The Englishwoman’s Mind
Nobody could fail to be impressed by the physical beauty of young Englishwomen. It is confined to no class, though better preserved in the more leisurely. The ball-room and the village green compete easily with any exhibition of it on the stage. The question now to be presented is whether an honest observer, presuming him competent to observe, would be equally impressed with the mental qualities of our women. The answer, I think, would be extremely doubtful. Our young beauties, in any case, proudly conscious of their triumph in the physical test, would be indifferent to the outcome of the intellectual, if they could even conceive that anyone would be foolish enough to apply it. A quick brain is not in England regarded as an enviable possession, which proves it not to be a national one. In his penetrating first chapter to “Diana of the Crossways” George Meredith pointed out that “English men and women feel toward the quick-witted of their129 species as to aliens—having the demerits of aliens—wordiness, vanity, shallowness, an empty glitter, the sin of posturing.” He might have added that, so far as women are concerned, quick wits were only excused by absence of physical attraction, though he implied this addition in his picture of Diana Warwick in her conflict with public opinion. George du Maurier contrasted with evident approbation the beauty of young Vere-de-Veredom with the consoling hideousness of the three clever Miss Bilderbogies, translating thus into art a thoroughly English point of view. One can respect this point of view without adopting it: the British instinct for safety is illustrated by it. Englishmen may well be suspicious, and Englishwomen jealous, of the combination of beauty and brains: it is too overwhelmingly powerful and likely to be disturbing to the peace.
The combination occurs, perhaps, more frequently than is commonly supposed, but it is such a grave departure from the respected tradition that we hasten to forget each instance as quickly as possible, to prevent any danger of a cumulative impression. Yet it is in no spirit of pandering to the tradition that the Englishwoman’s mind appears in this chapter unadorned or unexplained by her appearance: it is simply a matter of con130venience. The mind of woman is not legitimately considered by itself, for the whole, the representative woman is not purely a function of her mind. Nevertheless, the Englishwoman’s mind, if not essential to the Englishwoman, exists, and it is growing. It would be unchivalrous to pass it by without observation. In George Meredith’s day it was hardly resolved that a woman might have a mind at all: this in itself is a measure of the later growth, for on this head, at least, there is now no doubt. The creator of Diana Warwick represented the Saxon man firmly treading with his heel on any feminine mental sparks which might set on fire the chips of his crumbling social structure. His faith in the sex’s capacity for growth has been justified to-day, when it would be absurd to represent women as anything but emancipated. Meredith’s view of the men as “pointed talkers” and the women as “conversationally fair Circassians” is no longer true. The women of England have made some progress on the upward route which he hoped that they would take.
At the same time, it will not do to contemplate our ladies as at the end of their journey instead of very much on the road. Exceptional women there have always been in this country, but the average woman still has an average mind, as the131 exceptional women, who are the severest critics of their sisters, will be the first to assert. They are the leaders through the jungle, forced ever to look back in impatience at the leisurely crowd following in the rear, calmly accepting the removal of the obstacles with which they have not to struggle, and far from guessing the need of the mental hatchet which had so happily cleared them away. It is probably true in all countries, but certainly in ours, that the necessity of cultivating a mind, even the latent possibility of doing so, is not apparent to the majority of women. It is made so easy for them to do without this troublesome acquisition. They are taught at school just sufficient for them to fill their probable station, which they do with docility and without ambition. Neither in their work nor their play have they any sense of a void aching to be filled up. Indeed what void could there be—unless it were pecuniary—when there is golf and tennis, bridge, fox trotting and hesitating, cinema gazing, novel-reading, playgoing to musical comedies and revues, or, in the most domestic regions, sewing and the rearing of children to keep them happily in the conviction that life is full enough without the added burdens of thought and knowledge? Men call them clever if they dress becomingly or if they can shuffle a132 room-full of guests adroitly, throwing conversational shuttlecocks up in the air for others to sweat in pursuit of: and to them cleverness appears a minor virtue, seeing the little enthusiasm with which their admirers regard it compared with their ecstasy over other more obviously feminine felicities. Or, on a lower scale, what time have they for any adornment of the mind, when the weekly toil of tending children and cooking for husbands, or the long days of drudgery at the factory, so fatigue the body and soul, that the mere bodily adornment of Sunday is almost too strenuous a reaction, when simple pleasures of the senses or even simple repose are the only appropriate drugs for their overstrained systems? Women with minds have still much work to do in order to give those who have none the leisure to look for them. The result is that women lag behind, with an unfortunate effect upon our national appearance. If ever the women overtake the men, much that is shoddy will disappear from the mental shopwindow? of this country.
