Sunday, August 12, 2018

Shadows In A Timeless Myth Presents The American Spinster Circa 1913


Author of “The Fireside Sphinx,” etc.

THAT this is the Golden Age of spinsters no one will deny, and that America furnishes the soil in which these hardy plants put forth their finest bloom is equally indisputable. How many years have passed since the “antient maydes” of Boston—which term included all unmarried women older than twenty-five—were pronounced by John Dunton to be a “dismal spectacle”? How many years since a few “acute and ingenious gentlewomen” in colonial Virginia had the temerity to remain single and cultivate their own tobacco plantations, for which unnatural behavior they were subjected to repeated “admonishments”? Now the “antient mayde” flaunts her freedom in the faces of those who are patiently doing their duty to the world. Now if a woman runs a successful apple-orchard or dairy-farm, her exploits are heralded far and wide, and other women write exultant papers about her, intimating that the day of the male agriculturist is virtually over. I am not sure that the attitude of our great-great-grandfathers, who jealously and somewhat fearfully guarded their prerogatives, was not more flattering to my sex than this enthusiasm evoked by achievements which in a man would not be found worthy of notice.

As for age—well, who in these years of grace is frankly and confessedly old? We no longer say, “On a l’âge de son cœur,” but “On a l’âge de sa volonté.” Jane Austen settled down to caps and spinsterhood before she was thirty. Dr. Johnson alluded to Miss Lucy Porter’s “hoary virginity” when that lady was fifty-two. The Ettrick Shepherd stubbornly protested that “to ca’ a woman saxty, and then mainteen that ye didna ca’ her auld, is naething short o’ a sophism.” But now no one gets beyond middle age, or “the prime of life.” I have heard a Boston spinster of eighty-two (a remarkable woman, I admit) casually spoken of as middle-aged; and when, in a desperate resolve to push matters to an issue, I said: “Miss D—is not middle-aged; she is old. If you are not old when you are eighty-two, when are you old?” the remark was taken in ill part. “I should not dream of calling Miss D—old,” said one gallant Bostonian, and all his hearers agreed with him.

The French spinster is a negligible factor. The English spinster has conquered her territory and become a force to be reckoned with. But the American spinster is the standard-bearer of the tribe. Her incessant activities and her radiant self-satisfaction have made her appear more dominant than she is, and have caused her critics much needless apprehension. When Mrs. Van Vorst wrote, in 1903, “Our factories are full of old maids, our colleges are full of old maids, our ball-rooms in the worldly centers are full of old maids,” Americans read these words with placid unconcern. They had given too many wedding presents in their day to have any doubts anent the permanent popularity of marriage. But English readers, who are ever prone to be literal, appear to have accepted Mrs. Van Vorst’s statements au pied de la lettre. Mr. Marriott Watson, chilled to the heart—as well he might be—by the vision of a ballroom destitute alike of girls and matrons, wrote for the “Nineteenth Century” a severe and agitated protest. He asserted that a woman’s “functions” “alone excuse or explain her existence,”—which is one way of looking at the matter; and he pointed out that American women are the most remote the world can show from the primitive and savage type which represents the dynamic force of a race.

The mere fact that the American spinster is so often and so sharply censured marks the strength of her position. No one dreams of censuring the French vieille fille or the German jungfrau. These victims of fate meet with scorn or sympathy, according to the taste and breeding of commentators. In either case, their lives are registered as failures. Nothing can rob the German woman of those vital sensibilities which center in the home and family. “Every great movement of the Teutonic soul,” says Mr. Havelock Ellis, “has been rooted in emotion.” If the women of Germany are demanding “rights,” and demanding them with no uncertain voice, it is because they seek to meet their responsibilities with authority. The sphere of home and child-rearing is their sphere, and they purpose to rule in it.

