UTC
Christian Examiner and Religious Miscellany
Unsigned
Boston: May 1858

[From] ART. III—IDEAL GIRLHOOD IN MODERN ROMANCE.

1. Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship. GOETHE.
2. Peveril of the Peak. SIR WALTER SCOTT.
3. Last Days of Pompeii. SIR EDWARD BULWER LYTTON.
4. Nôtre Dame de Paris. VICTOR HUGO.
5. Master Humphrey's Clock. DICKENS
6. Uncle Tom's Cabin. MRS. STOWE.
7. The Scarlet Letter. NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE.

  WHEN we announce "Ideal Girlhood in Modern Romance" as the subject of this article, we feel that the title contains both more than our subject, and less. Numerous forms of ideal girlhood are in modern romance, besides those on which we intend to write; and the mere phrase, "ideal girlhood," does not of itself suggest the peculiar forms to which we shall direct attention. The special instances which we select have


366

a certain strangeness in their characters,—something of the abnormal, the preternatural, and the weird. Perhaps we shall best explain our meaning by stating how we came to think on the subject. In several perusals of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister, we found that the character of Mignon made deeper and deeper impression on us. The same must have been the case with many novelists, for we discover the subtile influence of Mignon's character in the greatest writers of fiction since Wilhelm Meister appeared; and that character, in spirit, we have noticed in several successive reproductions. A desire thence arose to enter, if we could, into the significance of the primitive "Mignon," and to examine what relationship or analogy the derivative "ideals" bear to the primitive. From such a thought the present article originated; yet we will not say that, after the start, it has not often changed its course from the originating thought, and broken connection with it. Still, in the main, it will preserve its consistency; dealing only, as we have intimated, with the abnormal, the preternatural, the weird, in young female character, as we find it in certain extraordinary ideals of girlhood in modern romance. We take these ideals as of three classes: first, the impassioned class; secondly, the ethereal; thirdly, the elfish; and in this order we propose to treat them. . . .

  2. We are next to consider, in some of its instances, the ethereal idea of girlhood in modern romance.

  One of the most striking of these we find in the "Little


383

Nell" of Dickens. A good, pure tender, innocent soul seems in her brought from heaven to earth, and preserving as many graces native to the skies as could shine in a spirit while it sojourned in the flesh. Her singleness and simplicity, the affecting relations between her and her grandfather, commanded our sympathy. She is not only lovable in herself; she is the means of bringing beautifully into view what is lovable in other;—the knightly loyalty of "Kit"; the kindliness of merry Short, and melancholy Codlin; the rough good-nature of Mrs. Jarby; the sublime charity of the haggard watcher of the furnace-fire, in the gift of his little pittance of two old battered, smoke-encrusted pennies; and the saintly goodness of the meek-minded schoolmaster. The pathetic in the destiny of Little Nell is just enough to move the heart, but not enough to overpower it. We would have no violent emotions in connection with a fate like hers; for even misery in such a nature, though it may stir us deeply, should leave us gentle. Moments of tragedy are in her lot, when, nigh almost to despair, she is horrified by the terrible insanity of the weak old man; but her lot is softened by the peace of nature in the summer loveliness of English fields and byways. It ends, as it ought to end, in the trust and sweetness of early death, in the shelter and the shade, in the sanctity and rest, of a rural grave.

  When Master Humphrey's Clock first appeared, every one was talking of "Little Nell." We did not, we confess, take very heartily to the praise which was lavished on her. In the noise around us there was much to challenge denial, to provoke ridicule; much empty babble; much feigned sentiment; much imitative enthusiasm: we had no sympathy with the noise, and we met it by resistance; and in this we were nearer to the right than our antagonists. Something in our circumstances strengthened us in our protest. We had seen childhood extensively in its positive sorrows and orphanage, and therefore were not prepared to see in this ethereal creature anything but a phantom, and unreality,—a child born of tears and fancy into the moonlight of imagination. When Little Nell was confounded with the actual or likened to it, irony and burlesque seemed to come together to prompt a


384

laugh that was at once satirical and broad. Every mother had a daughter who was a "Little Nell." You saw in the mother a comely housewife or a fashionable beauty; you saw in the daughter a joyous, rosy, stout, sturdy girl,—eyes laughing with fun, cheeks globular with gingerbread; or you saw a slender belle, with visions in her dreamy looks of the paradise of balls and beaux, into which from the school-room and its unseraphic guardianship she was soon radiantly to enter. Now that the noise has long subsided, now that we have communed with "Little Nell" in the secrecy of our own thoughts, we discern the error of this cynicism, and are ready to condemn it. In truth, any man who raises our familiar life out of weariness and commonplace, who awakens our hearts to the ideal that lurks in even the homeliest forms,—any man who opens our conceptions to fair and goodly possibilities of worth and beauty, who teaches us the dignity, the divinity, in which all our affectionate relations to life are enshrined,—is more than a poet; he is a prophet and a benefactor; he enlightens and blesses us; he deserves immortally our homage and our thanks.

