THE ETERNAL FEMININE.
There are few things more wearisome in a fairly fatiguing life than the monotonous repetition of a phrase which catches and holds the public fancy by virtue of its total lack of significance. Such a phrase—employed with tireless irrelevance in journalism, and creeping into the pages of what is, by courtesy, called literature—is the "new woman." It has furnished inexhaustible jests to "Life" and "Punch," and it has been received with seriousness by those who read the present with no light from the past, and so fail to perceive that all femininity is as old as Lilith, and that the variations of the type began when Eve arrived in the Garden of Paradise to dispute the claims of her predecessor. "If the fifteenth century discovered America," says a vehement advocate of female progress, "it was reserved for the nineteenth century to discover woman; " and this remarkable statement has been gratefully applauded by people who have apparently forgotten all about Judith and Zenobia, Cleopatra and Catherine de Medici, Saint Theresa and Jeanne d'Arc, Catherine of Russia and Elizabeth of England, who played parts of some importance, for good and ill, in the fortunes of the world.
"Les Anciens ont tout dit," and the most curious thing about the arguments now advanced in behalf of progressive womanhood is that they have an air of specious novelty about them when they have all been uttered many times before. There is scarcely a principle urged to-day by enthusiastic champions of the cause which was not deftly handled by that eminently "new" woman, Christine de Pisan, in the fourteenth century, before the court of Charles VI. of France. If we read even a few pages of "La Cité des Dames,"—and how delightfully modern is the very title!—we recognize the same familiar sentiments, albeit disguised in archaic language and with many old-time conceits, that we are accustomed to hearing every day. Christine is both amused and wearied, as are we, by the foolish invectives of men against our useful and necessary sex. She is forced to conclude that God had made a foul thing when He made woman, yet wonders a little—not unnaturally—that "so worshipful a Workman should have deigned to turn out so poor a piece of work." This leads her to reflect on our alleged weakness and incapacity, of which she finds, as do we, but insufficient proof. She is firm to insist, as do we, that if little maidens are put to school, and carefully taught the sciences like men-children, they learn as well, and make as steady progress. What is more, she is able to prove her case, which we often are not, by writing a grave, solid, and systematic treatise on arms and the science of war; a treatise which handles every topic from the details of a siege to safe conducts, military passports, and the laws of knightly courtesy. And this complete soldier's manual was held to be of practical value and an authority in those battle-loving days. It may also be worth while to mention that Christine de Pisan supported an invalid husband, two poor relations, and three children by her pen; and what more could any struggling authoress of our own century be reasonably expected to accomplish?
Another interesting fact presented for our consideration, in these days of Civic Clubs and active training for citizenship, is that one of the first Englishwomen who entered the field of letters professionally, as a recognized rival of professional men writers, entered it as a politician, and a very acrid and scurrilous politician at that, who made herself as abhorrent and abhorred as any law-giver in England. This was Mary Manley, who, in the reign of Queen Anne, wrote the "New Atalantis," allying herself vigorously with the Tories, and pouring forth the vials of her venom on the Duke of Marlborough, and—what is harder for us to forgive—on Richard Steele, whom all women are bound to honor a little and love a great deal, as having been, in spite of many failings, our true and chivalrous friend. Not one of all the modern apologists who prate about us endlessly to-day in print, in pulpit, on the platform, and on the stage, has reached the simple tenderness, the undeviating insight of Steele.
These things, however, counted for little with Mary Manley, who had less sentiment and less reticence than most party writers of even that outspoken and unsentimental age. Perhaps to attack those high in power who have done their country such priceless service as did the Duke of Marlborough, and to attack them, moreover, with an utter lack of decency and self-respect, is not precisely the kind of deed which warms our hearts to female politicians; but it must be confessed that if this vehement partisan in petticoats had all the acerbity of a woman, she had all the courage of one too. When her publisher was prosecuted for the scandalous libels of the "New Atalantis," she did not seek to shelter herself behind his responsibility; but appeared briskly before the Court of King's Bench, acknowledged the authorship of her book, and, with magnificent feminine effrontery, asserted it was entirely fictitious. Lord Sunderland, who examined her, and who appears to have been vastly diverted by the whole proceeding, pointed out urbanely certain passages of a distinctly libelous character which could scarcely have been the result of chance. "Then," replied the imperturbable Mrs. Manley, "it must have been inspiration." Again Lord Sunderland interposed with the suggestion that details of that order could not well be traced to such a source. "There are bad angels as well as good," said Mrs. Manley serenely, and escaped all penalties for her wrong-doing; earning for herself, moreover, solid rewards when the Tories returned to power, which is something that never happens to any would-be female politician of to-day.
