By Young E. Allison
Notwithstanding the subject, there are almost no heroines in novels. There are impossibly good women, absurdly patient and brave women, but few heroines as the convention of worldly thinking demands heroines. There is an endless train of what Thackeray so aptly described as “pale, pious, and pulmonary ladies” who snivel and snuffle and sigh and linger irresolutely under many trials which a little common sense would dissolve; but they are pathological heroines. “Little Nell,” “Little Eva,” and their married sisters are unquestionable in morals, purpose and faith; but oh! how—they—do—try—the—nerves! How brave and noble was Jennie Deans, but how thick-headed was the dear lass!
These women who are merely good, and enforce it by turning on the faucet of tears, or by old-fashioned obstinacy, or stupidity of purpose, can scarcely be called heroines by the canons of understood definition. On the other hand, the conventions do not permit us to describe as a heroine any lady who has what is nowadays technically called “a past.” The very best men in the world find splendid heroism and virtue in Tess l’Durbeyfield. There is nowhere an honest, strong, good man, full of weakness, though he may be, scarred so much, however with fault, who does not read St. John vii., 3-11, with sympathy, reverence and Amen! The infallible critics can prove to a hair that this passage is an interpolation. An interpolation in that sense means something inserted to deceive or defraud; a forgery. How can you defraud or deceive anybody by the interpolation of pure gold with pure gold? How can that be a forgery which hurts nobody, but gives to everybody more value in the thing uttered? If John vii., 3-11, is an interpolation let us hope Heaven has long ago blessed the interpolator. Does anybody—even the infallible critic—contend that Jesus would not have so said and done if the woman had been brought to Him? Was that not the very flower and savor and soul of His teaching? Would He have said or done otherwise? If the Ten Commandments were lost utterly from among men there would yet remain these four greater:
“Do unto others as ye would they should do unto you.”
“Suffer little children to come unto me.”
“Go and sin no more.”
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
My lords and ladies, men and women, the Ten Commandments, by the side of these sighs of gentleness, are the Police Court and the Criminal Code, which are intended to pay cruelty off in punishment. These Four are the tears with which sympathy soothes the wounds of suffering. Blessed interpolator of St. John!
There are three marvelous novels in the Bible—not Novels in the sense of fiction, but in the sense of vivid, living narratives of human emotions and of events. A million Novels rest on those nine verses in John, and the nine verses are better than the million books. The story of David and Uriah’s wife is in a similar catalogue as regards quality and usefulness; the story of Esther is a pearl of great beauty.
* * * * *
But to return to heroines, let us make a volte face. There is an old story of the lady who wrote rather irritably to Thackeray, asking, curtly, why all the good women he created were fools and the bright women all bad. “The same complaint,” he answered, “has been made, Madame, of God and Shakespeare, and as neither has given explanation I can not presume to attempt one.” It was curt and severe, and, of course, Thackeray did not write it as it would appear, even though he may have said as much jestingly to some intimate who understood the epigram; but was not the question rather impudently intrusive? Thackeray, you remember, was the “seared cynic” who created Caroline Gann, the gentle, beautiful, glorious “Little Sister,” the staunch, pure-hearted woman whose character not even the perfect scoundrelism of Dr. George Brand Firmin could tarnish or disturb. If there are heroines, surely she has her place high amid the noble group!
There are plenty of intelligent persons sacramentally wedded to mere conventions of good and bad. You could never persuade them that Rebecca Sharp—that most perfect daughter of Thackeray’s mind—was a heroine. But of course she was. In that world wherein she was cast to live she was indubitably, incomparably, the very best of all the inhabitants to whom you are intimately introduced. Capt. Dobbin? Oh, no, I am not forgetting good Old Dob. Of all the social door mats that ever I wiped my feet upon Old Dob is certainly the cleanest, most patient, serviceable and unrevolutionary. But, just a door mat, with the virtues and attractions of that useful article of furniture—the sublime, immortal prig of all the ages, or you can take the head of any novel-reader under thirty for a football. You may have known many women, from Bernadettes of Massavielle to Borgias of scant neighborhoods, but you know you never knew one who would marry Old Dob, except as that emotional dishrag, Amelia, married him—as the Last Chance on the stretching high-road of uncertain years. No girl ever willingly marries door mats. She just wipes her feet on them and passes on into the drawing room looking for the Prince. It seems to me one of the triumphant proofs of Becky as a heroine that she did not marry Captain Dobbin. She might have done it any day by crooking her little finger at him—but she didn’t.
