Imágenes de páginas

which make so many people elect into a general rule the special conditions surrounding themselves, concluding upon their own argument as upon the most infallible demonstration, and perfectly clear on the fact that they are expounding a new order of things which had no existence in the ages that are past.

Here is, however, one of the chief accusations brought against our civilisation. Half the women in England are not married, and never will be; consequently a large proportion of Englishwomen have to seek their own maintenance and earn their own bread. But civilisation, while it makes this unnatural and anomalous arrangement, does not unmake the primitive arrangement by which labour out of doors, handicrafts, arts, and manual skill of all kinds, remain in the possession of men. There are consequently crowds of half-starved needlewomen, thousands of poor governesses, and a great many more feminine writers of novels than are supposed to be good for the health of the public; and so the tale is full. A woman who cannot be a governess or a novel-writer must fall back upon that poor little needle, the primitive and original handicraft of feminity. If she cannot do that, or even, doing it, if stifled among a crowd of others like herself, who have no other gift, she must starve by inches, and die over the shirt she makes. We are all perfectly acquainted with this picture, and there can be no doubt that, with countless individual aggravations, it is true enough; the only thing doubt ful is, whether these unfortunate circumstances are peculiar to women, and whether it is mainly upon them that civilisation imposes this necessity and works this wrong.

Many a sermon has been preached already upon the singular life of Currer Bell. It would be late now to recur to a book which has already had its day of popularity, and waked its own particular circles of curiosity and wonder; yet there is one aspect of it which bears with no small force upon the present subject. In that remarkable but not very prepossessing family, there was one brother equally gifted we are told, and in extreme youth the most hopeful of

any of them. Which seems to have had the best chance for life and success? The sisters were governesses all, and hated their disagreeable occupation: the brother was a tutor, and ruined himself disgracefully in his. Wherein stood the peculiar advantages of this young man, putting out of the question the vices by which he made an end of himself? Is a tutor in a private family of moderate rank better than a governess in the same? Is his position more secure, his prospects less discouraging, his pretensions more suitably acknowledged? Everybody knows that it is not so. Most people know also instinctively that the position of the poor gentlewoman who teaches the children of a rich family, is less humiliating than that of the poor gentleman employed in the same office, and that we could admire a hundred petty endurances in a woman which we should despise a man for tolerating. Why? We have no leisure to enter into the psychology of the question; simply, we do so by nature. A woman who endures worthily even the pettiest slights of meanness, has the privilege of suffering no diminution of dignity-whereas for the man in the same circumstances, the best we can wish is that he should throw his Horace at his patron's head, and 'list incontinently, or start for the diggings. He has no such privilege; and his patience must not go too far, under penalty of everybody's disdain.

The presence of the brother in this family of Brontes, which has been the subject of so many dissertations upon the condition of women, seems to us to change the venue entirely, and make the subject a much wider one. The women of the house did not like their occupation; what occupation would have contented these restless and self-devouring spirits? But the only one whose end was worse, and lower, and more debased than his beginning, was the brother. Civilisation, if that is the sinner, was far more bitterly in fault towards Branwell Bronte than towards Charlotte. It was the man for whose talents there was no outlet, for whose life there seemed no place in the world : it was not the woman, who did her duty, and in her season had her re

ward; and so far as this example goes, the theory of undue limitation and unjust restraint in respect to women certainly does not hold. The limitation, the restraint, the bondage, the cruel laws and barriers of conventional life, may, notwithstanding, remain as cruel as ever, but their application is certainly not harder upon the daughters of the race than upon its sons.