So much may be said, I think, by a man without incurring the accusation of ordinary masculine prejudice. It is less than what is said and felt by the pioneers among women. That the world, even in England, is still arranged by men mainly for133 masculine convenience may be true, and will remain so as long as women allow most of their thinking to be done for them, as Miss Ethel Smyth, in her remarkable memoirs, holds that they do. Yet the enlightened man, though he may prefer that change should take place slower than the most ardent wish, may look forward with hope to the time when his convenience may less preponderate and feminine reverberations will cease to attend his thinking, then fulfilling the prophecy of the Lady Psyche in Tennyson’s “Princess”:
Everywhere Two heads in council, two beside the hearth, Two in the tangled business of the world, Two in the liberal offices of life, Two plummets dropped for one to sound the abyss Of science, and the secrets of the mind. In the contemplation of this hope what he now sees before him in his womankind as a whole is an intellectual plant of idle and promiscuous growth, capable, as its rarer shoots prove, of the sturdiest and most luxuriant upward ranging, but content for the most part to twine itself, like the convolvulus, round the first support offered to its tendrils, a house, a domestic affection, the134 crumbling tower of antiquated beliefs, the hazily pointing sign-post of a dubious philosophy or the hardier neighbouring weeds which are rooted in passions and desires. From these more handy and material supports it will not tear itself away to grow towards the sun with lithe, independent shoots disdainfully forcing their way past all encumbrances. The rarer instances where from choicer ground and more livening influences this species pushes a vigorous head into the skies serve only to accentuate the lazy lowliness of the general stock. It seems to shrink from the light of ideas, or, where the attraction of the light is too imperious to be resisted, it lifts a shoot gingerly upwards only to curl a tendril lovingly round the first comfortable fact met with in the short upward progress, and to adhere to it gracefully, quite satisfied with the result of its exertion. Or let us vary the illustration. Men, in their intellectual journey, can contemplate with satisfaction at the first glance some vast mansion of knowledge rising up before them from its solid foundations to all the infinite variety of its higher tracery. That they cannot grasp the whole does not trouble them, for they quickly see the stages by which the ascent to greater knowledge will be attained. They are inspired not bewildered by the lofty prospect, re135signing themselves happily to a study of the bare plan that will enable them to explore the beauties of the mansion intelligently and in order. The woman, on the other hand, is appalled by such an approach: the mansion swims before her eyes, the plan seems a confusing maze of meaningless lines. Her introduction must proceed on a different method. She must be led in by a side door through some pleasant alley into one of the rooms of the mansion, all comfortably furnished with easy chairs and pictures on the walls. Here, if she is allowed to linger without being too hastily pushed on by the official guide, her curiosity will be aroused. The assimilation of one room will prompt her to a timid sally into the next one, and so by good luck, if she is never frightened, she may in time be as much at home as any other explorer. Yet even then it is questionable whether she will ever venture out into the main court to gain a comprehensive view of the whole and of its relation to the surrounding architecture. Her domestic instinct tells her that she is more at home indoors, attending to the things which she can touch and see. So she is content to inhabit an appartement in the palace of truth, as an invalid pensioner might inhabit a set of rooms in Hampton Court Palace without ever drinking in the beauty of the whole136 building. It is only her mind which so flinches at magnificences and is afflicted with vertigo on eminences; her heart will take a Mount Everest of difficulties in its stride as if it were Primrose Hill, and her emotions will carry her on wings into the clouds without tremors, though she fall in the end as far and fast as Lucifer. Only when her intellectual dizziness is conquered shall we find her frequently, clear-headed and exultant, on the topmost pinnacles of truth, whence she can look down on her more elderly sisters placidly knitting in the verandah, while the children are playing hide-and-seek upon the stairs.
The less adventurous spirit of woman in purely mental enterprise is shown in the besetting sin of our girl students, the tendency to regard learning as nothing but the accumulation of facts. Women are the most assiduous crammers: they will work long and desperately to “get up” texts and facts, they will industriously follow a teacher, memorising his every word and slavishly following his precepts. Since they are less lazy than men, mere disgust with drudgery does not tempt them off the track laid out for them and, in their determination to gain the end in view, which is usually a concrete one, they plod on and on, neither looking to the right nor the left, neither lingering nor venturing up attractive137 by-ways, lest they should lose the track, or miss the prescribed turning on the main road. Men try short cuts, often with disastrous consequences, but the tendency in itself has its advantages. It trains the mental eye for the lie of the country, so that the most desultory of male wanderers, though his wanderings do not lead him very far, may yet acquire some broad impression of the whole landscape, which is more stimulating to the imagination than a walk between hedges faithfully performed. But, if a man be tempted to scoff at this greater docility and timidity of his female companions, let him reflect that it is very largely due to the fault of his own kind, a fault which Englishwomen are now bent on clearing away. For centuries a world made for the convenience of men kept women in leading strings which are now being cut, though their habit will take long to eradicate. In their early years, whatever their ultimate aim, men are put out on the pastures of knowledge like young colts. In their case who questions the wisdom of sending them to a university? It is assumed that a general mental training will be of benefit to them in any profession. Not so with a woman: unless teaching is to be her aim she will find the training of a university hard to come by, because it has not become established that a general mental138 training of the best kind is as needful for a woman as for a man, and that it is as beneficial to the community that she should have it. A generation or two of equal opportunity will work wonders in the comparative aptitudes of the sexes.
