Maids Wives and Bachelors Part 3
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If some good and thoughtful woman who died fifty years ago could return to this world, what in our present life would most astonish her? Would it be the wonders of steam, electricity, and science; the tyranny of the working cla.s.ses, or the autocracy of servants? No! It would be the amazing development of her own s.e.x,--the preaching, lecturing, political women; the women who are doctors and lawyers; who lose and win money on horses, or in stocks and real estate; the women who talk slang, and think it an accomplishment; who imitate men's attire and manners; who do their athletic exercises in public; and, perhaps more astonis.h.i.+ng than all, the women who make marriage the cloak for much profitable post-nuptial flirtation.
For her own s.e.x engaged in business, she might find excuses or even admiration; and even for the unfeminine girls of the era, she might plead Mrs. Poyser's opinion, that "the women are made to suit the men." But for young wives notorious for their flirting and their "followers," she could have nothing but unqualified scorn and condemnation. For the sentiment demanding absolute fidelity in a wife may be said to have the force of a human instinct; in all ages it has exacted from her an avoidance of the very appearance of evil.
Therefore a good woman in the presence of a frivolous flirting wife feels as if a law of nature were being broken before her eyes; since behind the wife stands the possible mother, and the claims of family, race, and caste, as well as of conjugal honor, are all in her keeping.
Without any exaggeration it may be said that wife-errantry is now as common as knight-errantry once was. The young men of to-day have discovered the personal advantage and safety there is in the society of another man's wife. They transpose an old proverb, and practically say: "Fools marry, and wise men follow their wives." For, if the husband be only complacent, it is such a safe thing to flirt with a pretty wife. Young girls are dangerous and might lure them into matrimony; but they have no fear of bigamy. They can whisper sweet words to a gay, married flirt; they can walk, and talk, and dance, and ride with her; they can lounge in her dusky drawing-room or in her opera box, and no one will ask them the reason why, or make any suggestion about their "intentions."
How far this custom affects the morals of the woman is not at first obvious; but we must insist on this recognized premise: "Society has laid down positive rules regarding the modesty of women, and apart from these rules it is hard to believe modesty can exist. For all conventional social laws are founded on principles of good morals and good sense; and to violate them without a sufficient reason destroys nicety of feeling, sweetness of mind, and self-respect." It is no excuse to say that propriety is old-maidish, and that men like smart women, or that no harm is intended by their flirtations. The question is: Can married women preserve their delicacy of thought and their n.o.bleness of manner; can they be truly loyal to their husbands and to themselves throughout the different phases of a recognized flirtation?
It is an impossible thing.
Suppose a beautiful girl to be wooed and won by a man in every way suitable to her desires. She has accepted his love and his name, and vowed to cleave to him, and to him only, till death parts them. The wooing has been mainly done in full dress, at b.a.l.l.s and operas, or in hours tingling with the expectancy of such conditions. The aroma of roses, the rustle of silks and laces, the notes of music, the taste of bon-bons and sparkling wines, were the atmosphere; and the days and weeks went by to the sense of flying feet in a ballroom, or to enchanted loiterings in greenhouses, and behind palms and flowers on decorated stairways.
The young wife is unwilling to believe that marriage has other and graver duties. She has been taught to live in the present only, and she is, therefore, cynical and apathetic concerning all things but dress and amus.e.m.e.nts. The husband has to return to business, which has been somewhat neglected; arrears of duty are to be met. He feels it necessary to attend to the question of supplies; he is, likely, a little embarra.s.sed by the long holiday of wooing and honeymooning, and he would be grateful for some retrenchment and retirement, for the purpose of home-making.
The young wife has no such intentions; she resents and contradicts them on every occasion; and after the first pang of disappointment is over, he finds it the most prudent and comfortable plan to be indifferent to her continued frivolity. He is perhaps even flattered to find her so much admired; perhaps, in his heart, rather thankful to be relieved from the trouble of admiring her. As for any graver thoughts, he concludes that his wife is no worse than A's and B's and C's wives; that she is quite able to take care of herself, and that in a mult.i.tude of adorers there is safety.
Thus, in a majority of cases, begins the career of the married flirt.