For indeed the newly awakened and intelligent interest which women are supposed to be taking in things political is but a faint reflection of the fiery zest with which our English great-great-grandmothers threw themselves into the affairs of the nation, meddling and mending and marring everywhere, until Addison, hopeless of any other appeal, was fain to remind them that nothing was so injurious to beauty as inordinate party zeal. "It gives an ill-natured cast to the eye," he wrote warningly, "and a disagreeable sourness to the look. Besides that, it makes the lines too strong, and flushes them worse than brandy. Indeed I never knew a party-woman who kept her countenance for a twelvemonth."
But little the ardent politicians cared for such mild arguments as these. In 1739, on the occasion of an especially important debate in the House of Lords, the Chancellor gave orders that ladies were not to be admitted, and that the gallery was to be reserved for the Commons. The Duchess of Queensberry, the Duchess of Ancaster, Lady Huntingdon, and a number of other determined women presented themselves at the door by nine o'clock in the morning. When refused entrance, the Duchess of Queensberry, with an oath as resonant as the doorkeeper's, swore that in they would come, in spite of the Chancellor and the Lords and the Commons to boot. The Peers resolved to starve them into docility, and gave orders that the doors should not be opened until they raised their siege. These Amazons stood there, so we are informed by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, from nine in the morning until five in the afternoon, uncheered by food or drink, but solacing themselves repeatedly by thumping and kicking at the doors with so much violence that the speakers in the House were scarcely heard. When the Lords remained unconquered by such tactics, the two duchesses, well versed in the stratagems of war, commanded half an hour of dead silence; and the Chancellor thinking this silence a certain proof of their withdrawal (the Commons, who had been kept out all this time, being very impatient to enter), the doors were finally opened; whereupon the astute and triumphant women rushed in, and promptly secured the best seats in the gallery. There they stayed, with magnificent endurance, until after eleven at night, and indulged themselves during the debate in such noisy tokens of regard or disapproval that the greatest confusion ensued. The newest of new women is but a modest and shrinking wild-flower when compared with such flaunting arrogance as this.
Nor were the "platform women," as they are unkindly called to-day, unknown or even uncommon in those good old times of domesticity; for nearly a hundred and twenty years ago the "London Mirror" printed a caustic protest against the mannishness of fashionable ladies, their pernicious meddling with things which concerned them not, and, above all, their calm effrontery in addressing public audiences on political and social questions, "with the spirit and freedom of the boldest male orators." In fact, several societies had been already formed with the express view of enlightening the public as to the opinions of women on matters which were presumably beyond their jurisdiction, and of pushing these opinions to some ultimate and practical conclusion,—which is the precise object of similar societies to-day. For the determination of the sex from the beginning has been, not merely to assert its own intellectual independence, like the heroine of Vanbrugh's comedy,—so out of date yet so strikingly modern,—who affirms that the pleasure of women's lives is founded on entire liberty to think and to do what they please; but there was always the well-defined anticipation of influencing by unconstrained thought and action the current of affairs. They wished their voices to count. When Dr. Sacheverell was prosecuted by the Whigs for his famous sermons on the neglect of the church by the government, the women of London made his cause their own. All duties and all diversions gave way before the paramount excitement of this trial. Churches and theatres were alike deserted. "The ladies lay aside their tea and chocolate," writes Defoe pleasantly, "leave off visiting after dinner, and, forming themselves into cabals, turn privy councillors, and settle the affairs of state. Gallantry and gayety are given up for business. Even the little girls talk politics." Lady Wentworth, with her customary acuteness, remarked that Dr. Sacheverell would make the women good housewives. The laziest of them had ceased to lie in bed in the mornings, since the trial began every day at seven. So great was the enthusiasm for the persecuted divine, that his conviction and punishment, though the latter was purely nominal, helped largely to overthrow the Whig ministry, and added one more triumph to the energetic interference, the "pernicious meddling," of women.