Women may well exclaim at the little use men have made of their greater opportunities: boldness in mental adventure is not a salient virtue of our men. Still, even in England, the cloud of scouts which precedes the plodding main army is composed chiefly of men. Women have yet to prove their equal ability for this service. They have got to improve themselves in map-reading if they are to enter these ranks, and maps are only instances of those bogies to most women, abstractions. They take her beyond the immediate range of vision, beyond the hills on the horizon about which she feels instinctively that she has no right to let her imagination play unless the further prospect is displayed before her physical eye, and she is, therefore, apt to pull a man up short when he is measuring the distant ground beyond his view and to bring him back to the church tower in the foreground, if not to the village pump. For this reason general discussion with English women is so often fruitless: they cannot get away from the concrete and, intensely interested as they are in the139 thing immediately to be done, they feel at sea in the elaboration of general principle from which immediate action could be best taken or criticised. So often, too, a man is brought up short by finding that a woman is winding all his ideas, which have no immediate attachments to anything within view, round some visible peg in the vicinity, or is mentally striving to find the visible peg which she is sure is really the point of attachment. The worst is when she imagines the peg, quite wrongly, to be stuck into her own amour propre: all argument is then futile, for the two are hopelessly at cross purposes. When a man is trying to set out a general point of view and a woman is asking herself meanwhile: “why is he saying this now and to me?” the chance of mutual comprehension is slight.
It is this same passionate attachment to the concrete, where ideas are concerned, which makes women poor critics, though they are keen observers. If there is one application of the intellect where a comprehensive outlook is necessary, it is criticism. The individual judging and the individual thing judged are in themselves such infinitesimal portions of the whole of reality, that the one cannot seize the other unless they become magnified in the imagination so as to display the140 infinite connection of relations which is the condition of them both. In woman the personal element so enormously preponderates, both in her appreciations and her dislikes, that her critical judgment usually shoots out into the world through a distorted lens only partially illuminating the objects on which it is bent. Nevertheless, it may be a sad day for men if this feminine lens is rectified. The very distortion is one that serves his comfort, since it focusses so much light upon him and his home. I would not personally exchange the eye of the English wife and the English mother which sheds so warm and loving a beam upon the home for any more searching ray which illuminated a whole distant world and left a home in comparative darkness. It is hopelessly foolish idealism to wish for the combination of every virtue in one atom of humanity: we English with our excellent habit of compromise do not habitually act as if such a thing were possible. Yet there are certain idealists in this country who, in their anxiety to secure equality of opportunity for women, seem to assume that progress can be made without profound changes in the thing progressing, and as though by taking thought women could attain to all that men have got without losing some of their own peculiar and valuable141 possessions. Unfortunately it is not so. Men and women will never be practically interchangeable beings, and, perhaps, the limit of desirable progress would be that any individual should have the chance of deciding what admixture of the male and female qualities and possessions will suit him or her best. Freedom of choice is after all the great essential of liberty: the use of this liberty can only be well guided by what is greater than liberty, wisdom.
This chapter, I fear, has rather belied its title. We must hark back to the Englishwoman. Let me make her amends by asserting that if she pleases she may have as fine a mind as any woman breathing. She has a naturally quick intelligence, if she be careful not to let its keenness rust; she has been dowered with common sense and power of imagination in inverse proportions; in practical matters she has a sure glance for the best course to be taken, but her vision is hazy where principles are concerned. Her critical standards are usually as conventional as her standards of conduct, but she can be strikingly original in action and will stand up nobly for her convictions. Where she attains to a measure of intellectual superiority, except at the highest levels, she is apt to lose her balance, becoming either priggish and cold or142 luxuriously vague and mystical. The blue stocking is not typical, but she is English and she still exists. There was an awful Miss Benger who invited Charles Lamb and his sister to tea, macaroons and intellectual conversation, as Charles pathetically describes her in his letter to Coleridge:
“From thence she passed into the subject of poetry; where I, who had hitherto sat mute, and a hearer only, humbly hoped I might now put in a word to some advantage, seeing that it was my own trade in a manner. But I was stopped by a round assertion that no good poetry had appeared since Dr. Johnson’s time…. I here ventured to question the fact, and was beginning to appeal to names, but I was assured ‘it certainly was the case’.”