It is not possible for the Frenchwoman, who understands the structure of society, to welcome spinsterhood. “All her instincts of expansion,” says that acute observer Mr. William Crary Brownell, “are hostile to it. There is no more provision in the French social constitution than in the order of nature itself for the old maid.” Therefore, as the twin passions of the French heart are to be in rational accord with nature and in rational accord with social life, the unmarried woman has no alternative but to feel herself doubly incomplete. She is unstirred by the American woman’s vaulting ambition to be man’s rival, or by an uneasy envy of man’s estate. Perhaps it is because a French girl never regrets her sex that France has produced more eminent women than any other nation in the world. Certainly the only man who ever had the courage to say he would like to be a woman (a beautiful woman, he stipulated) was that distinguished Frenchman M. Jules Lemaître.

No one since De Quincey has spoken so generously of the English spinster as has Mr. John B. Atkins in the pages of THE CENTURY. He does not, like so many of his contemporaries, accuse her of gross selfishness. He does not deny her the right to control her own life. He goes so far as to say that she may use it to good purpose, and extract from it some measure of content. He points out the philanthropic paths which it should be her duty and her pleasure to tread. He draws a pleasing picture of the maiden aunt giving to nieces and nephews—to nephews especially—her sympathy and comradeship. Sir Leslie Stephen says that “Woman to a boy is simply an incumbrance upon reasonable modes of life,” and it is to be feared that many women—aunts and others—have the same doubtful regard for boys. But British sentimentality demands of the old maid, if she be a good old maid, that yearning attitude toward other people’s children which marks her as “womanly” and earns for her the tolerance of the world.

The American spinster is seldom sentimental, which is in her favor, and she is seldom emotional, which is both gain and loss. Her attenuation of feeling lessens her charm and influence, but serves to keep her in accord with the orderly conventions of society. She is keenly competitive, and eager for new fields of activity; but she can read Ellen Key’s “Love and Marriage” with intelligent detachment. She cries occasionally for the moon, but she is in no immediate danger of scorching her fingers by trying to play with the sun.

The flexibility of American social life gives to the unmarried woman an assured position which has no counterpart in the older civilizations. She may be an anomaly in nature, but she is in perfect accord with her more or less agreeable surroundings. She has no background to give repute and distinction to her rôle; but she infuses into it her own persuasive personality. She stands free from the common obligations of her sex, but she does work which is well worth doing, and she not infrequently adds to the gaiety of life. “Of how many homes,” says Mr. Brownell, “is she not the decorously decorative ornament! She may have courted or have drifted into her position of dignified singleness; it is in either case equally sure that she has not considered her estate incomplete in itself, or disengaged from the structure of society.”

As a matter of fact, she is wont to feel herself—birth and fortune permitting—a pillar of society. It is no question with her of wasted force or blighted vitality. It is a question of directing her superabundant energy into those channels where she can accomplish measurable results. She seeks and finds a constructive human existence remote from marriage and maternity. The French or German woman remains unmarried because the unkindly fates have so decreed. The English woman occasionally assists fate from sheer love of independence. “The most ordinarie cause of a single life,” says Bacon, “is liberty, especially in certain self-pleasing and humorous minds.” But it is surely reserved for the American woman to remain unmarried because she feels herself too good for matrimony, too valuable to be intrusted to a husband’s keeping. Her attitude bears some resemblance to that of Mademoiselle de Montpensier, who wrote with praiseworthy conviction: “I may say without vanity that just Heaven would not bestow such a woman as myself upon a man who was unworthy of her.”

This is not idle jesting. Would it be possible in any country save our own for a lady to write to a periodical, explaining, “Why I am an Old Maid,” and be paid coin of the realm for the explanation? Would it be possible in any other country to hear such a question as “Should the Gifted Woman Marry?” seriously asked, and seriously answered? Would it be possible for any sane and thoughtful woman who was not an American to consider even the remote possibility of our spinsters becoming a detached class, who shall form “the intellectual and economic élite of the sex, and leave marriage and maternity for the less developed woman”? What has become of the belief, as old as humanity, that marriage and maternity are highly developing processes, forcing into flower a woman’s latent potentialities; and that the less developed woman is inevitably the woman who has escaped this keen and powerful stimulus. “Never,” says Edmond de Goncourt, “has a virgin, young or old, produced a work of art.” One makes allowance for the Latin point of view. And it is probable that M. de Goncourt never read “Emma.”