To understand, however, the full extent of female influence in affairs of state, we should turn to France, where for centuries the sex has played an all-important part, for good and ill, in the ruling of the land. Any page of French history will tell this tale, from the far-off day when Brabant and Hainault, and England, too, listened to the persuasions of Joan of Valois, raised the siege of Tournay, and suffered the exhausted nation to breathe again, down to the less impetuous age when that astute princess, Charlotte Elizabeth, remarked—out of the fullness of her hatred for Mme. de Maintenon—that France had been governed by too many women, young and old, and that it was almost time the men began to take a hand. Perhaps we can best appreciate the force of feminine dominion when we read the half-amused, half-exasperated comments of Gouverneur Morris, whose diary, written on the eve of the French Revolution, reveals an intimate knowledge of that strange society, already crumbling to decay. At a dinner in the chateau of M. le Norrage, the political situation is discussed with so much vehemence by the men that the women's gentler voices are lost in the uproar, which sorely vexes these fair politicians, accustomed to being listened to with deference. "They will have more of this," says Morris shrewdly, "if the States General should really fix a constitution. Such an event would be particularly distressing to the women of this countiy, for they would be thereby deprived of their share in the government; and hitherto they have exercised an authority almost unlimited, with no small pleasure to themselves, though not perhaps with the greatest advantage to the community."
He realizes this more fully when he goes to consult with M. de Corney on a question of finance, and finds that Mme. de Corney is well acquainted with the matter. "It is the woman's country," he writes with whimsical dismay; and he is fain to repeat the sentiment hotly and angrily when Mme. de Staël, who was not wont to be troubled by petty scruples, dupes him into showing her some papers, and gossips about them to her father and Bishop d'Autun. "She is a devilish creature," says the outraged American, feeling he has been outwitted in the game; but it is difficult, in the face of such little anecdotes, to distinguish between the new woman and the old.
One thing is tolerably sure. The new woman, to whatever century she belonged,—and she has been under varying aspects the product of every age,—has never achieved great popularity with man. This is not wholly to her discredit; for the desire to look at life from a standpoint of her own, while irritating and subversive of general order, cannot reasonably be accounted a crime. Yet when we consider the invectives which have been hurled at women from the day they were created until now, we find that most of them have for their basis the natural indignation which is born of disregarded advice. The whole ground for complaint is summed up admirably in the angry remonstrance of Clarissa Harlowe's uncle, when his niece prefers the lover she has chosen for herself to the suitor chosen for her by her family. "I have always found a most horrid romantic perverseness in your sex," says this experienced old man. "To do and to love what you should not, is meat, drink, and vesture to you all." There lies the argument in a nutshell; and if Richardson be the first great English novelist who has painted for us a woman moved by the secret and powerful impulses of her heart, the unwritten and irrefutable laws of her own nature, he has also expressed for us in brief and accurate phraseology the masculine reading of this problem. "Nothing worse than woman can befall mankind," says Sophocles apprehensively; and far-off Hesiod, as cheerless, but somewhat more philosophical, explains that our sex is a necessary deduction from the coveted happiness of life. Burton tells us of an excellent old anchorite who fell into a "cold palsy" whenever a woman was brought before him; which pious and consistent behavior is more to my liking than the gay ingratitude of the Greeks, who drew their inspiration from the fairness and weakness, the passion and pain of women, and then bequeathed to all coming ages the weight of their dispassionate condemnation. Better to me is the old Sanskrit saying, "The hearts of women are as the hearts of wolves;" or the Turkish jibe anent the length of our hair and the shortness of our wits; or that last and final verdict from the pen of our modern analyst, Mr. George Meredith, "Woman will be the last thing civilized by man,"—an ambiguously brilliant epigram which waits for the elucidation of the critics.