Madame Becky, that smart daughter of an alcoholic gentleman artist and of his lady of the French ballet, inherited the perfect non-moral morality of the artist blood that sang mercurially through her veins. How could she, therefore, how could she, being non-moral, be immoral? It is clear nonsense. But she did possess the instinctive artist morality of unerring taste for selection in choice. Examine the facts meticulously—meticulously—and observe how carefully she selected that best in all that worst she moved among.
In the will I shall some day leave behind me there will be devised, in primogenitural trust forever, the priceless treasure of conviction that Becky was innocent of Lord Steyne. I leave it to any gentleman who has had the great opportunity to look in familiarly upon the outer and upper fringes of the world of unclassed and predatory women and the noble lords that abound thereamong. Let him read over again that famous scene where Becky writes her scorn upon Steyne’s forehead in the noble blood of that aristocratic wolf. Then let him give his decision, as an honest juryman upon his oath, whether he is convinced that the most noble Marquis was raging because he was losing a woman, or from the discovery that he was one of two dupes facing each other, and that he was the fool who had paid for both and had had “no run for his money!” Marquises of Steyne do not resent sentimental losses—they can be hurt only in their sportsmanship.
You may begin with the Misses Pinkerton (in whose select school Becky absorbed the intricate hypocrisies and saturated snobbery of the highest English society) and follow her through all the little and big turmoils of her life, meeting on the way of it all the elaborated differentials of the country-gentleman and lady tribe of Crawley, the line officers and bemedalled generals of the army (except honest O’Dowd and his lady), the most noble Marquis and his shadowy and resigned Marchioness, the R—y—l P—rs—n—ge himself—even down to the tuft-hunters Punter and Loder—and if Becky is not superior to every man and woman of them in every personal trait and grace that calls for admiration—then, why, by George! do you take such an interest, such an undying interest, in her? You invariably take the greatest interest in the best character in a story—unless it’s too good and gets “sweety” and “sticky” and so sours on your philosophical stomach. You can’t possibly take any interest in Dobbin—you just naturally, emphatically, and in the most unreflecting way in the world, say “Oh, d—n Dobbin!” and go right ahead after somebody else. I don’t say Becky was all that a perfect Sunday School teacher should have been, but in the group in which she was born to move she smells cleaner than the whole raft of them—to me.
* * * * *
Thackeray was, next to Shakespeare, the writer most wonderfully combined of instinct and reason that English literature of grace has produced. He has been compared with the Frenchman, Balzac. Since I have no desire to provoke squabbles about favorite authors, let us merely definitely agree that such a comparison is absurd and pass on. Because you must have noticed that Balzac was often feeble in his reason and couldn’t make it keep step with his instinct, while in Thackeray they both step together like the Siamese twins. It is a very striking fact, indeed, that during all Becky’s intense early experiences with the great world, Thackeray does not make her guilty. All the circumstances of that world were guilty and she is placed amidst the circumstances; but that is all.
“The ladies in the drawing room,” said one lady to Thackeray, when “Vanity Fair” in monthly parts publishing had just reached the catastrophe of Rawdon, Rebecca, old Steyne and the bracelet—“The ladies have been discussing Becky Sharpe and they all agree that she was guilty. May I ask if we guessed rightly?”
“I am sure I don’t know,” replied the “seared cynic,” mischievously. “I am only a man and I haven’t been able to make up my mind on that point. But if the ladies agree I fear it may be true—you must understand your sex much better than we men!”
That is proof that she was not guilty with Steyne. But straightway then, Thackeray starts out to make her guilty with others. It is so much the more proof of her previous innocence that, incomparable artist as he was in showing human character, he recognized that he could convince the reader of her guilt only by disintegrating her, whipping himself meanwhile into a ceaseless rage of vulgar abuse of her, a thing of which Thackeray was seldom guilty. But it was not really Becky that became guilty—it was the woman that English society and Thackeray remorselessly made of her. I wouldn’t be a lawyer for a wagon load of diamonds, but if I had had to be a lawyer I should have preferred to be a solicitor at the London bar in 1817 to write the brief for the respondent in the celebrated divorce case of Crawley vs. Crawley. Against the back-ground of the world she lived in Becky could have been painted as meekly white and beautiful as that lovely old picture of St. Cecilia at the Choir Organ.
Perhaps Becky was not strictly a heroine; but she was a honey.
