The Female Prose Writers of America: With Portraits, Biographical Notices, and Specimens of their Writings/Maria J. McIntosh/Two Portraits

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Permit us, in illustration of our subject, to place before you a sketch of an American woman of fashion as she is and as she might be—as she must be to accomplish the task we would appoint her. Examine with a careful eye “the counterfeit presentment” of these two widely differing characters, and choose the model on which you will form yourselves. And first, by a few strokes of this magic wand—the pen—we will conjure within the charmed circle of your vision, the woman of fashion as she is.

Flirtilla,—for so noted a character must not want a name,—may well be pronounced a favourite of nature and of fortune. To the first she owed a pleasing person and a mind which offered no unapt soil for cultivation; by favour of the last, she was born the heiress to wealth and to those advantages which wealth unquestionably confers. Her childhood was carefully sequestered from all vulgar influences, and she was early taught, that to be a little lady was her highest possible attainment. At six years old she astonished the élite assembled in her father’s halls, and even dazzled the larger assemblages of Saratoga by her grace in dancing and by the ease with which she conversed in French, which, as it was the language of her nursery attendants, had been a second mother-tongue to her. At the fashionable boarding-school, at which her education was, in common parlance, completed, she distanced all competitors for the prizes in modern languages, dancing, and music; and acquired so much acquaintance with geography and history as would secure her from mistaking Prussia for Persia, or imagining that Lord Wellington had conquered Julius Cæsar—in other words, so much knowledge of them as would guard her from betraying her ignorance. To these acquirements she added a slight smattering of various natural sciences. All these accomplishments had nearly been lost to the world, by her forming an attachment for one of fine qualities, personal and mental, who was entirely destitute of fortune. From the fatal mistake of yielding to such an attachment she was preserved by a judicious mother, who placed before her in vivid contrast the commanding position in which she would be placed as the wife of Mr. A—, with his houses and lands, his bank stock and magnificent equipage; and the médiocre station she would occupy as Mrs. B—, a station to which one of her aspiring mind could not readily succumb, even though she found herself there in company with one of the most interesting and agreeable of men. Relinquishing with a sigh the gratification of the last sentiment that bound her to nature and to rational life, she magnanimously sacrificed her inclinations to her sense of duty, and became Mrs. A—. From this time her course has been undisturbed by one faltering feeling, one wavering thought. She has visited London and Paris, only that she might assure herself that her house possessed all which was considered essential to a genteel establishment in the first, and that her toilette was the most recherché that could be obtained in the last. She laughs at the very idea of wearing anything made in America, and is exceedingly merry over the portraitures of Yankee character and Yankee life occasionally to be met in the pages of foreign tourists, or to be seen personated in foreign theatres. She complains much of the promiscuous character of American society, dances in no set but her own, and, in order to secure her exclusiveness from contact with the common herd, moves about from one point of fashionable life to another, attended by the same satellites, to whom she is the great centre of attraction. Her manners, like her dresses, are imported from Paris. She talks and laughs very loudly at all public places, lectures, concerts, and the like; and has sometimes, even in the house of God, expressed audibly her assent with or dissent from the preacher, that she may prove herself entirely free from that shockingly American mauvaise honte, which she supposes to be all that keeps other women silent. Any gentleman desiring admission to her circle must produce authentic credentials that he has been abroad, must wear his mustaches after the latest Parisian cut, must interlard his bad English with worse French, and must be familiar with the names and histories of the latest ballet-dancers and opera-singers who have created a fever of excitement abroad. To foreigners she is particularly gracious, and nothing throws her into such a fervour of activity as the arrival in the country of an English Lord, a German Baron, or a French or Italian Count. To draw such a character within her circle she thinks no effort too great, no sacrifice of feeling too humiliating.

It may be objected that all our descriptions of the fashionable woman as she is, relates to externals; that of the essential character, the inner life, we have, in truth, said nothing. But what can we do? So far as we have yet been able to discover, this class is destitute of any inner life. Those who compose it live for the world and in the world. Home is with them only the place in which they receive visits. We acknowledge that few in our country have yet attained to so perfect a development of fashionable character as we have here described; but to some it is already an attainment; to many—we fear to most, young women of what are called the higher classes in our large cities—it is an aim.

Nobler spirits there are, indeed, among us, of every age and every class, and from these we must choose our example of a woman of fashion as she should be. On her, too, we will bestow a name—a name associated with all gentle and benignant influences—the name of her who in her shaded retreats received of old the ruler of earth’s proudest empire, that she might “breathe off with the holy air” of her pure affection, “that dust o’ the heart” caught from contact with coarser spirits. So have we dreamed of Egeria, and Egeria shall be the name of our heroine. Heroine indeed, for heroic must be her life. With eyes uplifted to a protecting Heaven, she must walk the narrow path of right,—a precipice on either hand,—never submitting, in her lowliness of soul, to the encroachments of the selfish, and eager, and clamorous crowd,—never bowing her own native nobility to the dictation of those whom the world styles great. “Resisting the proud, but giving grace unto the humble,” if we may without irreverence appropriate to a mortal, words descriptive of Him whose unapproachable and glorious holiness we are exhorted to imitate.