The really curious thing is, not that we should have been found in a general way unsatisfactory, which was to be expected, but that we should be held to blame for such widely divergent desires. Take for example the indifference of women to intellectual pursuits, which has earned for them centuries of masculine contempt; and their thirst for intellectual pursuits, which has earned for them centuries of masculine disapprobation. On the one hand, we have some of the most delightful writers England has known, calmly reminding them that sewing is their one legitimate occupation. "Now for women," says dear old Robert Burton, "instead of laborious studies, they have curious needlework, cutwork, spinning, bonelace, and many pretty devices of their own making with which to adorn their houses." Addison, a hundred years later, does not seem to have advanced one step beyond this eminently conservative attitude. He wishes with all his heart that women would apply themselves more to embroidery and less to rhyme, a wish which was heartily echoed by Edward Fitzgerald, who carried unimpaired to the nineteenth century these sound and orthodox principles. Addison would rather listen to his fair friends discussing the merits of red and blue embroidery silks than the merits of Whigs and Tories. He would rather see them work the whole of the battle of Blenheim into their tapestry frames than hear their opinions once about the Duke of Marlborough. He waxes eloquent and even vindictive—for so mild a man—over the neglect of needlework amid more stirring avocations. "It grieves my heart," he says, speaking in the character of an indignant letter-writer to the "Spectator," "to see a couple of proud, idle flirts sipping their tea for a whole afternoon"—and doubtless discussing politics with heat—"in a room hung round with the industry of their great-grandmothers."
It has been observed before this that it is always the great-grandmothers in whom is embodied the last meritoriousness of the sex; always the great-grandmothers for whom is cherished this pensive masculine regard. And it may perhaps be worth while to note that these "proud, idle flirts" of Addison's day have now become our virtuous great-grandmothers, and occupy the same shadowy pedestal of industrious domesticity. I have little doubt that their great-grandmothers, who worked—or did not work—the tapestries upon the Addisonian walls, were in their day the subject of many pointed reproaches, and bidden to look backward on the departed virtues of still remoter generations. And, by the same token, it is encouraging to think that, in the years to come, we too shall figure as lost examples of distinctly feminine traits; we too shall be praised for our sewing and our silence, our lack of learning and our "stayathomeativeness," that quality which Peacock declared to be the finest and rarest attribute of the sex. What a pleasure for the new woman of to-day, who finds herself vilified beyond her modest deserts, to reflect that she is destined to shine as the revered and faultless great-grandmother of the future.
To return, however, to the contrasting nature of the complaints lodged against her in her more fallible character of great-granddaughter. Hazlitt, who was by no means indifferent to women nor to their regard, clearly and angrily asserted that intellectual attainments in a man were no recommendation to the female heart,—they merely puzzled and annoyed. "If scholars talk to women of what they can understand," he says, "their hearers are none the wiser; if they talk of other things, they only prove themselves fools." Mr. Walter Bagehot was quite of Hazlitt's opinion, save that his serener disposition remained unvexed by a state of affairs which seemed to him natural and right. He thought it, on the whole, a wise ordinance of nature that women should look askance upon all intellectual superiority, and that genius should simply "put them out."—"It is so strange. It does not come into the room as usual. It says such unpleasant things. Once it forgot to brush its hair." The well-balanced feminine mind, he insisted, prefers ordinary tastes, settled manners, customary conversation, defined and practical pursuits.
But are women so comfortably and happily indifferent to genius? Some have loved it to their own destruction, feeding it as oil feeds flame; and other some have fluttered about the light, singeing themselves to no great purpose, as pathetically in the way as the doomed moth. At the same time that Hazlitt accused the whole sex of this impatient disregard for inspiration, Keats found it only too devoted at the shrine. "I have met with women," he says with frank contempt, "who I really think would like to be wedded to a poem, and given away by a novel." At the same time that Mr. Pater said coldly that there were duties to the intellect which women but seldom understood, Sir Francis Doyle protested with humorous indignation against the frenzy for female education which filled his lecture-room with petticoats, and threatened to turn the universities of England into glorified girls' schools. At the same time that Froude was writing, with the enviable self-confidence which was his blessed birthright, that it is the part of man to act and labor, while women are merely bound by "the negative obedience to prohibitory precepts;" or, in other words, that there is nothing in the world which they ought to do, but plenty which they ought to refrain from doing, Stevenson was insisting with all the vehemence of youth that it is precisely this contentment with prohibitory precepts, this deadening passivity of the female heart, which "narrows and damps the spirits of generous men," so that in marriage a man becomes slack and selfish, "and undergoes a fatty degeneration of his moral being." Which is precisely the lesson thundered at us very unpleasantly by Mr. Rudyard Kipling in "The Gadsbys."