Signor Ferrero, contemplating the unmarried women of England, those amazing creatures who “devote themselves to sterility, not from religious motives, but from sheer calculation” (which is also a Latin point of view), has recorded his conviction that they will make themselves felt as a force, and has expressed his genuine dismay as to the possible results of their activity. He has even confessed to some whimsical misgivings lest Italian and Sicilian women should acquire this Saxon taste for spinsterhood. Yet England is emphatically a man’s country—which France has never been—and its attitude toward marriage is a robustly masculine attitude, as unacceptable to the French as to the American woman. There is no attempt anywhere to gloss over this rude fact. The Englishman believes with Mr. Kipling:

“He travels the fastest who travels alone.”
He echoes the verdict of Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson, “Marriage narrows and damps the spirits of generous men.” “The position of a single man,” says a stout-hearted writer in the “Contemporary Review,” “is in itself envied and applauded; that of a single woman certainly is not. To every woman marriage is still accounted a promotion. There may be counterbalancing circumstances, but to be married is, in itself, an object of desire and a subject for congratulation.”

In the good old days when English spinsters softened the reproach of spinsterhood by borrowing the prefix “Mrs.,” as did those excellent ladies, Mrs. Hannah More and Mrs. Elizabeth Carter, the position of a single man was neither envied nor applauded. He was held to be (if of decent life,—much allowance was made for rakes) only a little less contemptible than a single woman. “The pain and the opprobrium o’ defunckin an auld bachelor,” writes the Ettrick Shepherd, expressing after his hardy fashion the sentiment of his time. Dr. Johnson firmly maintained that marriage was more necessary for a man than for a woman, because a woman could make herself comfortable and a man could not. The responsibility for the more modern and more supercilious masculine attitude must be placed where it belongs,—on the shoulders of the Englishwoman, who has accepted the creed that for her marriage is a promotion, and that “counterbalancing circumstances” should not be held to weigh too heavily in the scale. As Dean Hole’s friend said to him, when congratulated on her daughter’s engagement: “To be sure, Jenny hates the man, but then there’s always something.”

Miss Austen was the most veracious of chroniclers, one who with careful self-control refused to wander beyond the area of her own observation; but there is nothing in American fiction, and very little, I fancy, in the fiction of any land, which is comparable to the marriage of Charlotte Lucas and Mr. Collins. Many novelists have made easy copy of husband-hunting. It is a favorite theme with Trollope, who treats it with ruthless cynicism, and it is a not uncommon element in modern story-telling. But Charlotte Lucas staggers us. Miss Austen calls her “sensible and intelligent.” She is also well-bred, clear-headed, and kind. She is Elizabeth Bennet’s chosen friend. And she marries Mr. Collins! Marries him with alacrity, and with permanent satisfaction. If there be any one episode in life and letters which is calculated to reconcile us to the rapid increase of spinsterhood in England and America, it is the amazing fact that Jane Austen not only married Charlotte Lucas to Mr. Collins, but plainly considered it a not unnatural thing for her to do.

Ten years ago, when a rage for compiling useless statistics swept over Europe and the United States, it occurred to some active minds that children should be made to bear their part in the guidance of the human race. Accordingly a series of questions—some sensible and some foolish—were put to English, German, and American school children, and their enlightening answers were given to the world. One of these questions read: “Would you rather be a man or a woman, and why?” Naturally this query was of concern only to little girls. No sane educator would ask it of a boy. Even Jules Lemaître at twelve must have shared the convictions of his fellows. German pedagogues, be it noted, struck the question off the list. They said that to ask a child, “Would you rather be something you must be, or something you cannot possibly be?” was both foolish and useless. Interrogations concerning choice were of value only when the will was a determining factor.