* * * * *
Men can not “create” heroines in the sense of shadowing forth what they conceive to be the glory, beauty, courage and splendor of womanly character. It is the indescribable sum of womanhood corresponding to the unutterable name of God. The true man’s love of woman is a spirit sense attending upon the actual senses of seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting and smelling. The woman he loves enters into every one of these senses and thus is impounded five-fold upon that union of all of them, which, together with the miracle of mind, composes what we call the human soul as a divine essence. She is attached to every religion, yet enters with authority into none. She is first at its birth, the last to stay weeping at its death. In every great novel a heroine, unnamed, unspoken, undescribed, hovers throughout like an essence. The heroism of woman is her privacy. There is to me no more wonderful, philosophical, psychological and delicate triumph of literary art in existence than the few chapters in “Quo Vadis” in which that great introspective genius, Sienkiewicz, sets forth the growth of the spell of love with which Lygia has encompassed Vinicius, and the singular development and progress of the emotion through which Vinicius is finally immersed in human love of Lygia and in the Christian reverence of her spiritual purity at the same time. It is the miracle of soul in sex.
Every clean-hearted youth that has had the happiness to marry a good woman—and, thank Heaven, clean youths and good women are thick as leaves in Vallambrosa in this sturdy old world of ours—every such youth has had his day of holy conversion, his touch of the wand conferring upon him the miracle of love, and he has been a better and wiser man for it. Not sense love, not the instinctive, restless love of matter for matter, but the love that descends like the dove amid radiance.
* * * * *
We’ve all seen that bridal couple; she is as pretty as peaches; he is as proud of her as if she were a splendid race horse; he glories in knowing she is lovely and accepts the admiration offered to her as a tribute to his own judgment, his own taste and even his merit, which obtained her. There is a certain amount of silliness in her which he soon detects, a touch of helplessness, and unsophistication in knowledge of worldly things that he yet feels is mysteriously guarded against intrusion upon and which makes companionship with her sometimes irksome. He feels superior and uncompensated; from the superb isolation of his greater knowledge, courage and independence, he grants to her a certain tender pity and protection; he admits her faith and purity and—er—but—you see, he is sorry she is not quite the well poised and noble creature he is! Mr. Youngwed is at this time passing through the mental digestive process of feeling his oats. He is all right, though, if he is half as good as he thinks he is. He has not been touched by the live wire of experience—yet; that’s all.
Well, in the course of human events, there comes a time when he is frightened to death, then greatly relieved and for a few weeks becomes as proud as if he had actually provided the last census of the United States with most of the material contained in it. A few months later, when the feeble whines and howls have found increased vigor of utterance and more frequency of expression; when they don’t know whether Master Jack or Miss Jill has merely a howling spell or is threatened with fatal convulsions; when they don’t know whether they want a dog-muzzle or a doctor; when Mr. Youngwed has lost his sleep and his temper, together, and has displayed himself with spectacular effect as a brute, selfish, irritable, helpless, resourceless and conquered—then—then, my dear madame, you have doubtless observed him decrease in self-estimated size like a balloon into which a pin has been introduced, until he looks, in fact, like Master Frog reduced in bulk from the bull-size, to which he aspired, to his original degree.
At that time Mrs. Youngwed is very busy with little Jack or Jill, as the case may be. Her husband’s conduct she probably regards with resignation as the first heavy burden of the cross she is expected to bear. She does not reproach him, it is useless; she has perhaps suspected that his assumed superiority would not stand the real strain. But, he is the father of the dear baby and, for that precious darling’s sake, she will be patient. I wonder if she feels that way? She has every right to, and, for one, I say that I’ll be hanged if I find any fault with her if she does. That is the way she must keep human, and so balance the little open accounts that married folks ought to run between themselves for the purpose of keeping cobwebs and mildew off, or rather of maintaining their lives as a running stream instead of a stagnant pond. A little good talking back now and then is good for wives and married men. Don’t be afraid, Mrs. Youngwed; and when the very worst has come, why cry—at—him! One tear weighs more and will hit him harder than an ax. In the lachrymal ducts with which heaven has blessed you, you are more surely protected against the fires of your honest indignation than you are by the fire department against a blaze in the house. And be patient, also; remember, dear sister, that, though you can cry, he has a gift—that—enables—him—to—swear! You and other wedded wives very properly object to swearing, but you will doubtless admit that there is compensation in that when he does swear in his usual good form you—never—feel—any—apprehension—about—the—state—of—his—health!
