Compromises/The Spinster

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The most ordinarie cause of a single life is liberty, especially in certain self-pleasing and humorous minds, which are so sensible of every restriction, as they wil goe neere to thinke their girdles and garters to be bonds and shakles.—Bacon.

In the Zend-Avesta, as translated by Anquetil-Duperron, there is a discouraging sentence passed upon voluntary spinsterhood: "The damsel who, having reached the age of eighteen, shall refuse to marry, must remain in Hell until the earth is shattered."

This assurance is interesting, less because of its provision for the spinster's future than because it takes into consideration the possibility of her refusing to marry;—a possibility which slipped out of men's minds from the time of Zoroaster until our present day. A vast deal has been written about marriage in the interval; but it all bears the imprint of the masculine intellect, reasoning from the masculine point of view, for the benefit of masculinity, and ignoring in the most natural manner the woman's side of life. The trend of argument is mainly in one direction. While a few cynics gibe at love and conjugal felicity, the mass of poets and philosophers unite in extolling wedlock. Some praise its pleasures, others its duties, and others again merely point out with Euripides that, as children cannot be bought with gold or silver, there is no way of acquiring these coveted possessions save by the help of women. Now and then a rare word of sympathy is flung to the wife, as in those touching lines of Sophocles upon the young girls sold in their "gleeful maidenhood" to sad or shameful marriage-beds. But the important thing to be achieved is the welfare and happiness of men. The welfare and happiness of women are supposed—not without reason—to follow as a necessary sequence; but this is a point which excites no very deep concern.

Catholic Christendom throughout the Middle Ages, and long afterwards, offered one practical solution to the problem of unmated and unprotected womanhood,—the convent. The girl robbed of all hope of marriage by bitter stress of war or poverty, the girl who feared too deeply the turmoil and violence of the world, found shelter in the convent. Within its walls she was reasonably safe, and her vows lent dignity to her maidenhood. Bride of the Church, she did not rank as a spinster, and her position had the advantage of being accurately defined; she was part of a recognized social and ecclesiastical system. No one feels this more solidly than does a nun to-day, and no one looks with more contempt upon unmarried women in the world. In her eyes there are but two vocations,—wifehood and consecrated virginity. She perceives that the wife and the religious are transmitters of the world's traditions; while the spinster is an anomaly, with no inherited background to give repute and distinction to her rôle.

This point of view is the basis of much criticism, and has afforded scope for the ridicule of the satirist, and for the outpourings of the sentimentalist. A great many brutal jests have been flung at the old maid, and floods of sickly sentiment have been wasted on her behalf. She has been laughed at frankly as one rejected by men, and she has been wept over as a wasted force, withering patiently under the blight of this rejection. "Envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness" have been ascribed to her on one side, and a host of low-spirited and treacly virtues, on the other. The spinster of comedy is a familiar figure. A perfectly simple and ingenuous example is the maiden aunt in "Pickwick," Miss Rachel Wardle, whom Mr. Tupman loves, and with whom Mr. Jingle elopes. She is spiteful and foolish, envious of youth and easy to dupe. She is utterly ridiculous, and a fair mark for laughter. She is pinched, and withered, and hopelessly removed from all charm of womanhood; and—it may be mentioned parenthetically—she is fifty years old. We have her brother's word for it.

There is nothing in this straightforward caricature that could, or that should, wound anybody's sensibilities. The fun is of a robust order; the ridicule has no subtlety and no sting. But the old maid of the sentimentalists, a creature stricken at heart, though maddeningly serene and impossibly unselfish, is every bit as remote from reality, and far less cheerful to contemplate. What can be more offensive than the tearful plea for consideration put forward by her apologists, who, after all, tolerate her only because, having no career of her own, she is expected to efface herself in the interests of other people. "The peculiar womanly virtues," says a recent writer upon this fruitful theme, "the power of self-sacrifice, warm sympathies, compassion, patient endurance, represent an untold amount of suffering on the part of the weaker sex in past ages. It is to the world's advantage that the fruit of such suffering be not lost."