But the character is not a corollary of marriage, if the proper conditions were present when the wife was a young woman. There is no salvation in the Order of Matrimony; no miracles are wrought at the altar of Grace Church, or at St. Thomas's. She that is frivolous, giddy, and selfish is likely to continue frivolous, giddy, and selfish; and marriage merely supplies her with a wider field and greater opportunities for the indulgence of her vanity and greed.
She re-enters society with every advantage of youth, beauty, wealth, and liberty; released from the disabilities under which unmarried girls lie; armed with new powers to dazzle and to conquer. No longer a compet.i.tor for a matrimonial prize, she is a rival ten times more dangerous than she was. Setting aside the wrong done to the sacredness of the connubial relation, she now becomes the most subtle enemy to the prospects of all the unmarried girls in her set. What is the bud to the perfect rose? The timid, blus.h.i.+ng maiden pales and subsides before the married siren who has the audacity and charm of a conscious intelligence. It is not without good reason that special b.a.l.l.s and parties have come into fas.h.i.+on for social buds; they are the necessary sequence to the predominance of married sirens, with whom in a mixed society no young girl can cope. They have the floor and the partners; they monopolize all the attention, and their pleasure is of the greatest importance. And their pleasure is to flirt--to flirt in all places and at all hours.
In vain will some young aspirant to marriage display in the presence of the married flirt her pretty accomplishments. She may sing her songs, and play her mandolin never so sweetly, but the young men slip away with some one or other of the piquant brides of the past year.
And in the privacy of the smoking-room it is the brides, and not the young girls, who are talked about--what dresses they wear or are likely to wear, how their hair is done, the history of the jewels which adorn them, and the clever things they have said or implied.
Before we condemn too much the society girls of the time, we ought to consider the new enemy who stands in the way of their advancement to marriage. Is it not quite natural that the most courageous girls should refuse the secondary place to which married flirts a.s.sign them, and endeavor to meet these invaders with their own weapons? If so, much of the forwardness of the present young girl is traceable to the necessity forced upon her by these married compet.i.tors. For it is a fact that young men go to the latter for advice and sympathy. They tell them about the girls they like, and their fancies are nipped in the bud. For the married flirt's first instinct is to divest all other women of that air of romance with which the n.o.bility and chivalry of men have invested womanhood for centuries. So she points out with a pitiless exactness all the small arts which other women use; and is not only a rival to some young girl, but a traitor to her whole s.e.x.
And yet she is not only tolerated but indulged. People giving entertainments know that their success will be in a large measure dependent upon the number of beautiful young wives present. They know the situation is all wrong, but they are sure they cannot either fight the wrong, or put it right; and in the meantime their particular ball will not increase the evil very much. Not fifty years ago it was the young beauties that were considered and looked after, and the gentlemen asked to an entertainment were asked with reference to the unmarried girls; for it was understood that any married women present would, of course, be wrapped up in their own husbands. Then a wife accepting attentions from one young man after another would have aroused the contempt and disapproval of every man and woman present.
Vanity in the first place leads young wives to flirting, but grosser motives soon follow. For whatever other experiences matrimony brings, it generally stimulates a woman's love of money; and the married siren soon makes her "followers" understand that she is "a very practical little woman, and does not care for a sonnet, or a serenade, or a bouquet of fresh flowers." A summer's cruise in a fine yacht, a seat on a coach, an opera box, a jewel, dinners, drives, and luncheons, are the blackmail which the married flirt expects, in return for her sighs, sentiment, and advice.
It is indeed curious to note the change of fas.h.i.+on in this respect.
Let any one turn over the novels of half a century ago, and he will see that the favorite plan for compromising a woman's honor was to induce her to accept the loan of money, or the gift of jewels. If the unfortunate heroine did so, no novelist would have dared to offer an apology for her. But this age of luxury and laxity has exploded the scrupulous delicacy of the Evelinas and Cecilias of the old tales, and the splendidly free feminine Uhlans of our modern society laugh to scorn the prim modesty of the Richardsonian standard. They a.s.sert, if not in words yet by their actions, the right of a woman to make her fascinations serviceable to her.
