The Daughters of England/Chapter X
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Chapter X. Love and Courtship
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Love is a subject which has ever been open to discussion, amongst persons of all classes, and of every variety of mind and character; yet, after all, there are few subjects which present greater difficulties, especially to a female writer. How to compress a subject which has filled so many volumes, into the space of one chapter, is also another difficulty; but I will begin by dismissing a large portion of what is commonly called by that name, as wholly unworthy of my attention; I mean that which originates in mere fancy, without reference to the moral excellence of the object; and if my young readers imagine, that out of the remaining part they shall be able to elicit much amusement, I fear they will be disappointed; for I am one of those who think that the most serious act of a woman's whole life is to love.
What, then, I would ask, is love, that it should be the cause of some of the deepest realities in our experience, and of so much of our merriment and folly?
The reason why so many persons act foolishly, and consequently lay themselves open to ridicule, under the influence of love, I believe to originate in the grand popular mistake of dismissing this subject from our serious reading and conversation, and leaving it to the unceremonious treatment of light novels, and low jests; by which unnatural system of philosophy, that which is in reality the essence of woman's being, and the highest and holiest amongst her capabilities, bestowed for the purpose of teaching us of how much our nature is capable for the good of others, has become a thing of sly purpose, and frivolous calculation.
The very expression—"falling in love," has done an incalculable amount of mischief, by conveying an idea that it is a thing which cannot be resisted, and which must be given way to, either with or without reason. Persons are said to have fallen in love, precisely as they would be said to have fallen into a fever or an ague-fit; and the worst of this mode of expression is, that amongst young people, it has led to a general yielding up of the heart to the first impression, as if it possessed of itself no power of resistance.
It is from general notions such as these, that the idea, and the name of love, have become vulgarized and degraded: and in connection with this degradation, a flood of evil has poured in upon that Eden of woman's life, where the virtues of her domestic character are exercised.
What, then, I would ask again, is love in its highest, holiest character? It is woman's all—her wealth, her power, her very being. Man, let him love as he may, has ever an existence distinct from that of his affections. He has his worldly interests, his public character, his ambition, his competition with other men—but woman centres all in that one feeling, and
In woman's love is mingled the trusting dependence of a child, for she ever looks up to man as her protector, and her guide; the frankness, the social feeling, and the tenderness of a sister—for is not man her friend? the solicitude, the anxiety, the careful watching of the mother—for would she not suffer to preserve him from harm? Such is love in a noble mind, and especially in its first commencement, when it is almost invariably elevated, and pure, trusting, and disinterested. Indeed, the woman who could mingle low views and selfish calculations with her first attachment, would scarcely be worthy of the name.
So far from this being the case with women in general, I believe, if we could look into the heart of a young girl, when she first begins to love, we should find the nearest resemblance to what poetry has described, as the state of our first parents when in Paradise, which this life ever presents. All is then coloured with an atmosphere of beauty, and light; or if a passing cloud sails across the azure sky, reflecting a transitory shadow on the scene below, it is but to be swept away by the next balmy gale, which leaves the picture more lovely for this momentary interruption of its stillness and repose.
But that which constitutes the essential charm of a first attachment, is its perfect disinterestedness. She who entertains this sentiment in its profoundest character, lives no longer for herself. In all her aspirations, her hopes, her energies, in all her noble daring, her confidence, her enthusiasm, her fortitude, her own existence is absorbed by the interests of another. For herself, and in her own character alone, she is at the same time retiring, meek, and humble, content to be neglected by the whole world—despised, forgotten, or contemned; so that to one being only she may still be all in all.
And is this a love to be lightly spoken of, or harshly dealt with? Oh no; but it has many a rough blast to encounter yet, and many an insidious enemy to cope with, before it can be stamped with the seal of faithfulness; and until then, who can distinguish the ideal from the true?
