Compromises/The Point of View


Look contentedly upon the scattered difference of things.—Sir Thomas Browne.

Fiction is the only field in which women started abreast with men, and have not lagged far behind. Their success, though in no wise brilliant, has been sufficiently assured to call forth a vast deal of explanation from male critics, who deem it necessary to offer reasons for what is not out of reason, to elucidate what can never be a mystery. Not very many years ago a contributor to the "Westminster Review" asserted seriously that "the greater affectionateness" of women enabled them to write stories, and that "the domestic experiences, which form the bulk of their knowledge, find an appropriate place in novels. The very nature of fiction calls for that predominance of sentiment which befits the feminine mind."

It is not easy, however, to account for Miss Austen and Miss Brontë, for George Eliot and George Sand, on the score of "affectionateness" and domesticity. The quality of their work has won for them and for their successors the privilege of being judged by men's standards, and of being forever exempt from that fatal word, "considering." All that is left of the half-gallant, half-condescending tone with which critics indulgently praised "Evelina" is a well-defined and clearly expressed sentiment in favour of women's heroines, and a corresponding reluctance—on the part of men at least—to tolerate their heroes. Mr. Henley voiced the convictions of his sex when he declared his readiness to accept, "with the humility of ignorance, and something of the learner's gratitude," all of George Eliot's women, "from Romola down to Mrs. Pullet" (up to Mrs. Pullet, one would rather say), and his lively mistrust of the "governesses in revolt," whom it has pleased her to call men. Heroes of the divided skirt, every one of them, was his verdict. Deronda, an incarnation of woman's rights. Tito, an improper female in breeches. Silas Marner, a good, perplexed old maid. Lydgate alone has "aught of the true male principle about him."

This is a matter worthy of regard, because the charm of a novel is based largely upon the attraction its hero has for women, and its heroine for men. Incident, dialogue, the development of minor characters,—these things have power to please; but the enduring triumph of a story depends upon the depth of our infatuation for somebody that figures in it, and here, as elsewhere, the instinct of sex reigns supreme. Why is it impossible for a man, who is not an artist or an art-critic, to acknowledge that the great portraits of the world are men's portraits? Because he has given his heart to Mona Lisa, or to Rembrandt's Saskia, or to some other beauty, dead and gone. Why do we find in the Roman Catholic Church that it is invariably a man who expounds the glory of Saint Theresa, and a woman who piously supplicates Saint Anthony? The same rule holds good in fiction. Clarissa Harlowe has been loved as ardently as Helen of Troy. Mr. Saintsbury gives charming expression to this truth in his preface to "Pride and Prejudice."

"In the novels of the last hundred years," he says, "there are vast numbers of young ladies with whom it might be a pleasure to fall in love; there are at least five with whom, as it seems to me, no man of taste and spirit can help doing so. Their names are, in chronological order, Elizabeth Bennet, Diana Vernon, Argemone Lavington, Beatrix Esmond, and Barbara Grant. I should have been most in love with Beatrix and Argemone; I should, I think, for mere occasional companionship, have preferred Diana and Barbara Grant. But to live with and to marry, I do not know that any one of the four can come into competition with Elizabeth."

This choice little literary seraglio is by no means the only one selected with infinite care by critics too large-minded for monogamy, while passions more exclusive burn with intenser flame. Of Beatrix Esmond it might be said that Thackeray was the only man who never succumbed to her charms. Women have been less wont to confess their infatuations,—perhaps for lack of opportunity,—but they have cherished in their hearts a long succession of fictitious heroes, most of them eminently unworthy of regard. We know how they puzzled and distressed poor Richardson by their preference for that unpardonable villain, Lovelace, whom honest men loathe. Even in these chill and seemly days they seek some semblance of brutality. The noble, self-abnegating hero has little chance with them. The perplexed hero has even less. It is a significant circumstance that, of all the characters upon whom Mrs. Humphry Ward has lavished her careful art, Helbeck of Bannisdale, who doesn't know the meaning of perplexity, and who has no weak tolerance for other people's views, makes the sharpest appeal to feminine taste. But masculine taste rejects him.

