Wednesday, November 23, 2016
The Eternal Feminine in Literature By Louise Maunsell Field 1905
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AMONG the many popular fallacies whose age gives them a sort of stamp of respectability, there is perhaps none in more general use to-day than that of writing "Woman" with a question mark. That the "Eternal Feminine" is strange, mysterious, with ways and ideas which cannot be understood by mere masculine intellect, seems to be generally accepted as a fact; but upon what grounds? Why should writers take it for granted that men are all open books to women, while the ways of femininity are utterly incomprehensible to man? Nine times out of ten the conclusion does not rest on any personal judgment or experience: it is simply a parrot-like repetition of ancient opinion, and at the very same time it is acknowledged that few women novelists, even the greatest, have succeeded in drawing really masculine men, while there is scarcely a male writer of any real note who has not given to the world at least one thoroughly feminine woman, good or bad.
Take Thackeray, for example. He seems to have been unable to refrain from giving his pencil a sort of vicious quirk, which adds to the feebleness of his good women that most unpleasant quality known as cattishness; but where will·you find a more accurately drawn character than that brilliant, fascinating little schemer, Becky Sharp? Blanche Amory, too, is a genuine woman, however much one may dislike her, while Beatrix Esmond, vivid, complex, alive in every nerve and muscle of her beautiful body, is the dominating figure in "Henry Esmond," completely eclipsing the prosy, tiresome gentleman who has the title role.
On the other hand, Jane Austen understood her own sex thoroughly, but when she tried to draw a hero she often fell into the Slough of Priggishness. Edmund Bertram and Edward Ferrars, for instance, are unendurable, but there is no more delightful, adorable heroine in all fiction than witty, high-spirited Elizabeth Bennet, whose faults only make one love her all the more. Darcy and Wentworth are Jane Austen's best men, but as absolutely lifelike figures they cannot compare with Emma or Anne Elliot, far less with Elizabeth. Even among Miss Austen's eccentric characters Mr. Elton and Mr. Collins, accurately and carefully as they are drawn, are not as real as Mrs. Elton or Miss Bingley; and who is there fortunate enough not to know at least one woman with the inquisitive, dictatorial, self-satisfied vulgarity of Lady Catherine De Bourgh?
The king of historical novelists, Sir Walter Scott, frankly declared that he could not draw a hero. He has given us many men who are very much alive, and among them are widely different types of character. Louis XI., Rob Roy, Sir Dugald Dalgetty, Richard Coeur-de-Lion, Dominy Samson, have little in common, but each is vivid, distinct, human. These are his notable men, and in company with such living, breathing women as Di Vernon, Rebecca of York, and Julia Mannering, they are known and admired by thousands of readers; but who cares or remembers much about Harry Bertram, Francis Osbaldistone, or Ivanhoe?
The Slough of Priggishness is not the only peril in the path of the woman writer who tries to create a hero; the Pit of Femininity is quite as dangerous. Even that "woman with the brain of a
man," George Eliot, was not always able to keep out of it.
Ladislaw is as much-if not more woman as man. Tito Melema and Philip both have a certain amount of the female element, while Daniel Deronda is a combination of woman and prig.
But now turn to George Eliot's gallery of women's portraits. Good and bad, Rosalind and Dorothea, Romola and Gwendoline, Milly Barton, Maggie and the Countess, each and every one is a genuine, breathing woman. We love or hate them as we do people we know well and meet every day. Among her minor characters some of George Eliot's male sketches have a photographic accuracy. Mr. Irwine, Mr. Tulliver, Mr. Brooke, and Bartle Massey, for example. And yet, with all their human quality, are any of them quite as delightfully real to us as Mrs. Poyser, or Mrs. Cadwallader "whose feeling toward the vulgar rich was a sort of religious hatred"?
Of present-day writers it behooves one to speak warily and respectfully. Judging from those simple statements of fact, publishers' announcements, the greatest novels ever written have been produced during the past few years. Hundreds of "brilliant," "dramatic," "sparkling," "exquisitely tender," and "remarkably powerful" books have appeared-and vanished. Writers who "combine the wit of Thackeray and the poetry of Hawthorne," are numerous, according to the above-mentioned authorities, as the sands of the sea, and the number of those who have received the title of "only successor to" Dumas or George Eliot, who can estimate? It is probably because we have at present so very many great novelists that their books are forgotten with such remarkable rapidity. If there were fewer writers with a "marvellous delicacy of perception which reminds one of Jane Austen at her best," some of their heroines might become as famous as Elizabeth Bennet. So, with the humbleness and modesty which befit when dealing with these dignitaries, let us gently say that the writers of to-day draw women as well as they do men, and let it go at that. It is useless to go into details about characters which are well known to-day and will be completely forgotten by next week.
On the whole, does it not seem rather foolish to divide humanity in two and label one half of it "Incomprehensible"? Is it not human nature whose ways are mysterious, often startling?-human
nature, which only the greatest, those before whose eyes the mist which to most or us veils and distorts the world, has been partly lifted, can see justly? Is it not, in short, the "Eternal Human" which should be followed by a question mark, instead of merely the "Eternal Feminine"?
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