I am inclined to think it is from the very purity and disinterestedness of her own motives, that woman, in cases of strong attachment, is sometimes tempted to transgress the laws of etiquette, by which her conduct, even in affairs of the heart, is so wisely restricted. But let not the young enthusiast believe herself justified in doing this, whatever may be the nature of her own sentiments. The restrictions of society may probably appear to her both harsh, and uncalled for; but, I must repeat—society has good reasons for the rules it lays down for the regulation of female conduct, and she ought never to forget that points of etiquette ought scrupulously to be observed by those who have principle, for the sake of those who have not. Besides which, men who know the world so much better than women, are close observers on these points, and nothing can lessen their confidence in you more effectually, than to find you unscrupulous, or lax, even in your behaviour to them individually. If, therefore, your lover perceives that you are regardless of the injunctions of your parents or guardians even for his sake, though possibly he may feel gratified at the moment, yet his opinion of your principles will eventually be lowered, while his trust in your faithfulness will be lessened in the same degree.
In speaking of the entireness, the depth, and the disinterestedness of woman's love, I would not for a moment be supposed to class under the same head, that precocious tendency to fall in love, which some young ladies encourage under the idea of its being an amiable weakness. Never is the character of woman more despicable, than when she stoops to plead her weakness as a merit. Yet some complain that they are naturally so grateful, it is impossible for them to resist the influence of kindness; and thus they fall in love, perhaps with a worthless man—perhaps with two men at once; simply because they have been kindly treated, and their hearts are not capable of resisting kindness. Would that such puerile suppliants for the charity they ill deserve, could be made to understand how many a correct and prudent woman would have gone inconceivably farther than them, in gratitude, and generous feeling, had not right principle been made the stay of her conduct, and the arbitrer of all her actions. Love which arises out of mere weakness, is as easily fixed upon one object as another; and consequently is at all times transferable: that which is governed by principle, how much has it to suffer, yet how nobly does it survive all trial!
I have said, that woman's love, at least all which deserves that name, is almost universally exalted and noble in its commencement ; but that still it wants its highest attribute, until its faithfulness has been established by temptation and trial. Let no woman, therefore, boast of her constancy, until she has been put to the test. In speaking of faithfulness, I am far from supposing it to denote merely the tenacity of adhering to an engagement. It is easy to be true to an engagement, while false to the individual with whom it is contracted. My meaning refers to faithfulness of heart, and this has many trials in the common intercourse of society, in the flattery and attentions of men, and in the fickleness of female fancy.
To have loved faithfully, then, is to have loved with singleness of heart, and sameness of purpose, through all the temptations which society presents, and under all the assaults of vanity, both from within and without. It is so pleasant to be admired, and so soothing to be loved, that the grand trial of female constancy is, not to add one more conquest to her triumph?, where it is evidently in her power to do so; and, therefore, her only protection is to restrain the first wandering thought which might even lead her fancy astray. The ideas which commonly float through the mind of woman, are so rapid, and so indistinctly defined, that when the door is opened to such thoughts, they pour in like a torrent. Then first will arise some new perception of deficiency in the object of her love, or some additional impression of his unkindness or neglect, with comparisons between him and other men, and regret that he has not some quality which they possess, sadness under a conviction of her future destiny, pining for sympathy under that sadness, and, lastly, the commencement of some other intimacy, which at first she has no idea of converting into love.
Such is the manner in which, in thousands of instances, the faithfulness of woman's love has been destroyed, and destroyed far more effectually than if assailed by an open, and, apparently, more formidable foe. And what a wreck has followed! for when woman loses her integrity, and her self-respect, she is indeed pitiable and degraded. While her faithfulness remains unshaken, it is true she may, and probably will, have much to suffer; but let her portion in this life be what it may, she will walk through the world with a firm and upright step; for even when solitary, she is not degraded. It may be called a cold philosophy to speak of such consolation being available under the suffering which arises from unkindness and desertion, but who would not rather be the one to bear injury, than the one to inflict it; and the very act of bearing it meekly and reverently, as from the hand of God, has a purifying and solemnizing effect upon the soul, which the faithless and the fickle never can experience.