Here is a sparkling view of life; here is a joyous standpoint of observation. There is generosity enough in the world to win for the dejected, the wistful, the pathetic woman a fair share of commiseration; provided always that she does not oppose her own interests to the interests of those around her. But what if she honestly prefers her own interests,—a not uncommon attitude of mind? What if patient endurance be the very last virtue to which she can lay claim? What if she is not in the least wistful, and never casts longing looks at her sister-in-law's babies, nor strains them passionately to her heart, nor deems it a privilege to nurse her nephews through whooping-cough and measles, nor offers herself in any fashion as a holocaust upon other people's domestic altars? What if, holding her life in her two hands, and knowing it to be her only real possession, she disposes of it in the way she feels will give her most content, swimming smoothly in the stream of her own nature, and clearly aware that happiness lies in the development of her individual tastes and acquirements? Such a woman may, as Mr. Brownell says, exhibit transparently "her native and elemental inconsistencies;" but she calls for no commiseration, and perhaps adds a trifle to the harmonious gayety of earth.

That she should be censured for laying claim to what is truly hers seems unkind and irrational,—a tyranny of opinion. Marriage is a delightful thing; but it is not, and never can be, a duty; nor is it as a duty that men and women have hitherto zealously practised it. The outcry against celibacy as a "great social disease" is louder than the situation warrants. It is the echo of an older protest against the deferring of the inevitable wedding-day; against the perverse "boggling at every object," which Burton found so exasperating a trait in youth, and which La Bruyère calmly and conclusively condemns. "There is," says the French moralist, "a time when even the richest women ought to marry. They cannot allow their youthful chances to escape them, without the risk of a long repentance. The importance of their reputed wealth seems to diminish with their beauty. A young woman, on the contrary, has everything in her favour; and if, added to youth, she possesses other advantages, she is so much the more desirable."

This is the simplest possible exposition of the masculine point of view. It is plain that nothing is farther from La Bruyère's mind than the possibility of a lifelong spinsterhood for even the most procrastinating heiress. He merely points out that it would be more reasonable in her to permit a husband to enjoy her youth and her wealth simultaneously. The modern moralist argues with less suavity that the rich woman who remains unmarried because she relishes the wide and joyous activity fostered by her independence is a transgressor against social laws. She sins through dire selfishness, and her punishment is the loss of all that gives dignity and importance to her life. Only a few months ago a strenuous advocate of matrimony—as if matrimony had need of advocates—pointed out judicially in "Harper's Magazine" that the childless woman has nothing to show for all the strength and skill she has put into the business of living. She may be intelligent, stimulating, and serene. She may have seen much of the world, and have taken its lessons to heart. She may have filled her days with useful and agreeable occupations. Nevertheless, he considers her existence "in the long run, a bootless sort of errand;" doubting whether she has acquired anything that can make life more interesting to her at thirty-five, at forty-five, at seventy. "And so much the worse for her."

This is assuming that there are no interests outside of marriage; no emotions, ambitions, nor obligations unconnected with the rearing of children. We are invited to believe that the great world, filled to its brim with pleasures and pains, duties, diversions, and responsibilities, cannot keep a woman going—even to thirty-five—without the incentive of maternity. Accustomed as we are to the expansive utterances of conjugal felicity, this seems a trifle overbearing. Charles Lamb thought it hard to be asked by a newly wedded lady how—being a bachelor—he could assume to know anything about the breeding of oysters. To-day the expressed doubt is how—being spinsters or bachelors—we can assume to know anything about the serious significance of life.

It is not the rich and presumably self-indulgent woman alone who is admonished to mend her ways and marry. The sentence extends to the working classes, who are held to be much in fault. Even the factory girl, toiling for her daily bread, has been made the subject of censure as unjust as it is severe. What if she does covet the few poor luxuries,—the neat shoes and pretty frock which represent her share of æsthetic development? What if she does enjoy her independence, and the power to spend as she pleases the money for which she works so hard? These things are her inalienable rights. To limit them is tyranny. To denounce them is injustice. We may sincerely believe that she would be better and happier if she married; and that the bringing up of children on the precarious earnings of a working-man would be a more legitimate field for her intelligence and industry. But it is her privilege to decide this point for herself; and no one is warranted in questioning her decision. She does not owe matrimony to the world.