Some married women contend that their flirtations are absolutely innocent friends.h.i.+ps. But in all stations of society it is a dangerous thing for two people of the opposite s.e.x to chant together the litany of the church of Plato. The two who could do it safely would be the very two who would never dream of such an imprudence. Those who enter into "friends.h.i.+ps" of this kind, with what they think are the most innocent intentions, should sharply arrest themselves as soon as they are "talked about." For in social judgments, the dictum that "people talked about generally get what they deserve" is true, however unjust it may appear to be.
Another cla.s.s of married flirts scorn to make any apology, or any pretence of mere friends.h.i.+p. They stand upon the emanc.i.p.ation of women, and the right of one s.e.x to as much liberty as the other.
This kind of siren boldly says, "she does not intend to be a slave like her mother, and her grand-mother. She does not propose to tie herself, either to a house or a cradle." She travels, she lives in yachts and hotels, and she does not include a nursery in her plans. She talks of elective affinities, natural emotions of the heart, and contrasts the opportunities of such conditions with the limitations and the monotony of domestic relations. She makes herself valueless for the very highest natural duties of womanhood, and then talks of her enfranchis.e.m.e.nt! Yes, she has her freedom, and what does it mean? More dresses and jewelry, more visits and journeys; while the whole world of parental duties and domestic tendernesses lies in ruins at her feet.
The relegation of the married flirt to her proper sphere and duties is beyond the power of any single individual. Society could make the necessary protest, but it does not; for if Society is anything, it is non-interfering. It looks well to it that the outside, the general public appearance of its members is respectable; with faults not found out it does not trouble itself. A charge must be definitely made before it feels any necessity to take cognizance of it. And Society knows well that these married sirens draw like magnets. Besides, each entertainer declares: "I am not my sister's keeper, nor am I her Inquisitor or Confessor. If her husband tolerates the pretty woman's vagaries, what right have I, what right has any one, to say a word about her?"
But it is a fact that, if Society frowned on wives who arrogate to themselves the privileges both of young girls and of wives, the custom would become stale and offensive. If it would cease to recognize young married women who are on the terms with their husbands described by Millamant in "The Way of the World,"--"as strange as if they had been married a long time, and as well bred as if they had never been married at all,"--young married women would behave themselves better. It is generally thought that Mr. Congreve wrote his plays for a very dissolute age; in reality, they seem to have been written for a decorous, rather strait-laced generation, if we compare it with our own.
Mothers-in-Law are the mothers for whom there is no law, no justice, no sympathy, nor yet that share of fair play which an average American is willing to grant, even to an open adversary. Every petty punster, every silly witling, considers them as a ready-made joke; and the wonder and the pity of it is that abuse so unmerited and so long continued has called forth no champions from that s.e.x which owes so much to woman, in every relation of life.
The condition of mother-in-law is one full of pathos and self-abnegation, and all the reproach attached to it comes from those whose selfishness and egotism ought to render their testimony of small value. A young man, for instance, falls in love with a girl who appears to him the sum of all perfections,--perfections, partly inherited from, and partly cultivated by, the mother at whose side she has lived for twenty years.
She is the delight of her mother's heart, she fills all her hopes and dreams for the future; and the girl herself, believes that nothing can separate her from a mother so dear and so devoted.
While the man is wooing the daughter, this wondrous capability for an absorbing affection strikes him as a very pretty thing. In the first place, it keeps the mother on his side; in the second, he looks forward to supplying this capability with a strictly personal object.
At this stage his future mother-in-law is a very pleasant person, for he is uncomfortably conscious of the Beloved One's father and brothers. He is then thankful for any encouragement she may give him.
He gladly takes counsel with her; flatters her opinions, makes her presents, and so works upon her womanly instincts concerning love affairs that she stands by his side when he has to "speak to papa,"
and through her favor and tact the rough places are made smooth, and the crooked places plain. Until the marriage is over, and the longed-for girl his wife, there is no one so important in the lover's eyes as the girl's mother.
Suddenly all is changed. When the young people return from the bridal trip there is a different tone and a different atmosphere.