As friendship is the basis of all true love, it is equally—nay, more important that the latter should be submitted to the same test in relation to its ultimate aim, which ought supremely to be, the moral and spiritual good of its object. Indeed, without this principle at heart, no love is worthy of the name; because, as its influence upon human nature is decidedly the most powerful of any, its responsibilities are in the same proportion serious and imperative. What, then, shall we think of the woman who evinces a nervous timidity, about the personal safety of her lover, without any corresponding anxiety about the safety of his soul?
But there is another delusion equally fatal with this, and still more frequently prevailing amongst well-meaning young women; I mean, that of listening to the addresses of a gay man, and making it the condition of her marrying him, that he shall become religious. Some even undertake to convert men of this description, without professing any personal interest in the result; and surely, of all the mockeries by which religion is insulted in this world, these are amongst the greatest. They are such, however, as invariably bring their own punishment; and, therefore, a little observation upon the working of this fallacious system upon others, will probably be of more service to the young, than any observations I can offer. I cannot, however, refrain from the remark, that religion being a matter of personal interest, if a man will not submit himself to its influence for his own sake, it is not likely he will do so for the sake of another; and the probability is, that, while endeavouring to convert him, the woman, being the weaker party, will be drawn over to his views and principles; or if hers should be too firm for this, that he will act the hypocrite in order to deceive.her, and thus add a new crime to the sum of guilt already contracted.
With a gay man, therefore, a serious woman can have nothing to do, but to contemplate his character as she would that of some being of a different order or species from her own. Even after such a man has undergone a moral and spiritual change, there will remain something in his tone of mind and feeling, from which a delicate and sensitive woman will naturally and unavoidably shrink. He will feel this himself; and while the humility and self-abasement which this conviction occasions, will constitute a strong claim upon her sympathy and tenderness, they will both be deeply sensible that, in his heart of hearts, there is a remembrance, a shadow, a stain, which a pure-minded woman must ever feel and sorrow for.
'But how are we to know a man's real character?' is the common question of young women. Alas! there is much willing deception on this point. Yet, I must confess, that men are seldom thoroughly known, except under their own roof, or amongst their own companions. With respect to their moral conduct, however, if they have a low standard of excellence with regard to the female sex in general, it is an almost infallible sign that their education, or their habits, have been such as to render them undesirable companions in the most intimate and indissoluble of all connections. Good men are accustomed to regard women as equal with themselves in their moral and religious character, and therefore they seldom speak of them with disrespect; but bad men having no such scale of calculation, use a very different kind of phraseology, when women, as a class, are the subject of conversation.
Again, the world is apt to speak of men as being good, because they are merely moral. But it would be a safe rule for all Christian women to reflect, that such are the temptations to man in his intercourse with the world, that nothing less than the safeguard of religion can render his conduct uniformly moral.
With regard to the social and domestic qualities of a lover, these must also be tried at home. If disrespectful to his mother, and inconsiderate or ungentle in his manners to his sisters, or even if accustomed to speak of them in a coarse, unfeeling, or indifferent manner, whatever may be his intellectual recommendations, as a husband he ought not to be trusted. On the other hand, it may be set down as an almost certain rule, that the man who is respectful and affectionate to his mother and his sisters, will be so to his wife.
Having thus described in general terms the manner in which women ought to love, the next inquiry is, under what circumstances this feeling may be properly indulged. The first restriction to a woman of delicacy, of course, will be never to entertain this sentiment towards one by whom it has not been sought and solicited. Unfortunately, however, there are but too many instances in which attentions, so pointed as not to be capable of being misunderstood, have wantonly been made the means of awakening something more than a preference; while he who had thus obtained this meanest of all triumphs, could smile at the consequences, and exult in his own freedom from any direct committal.
How the peace of mind of the young and the trusting is to be secured against such treatment, it is difficult to say; unless they would adopt the advice of the more experienced, and think less of the attentions of men in general, and more of their own immediate and practical duties, which, after all, are the best preservatives, not only against indolence, melancholy, and romance; but against the almost invariable accompaniment of these evils—a tendency to sentimental attachments. I am aware that I, incur the risk of being considered amongst young ladies as too homely in my notions, even for an admonitress, when I so often recommend good old-fashioned household duties; yet, I believe them nevertheless to be a wholesome medicine both to body and mind, and in no case more useful than in those of sentimentality.
