Essays in Miniature/Three Famous Old Maids


THREE FAMOUS OLD MAIDS


IT is a curious fact that three of the most successful and eminent literary women in England—Miss Austen, Miss Edgeworth, and Miss Mitford—should have been typical old maids; not merely unmarried through stress of intervening circumstances—ill health, early disappointment, or a self-sacrificing devotion to other cares—but women whose lives were rounded and completed without that element which we are taught to believe is the mainspring and prime motor of existence. To understand how thoroughly this was the case, we have but to turn to a later and very different writer, Charlotte Bronte, who married when she was thirty-eight, and died one year afterward, and whose whole literary life was accordingly passed in spinsterhood. Yet if that very grave and respectable gentleman, the Rev. Mr. Nicholls, had never appeared upon the scene at all, it would have been impossible to call Miss Brontë a typical old maid. She had the outward signs of one, indeed, the prim demeanor, the methodical habits, the sarcastic attitude toward the male sex; but burning in every fibre of her being, and evident in every page of her writings, is that fierce unrest, that inarticulate, distressful longing of a woman who craves love. We can easily imagine Elizabeth Bennet, and the very sensible Elinor Dashwood, and even Emma Woodhouse, dearest and brightest of girls, slipping from their lovers' grasp and growing into old maids as charming as was Miss Austen herself; but poor plain Jane Eyre, and that reticent little school-teacher, Lucy Snowe, are shaken and consumed with the passion of their own desires. Such women cannot walk from the cradle to the grave, handling their lives with delicate satisfaction and content; they must find what they need or die.

It is amusing to note how the various critics and biographers of Miss Austen, Miss Edgeworth, and Miss Mitford have debated and fretted over the painful lack of romance in their careers. Feminine critics, especially, find it difficult to believe that there is no hidden tale to tell, no secret and justifiable cause for this otherwise inexplicable behavior; and much time and patience have been exhausted in dragging shadowy memories to light. In the case of Miss Mitford, indeed, it seems quite hopeless to search for even the ghost of a love-story, and, although she certainly did devote her life with touching unselfishness to the comfort and support of a very exacting father, it cannot for a moment be urged that, in so doing, she relinquished any distinct desire or prospect of matrimony. Perhaps the exasperating qualities of her parent inclined her unconsciously to remain single; for, with all her unsparing devotion, she must, in the course of sorely tried years, have grown to regard men very much as Dolly Winthrop regarded them,—"in the light of animals whom it had pleased Heaven to make naturally troublesome." Mr. Mitford, a most genial and handsome old gentleman of the Turveydrop pattern, managed to keep his daughter's hands full of work, and her heart full of love, and left her little chance or disposition for any wandering fancies. All the exuberant affection of her girlhood, all the mature attachment of later years, were concentrated upon him alone. Her youth waned, her freshness faded, her indomitable courage and cheerfulness quailed a little before the ever-increasing burdens of her life; but through it all, in joy and sorrow, no shadow of a suitor stands beckoning by her side. Her serene old age was haunted by no dim voices crying out of the past for the joy which had slipped from her grasp. She wrote love-stories by the score, always approaching the subject from the outside, and treating it with the easy conventionality, the generous yet imperfect sympathy of a warm-hearted woman not prone to analyze motives. They are very pleasant stories for the most part, sensible, healthy, and happy; but they are not convincing. The reader feels that if Polly did not marry Joe she would be just as well satisfied with William, and that if Edwin failed to win Angelina he would soon content himself with Dorothy. This is a comfortable state of affairs, and doubtless true to life; but it is not precisely the element which makes a successful love-tale. The fact is, Miss Mitford described things pretty much as she found them, not seeking to dive below the surface, and always adding a little sunshine of her own. She was a happy woman, save for some sad years of overwork, and her life was full of pleasant detail, of cherished duties, and of felicitous labor; but, from first to last, love had no part in it, and, fancy free, she never reckoned of her loss.