She has her counterpart to-day. She lays down the law, with a steely glance through her pince-nez, scattering words like “fundamental” with the self-satisfied air of one distributing sugar-plums to not very deserving children. She will stultify the very best of critics by quoting his most foolish passages as oracles, and contrive, where she admires the right things, to do so for the wrong reasons. The hazy dabbler is quite as bad, and quite as irritating. She vibrates like Memnon’s harp to any breath from higher planes, and mis143takes the sympathetic vibrations of her empty head for the sounding of some organ note of the infinite. Like the shallowest pond she may sometimes produce the illusion of reflecting the profundity of the heavens, till a closer examination reveals the mud and the tin kettles such a very little way below the surface. The good Englishwoman is neither of these: she has either too great a simplicity or too well developed a sense of humour, for she hates pretence and is not slow to perceive it in others. So distrustful is she of artifice that she seldom shines in the fine rapier-play of witty conversation: her interchange of ideas may be compared rather to the game of lawn tennis, with plenty of movement and hard-hitting in it, most balls being returned from the base line with a well-timed drive, not snappily volleyed at the net. She is most attractive when a flush of emotion colours her thinking, showing thus as an effective foil to her mankind who think unemotionally or wear the mask of indifference to conceal their sensitiveness. She understands this shyness in Englishmen and overcomes it so delicately by her sympathy that they glow in her society as the Dolomite peaks in the sunset. She does this, if she takes any trouble at all, with a natural simplicity, not with the elaborate study that Balza144c’s Princesse de Cadignan exercised to fascinate her D’Arthez.
The worst of it is that so many Englishwomen neglect their natural advantages. They forget their minds in thinking of their bodies, their souls, their duties or their amusements. They are apt, like slatterns, to trot about the material world in intellectual dressing gowns with their ideas in curl papers. This is delightful enough for friendly intimacy, but is calculated to produce a less charming impression in the wider world. But there is hope in the future. The Englishwoman is beginning to study herself more intently in the looking-glass. The result will be what we should expect of an Englishwoman’s turn-out, quiet and workmanlike, neither fussy nor flimsy, but with an unmistakable cut and a richness rather of material than of ornament. But she must submit herself to good tailors who understand her figure, paying them a good price. No cheap intellectual garment off the peg will do justice to the natural graciousness of her lines which, for all their conservatism, Englishmen truly appreciate; and, for all their grumbles, they will not at heart grudge any trouble or expense in enhancing its effect.
The quality, so rare and so unmistakeable, of good manners is more usually appreciated or missed in men than in women: and this in itself shows that the quality is something wider and deeper than good behaviour, which may be required of both sexes. The niceties of deportment, graceful and pleasing as they may be, are of comparatively small moment in human relations. They vary from nation to nation, one preferring to eat with knife and fork, another with its hands; but good manners are good manners all the world over. The Christian ideal of chivalry, at its best, made men exquisite heroes and women exquisite angels, but in its fallings away it turned, for men, the noble practices of knighthood into weapons of conquest for the beleaguering of women, and, for women, stitched the angelic halo formally to the coif of womanhood. Knightly devotion, once an inspiration, became a formality accepted as small change instead of as a choice gift. So decadent knights of a later age opened doors and made pretty speeches146 to win hearts, while the hearts’ owners permitted themselves impertinences and other licenses in the knowledge that the knights would not dare to reproach them, and as for the other angels—it mattered little what they thought. It has therefore come about that the good manners looked for in men are supposed very largely to consist in those arts of politeness and consideration by which a stronger sex places its protection and devotion at the service of the weaker, and on this supposition the weaker sex, having to receive rather than give, has less scope for exercising similar arts. In fact they are not considered necessary to a female equipment. A man is judged by his manners, but a woman, provided she does not grossly violate the decencies, mainly by her appearance. This distinction was unimportant, perhaps, when women were held in very real subjection, but it becomes a matter of greater concern in modern days of feminine independence.