This natural outburst of resentment has not lasted three minutes. Mr. Y. has returned to his couch, sulky and ashamed. He pretends to sleep ostentatiously; he—does—not! He is thinking with remarkable intensity and has an eye open. He sees the slender figure in the dim light, hanging over the crib, he hears the crooning, he begins to suspect that there is an alloy in his godlikeness. He looks to earth, listens to the thin, wailing cries, wonders, regrets, wearies, sleeps. At that moment Mrs. Y. should fall on her knees and rejoice. She would if she could leave young Jack or Jill; but she can’t—she—never—can. That’s what sent Mr. Y. to sleep. It is just as well perhaps that Mrs. Y. is unobservant.
A miracle is happening to Mr. Y. In an hour or two, let us say, there is a new vocal alarm from the crib. Almost with the first suspicion of fretfulness or pain the mother has heard it. Heaven’s mysterious telepathy of instinct has operated. Between angels, babies and mothers the distance is no longer than your arm can reach. They understand, feel and hear each other, and are linked in one chain. So, that, when Mr. Y. has struggled laboriously awake and wonders if—that—child—is—going— to—howl—all----. Well, he goes no further. In the dim light he sees again the slender figure hanging over the crib, he hears the crooning and the retreating sobs. It is just as he saw and heard before he fell asleep. No complaints, no reproaches, no irritation. Oh, what a brute he feels! He battles with his reason and his bewilderment. Had he fallen asleep and left her to bear that strain; or has she gone anew to the rescue, while he slept without thought? Up out of his heart the tenderness wells; down into his mind the revelation comes. The miracle works. He looks and listens. In the figure hanging there so patiently and tenderly he sees for the first time the wonderful vision of the sweetheart wife, not lost, but enveloped in the mystery of motherhood; he hears in the crooning voice a tone he never before knew. Mother and child are united in mysterious converse. Where did that girl whom he thought so unsophisticated of the world learn that marvel of acquaintance with that babe, so far removed from his ability to reach? It must be that while he knew the world, she understood the secret of heaven. She is so patient. What a brute he is to grow impatient, when she endures day and night in rapt patience and the joy of content! She can enter a world from which he is barred. And, that is his wife! That was his sweetheart, and is now—ah, what is she? He feels somehow abashed; he knows that if he were ten times better than he is he might still feel unworthy to touch the latchet of her shoes; he feels that reverence and awe have enveloped her, and that the first happy love and longing are springing afresh in his heart. It is his wife and his child; apart from him unless he can note and understand that miracle of nature’s secret. Can he? Well, he will try—oh, what a brute! And he watches the bending figure, he hears the blending of soft crooning and retreating sobs—and, listening, he is lost in the wonder and falls under the spell asleep.
Mrs. Y., you are happy henceforth, if you will disregard certain small matters, such as whether chairs or hat-racks are for hats, or whether the marble mantelpiece or the floor is intended for polishing boot heels.
* * * * *
Of course, such an incident as has been suggested is but one of thousands of golden moments when to the husband comes the sudden dazzling recognition of the mergence of that half-sweetheart, half-mistress, he has admired and a little tired of, into the reverential glory and loveliness of wifehood, motherhood, companionhood, through all life and on through the eternity of inheritance they shall leave to Jacks and Jills and their little sisters and brothers. In that lies the priceless secret of Christianity and its influence. The unspeakably immoral Greeks reared a temple to Pity; the grossest mythologies of Babylon, Greece, Rome and Carthage could not change human nature. There have been always persons whose temperament made them sympathize with grief and pity the suffering; who, caring none for wealth, had no desire to steal; who purchased a little pleasure for vanity in the thanks received for kindness given. But Christianity saw the jewel underneath the passing emotion and gave it value by cleansing and cutting it. In lust-love is the instinctive secret of the preservation of the race; but the race is not worth preserving that it may be preserved only for lust. Upon that animal foundation is to be built the radiant home of confident, enduring and exchanging love in which all the senses, tastes, hopes, aspirations and delights of friendship, companionship and human society shall find hospitality and comfort. When it has been achieved it is beautiful, a twin to the delicate rose that lies in its own delicious fragrance, happy on the pure bosom of a lovely girl—the rose that is finest and most exquisite because it has sprung from the horrid heat of the compost; but who shall think of the one in the presence of the pure beauty of the other?