For who does not know, who knows the world of modern societyand if no such case is near and present to ourselves, let us be thankful-how many young men are to be found throughout England, but especially in London, recently emerged from Oxford or Cambridge, educated after the highest standard of modern education, full of general ability, considerable enough to pass for genius with many of their friends, wellmannered, well-read, and neither idle nor vicious, who, notwithstanding, linger on that eminence of youthful training perhaps for years, feeling themselves able for anything, and doing nothing, till the chances are that, out of pure disgust, the more generous spirits among them throw their culture to the winds, and rush into something for which all their education had tended rather to disqualify than to train them? Perhaps parental intention-poor scapegoat of many a failure-has destined them for the Church; and but for the slight drawback of having no great faith in any particular doctrine, they are, in fact, better qualified to be incumbents of a tolerable living, than for anything else save the position of squire, which would suit them best of all. But the lads bear a conscience, and will not be ordained-not, at least, until the very latest shift. What are they to do? Sometimes, in spite of Mr Thackeray, it happens that a man may be a very clever fellow, without being able even to write a newspaper article. So many as are able to do this feat "throw themselves into literature," as a matter of course, and something good comes of it in a few instances; but the majority swell the number of those unfortunates who do rueful comic stories, and live upon the humours of London cabmen and street-boys,

sometimes advancing for a charmed moment to the beatitude of Punch. This is no fiction; we do not say "one-half" the young alumni of our universities are in this position, or represent it as a universal fate; but the class is large, numerous, full of capabilities, able to be of infinite service to its generation, if it but knew or saw what to do; and how, in the face of this, we should recognise a special injustice to woman, or groan over a conventional limitation of her powers of working, in presence of the very same restraint acting still more unfortunately upon the more natural and stronger workman, we cannot allow or perceive.

Yes, the rules of civilisation are hard, and conventional life is cruel ; but the injury does not limit itself by any arbitrary law of sex, or imaginary line of demarcation between men and women. The burden lies upon all those educated classes, who, without fortune, have yet a position and habits which seem to make it needful that they should earn their bread by the toil of their brain, rather than by the labour of their hands-who must be banished to the antipodes before they can permit themselves to take up the original tools of nature, and who are in a much greater degree slaves of society and of their own social standing, than either the assured rich or the certain poor. In this vast London, which is the centre and focus of our extremity of civilisation, there are crowds of young men, trained to that pitch of bodily perfection and development which English public schools and universities, without doubt, keep up to a higher degree than any other educational institutions in the world—with a high average of intelligence, and all the advantages which are to be derived from that system of mental training which this country approves as the most complete-who, nevertheless, are as entirely at sea as to the best method of employing themselves and their faculties, as any woman with a feminine education equivalent to theirs could possibly find herself. Teaching, literature, art, which they have practised as amateurs to the admiration of their own families-

or, last alternatives of all, Australia or a curacy, lie before them, which to choose. Even female novels, and the stories in minor magazines about "proud pale girls" who support themselves by the work of their own hands, are not less profitable or less noble than the stories in other minor magazines about freshmen and town adventures, to which civilisation drives scores who never learnt to dig, and can see no other way than this of helping themselves; and if it is hard to be a governess, let no one suppose it is much lighter or more delightful to be a tutor. The burden, the restraint, the limitation is truc, but it is one of no partial or one-sided application; and this bondage of society, of conventional life, and of a false individual pride, bears with a more dismal and discouraging blight upon men, who are the natural labourers and bread-winners, than it can ever do upon women constrained by special circumstances to labour for their own bread.

As for needlewomen, few people who think on the subject will need to be told what a heavy equipoise of this evil all great towns carry within them. Poor penmen, lost far away down the miserable ranks of penny-a-liners-poor, poor, shabby unemployed clerks, as utterly incapable of using any implement of labour, save the sharp iron nibs of the pen, as ever woman was incapable of more than her needle-poor fluctuating vagabonds, who live by directing circulars for tradesmen, and to whom an election is a carnival. There is little comfort in contemplating this widened prospect of misery, nevertheless it is the real state of the case. The pen-not the pen of Savage or of Chatterton, or any other shipwrecked genius, but the mere mechanical instrument, which makes out cobblers' accounts, and keeps huxters' books, and directs circularscounts its miserable craftsmen by thousands, down far below the ken of the criticising world, and sends sighs as pitiful out of cellars and garrets, as any that ever have breathed their melancholy inspiration into the "Song of the Shirt."