Most people, however, are aware that good manners, of the signal and striking kind which are like the precious ointment running down into the beard, are more than correct deportment and chivalrous deference. Even if they themselves cannot acquire them, they recognise them in others. This is especially true in England, where147 men and women can have the most exquisite manners in the world, though they can also have the most execrable. The merits of the English “gentleman” have been celebrated often enough: his praise is justified when he truly lives up to his proud title. The one supreme test of a gentleman is his possession of good manners: gentle birth and speech, taste in dress, tolerable morality, a pliant knee, and a stout heart, all his other qualities, will not turn the scale in his favour if good manners be wanting. These alone, of all heaven’s gifts, are essential to a gentleman, all the rest are optional. They should be equally essential to the lady, but they are not so in common estimation. We still insist that certain accidents of birth and breeding are the differentia of the lady, and though good manners most usually accompany these accidents, they often do not, while they flourish where these accidents are absent. We cannot change the general sense of the language, but only show its implications. There are no finer examples of good manners than those of the best Englishwoman, but they are not the pride of her sex as a whole, which will freely criticise and archly inspire the manners of men without troubling themselves to notice or improve the manners of women.
There is only one motto for good manners: the two words “noblesse oblige”—not in the restricted sense of the word “noblesse” but in the widest sense in which every human being has a conscious nobility. The sense of infinite obligation to one’s fellows is not easy to maintain continuously before one’s eyes, yet it is that sense, never forgotten, insistent as conscience, forcing itself to beautiful expression against the appetites and the prejudices, so ingrained by habit or disposition as to be almost unconscious, which is the root of good manners. St Paul’s “Charity” hardly transcends it, and it towers above the Catechism’s “Duty towards my neighbour” as a Gothic cathedral above a dissenting conventicle. To one in whom this sense, if not perfect, is strongly developed, a lapse from good manners brings inevitable remorse. The great prompter of these lapses is self-seeking, and that is why the best manners are to be found among those who have simplicity of soul and stability of position. The young, the ambitious, the rising with their eye on a far goal, the falling in dread of an abyss, the searcher intent on his quest, the thinker absorbed in his theory, the poet and artist hot-foot after beauty, the over-burdened toiler—all these are forced to swerve by other dominant influences from the path which good149 manners would point out. But for those who are contented or resigned, even for those who are complacent, the path is not so difficult to trace, for they are not hindered by thickets of their own emotions and desires, while from those whose hearts are single, serenely undistracted by the conflicting desires and aims of human life, good manners come as naturally as light from the sun. The happy ray beams forth from their personalities, illuminating all on whom it falls: it adds a quality to their glances, their voices, their very motions which irresistibly attracts the more dingy and struggling spirits of commoner humanity. It may proceed from a rugged exterior as well as from features delicately chiselled by centuries of selective generation. It is no negation, no monkish self-suppression, no humility of Uriah Heep, but a positive force issuing from a positive feeling of right pride, of “noblesse,” to which any poor-minded action or speech must seem contemptible.
I call to the front of my mind the memory of an Oxfordshire village on the confines of the Cotswold Hills, one of those tiny hamlets of grey stone which vanish into the grey and blue mystery of the surrounding woods and hills. The harmony of its colour, ascending through infinite gradations of150 lichened roof and blue threads of smoke to the deep velvet of the foliage under a pearly sky, is exquisite; but not more exquisite than the inner harmony of its older villagers, now fast departing. There have I seen the natural flower of good manners in all its beauty, blooming all the more brightly for the grey simplicity of its external setting. A blessing from the soft skies above them seemed to have settled on the hearts of those old people. Life had given them none of its choice gifts: toil had been their daily companion, with poverty his friend, bringing sickness as a frequent visitor, but the sturdy growth of their souls had no more been stunted than the beeches and elms by the nettles around their trunks. Stopping to greet one of these elders, hoeing with bent white head his patch of garden, one felt in converse with the spirit of Shakespeare’s England, which, for all its industrial casing of to-day, is still the real England. One could no more fail of civility with them than with a king, so compelling was the force of their own grave courtesy. They had perfect ease without insolence, respect without a trace of servility. Dignity, natural and unconscious, was in their every tone and gesture. Nor did Mrs Giles within the cottage bely her husband in his garden. She received a visit as an attention, not as a con151descension, conveying in her welcome all that a perfect hostess could convey, without awkwardness or restraint, genuine in affection, well-bred in jest. To regard such people otherwise than as equals in all but opportunity would prove a heart devoid indeed of nobility. It was an annual joy and a refreshment of spirit to see these old folk gathered at the Christmas feast. Never could entertainment want more perfect guests. The spirit of ease and gaiety which animated this one bright day in their dim year came from their hearts to warm those of their entertainers. There was no need to force the note of gaiety, so strongly did the tone of simple happiness vibrate in them, for all that good fortune so seldom plucked at their heart-strings. With these old people it was inconceivable that any such festival should fail to “go,” from the first cut of the roast beef to the final round of musical chairs, for every being in that little schoolroom was an English lady or an English gentleman in all the loftiest sense of these two names. All, however circumscribed their condition, had “a noble lustre in their eyes,” and in their gentle spirits there was such an influence that, had the meanest wretch on earth been introduced to such a Christmas gathering, it would have been true to say