There is still another class of women whose spinsterhood is hardly a matter of choice, yet whose independence has aroused especial criticism and denunciation. A few years ago there appeared in "Macmillan's Magazine" a well-written article on the educated, unmarried, and self-supporting women, who, in London alone, fill countless clerical, official, and academic positions. It was pointed out that these toilers, debarred by poverty from agreeable social conditions, lead lives of cheerful and honourable frugality, preserving their self-respect, seeking help and commiseration from none, enjoying their scanty pleasures with intelligence, and doing their share of work with eager and anxious precision. Surely if any creatures on God's earth merit some esteem, these spinsters may be held in deference. Yet the writer of the article unhesitatingly, though not unkindly, summed up the case against them. No woman with a sensitive conscience, he avowed, can be happy on such terms. "She more than suspects she is in danger of serious moral deterioration. … She is aware that her mode of life is essentially selfish, and therefore stands condemned."

In the name of Heaven, why? Would her mode of life be less selfish if she asked a support from a married brother, or a wealthy aunt? Is it necessary to her moral well-being that she should pass her days in polite servitude? Apparently it is; for hardly had the "Macmillan" article appeared, when a more strenuous critic in the "Spectator" took its writer severely to task, not for his censorship, but for his leniency. The "Spectator" declared in round terms that the woman who devotes herself to the difficult problem of her own support "lives a more or less unnatural life of self-dependence;—the degree of the unnaturalness depending on the degree of her self-dependence, and the completeness of the disappearance of that religious devoutness which prevents loneliness from degenerating into self-dependence."

Shades of Addison and Steele pardon this cumbrous sentence! That self-dependence might degenerate into loneliness we can understand; but how or why should loneliness degenerate into self-dependence, and what has either loneliness or self-dependence to do with the "disappearance of religious devoutness"? Is religion also a perquisite of family life? May we not be devout in solitude? "Be able to be alone," counsels Sir Thomas Browne, whose piety was of a most satisfying order. It is not profane to plan or to advance an individual career. We do not insult Providence by endeavouring to provide for ourselves. And if the restlessness of modern life impels women of independent fortune to enter congenial fields of work, the freedom to do this thing is their birthright and prerogative. We can no more sweep back the rising tide of interests and ambitions than we can sweep back the waves of the Atlantic. A hundred years ago, marriage was for an intelligent woman a necessary entrance into life, a legitimate method of carrying out her ideas and her aims. To-day she tries to carry them out, whether she be married or not. Perhaps some awkwardness of self-assertion disfigures that "polished moderation" which is her highest grace; but the frank resoluteness of her attitude is more agreeable to contemplate than sad passivity and endurance. Mr. John Stuart Mill said that a woman's inheritance of "subjection"—he never minced words—induced, on the one hand, a capacity for self-sacrifice, and, on the other, a habit of pusillanimity. Both characteristics have been modified by changing circumstances. But with more courage and less self-immolation has come a happier outlook upon life, and an energy which is not always misplaced. Mariana no longer waits tearfully in the Moated Grange. She leaves it as quickly as possible for some more healthful habitation, and a more engaging pursuit.

There is one English author who has defended with delicacy that sagacious self-respect which, even in his time, preserved a woman now and then from the blunder of an unequal and unbecoming marriage. De Quincey, extolling the art of letter-writing, pays this curious bit of homage to his most valued correspondents:—

"Three out of four letters in the mail-bag will be written by that class of women who have the most leisure, and the most interest in a correspondence by the post; and who combine more intelligence, cultivation, and thoughtfulness than any other class in Europe. They are the unmarried women over twenty-five, who, from mere dignity of character, have renounced all prospects of conjugal and parental life, rather than descend into habits unsuitable to their birth. Women capable of such sacrifices, and marked by such strength of mind, may be expected to think with deep feeling, and to express themselves (unless when they have been too much biassed by bookish connections) with natural grace."

This is something very different from the "All for Love, and the World well lost," flaunted by novelists and poets; very different from the well-worn "Quand on n'a pas ce qu'on aime, il faut aimer ce qu'on a," which has married generations of women. But in the philosophy of life, the power to estimate and to balance scores heavily for success. It is not an easy thing to be happy. It takes all the brains, and all the soul, and all the goodness we possess. We may fail of our happiness, strive we ever so bravely; but we are less likely to fail if we measure with judgment our chances and our capabilities. To glorify spinsterhood is as ridiculous as to decry it. Intelligent women marry or remain single, because in married or in single life they see their way more clearly to content. They do not, in either case, quarrel with fate which has modelled them for, and fitted them into, one groove rather than another; but follow, consciously or unconsciously, the noble maxim of Marcus Aurelius: "Love that only which the gods send thee, and which is spun with the thread of thy destiny."