"You may carve it on his tombstone, you may cut it on his card,
That a young man married is a young man marred."
Now I wonder if the peasant and his donkey were in harder straits than the poor woman, who has stepped down the centuries under this disheartening, because inevitable condemnation. Always either too new or too old, too intelligent or too stupid, too restless after what concerns her not, or too passively content with narrow aims and outlooks, she is sure to be in the wrong whether she mounts her ass or leads him. Has the satire now directed against the higher education of women—a tiresome phrase reiterated for the most part without meaning—any flavor of novelty, save for those who know no satirists older than the contributors to "Punch" and "Life"? It is just as new as the new woman who provokes it, just as familiar in the annals of society. Take as a modern specimen that pleasant verse from Owen Seaman's "Horace at Cambridge," which describes gracefully and with good temper the rush of young Englishwomen to the University Extension lectures.
"Pencil in pouch, and syllabus in hand,
Hugging selected poets of the land,
Keats, Shelley, Coleridge,—all but Thomas Hood
And Byron (more's the pity!),
They caught the local colour where they could;
And members of the feminine committee
To native grace an added charm would bring
Of light blue ribbons,—not of abstinence,
But bearing just this sense—
Inquire within on any mortal thing."
This is charming, both in form and spirit, and I wish Sir Francis Doyle had lived to read it. But the same spirit and an even better form may be found in Pope's familiar lines which mock—kindly as yet, and in a friendly fashion—at the vaunted scholarship of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.
"In beauty and wit
No mortal as yet
To question your empire has dared;
But men of discerning
Have thought that, in learning,
To yield to a lady was hard."
Is there, then, anything new? The jests of all journalism, English, French, and American, anent the mannishness of the modern woman's dress? Surely, in these days of bicycles and outdoor sports, this at least is a fresh satiric development. But a hundred and seventy-five years ago just such a piece of banter was leveled at the head of the then new and mannish woman, who, riding through the country, asks a tenant of Sir Roger de Coverley if the house near at hand be Coverley Hall. The rustic, with his eyes fixed on the cocked hat, periwig, and laced riding-coat of his questioner, answers confidently, "Yes, sir." "And is Sir Roger a married man?" queries the well-pleased dame. But by this time the bumpkin's gaze has traveled slowly downwards, and he sees with dismay that this strange apparition finishes, mermaid-fashion, in a riding-skirt. Horrified at his mistake, he falters out, "No, madam," and takes refuge from embarrassment in flight. Turn the horse into a wheel, the long skirt into a short one, or into no skirt at all, and we have here all the material needed for the ever-recurring joke presented to us so monotonously to-day.
The belligerent sex, Mr. Lang has called us, and we are not stouter fighters now than we have been through all the centuries, albeit the methods of warfare have changed somewhat, and changed perchance for ill. It is pleasant to think that in the days when muscle was better than mind (which days, thanks to our colleges, are fast returning to us), and the sword was very much mightier than the pen, women held their own as easily as they do now. Not only through the emotions they inspired, as when the fair Countess of Salisbury, beautiful, courageous, and chaste, heartened the little garrison besieged at Warwick, so that, as it is quaintly chronicled, "every man was made as valiant as two men, by reason of her kind and loving words." Not only through the loyalty they evoked, as when the heroic Countess of Montford defended her husband's cause through twelve years of well-nigh hopeless struggle, until, by her invincible bravery and determination, she placed her unheroic son upon the ducal chair of Brittany. Not only through their astuteness in diplomacy, as when the crafty Duchess of Brabant, "a lady," says Froissart, "of a very active mind," duped England, cajoled France, and united the great houses of Burgundy and Hainault in a double marriage, overcoming the well-nigh insuperable obstacles by her woman's wit and her resistless resolution. But when it came to downright fighting, these hardy dames were not much behind their husbands and brothers in the field. In that sharp warfare which the Black Prince carried into the heart of Spain, it chanced that Sir Thomas Trivet at the head of an English force laid siege to the Castilian town of Alaro. Its garrison made a rash sortie, were trapped in an ambuscade, and nearly every man was slain or taken prisoner. Elated by this success, and deeming the town an easy prey, the English marched joyously to occupy it. But behold! the women had closed the gates and barriers, mounted the battlements, and were ready to defend themselves against all comers. Their men might be foolish enough to fall into the enemy's snares, but they would look after their homes. Sir Thomas, like the gallant Englishman he was, refused to make the attack. "See these good women," he said, "standing like wolf-dogs on their walls. Let us turn back, and God grant our English wives to be as brave in battle."