Miss Edgeworth, too, seems to have been lifted from the sphere of matrimony by the unusual strength of her family affections. Her devotion to her father, to her two stepmothers, and to her nineteen brothers and sisters was of such an absorbing nature as to leave her little leisure or inclination for mere matters of sentiment. She was so busy too, so full of pleasant cares, and successful work, and a thousand-and-one delightful interests; above all, she clung so fondly to her home, and country, and the familiar faces she had known from babyhood, that love had no chance to storm her well-defended walls. When that handsome and earnest young Swede, he of the "superior understanding and mild manners," came to woo, he found, alas! that the lady could not tear her heart away from Ireland and her beautiful young stepsisters to give it to his keeping. She acknowledged his merits, both his mildness and his superiority, she liked and admired him in every way; but marry and go to Sweden!—that she would not do, either for M. Edelcrantz or any other man. Mrs. Edgeworth, who was distinctly sentimental, and who would have been delighted to see her clever stepdaughter happily wedded, says quite touchingly that Maria was mistaken in the strength of her own feelings; that she really loved M. Edelcrantz, but refused to marry him because her family could not bear to part with her, because "she would not have suited his position at the court of Stockholm," and because she feared her lack of beauty would one day lessen his regard. Shadow of shadows! Was there ever a woman who declined to marry the man she truly loved for such cloud-built reasoning as this! Maria was doubtless the darling of her own home circle, and would have been sorely missed had she winged her flight to Sweden; but there were daughters enough in that overflowing household to admit of one being spared. As for the other obstacles, it is hardly possible that they should have been urged seriously by a woman as free from morbid sentiment as was Miss Edgeworth. There is a sweet humility which is born of love, and which whispers to most women—and, probably, to some men—that they are unworthy of the choice which has fallen upon them, of the jewel which has been flung at their feet. But to push this delicate emotion so far as to sacrifice happiness at its bidding is not the impulse of a sound and healthy nature. Miss Edgeworth could never have been pretty, and had spent most of her life in retirement; but she was by no means unacquainted with the ways of the world, by no means destitute of womanly charms, and, above all, by no means without the exhilarating consciousness of success. In fact, when we read her biography, we are principally impressed by the amount of adulation she received, by the extraordinary enthusiasm her pleasant tales aroused. The struggling novelist is tempted to wish that he also might have lived in those halcyon days, until he remembers that a far greater writer, Miss Austen, had no share in this universal and unbounded applause. Miss Edgeworth was as much the pet of the literary world as of her own household and friends. She had little need to doubt her powers, or to fear neglect and indifference. If she really regretted poor M. Edelcrantz—who went back to Sweden with a sore heart and never married anybody else—she gave no outward token of repentance, but lived to be eighty-two, the most cheerful and radiant of old maids, faithful to the last to her family affections, and happy to die in the midst of those who had made the sunshine of her life.

It is in the case of Miss Austen, however, that truly strenuous efforts have been made to cultivate a passable romance upon scanty soil. Miss Austen was pretty, she was gay, she possessed an indefinable attraction for men, and she was in turn attracted by them, as a healthy-minded, happy-hearted girl should be. Her letters to Cassandra are full of amusing confidences on the subject—confidences far too amusing, in fact, to give any sign or token of genuine feeling beyond. She writes with buoyant cheerfulness about Mr. Tom Lefroy, for whom she "does not care sixpence," yet prefers him to all other competitors, who must have ranked pitiably low in the scale. "I am almost afraid," she confesses, "to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together. I can expose myself, however, only once more, because he leaves the country soon after next Friday, on which day we are to have a dance at Ashe after all. He is a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man, I assure you."