In the bestowment of the affections, few women are tempted to make choice of men of weak capacity. Still there is sometimes a plausible manner, a gentlemanly address, or a handsome exterior, which serves for a while to bewilder the judgment, so as to conceal from detection the emptiness within. It is the constitutional want of woman's nature to have some superior being to look up to; and how shall a man of weak capacity supply this want? He may possibly please for an hour, or a day, but it is a fearful thought to have to dwell with such a one for life.
The most important inquiry, however, to be made in the commencement of an attachment, for it may be too late to make it afterwards, is, whether the object of it inspires with a greater love of all that is truly excellent—in short, whether his society and conversation have a direct tendency to make religion appear more lovely, and more desirable. If not, he can be no safe companion for the intimacy of married life; for you must have already discovered, that your own position as a Christian, requires support rather than opposition. It is the more important, therefore, that this inquiry should be most satisfactorily answered in an early stage of the attachment; because it is the peculiar nature of love to invest with ideal excellence the object of its choice, so that after it has once obtained possession of the heart, there ceases too generally to be a correct perception of good and evil, where the interests of love are concerned.
In addition to this tendency, it is deeply to be regretted, that so few opportunities are afforded to women in the present state of society, of becoming acquainted with the natural dispositions and general habits of those to whom they intrust their happiness, until the position of both is fixed, and fixed for life. The short acquaintance which takes place under ordinary circumstances, between two individuals about to be thus united, for better for worse, until death do them part, is anything but a mutual development of real character. The very name of courtship is a repulsive one; because it implies merely a solicitude to obtain favour, but has no reference to deserving it. When a man is said to be paying his court to an individual of higher rank or authority, he is universally understood to be using flattery and attention, if not artifice, to purchase what his merits alone would not be sufficient to command. I do not say that a similar line of conduct is designedly pursued by the lover, because I believe that in many cases he would be glad to have his character more clearly understood than it is. Yet, here we see, most especially, the evil consequences resulting from that system of intercourse, which prevails between the two sexes in general society. By the time a young woman is old enough to enter into a serious engagement, she has generally become so accustomed to receive the flattery and the homage of men, that she would feel it an insult to be treated with perfect honesty and candour; while, on the other hand, her lover redoubles his assiduity to convince her, that if not actually a goddess, she is at least the most charming of her sex. Need we be surprised if there should often be a fearful awaking from this state of delusion?
I must, however, in justice repeat, that the delusion is not all intentional on either part, for a successful suit, naturally places a man in so agreeable a position, that his temper and disposition, at such times, appear to the best possible advantage; while on the other hand, it would be strange indeed, if a woman so courted, and apparently admired, could not maintain her sweetest deportment, and wear her blandest smiles, through that short period which some unjustly call the happiest of her life, simply because it is the one in which she is the most flattered, and the most deceived.
It is a very erroneous notion, entertained by some young persons, that to make early pretensions to womanhood, is an embellishment to their character, or a means of increasing their happiness. Nothing in reality can be more entirely a mistake. One of the greatest charms which a girl can possess, is that of being contented to be a girl, and nothing more. Her natural ease of manner, her simplicity of heart, her frankness,her guileless and confiding truth, are all opposed to the premature assumption of womanhood. Even her joyous playfulness, so admirably adapted to promote the health both of mind and body,—oh! why does she hasten to lay all this aside for the mock dignity of an artificial and would-be woman? Believe me, the latter loses much of the innocent enjoyment of her early years, while she gains in nothing, except a greater necessity for care and caution.
Were it possible to induce the daughters of England to view this subject in its true light, and to endeavour to prolong rather than curtail the season of their simplicity and buoyancy of heart; how much would be avoided of that absurd miscalculation about the desirableness of contracting matrimonial alliances, which plunges hundreds and thousands into the responsible situation of wives and mothers, before they have well learned to be rational women.