The ludicrous, side of female belligerency has seldom been lacking in history. It is admirably illustrated by the story, at once absurd and tragic, of the unfortunate William Scott of Harden, whose wife, an aggressively pious woman, insisted on attending the forbidden meetings of the Covenanters. Scott was called before the Council, and told to keep his lady at home. He answered, frankly and sadly, that he could not. The Council, arguing after the fashion of the Queen in "Alice in Wonderland," insisted that if he had a wife he could oblige her to obey him, and dismissed him with a serious warning. Off to the Eildon Hills went Madam Scott, and prayed as hard as ever. Her husband received a second summons from the Council, and was fined a thousand pounds for her obstinate recusancy. Madam Scott, who now occupied the proud yet comfortable position of a martyr for the faith whose sufferings were borne vicariously by another, clung more insistently than before to her religious rights. Scott was fined another thousand pounds. Madam Scott merely denounced the persecutors of the righteous with redoubled vehemence at the next gathering of the elect. The luckless man was then actually imprisoned in the Bass Fortress, where he remained three years, while his triumphant spouse, secure from molestation, trod her saintly path, and prayed whenever and wherever she desired. The revolting wife is not invariably a thing of beauty, but it is hard to see how she could carry her spirit of independence any farther.
For indeed all that we think so new to-day has been acted over and over again, a shifting comedy, by the women of every century. All that we value as well as all that we condemn in womanhood has played its part for good and for evil in the history of mankind. To talk about either sex as a solid embodiment of reform is as unmeaning as to talk about it as a solid embodiment of demoralization. If the mandrake be charmed by a woman's touch, as Josephus tells us, the rue, says Pliny, dies beneath her fingers. She has made and marred from the beginning, she will make and mar to the end. The best and newest daughter of this restless generation may well read envyingly Sainte Beuve's brief description of Mme. de Sévigné, a picture drawn with a few strokes, clear, delicate, and convincing. "She had a genius for conversation and society, a knowledge of the world and of men, a lively and acute appreciation both of the becoming and the absurd." Such women make the world a pleasant place to live in; and, to the persuasive qualities which win their way through adamantine resistance, Mme. de Sévigné added that talent for affairs which is the birthright of her race, that talent for affairs which we value so highly to-day, and the broader cultivation of which is perhaps the only form of newness worth its name. Since Adam delved and Eve span, life for all of us has been full of labor; but as the sons of Adam no longer exclusively delve, so the daughters of Eve no longer exclusively spin. In fact, delving and spinning, though admirable occupations, do not represent the sum total of earthly needs. There are so many, many other useful things to do, and women's eager finger-tips burn to essay them all.
"Cora's riding, and Lilian 's rowing,
Celia's novels are books one buys,
Julia 's lecturing, Phillis is mowing,
Sue is a dealer in oils and dyes;
Flora and Dora poetize,
Jane is a bore, and Bee is a blue,
Sylvia lives to anatomize,
Nothing is left for the men to do."
The laugh has a malicious ring, yet it is good-tempered too, as though Mr. Henley were not sufficiently enamoured of work to care a great deal who does it in his place. Even the plaintive envoy is less heart-rending than he would have it sound, and in its familiar burden we catch an old-time murmur of forgotten things.
"Prince, our past in the dust-heap lies!
Saving to scrub, to bake, to brew,
Nurse, dress, prattle, and scandalize,
Nothing is left for the men to do."