements of home, consist much in the display of originality of character, and there it is safe. There her feelings are understood, her motives are trusted to, because they have been long known, and there the brooding wing of parental love is, ever ready to shroud her peculiarities, from too dangerous an exposure. In the world it is not so. Society is very false to us in this respect. For the sake of an evening's, entertainment, singularity is encouraged and drawn out. The mistress of the house, who wishes only to see her party amused, feels no scruple in placing this temptation, before unguarded youth. But let not the ready laugh, the gay response, the flattering attention, for a moment deceive, you as to the real state of the case. It is "seeming all," and those who have been the most amused by your singularities, will not be the last to make them the subject of bitter and injurious remark.
If these observations upon society should appear to any, cynical or severe, or calculated to depress the natural ardour of youth, rather than direct it into safer and more wholesome channels; it must be remembered, that my design throughout this work, is to speak of the world as it is, not merely as it ought to be; and though I know there are circles of society, where aims, and motives, and laws of union exist, of a far higher order than to admit of the falsehood or the littleness to which I have alluded; yet such, it must be acknowledged, is the general tone of ordinary visiting or mixing in company, that the follies of unguarded youth meet with little candour, and still less kind correction, even amongst those who are associated with us as friends. I know that the voice of experience is an unwelcome one, when thus lifted up against that of the world, which speaks so smoothly in its first intercourse with the young and inexperienced; and far more delightful would it be, to send forth the joyous spirit into social life with all its native energies unchecked. There is one grateful and welcome thought, however, which reconciles the task I have imposed upon myself. It is, that none of these energies need therefore be destroyed, or deprived of natural and invigorating exercise. There are home-societies, and little chosen circles of tried and trusted friends; meetings, perhaps, but rarely occurring, or only accidental, amongst those who speak with different voices the warm familiar language of one heart; and here it is that the genuine feelings of unsophisticated nature may safely be poured forth; here it is that youth may live, and breathe, and be itself, alike without affectation, and without reserve; here it is, that the spirit of joy may bound and revel unrestrained, because all around it is the atmosphere of love, and the clear bright radiance of the sunshine of truth.
There is yet another flight of female ambition, another course which the love of distinction is apt to take, more productive of folly, and of disappointment, perhaps, than all the rest. It is the ambition of the female author who writes for fame. Could those young aspirants know how little real dignity there is. connected with the trade of authorship, their harps, would be exchanged for distaffs, their rose-tinted paper would be converted into ashes, and their Parnassus would dwindle to a molehill.
Still there is something which the young heart feels in being shut out from intellectual sympathies at home—something in burning and throbbing with unexpressed sensations, until their very weight and intensity become a burden not to be endured; something in the strong impulse of a social temperament, which longs to pour forth its testimony to the force of nature and of truth; something in those mysterious, but deep convictions, which belong to every child of earth, that somewhere on this peopled globe, beneath the glow of sunnier skies; or on the frozen plain, the desert, or the ocean; amidst the bowers- of beauty, or the halls of pride; within the hermit's cave, the woodman's cot, or wandering with the flocks upon the distant hills; there is—there must be, some human or spiritual intelligence, whose imaginations, powers, and feelings, operate in concert with our own. And thus we feel, and thus we write in youth, without any higher motive, because within our homes, tracing our daily walks, or mixing with the circle called society, we find no, chord of sympathy which answers to the natural music of our secret souls.
All this, however, is but juvenile romance. The same want of sympathy which so often inspires the first effort of female authorship, might often find a sweet and abundant interchange of kindness in many a faithful heart beside the homely hearth. And after all, there is more true poetry in the fire-side affections of early life, than in all, those sympathetic associations with unknown and untried developments of mind, which ever have existed either amongst the sons or the daughters of men.
Taking a more sober view of the case, there are, unquestionably, subjects of deep interest with which women have opportunities peculiar to themselves of becoming acquainted, and thus of benefiting their fellow-creatures through the medium of their writings. But, after all, literature is not the natural channel for a woman's feelings; and pity, not envy, ought to be the meed of her who writes for the public. How much of what with other women is reserved for the select and chosen intercourse of affection, with her must be laid bare to the coarse cavillings, and coarser commendations, of amateur or professional critics. How much of what no woman loves to say, except to the listening ear of domestic affection, by her must be told—nay, blazoned to the world. And then, in her seasons of depression, or of wounded feeling, when her spirit yearns to sit in solitude, or even in darkness, so that it may be still; to know and feel that the very essence of that spirit, now embodied in a palpable form, has become an article of sale and bargain, tossed over from the hands of one workman to another, free alike to the touch of the prince and the peasant, and no longer to be reclaimed at will by the original possessor, let the world receive it as it may.
Is such, I ask, an enviable distinction? I will offer no remarks of my own upon the unsatisfactory nature of literary fame. No man, or woman either, could write for the public, and not feel thankful for public approbation; thankful for having chosen a subject generally interesting to mankind, and thankful that their, own sentiments had met with sympathy from those for whose sake they had been expressed. But, on this subject, I will quote the eloquent language of one, who better knew what contradictory elements exist in a young, an ardent, and an affectionate heart, combined with an aspiring and commanding intellect.
"What is fame to woman, but a dazzling degradation. She is exposed to the pitiless gaze of admiration; but little respect, and no love, blends with it. However much as an individual she may have gained in name, in rank, in fortune, she has suffered as a woman. In the history of letters, she may be associated with men, but her own sweet life is lost; and though, in reality, she may flow through the ocean of the world, maintaining an unsullied current, she is nevertheless apparently absorbed, and become one with the elements of tumult and distraction. She is a reed shaken with the wind; a splendid exotic, nurtured for display; an ornament, only to be worn on birth-nights and festivities; the aloe, whose blossom is deemed fabulous, because few can be said to behold it; she is the Hebrew, whose songs are demanded in a 'strange land;' Ruth, standing amid the 'alien corn;' a flower, plunged beneath a petrifying spring; her affections are the dew that society exhales, but gives not back to her in rain; she is a jewelled captive, bright, and desolate, and sad !"