In society, Egeria is more desirous to please than to shine. Her associates are selected mainly for their personal qualities, and if she is peculiarly attentive and deferential to any class, it is to those unfortunates whom poverty, the accidents of birth, or the false arrangements of society, have divorced from a sphere for which their refinement of taste and manner and their intellectual cultivation had fitted them. Admission to her society is sought as a distinction, because it is known that it must be purchased by something more than a graceful address, a well-curled mustache, or the reputation of a travelled man. At her entertainments, you will often meet some whom you will meet nowhere else; some promising young artist, yet unknown to fame,—some who, once standing in the sunshine of fortune, were well known to many whose vision is too imperfect for the recognition of features over which adversity has thrown its shadow. The influence of Egeria is felt through the whole circle of her acquaintance;—she encourages the young to high aims and persevering efforts,—she brightens the fading light of the aged, but above all is she a blessing and a glory within her own home. Her husband cannot look on her—to borrow Longfellow’s beautiful thought without “reading in the serene expression of her face, the Divine beatitude, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart.’” Her children revere her as the earthly type of perfect love. They learn, even more from her example than her precept, that they are to live not to themselves, but to their fellow-creatures, and to God in them. She has so cultivated their taste for all which is beautiful and noble, that they cannot but desire to conform themselves to such models. She has taught them to love their country and devote themselves to its advancement—not because it excels all others, but because it is that to which God in his providence united them, and whose advancement and true interest they are bound to seek by all just and Christian methods. In a word, she has never forgotten that they are immortal and responsible beings, and this thought has reappeared in every impression she has stamped upon their minds.

But it is her conduct towards those in a social position inferior to her own, which individualizes most strongly the character of Egeria. Remembering that there are none who may not, under our free institutions, attain to positions of influence and responsibility, she endeavours, in all her intercourse with them, to awaken their self-respect and desire for improvement, and she is ever ready to aid them in the attainment of that desire, and thus to fit them for the performance of those duties that may devolve on them.

“Are you not afraid that Bridget will leave you, if, by your lessons, you fit her for some higher position?” asked a lady, on finding her teaching embroidery to a servant who had shown much aptitude for it.

“If Bridget can advance her interest by leaving me, she shall have my cheerful consent to go. God forbid that I should stand in the way of good to any fellow-creature—above all, to one whom, by placing her under my temporary protection, he has made it especially my duty to serve,” was her reply.

In the general ignorance and vice of the population daily pouring into our country from foreign lands, Egeria finds new reason for activity, in the moral and intellectual advancement of all who are brought within her sphere of influence.

Egeria has been accused of being ambitious for her children. “I am ambitious for them,” she replies; “ambitious that they should occupy stations that may be as a vantage-ground from which to act for the public good.”

Notwithstanding this ambition, she has, to the astonishment of many in her own circle, consented that one of her sons should devote himself to mechanical pursuits. She was at first pitied for this, as a mortification to which she must certainly have been compelled, by her husband’s singular notions, to submit.

“You mistake,” said Egeria, to one who delicately expressed this pity to her; “my son’s choice of a trade had my hearty concurrence. I was prepared for it by the whole bias of his mind from childhood. He will excel in the career he has chosen, I have no doubt; for he has abilities equal to either of his brothers, and he loves the object to which he has devoted them. As a lawyer or physician he would, probably, have but added one to the number of médiocre practitioners who lounge through life with no higher aim than their own maintenance.”

“But then,” it was objected, “he would not have sacrificed his position in society.”

Egeria is human, and the sudden flush of indignation must have crimsoned the mother’s brow at this; and somewhat of scorn, we doubt not, was in the smile that curled her lip as she replied, “My son can afford to lose the acquaintance of those who cannot appreciate the true nobility and independence of spirit which have made him choose a position offering, as he believes, the highest means of development for his own peculiar powers, and the greatest probability, therefore, of his becoming useful to others.”

Our sketches are finished—imperfect sketches we acknowledge them. It would have been a labour of love to have rendered the last complete—to have followed the steps of Egeria—the Christian gentlewoman—through at least one day of her life; to have shown her embellishing her social circle by her graces of manner and charms of conversation, and to have accompanied her from the saloons which she thus adorned, to more humble abodes. In these abodes she was ever a welcome as well as an honoured guest, for she bore thither a respectful consideration for their inmates, which is a rarer and more coveted gift to the poor than any wealth can purchase. Having done this, we would have liked to glance at her in the tranquil evening of a life well spent, and to contrast her then with Flirtilla—old beyond the power of rouge, false teeth, and false hair, to disguise—still running through a round of pleasures that have ceased to charm,—regretting the past, dissatisfied with the present, and dreading the future,—alternately courting and abusing the world, which has grown weary of her.