Rejects him, not more sharply, perhaps, than it is wont to reject any type of manhood put forward urgently by a woman. There was a time when Rochester was much in vogue, and girls young enough to cherish illusions wove them radiantly around that masterful lover who wooed in the fashion of the Conqueror. But men looked ever askance upon his volcanic energies and emotions. They failed to see any charm in his rudeness, and they resented his lack of retenue. Robust candour is a quality which civilization—working in the interests of both sexes—has wisely thought fit to discard. Even Mr. Birrell, who is disposed to leniency where Charlotte Brontë's art is concerned, admits that while Rochester is undeniably masculine, and not a governess in revolt, he is yet "man described by woman," studied from the outside by one who could only surmise. And of the fierce and adorable little professor, the "sallow tiger" who is the crowning achievement of "Villette," he has still more serious doubts. "Some good critics there are who stick to it that in his heart of hearts Paul Emanuel was a woman."

Does this mean that femininity, backed by genius, cannot grasp the impalpable something which is the soul and essence of masculinity? Because then it follows that masculinity, backed by genius, cannot grasp the impalpable something which is the soul and essence of femininity. Such a limitation has never yet been recognized and deplored. On the contrary, there are novelists, like Mr. Hardy, and Mr. George Meredith, and Mr. Henry James, who are considered to know a great deal more about women than women know about themselves, and to be able to give the sex some valuable points for its own enlightenment. Just as Luini and Leonardo da Vinci are believed to have grasped the subtleties hidden deep in the female heart, and to have betrayed them upon their imperishable canvases in a lurking smile or a gleam from half-shut eyes, so Mr. Meredith and Mr. James are believed to have betrayed these feminine secrets in the ruthless pages of their novels. Mr. Boyesen, for example, did not hesitate to say that no woman could have drawn a character like Diana of the Crossways, and endowed her with "that nameless charm," because "the sentiment that feels and perceives it is wholly masculine." Why should not this rule work both ways, and a nameless charm be given to some complex and veracious hero, because the sentiment that feels and perceives it is wholly feminine? Mrs. Humphry Ward strove for just such a triumph in her portrait of Edward Manisty, but she strove in vain. Yet if the attraction of one sex for the other be mutual, why should it enlighten the man and confuse the woman? Or is this enlightenment less penetrating than it appears? Perhaps a rare perfection in recognizing and reproducing detail may be mistaken for a firm grasp upon the whole.

Certain it is that if men have looked with skepticism at the types of manhood presented with so much ardour by female novelists,—if they have voted Rochester a brute, and Mr. Knightley a prig, and Robert Elsmere a bore, and Deronda "an intolerable kind of Grandison,"—women in their turn have evinced resentment, or at least impatience, at the attitude of heroines so sweetly glorified by men. Lady Castlewood is a notable example. How kindly Thackeray—who is not always kind—treats this "tender matron," this "fair mistress" of the admirable Esmond! What pleasant adjectives, "gentlest," "truest," "loveliest," he has ever ready at her service! How frankly he forgives faults more endearing than virtues to the masculine mind! "It takes a man," we are told, "to forgive Lady Castlewood." She is the finest and most reverent incarnation of what men conceive to be purely feminine traits. In a world that belongs to its masters, she is an exquisite appurtenance, a possession justly prized. In a world shared—albeit somewhat unevenly—by men and women, she seems less good and gracious. "I always said I was alone," cries Beatrix sternly. "You were jealous of me from the time I sat on my father's knee." And the child's eyes saw the truth.

It has been claimed, and perhaps with justice, that the irritation provoked by Thackeray's virtuous heroines is born of wounded vanity. Mr. Lang observes that women easily pardon Becky Sharp and Blanche Amory, but never Amelia Sedley nor Laura Pendennis. For the matter of that, men easily pardon Mr. Collins and Mr. Elton. They do more than pardon, they delight in these incomparable clerics, and they adore Miss Austen for having created them. Mr. Saintsbury vows that Mr. Collins is worthy of Fielding or Swift. But their sentiments towards the excellent Edmund Bertram, who is all that a parson should be, are not wholly unlike the sentiments of women towards Amelia Sedley, who is all that a wife and a mother should be; nor are they ready to admit that Mr. Darcy and Mr. Knightley are worthy of Elizabeth and Emma. Lord Brabourne has recorded a distinct prejudice against Mr. Knightley, on the ground that he interferes too much; yet it is plain that Miss Austen considered this interference as a masculine prerogative, exercised with judgment and discretion. He is what women call "a thorough man," just as Amelia is what men call "a thorough woman." Mr. Lang bravely confesses his affection for her on this very score: "She is such a thorough woman." It evidently does not occur to him to doubt Thackeray's knowledge, or his own knowledge, of the sex.