“Be he ne’er so vile This day shall gentle his condition.” To taste so richly the fine essence of good manners was a rare and memorable privilege. Those who were guests betrayed even in retrospect their fine appreciation of courtly values. To them it was no charity, no prescriptive dole. “Ay, sir,” said Mr Giles next day, “that was a joyful touch!” Many of us, I imagine, who have had the good fortune to see the best, as well as the worst, of those who live the plainer and humbler lives, must have been struck by the pleasant heartiness of natural English manners, when they are not complicated by an uncertainty as to social position. A household known to me welcomed during the war some girls from a factory at a mid-day meal which, for all the simplicity of its preparation, went a trifle beyond the custom of its guests in the way of accessories. Not for one moment were they flustered. “I guess I’ll follow you,” was the simple remark to her hostess of one guest, and all difficulty vanished. A radiant party, bent theatre-ward, left the house to its elderly owners, whose daughter received on the doorstep the ecstatic comment “I just love the dear old dad,” a tribute which the “dad,” a gentleman of some153 eminence in a learned profession, received with legitimate pride. It all comes back to simplicity of heart, which only belongs to those who are firm in their niche and can look around them. The betwixt-and-betweens are always nervous, and shyness will make them sheepish, self-assertive, familiar, vulgar or dumb according to their temperaments. These wobblers, wherever they are found in the social ladder, all drop good manners with the same anxious trepidation, the rich in the halls of the great, the clerk and his wife in the middle-class drawing room, the wife of the country townsman on the precarious fringe of the county, the shallow prig in the presence of the artist, in fact, the snob generally on the threshold of his desire.
The sad thing is that the natural good manners of English people are so largely corrupted by snobbery of different kinds, and it is the women who are worst affected by this taint, since it is through them that lines of social intercourse are drawn, while men hover more easily on both sides of the fence. The tinge of snobbery may be fierce or faint, but the least trace of it is a stain on the fair face of good manners. The Maria of Mrs John Lane, observed as she is with such witty and lamentable accuracy, is a type of too many154 Englishwomen. She pushes, struggles and demeans herself daily with lies, subterfuges and petty dishonesties, imposing on the weak, toadying upon the stronger, with an eye of scorn for those below and a beam of adulation for those above—and all for such a sorry end. I saw the suffragettes throw themselves in waves, sobbing hysterically, against the rocky breasts of Westminster policemen till their strength gave out and their hair came down: it was a ridiculous and ugly spectacle, but a worthy cause gave rise to it. The spectacle of our Marias, charging and jostling against social barriers, is more ridiculous and more ugly because it is sanctified by no ideal of any possible value.
How the ladies do push and jostle, to be sure! Woman struggling with her own sex is indeed a tigress. The feminine assault upon a popular ’bus at Piccadilly Circus is a mêlée from which all but the most pugnacious of men would shrink, preferring to be ground to a powder by the trituration of multitudinous humanity in the tube than to be exposed to the shovings and stampings of ’bus-crazed women. They know it themselves, the dear things. My young friend Camilla, who is of the kind who consorts with Cabinet Ministers, told me the other day that in a ’bus-scrum not long ago she felt a peculiarly aggressive blow from behind.155 Turning round with a heart more furious than Dido’s, to quell her unmannerly aggressor with a look of hatred, an abusive phrase and perchance the jerk of a sharp elbow, she beheld her panting sister, Antonia, in all the frenzy of going over the top. The sisters called a truce, but were not in the least shame-faced. They both meant to get home at any cost, and had declared legitimate war upon the crowd. At a popular sale, so I hear, or in a busy shop, they sweep down like the Assyrians and positively fight for garments, or nearly tear shop-assistants in twain as Pentheus was torn by the Bacchanals.
This power which women have of inspiring fury in one another is very strange—is it confined to this country or is it universal? Englishwomen certainly have the power of goading one another to forget the first rudiments of good manners. They have a ruthless want of consideration for one another which to a man is quite appalling. A woman, usually suave as silk, will behave like a very shrew to a saleswoman or a shop-assistant, adopting in the first preliminaries of the bargain an attitude of suspicious disdain which, I confess, would prompt me to assault and battery. Men may be brutes, but they prefer to be gentle and accommodating in the smaller transactions of life.156 It is a pleasure to wait on them at meals or to serve them in shops. The man of fashion is urbane with his hosier, and the young clerk who haunts the neighbouring Lyons’ for lunch and dominoes has an easy-going politeness for the “Miss” who takes his order, to which she responds with the official affability of her class, comparable to the limp stiffness of an ill-starched shirt. But watch two Englishwomen at grips in a tea-shop, one serving, one waiting to be served. They measure one another with a chilly eye, each determined not to give an inch, for each knows there will be no pity on either side. They can be very hard, our Englishwomen, when no men are by, for, though they despise his softness and gullibility, they like to preserve the man’s illusion of equal softness in a woman. No man can be well served by women who do not love him: either they will take advantage of his good nature or show complete indifference to his exasperation. In either case he is powerless. He can neither inspire them to probity nor cow them into obedience as he can other men. But from women no women’s secrets are hid, and they do not scruple to use their penetration with a disregard of decency which is sometimes amazing.