Not without grave faults, though, it would seem, for a little later we hear of a morning coat which is much too light to please Jane's critical eye. She cannot possibly give her maiden affections to a man who would wear such a coat, and so, after a while, he disappears from her pages and her life, to go out into the world, and win much legal renown, and be Chief Justice of Ireland, and always to remember with great tenderness the gay young girl at Ashe. Then there appears on the scene that unnamed friend of Mrs. Lefroy's, whose love is so sudden and fervent that Miss Austen feels quite sure it will soon decline into "sensible indifference," as, no doubt, it does. Then the suitor who has "the recommendation of good character, and a good position in life, of everything in fact except the subtle power of touching my heart"—which seems to have been the real difficulty with them all. Sir Francis Doyle, indeed, tells a very pretty and pathetic tale of Jane Austen's engagement to a naval officer who, after the peace of 1820, accompanied his fiancée and her family to Switzerland. Here he started off on foot one fine morning, promising to meet his friends at Chamouni. He never came, and they waited and waited with fast-growing fears, only to learn, when all was over, that the young man had been seized with a sudden fever, and had died, unknown and scantily cared for, in some poor cottage home. It is a sad story, but happily does not rest upon any shadow of foundation. Miss Austen never was engaged, and never was in Switzerland; and although Sir Francis had the tale from a friend, who had it from a member of the family, it merely goes to prove that even relatives are not wholly incapable of weaving romances out of thin air, rather than be, like the knife-grinder, without a tale to tell.

Mrs. Malden, Jane Austen's enthusiastic biographer, discredits most unhesitatingly this particular love-legend, while at the same time she manifests a lively desire to give form and color to another, scarcely less intangible. The third chapter in her little volume is enticingly headed "Her Life's One Romance," and in it is narrated at some length the story of an attractive young clergyman whom Jane and Cassandra Austen met one summer at a seaside resort in Devonshire. He openly admired the younger girl, and, when they parted, "impressed strongly on the sisters his intention of meeting them again." He died, however, shortly after, and Jane neither gave any outward token of grief, nor indulged in any confidences on the subject. Nevertheless, Cassandra, whose own youth was shadowed by the blight of a lost love, was wont to say, after her sister's death, that she believed this to have been her one and only romance; and Miss Thackeray, in her sympathetic sketch of Miss Austen, alludes very sweetly and very confidently to the tale. "Here, too," she says, "is another sorrowful story. The sisters' fate (there is a sad coincidence and similarity in it) was to be undivided; their life, their experience, was the same. Some one without a name takes leave of Jane one day, promising to come back. He never comes back: long afterwards they hear of his death. The story seems even sadder than Cassandra's in its silence and uncertainty, for silence and uncertainty are death in life to some people."

But if there is one thing more than another to be avoided and ruthlessly condemned, it is this quiet assumption that a woman has parted with her heart, when she herself has breathed no word to warrant it. The cheerful serenity of Jane Austen's daily life showed no ripple of storm, her lips told no tale; and why are we to assume that a young man whom she met for a few idle weeks and never saw again had broken down the barriers of that self-possessed nature, had overcome the gay indifference which showed no signs of hurt? As for the popular theory that Anne Elliot's gentle enduring love and poor Fanny Price's hours of bravely borne pain were imaged from the depth of their author's experience, we have but to remember that the same hand gave us Harriet Smith, with her fluctuating, lightly won affections, and Charlotte Collins, sensible and happy, enjoying her pleasant home, and enduring—or avoiding—her solemn, pompous, servile, stupid husband. As well connect one type as another with the genius that revealed them all.

"Of Jane herself I know no definite love-tale to relate," says her nephew and biographer, Mr. Austen Leigh; and this seems about the conclusion of the matter. "No man's life could be more entirely free from sentiment," admits, very reluctantly, one of her cleverest critics. "If love be a woman's chief business, here is a very sweet woman who had no share in it. It is a want, but we have no right to complain, seeing that she did not shape her course to please us."

This is a generous reflection on the critic's part; but is the want so painfully apparent as he thinks, or may we not be well content with Jane Austen as we have her, the central figure of a little loving family group, the dearest of daughters and sisters, the gayest and brightest of aunts, the most charming and incomparable of old maids?