Around Fielding's heroines the battle has raged for years. These kind-hearted, sweet-tempered creatures have been very charming in men's eyes. Scott loved Sophia Western as if she had been his own daughter,—he would have treated her differently,—and took especial pleasure in her music, in the way she soothed her father to sleep after dinner with "Saint George, he is for England." Sir Walter and Squire Western had a stirring taste in songs. Dr. Johnson gave his allegiance without reserve to Fielding's Amelia. He read the inordinately long novel which bears her name at a single sitting, and he always honoured her as the best and loveliest of her sex,—this, too, at a time when Clarissa held the hearts of Christendom in her keeping. Amelia Booth, like Amelia Sedley, is a "thorough woman;" that is, she embodies all the characteristics which the straightforward vice of the eighteenth century conceived to be virtues in her sex, and which provoke the envious admiration of our own less candid age. "Fair, and kind, and good," so runs the verdict. "What more can be desired?" And the impatient retort of the feminine reader, "No more, but possibly a little less," offends the critic's ear. "Where can you find among the genteel writers of this age," asks Mr. Lang hotly, "a figure more beautiful, tender, devoted, and, in all good ways, womanly, than Sophia Western?" "The adorable Sophia," Mr. Austin Dobson calls her,—"pure and womanly, in spite of her unfavourable surroundings." Womanliness is the one trait about which they are all cock-sure. It is the question at issue, and cannot be lightly begged. But Sophia's strongest plea is the love Sir Walter gave her.

For Scott, though most of his young heroines are drawn in a perfunctory and indifferent fashion—mere incentives to enterprise or rewards of valour—knew something of the quicksands beyond. He made little boast of this knowledge, frankly preferring the ways of men, about whom there was plenty to be told, and whose motives never needed a too assiduous analysis. Mr. Ruskin, it is true, pronounced all the women of the Waverley Novels to be finer than the men; but he was arguing on purely ethical grounds. He liked the women better because they were better, not because their goodness was truer to life. He was incapable of judging any work, literary or artistic, by purely critical standards. He had praise for Rose Bradwardine, and Catherine Seyton, and Alice Lee, because they are such well-behaved young ladies; he excluded from his list of heroines Lucy Ashton, who stands forever as a proof of her author's power to probe a woman's soul. Scott did not care to do this thing. The experiment was too painful for his hands. But critics who talk about the subtleties of modern novelists, as compared with Sir Walter's "frank simplicity,"—patronizing phrase!—have forgotten "The Bride of Lammermoor." There is nothing more artistic within the whole range of fiction than our introduction to Lucy Ashton, when the doomed girl—as yet unseen—is heard singing those curious and haunting lines which reveal to us at once the struggle that awaits her, and her helplessness to meet and conquer fate.

There are fashions in novel-writing, as in all things else, and a determined effort to be analytic is imposing enough to mislead. We usually detect this effort when men are writing of women, and when women are writing of men. The former seek to be subtle; the latter seek to be strong. Both are determined to reveal something which is not always a recognizable revelation. In the earlier "novels of character" there is none of this delicate surgery. Fielding took his material as he found it, and so did Miss Austen. She painted her portraits with absolute truthfulness, but she never struggled for insight; above all she never struggled for insight into masculinity. She knew her men as well as any author needs to know them; but her moments of illumination, of absolute intimacy, were for women. It is in such a moment that Emma Woodhouse realizes, "with the speed of an arrow," that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself.

There is nothing "subtle" in this; nothing that at all resembles Mr. Hardy's careful explorations into the intricacies of a character like Eustacia Vye, in "The Return of the Native." There is nothing of Mr. James's artfulness, nothing of Mr. Meredith's daring. These two eminent novelists are past masters of their craft. They present their heroines as interesting puzzles to which they alone hold the key. They keep us in a state of suspense from chapter to chapter, and they too often baffle our curiosity in the end. The treatment of Miriam Rooth, in "The Tragic Muse," is a triumph of ingenuity. "What do you think of her?" "What can you make out of her?" "What is she now, and what is she going to be?" are the unasked, and certainly unanswerable, questions suggested by every phase of this young woman's development. The bewildered reader, unable to formulate a theory, unable to make even a feeble conjecture, is much impressed by the problem laid before him, and by the acuteness of the author who deciphers it. If to evolve a sphinx and to answer her riddle is to interpret femininity, then there are modern novelists who have entered upon their kingdom. But one remembers Rochefoucauld's wise words: "The greatest mistake of penetration is, not to have fallen short, but to have gone too far."