But, lest these words should seem to be a uni157versal stricture on all our countrywomen, let me hasten to say that the blemish, though common, is not universal. In their relations with one another Englishwomen are apt, in this matter, to fall away from the best of their type, but that best does not so fall. Women can charm women, as well as goad them, and the good Englishwoman exercises her charm on both sexes alike. The graces of demeanour which Miss Austen drew are perennial. Her stories move in an atmosphere of good manners, which is still fundamental in unspoiled English people. Some of her characters were vulgar, some stalwartly self-seeking, some coarse by idleness and vanity: but a Mrs Norris, a Lady Bertram or even a Mrs Elton preserved good manners, and who can forget poor Emma’s shame at her rudeness to Miss Bates? In an age when passions rather than manners interest our novelists, it is a relief to turn to Miss Austen to be convinced again that English people have them: her praise will not be dimmed among us till good manners have finally vanished. That it is still bright, in spite of all that change in social conditions could do to tarnish it, is in itself an antidote to pessimism.
After all, it is the English wife and mother who is chiefly responsible for good manners in the home,158 and it is in the home that her own manners are most attractive. Nearly every Englishwoman is an admirable hostess, and there is a particular flavour about the welcome given by an Englishwoman in her own dwelling. To receive it is one among the uniquely pleasant experiences within the reach of humanity, not only in this country but wherever on the globe an Englishwoman has raised the tabernacle of home till she return again to the holy precincts of England, that home of homes. The hospitality of English people is justly renowned, and that for its cordiality rather than its lavishness. In this the cheery generosity and brotherliness of English men play no small part, but the serenity and solicitous friendliness of English women are the ingredients which give it the incomparable bouquet that other nations perceive and cannot imitate. Mr Maurice Baring, in a recent book, expatiates upon the extraordinary considerateness and hospitable energy of the Americans: he may have had every reason to do so, but I cannot believe that English hospitality comes one whit behind it. We may be less ready to make special efforts for strangers outside the home, but within there is no limit to the success of our ministrations, when we are remaining true to the spirit of an English home and not aping the159 unsatisfying sufficiency of a cosmopolitan hotel. Our stiffness, which is our instinctive protection for our too little ruthless hearts in the general clash of human atoms, falls off us in our homes. The guest, once within our hall, is in a new world, not to be conceived by one who only knew the uncompromising dreariness of our streets.
The Englishwoman removes her formality with her hat: with her for hostess new guest and old guest alike find neither ceremony nor constraint. She does not motion them to a settee, in the German fashion, and expect the overflow to group itself primly round the walls of a room obviously devoted only to these chilly entertainments. She takes them into her life when she settles them in the comfortably disposed armchairs of the room she lives in. They may drop out of it again when the door closes behind them, but while they are there all equally share the warmth. It is her wish, not precisely formulated, that those who visit her, whether for an hour or a month, should not be impressed or flattered but should enjoy themselves. She wants them, as the saying is, “to have a good time,” and into the realisation of this desire she brings a charming motherliness—particularly noticeable, I imagine, by men—which is one of her most beautiful qualities.
Few races can have such a passion as ours for “having people to stay,” so far as means will allow. All layers of English society have this passion in their hearts. Its satisfaction lays its chief burden on the woman, not only in the increase of domestic arrangements to be made, but in its added demand upon the fund of her social energy. She rises to it like a well-bred horse to a jump, self-spurred by the exercise of an activity for which she is so admirably suited. She may not always be sufficiently imaginative to fit her hospitable offerings to the particular temperament of every guest—though it is just in this discrimination and adaptability that the best Englishwomen shine—but her intention is invariably in that direction. Even Mrs Proudie at the Palace, Barchester, intolerable woman as she was, would have meant well by those who shared her formidable tea-table.