Nature and art are entirely unlike each other, though the one simulates the other. The art of beauty in writing, said Balzac, is to be able to construct a palace upon the point of a needle; the art of beauty in living and loving is to build all the beauty of social life and aspiration upon the sordid yet solid and persisting instincts of savagery that lie deep at the bottom of our gross natures.
* * * * *
Now, it is in this tender sacred atmosphere, such as Mr. and Mrs. Youngwed always pass through, that the man worthy of a woman’s confidence finds the radiant ideal of his heroine. He may with propriety speak of these transfigured personalities to his intimates or write of them with kindly pleasantry and suggestion as, perhaps, this will be considered. But, there is a monitor within that restrains him from analyzing and describing and dragging into the glare of publicity the sacred details that give to life all its secret happiness, faith and delight. To do so would be ten times worse offense against the ethics of unwritten and unspoken things than describing with pitiless precision the death beds of children, as Little Nell, Paul Dombey, Dora, Little Eva, and, thank heaven! only a few others.
How can anybody bear to read such pages without feeling that he is an intruder where angels should veil their faces as they await the transformation?
“It is not permitted to do evil,” says the philosopher, “that good may result.”
There are some things that should remain unspoken and undescribed. Have you never listened to some great brute of a sincere preacher of the gospel, as he warned his congregation against the terrible dangers attending the omission of purely theological rites upon infants? Have you thought of the mothers of those children, listening, whose little ones were sick or delicate, and who felt each word of that hard, ominous warning as an agonizing terror? And haven’t you wanted to kick the minister out of the pulpit, through the reredos and into the middle of next week? How can anybody harrow up such tender feelings? How can anybody like to believe that a little child will be held to account? Many of us do so believe, perhaps, whether or no; but is it not cruel to shake the rod of terror over us in public? “Suffer little children to come unto Me,” said the Master; He did not instruct us to drive them with fear and terror and trembling. Whenever I have heard such sermons I have wanted to get up and stalk out of the church with ostentatiousness of contempt, as if to say to the preacher that his conduct did—not—meet—with—my—approval. But I didn’t; the philosopher has his cowardice not less than the preacher.
But there is something meretricious and cheap in the use of material and subjects that lie warm against the very secret heart of nature. The mystery of love and the sanctity of death are to be used by writers and artists only in their ennobling aspect of results. A certain class of French writers have sickened the world by invading the sacredness of passion and giving prostitution the semblance of self-abnegated love; a certain class of English and American writers have purchased popularity by the meretricious parade of the scenes of death-beds. Both are violations of the ethics of art as they are of nature. True love as true sorrow shrinks from exhibition and should be permitted to enjoy the sacredness of privacy. The famous women of the world, Herodias, Semiramis, Aspasia, Thais, Cleopatra, Sappho, Messalina, Marie de Medici, Catherine of Russia, Elizabeth of England—all of them have been immoral. Publicity to women is like handling to peaches—the bloom comes off, whether or not any other harm occurs. In literature, the great feminine figures, George Sand, Madame de Sevigne, Madame de Stael, George Eliot—all were banned and at least one—the first—was out of the pale. Creative thought has in it the germ of masculinity. Genius in a woman, as we usually describe genius, means masculinity, which, of all things, to real men is abhorrent in woman. True genius in woman is the antithesis of the qualities that make genius in man; so is her heroism, her beauty, her virtue, her destiny and her duty.
Let this be said—even though it be only a jest—one of those smart attempts at epigram, which, ladies, a man has no more power to resist than a baby to resist the desire to improve his thumb by sucking it—that: whenever you find a woman who looks real—that is, who produces upon a real man the impression of being endowed with the splendid gifts for united and patient companionship in marriage—whenever you find her advocating equal suffrage, equal rights, equal independence with men in all things, you may properly run away. Equality means so much, dear sisters. No man can be your equal; you can not be his, without laying down the very jewels of the womanliness that men love. Be thankful you have not this strength and daring; he possesses those in order that he many stand between you and more powerful brutes. Now, let us try for a smart epigram: But no! hang the epigram, let it go. This, however, may be said: That, whenever you find a woman wanting all rights with man; wanting his morals to be judged by hers, or willing to throw hers in with his, or itching to enter his employments and labors and willing that he shall—of course—nurse the children and patch the small trousers and dresses, depend upon it that some weak and timid man has been neglecting the old manly, savage duty of applying quiet home murder as society approves now and then.
Home | Book Collecting | Folklore / Myth | Philately | Playing Cards | Literature | Contents