The young husband is now in his own house, and spreading himself like a peac.o.c.k in full feather. He thinks "mamma" too interfering. He resents the familiarity with which she speaks to _his_ wife. He feels as if her speculation about their future movements was an impertinence. He says without a blush that her visit was "a bore."
And the bride, being flattered by his desire for no company but her own, admits that "dear mamma is fussy and effusive." Both have forgotten the days in which the young husband was a great deal of a bore to his mother-in-law,--when indeed it was very hard for her to tolerate his presence; and both have forgotten how she, to secure their happiness, sacrificed her own wishes and prejudices.
How often does this poor mother go to see her child before she realizes she is a bore? How many snubs and heart-aches does she bear ere she comprehends the position? She hopes against despair. She weeps, and wipes her tears away; she tries again, only to be again wounded. Her own husband frets a little with her, and then with a touch of anger at his ungrateful child, advises the mother "to let her alone." But by and by there is a baby, and she can no longer keep away. She has a world of loving cares about the child and its mother.
She is sure no one can take her place now. She is very much mistaken.
The baby is a new kind of baby; there has never been one quite such a perfect pattern before; and the parents--exalted above measure at the perfection they alone are responsible for--regard her pride and delight as some infringement of their new honors and responsibilities.
Happiness has only hardened them; and after a little, the mother and the mother-in-law understands her loss, and humbly refrains from interfering. Or, if she has an imprudent tongue, she speaks unadvisedly with it, and her words bite home, and the "mother" is forgotten, and the "in-law" remains, to barb every ill-natured word and account for every selfish unkindness.
Of course, in a relations.h.i.+p which admits of endless varieties, this description fits only a certain number. But it is a very large number; for there are few families who will not be able to recall some such case among their members or their acquaintances. Still, many daughters do more virtuously, and cherish a loyal affection for their old home.
If they are wise and loving and specially unselfish, they will likely carry their matrimonial bark safely through those narrow shallows which separate the two households. But the trouble is that newly married people are both selfish and foolish. They feel themselves to be the only persons of consequence, and think that all things ought to be arranged for their pleasure. The solemn majesty of the young wife's housekeeping is not to be criticised, qualified, or inspected; the new-made householder does not believe that the "earth is the Lord's,"
or even the children of men's; it is all his own. And their friends tacitly agree to smile at this egotism awhile, because all the world really does love a lover; and every one is willing to grant the bride and bridegroom some short respite from the dreary cares and every-day business of life.
Two points are remarkable in this persistent antagonism to the mother-in-law. The first is that the husband who is often specially vindictive against his wife's mother has very little to say against her male relatives. If the girl he marries is motherless, he does not quarrel with his father-in-law; though he may be quite as interfering as any mother-in-law could be. Yet if the girl, instead of being motherless, is fatherless, the husband at once begins to show his love for his wife by a systematic disrespect towards her mother. Yet perhaps a month previously he had considered her a very amiable lady, he had shown her many courtesies, he had asked her advice about all the details of his marriage. What makes him, a little later, accuse her of every domestic fault? How is it that she has suddenly become "so self-opinionated"? Never before had he discovered that she treats his wife like a child, and himself as an appendage. And how does he manage to make his bride also feel that "dear mamma is trying, and so unable to understand things." It is a mystery that ends, however, in the mother-in-law being made to feel that her new relative totally disapproves of her. The truth is, the lover was afraid of the men of his wife's family before marriage. They might seriously have interfered with his intentions. After marriage he knows they will be civil to him for the sake of his wife. Then, the women of the family were useful to him before marriage, after it he can do without them.
He has got the woman he was so eager to get by any means, and he wishes to have her entirely. A smile, or a word, or an act of kindness to any one else, is so much taken from his rights. He desires not only to usurp her present and her future, but also her past.