A cheerful, active, healthy, and sound-minded girl, is ever the first to glow with the genuine impulse of what is noble and generous in feeling, thought, and action; and at the same time she is the last to be imposed upon by what is artificial, false, or merely superficial; for there seems to be a power in unsophisticated nature, to repel as if by instinct the mean stratagems of art. The vain, the sentimental, would-be woman, sickly for want of natural exercise, and disappointed in her precocious attempts at dignity and distinction, is the last to yield herself to any genuine impulse; because she must inquire whether it is lady-like and becoming; but, alas for her peace of mind! she is the first to listen to the voice of flattery, and to sink into all the absurdities of an early, a misplaced, or an imaginary attachment.
It is not indeed in the nature of things, that a young girl should know how to bestow her affections aright. She has not had experience enough in the ways of the world, or penetrated sufficiently through the smiling surface of society, to know that some who are the most attractive in their address and manners, are the least calculated for fireside companions. They know, if they would but believe what their more experienced relatives tell them, that the happiness of marriage must depend upon suitability of character; yet, even of this they are incompetent to judge, and consequently they are betrayed into mistakes sometimes the most fatal to their true interests, both here and hereafter.
How much wiser then is the part of her, who puts off these considerations altogether, until a period of greater maturity of judgment, when much that once looked dazzling and attractive shall have lost its false splendour; and when many qualifications of heart and mind, to which she once attached but little value, shall have obtained their due share of importance in her calculations. Her heart will then be less subject to the dictates of capricious fancy; and, looking at human life, and society, and mankind as they really are; looking at herself, too, with a clearer vision, and a more decided estimate of truth, she will be able to form a correct opinion on that point of paramount importance—suitability of character and habits.
Influenced by a just regard to this consideration, a sensible woman will easily see that the man of her choice must be as much as possible in her own sphere of life. Deficient in education, he would be a rude and coarse companion for a refined woman; and with much higher attainments than her own, he would be liable to regard her with disrespect, if not with contempt.
By a fatal misapprehension of what constitutes real happiness, it is often spoken of as a good and great thing, when a woman raises herself to a higher sphere in society by marriage. Could such individuals tell the story of their after lives, it would often be a history of humiliation and sorrow, for which no external advantages had been able to compensate. There are, however, admirable instances of women, thus exalted, who have maintained their own dignity, and the respect of all their connections; so much more important is moral worth than intellectual cultivation, to a woman. In these cases, however, the chief merit of the wife has been, that she never sought her elevation.
Having chosen your lover for his suitability, it is of the utmost consequence, that you should guard against that natural propensity of the youthful mind, to invest him with every ideal excellence. Endeavour to be satisfied with him as he is, rather than imagine him what he never can be. It will save you a world of disappointment in after life. Nor, indeed, does this extravagant investiture of the fancy belong, as is sometimes supposed, to that meek* and true, and abiding attachment which it is woman's highest virtue and noblest distinction to feel. I strongly suspect it is vanity, and not affection, which leads a young woman to believe her lover perfect ; because it enhances her triumph to be the choice of such a man. The part of a true-hearted woman, is to be satisfied with her lover, such as he is, and to consider him, with all his faults, as sufficiently exalted, and sufficiently perfect for her. No after-development of character can shake the faith of such a woman, no ridicule or exposure can weaken her tenderness for a single moment; while, on the other hand, she who has blindly believed her lover to be without a fault, must ever be in get of awaking to the conviction that her love exists no longer.
Though truth should be engraven upon every thought, and word, and act, which occurs in your intercourse with the man of your choice, there is implanted in the nature of woman, a shrinking delicacy, which ought ever to prompt her to keep back some of her affection for the time when she becomes a wife. No woman ever gained, but many, very many have been losers, by displaying all at first. Let sufficient of your love be told, to prevent suspicion, or distrust; and the self-complacency of man will be sure to supply the rest. Suffer it not, then, to be unfolded to its full extent. In the trials of married life, you will have ample need for an additional supply. You will want it for sickness, for sorrow, for all the different exigencies of real experience; but, above all, you will want it to re-awaken the tenderness of your husband, when worldly cares and pecuniary disappointments have too much absorbed his better feelings; and what surprise so agreeable to him, as to discover, in his farther progress through the wilderness of life, so sweet, so deep a fountain, as woman's perfect love?