Let us not attempt to ignore this dark and sad other side to all the

comfort and luxury of our modern life; but at the same time let no special complaint appropriate the greater share of the injury. It is a universal injury, an evil common to the time; it is not a one-sided and newly-discovered aggravation of the wrongs and disabilities of women.

There is, however, in almost all public discussions upon the social position of women, an odd peculiarity which betrays itself here with great distinctness: it is, that writers on the subject invariably treat this half of humankind as a distinct creation rather than as a portion of a general race-not as human creatures primarily, and women in the second place, but as women, and nothing but women-a distinct sphere of being, a separate globe of existence, to which different rules, different motives, an altogether distinct economy, belong. One would almost suppose, to take modern prelections upon this subject for our guide, that a different and more delicate gospel, a law of finer and more elaborate gradations, must be necessary for this second creation; and that the old morality which slumped the whole race in one, was a barbarous imposition upon the nature, not human, but feminine, which ought to have had more delicate handling. Yet in spite of all the new light which new experience throws, it still remains true that there is only one law and one Gospel, and that God has made provision for one moral nature, and not for two, even in those commandments which are exceeding broad. One fundamental and general ground of humanity is common to men and to women; one faith is propounded to both, without alteration of terms or change of inducements; one hope and one undiscriminated heaven shines on the ending of their days; they are born precisely after the same manner, and by the same event die;-they are, in factdifferent, distinct, and individual as every detail of their responsible existence may be-one race; and without the slightest inclination to ignore or lessen the essential differences between them, we can see no true philosophy in any view of this subject which does not recognise the ground they hold in common, as well as the

peculiar standing which they hold apart.

Let us not be misunderstood: we are not endeavouring to establish the "equality" of the two. Equality is the mightiest of humbugs-there is no such thing in existence; and the idea of opening the professions and occupations and governments of men to women, seems to us the vainest as well as the vulgarest of chimeras. God has ordained visibly, by all the arrangements of nature and of providence, one sphere and kind of work for a man and another for a woman. He has given them different constitutions, different organisations, a perfectly distinct and unmistakable identity. Yet above and beyond and beneath all their differences, He has made them primarily human creatures, answering, in the unity of an indivisible race, to His own government and laws; rebelling against them with a simultaneous impulse; moved by the same emotions; bound by the same obligations; under all diversities of detail, one creation. What folly could be greater than the supposition, that in this time of great public events, the public interest and opinion which follows breathlessly, with tears and with triumph, the course of affairs, for example, in India, should require two expressions instead of one, or two currents to flow in? The sympathy, the enthusiasm, the swell of answering heroic impulse, which the sight of heroes produces everywhere, is not communicated from man to man and from woman to woman, but from one human heart to another, in defiance of all limitations. The two creatures are as different as creatures made for different vocations, and different offices, can well be; yet in all the great fundamental principles of their mind and nature, the two are

[blocks in formation]

means, as we apprehend the words, to have formed certain theories upon it, cleverly propped up by certain facts, or, with a philosophy more sincere and single-minded, to have simply mistaken a little limited private circle for an epitome of society and the world: one or other of which blunders we cannot but think every one falls into, who represents Woman as a separate existence, suffering under the action of special principles which affect her, without affecting generally the whole race.