In this country no such logical inference chilled the examiner’s zeal. The question was asked and was answered, and we discovered as a result that a great many little American girls (a minority, to be sure, but a respectable minority,) were well content with their sex; not because it had its duties and dignities, its pleasures and exemptions; but because they plainly considered that they were superior to little American boys, and were destined, when grown up, to be superior to American men. One small New England maiden wrote that she would rather be a woman because “Women are always better than men in morals.” Another, because “Women are more use in the world.” A third, because “Women learn things quicker than men, and have more intelligence.” And so on through varying degrees of self-sufficiency. “Lord, gie us a gude conceit o’ ourselves!” prayed the Scotchman, who knew the value of assurance.

Now certainly these little girls were old maids in the making. They had stamped upon them in their tender infancy the hall-mark of the American spinster. In a few more years they will be writing papers on “The Place of Unmarried Women in the World’s Work,” and reading addresses on “The Woman of Intellect: her Duty to Herself and to the State.” There is a formidable lack of humor in this easy confidence, in the somewhat contemptuous attitude of women whose capacities have not yet been tested, toward men who stand responsible for the failures of the world. It denotes, at home or abroad, a density not far removed from dullness. In that dreary little Irish drama, “Mixed Marriages,” which the Dublin actors played in New York two years ago, an old woman, presumed to be witty and wise, said to her son’s betrothed: “Sure, I believe the Lord made Eve when He saw that Adam could not take care of himself”; and the remark, while received with applause, reflected painfully upon the absence of that humorous sense which we used to think was the birthright of Irishmen. The too obvious retort which nobody uttered, but which everybody must have thought, was that if Eve had been designed as a care-taker, she had made a shining failure of her job.

It is conceded, theoretically at least, that woman’s sphere is an elastic term, comprising any work she is able to do well. Therefore, it may be that American spinsters, keen, college-bred, ambitious, and, above all, free, are destined to compete vigorously and permanently with men. They are, we are told, the only women who can give themselves unreservedly to work, and from them alone enduring results are to be expected. Yet it is at least worthy of notice that most of the successful business women of France,—Mme. Clicquot-Ponsardin, Mme. Pommery, Mme. Dumas, Mme. Bernet, Mme. Boucicault,—have been either married women who were their husbands’ partners, or widows who took upon their capable shoulders the burden of their dead husbands’ cares. They were also mothers who, with the definite aims and practical instincts of their race, projected themselves into the future, and wove out of their own pursuits the fabric of their children’s lives.

At present the American spinster is in a transition stage, a stage so replete with advantages that we may be permitted to hope it will last long. She has escaped from the chimney-corner, and is not yet shut up in banks and offices. She does a reasonable amount of work, and embraces every reasonable opportunity of enjoyment. She gratifies her own tastes, and cherishes her natural affinities. She sometimes cultivates her mind, and she never breaks her heart. She is the best of friends, and she has leisure for companionship. She is equally free from l’esprit gaulois and from “les mœurs de vestales pétrifiées,” which are the Scylla and Charybdis of the French vieille fille. She is content with a contentment which the German jungfrau neither understands nor envies. She is assured with an assurance unknown to the experienced English old maid. She is, as I have said, the standard-bearer of her tribe, and the pibroch to which she marches blithely through life has the ring of the old Covenanting song:

“That a’ the world may see
There’s nane in the right but we.”
All this is far removed, as Mr. Marriott Watson warns us, from the savage and primitive woman, who represents the dynamic force of a race. But who shall ring the bells backward? And who shall reconcile the primitive woman to the exigencies and formalities of civilization? Some years ago in South Carolina I came to know and love an old Negro “mammy,” a wise, fat, kind, mysterious old mammy, whose heart was soft, whose touch was healing, whose voice was like a lullaby, and whose experiences would have colored half a dozen ordinary lives. Her sister, the laundress, was one day under discussion, and I asked, with more than my customary ineptitude: “Aunt Cordelia, is Caroline an old maid?”

Aunt Cordelia turned upon me a look in which contempt for my ignorance blended with a deep acceptance and understanding of life as she had known it, unfiltered, unsheltered, unevasive. “Laws, honey,” she said, “we’s no ole maids. Some’s married, and some isn’t; but we’s no ole maids.”

 Compiles from Sources in the Public Domain.

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It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent. W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) Of Human Bondage, 1915

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