This prudent and desirable restraint of female delicacy during the period of courtship, will prevent those dangerous demands being made upon mere affection to supply interest, for an occasion, which after all, and particularly to men of business, is apt to be rather a tedious one. Let your amusements, then, even during that period, be of an intellectual nature, that your lover may never even for a single moment have occasion to feel that your society grows vapid, or palls upon his taste. It is better a thousand times, that reading or conversation, or the company of others, should be forced upon him, so that he should regret having had so little of yours, than that the idea should once glance across his mind, that he had had too much, or that the time spent with you had not passed so pleasantly as he had expected.
It is a fact too little taken into account by young women, that until actually married, their relative and home-duties are the same after an engagement has been contracted, as before. When a daughter begins to neglect a father or a brother, for the sake of her lover, it is a bad omen for his happiness. Her attentions in this case are dictated by impulse, not duty; and the same misapprehension of what is just, and right, will in future be equally likely to divert them again from their proper object. It is good even to let your lover see, that such is your estimate of duty, that you can afford even to lose his society for a few minutes, rather than neglect the claims of your family.I have now imagined a young woman brought into the most serious position she has yet occupied; and if her mind is rightly influenced, she will feel it to be one of deep and solemn consideration. If, during the lapse of her previous existence, she has lived for herself alone, now is the time when her regrets are about to begin; if, as I have so earnestly recommended, she has studiously cultivated habits of duty, and thoughts of affectionate and grateful regard towards her home-connections, now is the the when she will fully enter upon the advantages of having regulated her conduct by the law of love. Already she will have begun to contemplate the character of man in a new light. Admitted to his confidence, she will find him at the same time more admirable, and more requiring as regards herself, than she found him in society; and while her esteem increases with the development of his real merits, she will feel her affection equal to every demand, for she will be rich in that abundance which the heart alone can supply, whose warmest emotions have been called forth and cherished in the genial and healthy atmosphere of domestic life.
One word before this chapter closes, to those who have arrived at years of womanhood without having known what it was to engage the attentions of a lover; and of such I must observe, that by some unaccountable law of nature, they often appear to be the most admirable of their sex. Indeed, while a sparkling countenance, an easy manner, and—to say the least of it—a willingness to be admired, attract a crowd of lovers; it not unfrequently happens, that retiring merit, and unostentatious talent, scarcely secure the homage of one. And yet, on looking around upon society, one sees so many of the vain, the illiterate, and the utterly useless, chosen and solicited as wives, that we are almost tempted to consider those who are not thus favoured as in reality the most honourably distinguished amongst their sex.
Still, I imagine there are few, if any, who never have had a suitable or unsuitable offer, at some time in their lives; and wise indeed by comparison, are those, who rather than accept the latter, are content to enjoy the pleasures, and endure the sorrows of life, alone. Compare their lot for an instant with that of women who have married from unworthy motives. How incomparably more dignified, more happy, and more desirable in every way, does it appear! It is true there are times in their experience when they will have to bear what woman bears so hardly—the consciousness of being alone ; but they escape an evil far more insupportable—that of being a slighted or an unloved wife.
If my remarks throughout this work have appeared to refer directly to a moral training for the married state, it has not been from any want of interest in those of whom I purpose to speak more fully hereafter, who never enter upon this condition, but simply because I believe the moral training which prepares a woman for one sphere of duty, is equally productive of benefit if she fills another; and I rest this belief upon my conviction, that all the loveliest and most estimable propensities of woman's nature, were bestowed upon her for early and continued exercise in a strictly relative capacity; and that, whether married or single, she will equally find the law of Christian love the only certain rule by which to regulate her conduct, so as to render her either happy herself, or the promoter of happiness in others.