The other remarkable point is the unjust s.h.i.+fting of all the mother-in-law's shortcomings to the shoulders of the wife's mother; this is especially unjust, because not only the newspapers of the day, but also the private knowledge of every individual, furnishes abundant testimony that it is not the wife's mother, but the husband's mother, who is at the bottom of nine-tenths of the domestic misery arising from this source. The wife's mother with small encouragement will like, even love, the man who has chosen her daughter above all other women. The husband's mother never really likes her son's wife. And young wives are apt to forget how bitterly hard it is for a mother to give her son up, at once and forever, to a girl whom she does not like in any way. Perhaps. .h.i.therto the son and mother have been every one, and everything to each other, and it is only human that the latter should have to battle fiercely and constantly with an involuntary jealousy, and a cruel quicksightedness for small faults in his wife.
It is only human that she should try to make trouble, and enjoy the fact that her son is less happy with his wife than he was with her, and that he comes to her for comfort in his disappointment. The love of a mother is often a very jealous love; and a jealous mother is just as unreasonable as a jealous wife; she can make life bitterly hard for her son's wife, and, to do her justice, she very often does so. Then if the wife--wounded and imprudent--goes to her own mother with her sorrows and wrongs, it is the natural att.i.tude of the husband to s.h.i.+ft the blame from his own mother to his wife's mother. There are indeed so many ways by which this misery can enter a household that it is impossible to define them; for there is just variety enough in every case to give an individuality of suffering to each.
What, then, is to be done? Let us admit at once that our relations do give us half the pain and sorrow we suffer in life; but each may do something to reduce the liability. We may remember that all such quarrels come from excess of love, and that a quarrel springing from love is more hopeful than one springing from hate. As mothers-in-law, we may tell ourselves that when our children are married we no longer have the first right in them. The young people must be left to make the best of their life, and we must never interfere, nor ever give advice until it is asked for. Another irritation, little suspected, is the palpable forcing forward of the new relations.h.i.+p. On both sides it is well to be in no hurry to claim it. A girl takes a man for better or for worse, but does not therefore take all his relations.
Love for her husband does not include admiration for all within his kindred; nor will it, until the millennium makes all tempers perfect.
And, again, a man does not like to be dragooned into a filial feeling for his wife's family. Many a man would like his new relatives better if they left him with a sense of perfect freedom in the matter.
The main point is that men should put a stop to a traditional abuse that affects every woman in every household. They can do it! Many an honest, manly fellow would burn with shame if he would only consider how often he has not only permitted, but also joined in, the silly, unjust laughter which miserable punsters and negro minstrels and disappointed lovers and other incapables fling at the women of his own household. For if a man is married, or ever hopes to be married, his own mother is, or must be, a mother-in-law. If he has sisters their destiny will likely put them in the same position. The fairest young bride has the prospect before her; the baby daughter in the cradle may live to think her own mother a bore, or to think some other mother one, if there is not a better understanding about a relations.h.i.+p which is far indeed from being a laughable one. On the contrary, the initiation to it is generally a sacrifice, made with infinite heart-ache and anxiety, and with many sorrowful tears.
In the theatres, in the little circles of which every man's home is the centre, in all places where thoughtless fools turn women and motherhood into ridicule, it is in the power of two or three good men to make the habit derogatory and unfas.h.i.+onable. They can cease to laugh at the wretched little jokes, and treat with contempt the vulgar spirit that repeats them. For the men who say bitter things about mothers-in-law are either selfish egotists, who have called trouble to themselves from this source, or they are moral imbeciles, repeating like parrots fatuous jests whose meaning and wickedness they do not even understand.
Good and Bad Mothers
The difference between good and bad mothers is so vast and so far-reaching that it is no exaggeration to say that the good mothers of this generation are building the homes of the next generation, and that the bad mothers are building the prisons. For out of families nations are made; and if the father be the head and the hands of a family, the mother is the heart. No office in the world is so honorable as hers, no priesthood so holy, no influence so sweet and strong and lasting.
For this tremendous responsibility mother-love has always been sufficient. The most ignorant women have trusted to it; and the most learned have found it potential when all their theories failed. And neither sage men nor wise women will ever devise anything to take the place of mother-love in the rearing of children. If there be other good things present, it glorifies them; if there be no other good thing--it is sufficient. For mother-love is the spirit of self-sacrifice even unto death, and self-sacrifice is the meat and drink of all true and pure affection.
Maids Wives and Bachelors Part 3
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