How then about our unmarried sisters, our unmarried daughters, that alarming independent army which a bold calculator affirms to amount to “one-half" of the women of these kingdoms? If there is really one-fourth of our population in these astounding circumstances, we fear the question is one beyond the power of the circulating libraries, and that even the remaining threefourths, English, Scotch, and Irish, can scarcely solve so big a problem. On the whole, one would suppose that the best expedient for such an emergency was, after all, Australia, where there is no Act of Parliament to compel emigrant ladies to marry within three days of their landing, and where at least there is room and scope for the energy which over-civilisation cramps and keeps in bondage. If it is true that so large a proportion of women stand in circumstances of isolation so entire, and self-responsibility so complete, it is certainly very weak and very foolish of them to sacrifice, for a mere piece of womanish delicacy, that safety-valve which men in the same position avail themselves of so much-especially, we repeat, as it is certain there is no Act of Parliament coercing them to the necessity of marriage as soon as they have touched the wealthy shores of our great young colony; and the benevolence of leaving a little room among the crowd might well indemnify an emigrant sisterhood for the momentary joke of going out to be married, which every one among them had it quite in her own hands to prove untrue. If the evil has gone so far, or nearly so far-if the half of British women have to support themselves, and to do that by

means of three, or at most four, limited occupations-to wit, teaching, needlework, domestic service, and novel-writing-we humbly submit that a little watchmaking, bookkeeping, or jewellery, additional thereto, would be a very inadequate remedy. To upset the ordinary social economy for any clamant grievance of a time, however just, would be the most shortsighted and ruinous policy imaginable. It is, besides, what is still more to the purpose, impossible. These great questions of the common weal are happily impervious to all philosophies, theories, and reasonings. They arrange themselves by laws of their own, which the warmest appeal of eloquence, and the most infallible array of argument, can neither reach nor influence. Nowhere in all the eivilised world is the power of the Press so great as in this empire; but the Times itself, backed by every lesser brother of the art, cannot prop up a failing trade, or persuade the master-craftsman to employ a dearer or less profitable class of labour. Inevitable rules of necessity and selfinterest sway the whole social economy. Obdurate as flint to all kinds of intellectual persuasions, it is perfectly elastic to every practical necessity, and answers to the changes of the time as a ship answers to its helm. If female work, which is always so much cheaper, is available in such a quantity as to enter into real competition with the work of men, we may safely trust the employers of Great Britain to know their own interests; if it is not, no sentiment is likely to have the slightest effect upon them. Trade, like civilisation, is an irrational and abstract influence, upon which individual hardships make no impression whatever. It has no particular regard for men, none for women, and very small concern for the general interests of the race. When it suits its own purposes to employ women, and even children, though at the cost of all health, loveliness, and domestic comfort, it does so without the slightest compunction; and if it had command of an equal amount of female material for other crafts as it has for cotton-mills and had for col

lieries, would doubtless employ them with the most sublime impartiality. No, let no one suppose it-there is no conspiracy of mankind to keep women excluded from the workshop or the manufactory. or the manufactory. On the contrary, the work of women, if it abounded to only half the extent, could always undersell the work of men, and, consequently, would always retain a certain degree of unfair advantage. But if civilisation has unduly increased the class of poor gentlemen and poor gentlewomenif the advance of education and refinement adds yearly to the number of those who will rather starve genteelly than "descend in the social scale"-let nobody run away from the real question with a false idea of special or peculiar injustice to women. The real drawback is, that while the rough work of nature always remains in one quarter or another, ready for those who will work at it, delicate labour for delicate hands is not capable of more than a certain degree of extension; and that, under this burden of our social state, women, to whose hands Providence has not committed the establishment and support of families, are neither the only nor the primary sufferers.

Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that many people of sense, looking on while somebody else's clever son, finding nothing to do with himself, falls into disgust and uselessness, and that don't-care-foranything superiority which mature minds find intolerable in youth, must have felt that the best thing they could wish for the lad was just one of those thoughtless, reckless, imprudent marriages, which are the bugbears of all good boys and girls, and careful fathers and mothers; and his female contemporary is not less likely to be benefited by the same prescription; but imprudent marriages, philosophers tell us, are not in the ascendant, while prudence and regard for "social position" is. We are past the condition in which girls and boys, having nothing else to do, fall in love. Why should they not fall in love? The condition is natural, and so even is its attendant heartbreak, which does not kill the young people: but

« AnteriorContinuar »