So vital a quality is this of Englishwomen that to have only met them out of their own surroundings is only to have seen half their selves: their intelligences may have been all poorly, or richly, enough on exhibition, but their manners cannot be fairly judged till they have been exposed in their own appropriate setting. It is surprising what lustre will then be taken on by facets which161 seemed harsh and uncouth in an uncongenial light. The most censorious foreigner caught by the radiation of an Englishwoman within her own four walls could not come away unmelted. Like the nightly twinkle of ships’ lights on the dark chilly waters of a harbour innumerable English hearths stud the external coldness of our country with spots of warmth and brightness. The genial fire is tended by the Englishwoman, the paragon of vestal domesticity. Even in her least attractive manifestations, as haughty clerk, surly landlady, insolent hussy of the factory, raucous slattern of a slum, empty dawdler, or priggish teacher, she sloughs a husk upon her own doorstep. You must judge her at home, as a guest not as an inquisitor, before you wholly condemn her manners. You will find, as a rule, that you will forgive much more than you condemn.
The point, however, is not so much what we may have to forgive her now as her probable demands on our forbearance in the future. Taking our figure in khaki astride the motor bicycle as typifying the Englishwoman to come, into whatsoever less violent exercise she may as an individual divert her energies, we may well ask what is the outlook for her manners. We may take it for granted, I am sure, that the essential virtues of the English162 stock are there unchanged, but a new strength and a new independence have sprung up to modify their activities. The new grafting may for some time produce a less mellow fruit. It is the settled people, I have already said, who bring forth the fine fruit of English manners, and where is settlement to-day? Society is regrouping itself busily like iron filings on a sounding board, values are profoundly changing, ideals are in the agonies of birth and death. The seething crowd in Oxford Street is England in miniature: people are everywhere hurrying to and fro, physically and mentally, laden with new ideas, new purposes and new experiences. It will be hardly strange if they leave their manners at home, or drop them in the bustle, as a man with two bags to carry might leave or drop his walking stick. We may wait in hope for their resumption in times of more leisured progress.
It is not that men and women generally are hunting for new positions in the snobbish and vulgar sense of the phrase, though efforts of this kind are inevitably obvious after the recent displacement of wealth: it is that the restoration of the world’s gravity is hustling us all in spite of ourselves, making us all more hard and less accommodating. Spring cleaning has only just163 begun, and it is a process in which our most irreproachable English women will not lay undue stress on ceremony and well-bred ease. The great thing is to sweep up the rubbish, banish the dust and get things clean, and if we look to the women to play the true housewives in this matter, we must excuse a certain brusquerie in the handling of the broom. The dwelling when restored may not be quite the one to which we were accustomed: there may be a hygienic bareness where we remember a cosy stuffiness, a brisker march in ministration to replace slow-moving but charming affability, and a not too gracious economy to succeed some harmlessly extravagant amenities. We shall not complain if our women, needing broader horizons than the drawing room fireplace, fix their eyes upon the things which matter, and grasp them with a finer sense of proportion than did their mothers. In common sense, in sympathy, in personal charm they will never surpass the best of older generations, but wider opportunity and greater freedom must give them new and fine qualities for which a Diana Warwick sighed and which a Christina Pontifex would have abhorred.
And if equality be the cry, let it be for equality of opportunity, of education, of service to the state, but not a petty insistence on equality of164 personal value which must ever be an illusion. There is nothing so deleterious to manners as self-assertiveness, and if it is necessary for citizens of the New Jerusalem to assert daily and with vehemence in the market place that they are as good as any of the other citizens, there will be at least one quality in which it will be inferior to the older foundation. Let me plead with the women of England not so to misuse the name of a great ideal, as it has been misused before: they will not by so doing redress the wrongs of inequality. If they are supremely conscious of their worth, let them at least preserve the urbanity of the truly great who assert no claim but act upon the easy assumption of its general recognition. But it would be better if they could emulate the humility of the truly wise who, measuring themselves humbly by their ideals, find no delight in standing on tip-toe among their fellow mortals. Equality of achievement or capacity is beyond human powers to secure, and of what value are more formal equalities when grand eminences of wisdom and bursting torrents of energy put to shame the less exalted hillocks and narrower streams of the average human landscape? To serve with dignity is a greater claim to honour than to be served with deference. This is a hard lesson for those emerging from ill-devised165 trammels: they can only learn it slowly when they have become accustomed to their freedom. The good Englishwoman will more readily learn it than the man, for it will be proved to her in the primeval claims which men and children make on her devotion. Let her harry overweening man as much as she will, shaking her broom in his face, compelling him to call her in to reinforce his weakness and striving victoriously for equality with him in every service to the community; but only at her peril will she cast aside permanently her good manners as despicable relics of older restraints and seclusions. They are the natural flower of her good comradeship and motherliness: why should she stunt the growth from those two roots which are fixed ineradicably in the deepest fibres of her nature?