  Another illustration of the ethereal ideal in girlhood is Eva in "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Her excellence is of a broader and higher order than that of Little Nell. Practically, Little Nell's goodness lives in her instincts and immediate affections. Morally, she is entirely unselfish; but the ills which wound her are the ills that insanity, poverty, and vagrant old age bring upon her grandfather. The possibility of the divinest charities, of the largest pity, is, indeed, in the character of Nell; but the woe nearest to her is already a burden too heavy for her weakness. Eva is born to affluence, to authority, to command; her lot is cast in the midst of luxury and indulgence; she is a princess and an idol. Taking things as she found them, enjoying the ease and pleasure which fortune gave, she might still be amiable, good, and lovely. To think she might not, would be to think unjustly of many that are in her circumstances. The peculiarity and beauty of her disposition are, that she could not confine her thoughts within the limits of her own privileges and advantages. The fate of sorrow that came to others troubled her, and she could not


385

but taste bitterness with her pleasure, when she conceived that much of this pleasure was the product of hopeless labor and of unpitied tears. Her heart went out to the weak, the despised, the ignorant, the wronged, the rude, and the uncomely; the very circumstances that hardened others toward them, melted her; her childlike sympathy gave her knowledge beyond experience; and a godly intuition revealed to her the unperverted soul that clear sense of right which is often hidden from the wise and prudent,—nay, which the wise often darken with words without knowledge, and which the prudent often blind by interest void of conscience. "Little Nell" in relation to Master Humphrey manifests the beauty of natural affection; Eva, in her relation to Uncle Tom, exemplifies the divinity of Christian sentiment, "which is born, not of the blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God." Uncle Tom was not of her color, order, or condition; but the spirit of that sublime unity was in her, which makes all our race one family. If the ample mind of the Roman could say, "Nothing human is foreign to me, in her the heavenly mind of Jesus added, "Whatever is human is kindred to me, and all that is good is dear to me." Household affection, the charms of soul and body, all that enchants the eye and heart, give endearment to her childhood's life; the pathos of her gentle death brightens into the serenity of faith and hope, wherein the feeling of pain is absorbed in that of beauty, and the consciousness of loss in that of immortality.

  3. The elfish in Ideal Girlhood is the only remaining class which we propose to notice. We begin with comic elfishness; and of this we can desire no example more illustrative than Topsy, an inhabitant not the least distinguished in the Uncle Tom region of the imaginative world. Both from her color and her delight in mischief we might call her impish. In cunning, slyness, and fun, she is a peculiarity in literature. She has, in the utmost fulness, the drollery which is the compensation to her race for their depression; she has the animal spirits which are the wine of life to the wretched, and which nothing can deaden but sickness or hunger. Yet with all that is comic on the outside, there is more in her than


386

in Eva that sets the mind to think, and makes it think sadly as well as deeply. Unconsciously, she is a satirist,—an ebony, flat-nosed, thick-lipped satirist; and incarnate ridicule, from the land of Ham, on certain peculiar institutions in the land of Japhet; a heathen, irreverent darky ignoramus, that does not understand her privileges, or the prophecies; a profane oddity that sometimes makes a joke of sacred things,—that has a sting in her laugh, and bitterness in her mirth. She is a living caricature of the condition of society which has given her even a literary existence. It is only in the moral incongruities which she suggests, and as a mockery on them, that she has any serious meaning, in which serious meaning lies the secret of her interest. Serious meaning is essential to all genuine caricature, and without such meaning the ludicrous often conceals the melancholy, the sorrowful, the painful. It is like Lear's fool, with the jest on his lip and the tear in his eye, with motley on his back and mourning in his heart. Pasquin rarely asks men to laugh but when they have cause to weep. Topsy is, in this sense, a caricature of even tragic significance. in the midst of a civilization which prides itself on Christianity, she hardly knows that she is human; in the midst of a land which prides itself on liberty, bondage is her inheritance. She has no childhood, no home, no parental ownership, no recorded date of birth, no information on her origin or her age. "How old are you, Topsy?" inquires Miss Ophelia. "Dun no, Missis." "Don't know how old you are? Did n't anybody ever tell you? Who was your mother?" "Never had none." "Never had any mother?—What do you mean? Where were you born?" "Never was born." "You must n't answer in that way; tell me where you were born, and who your father and mother were." "Never was born; never had no father, nor mother, nor nothin'." "How long have you lived with your master and mistress?" "Dun no, missus." "Is it a year, more or less?" "Dun no." "Have you ever heard anything about God, Topsy? Do you know who made you?" "Nobody, as I knows; I 'spect I growed." Topsy, as we are told, "made great capital of her own sins and enormities, evi-


387

dently considering them as something peculiarly distinguishing." "Law, you niggers," she would say to some of her auditors, "does you know you's all sinners? Well you is,—everybody is. White folks is sinners too,—Miss Feely says so; but I 'spects niggers is the biggest ones; but lor! you aint any on ye up to me. I's so awful wicked there can't nobody do nothin' with me. I used to keep old missus a swearin' at me half de time. I 'spects I's the wickedest critter in the world." Her conduct was consistent with her theory. "Topsy," Miss Ophelia would say, "what does make you act so?" "Dun no, Missus; 'spects 'cause I's so wicked." "I don't know anything what I shall do with you, Topsy." "Law, Missus, you must whip me. My old missus allers whipped me. I aint used to working unless I gets whipped." "Why, Topsy, I don't want to whip you. You can do well if you 've a mind; what is the reason you won't?" "Laws, Missus, I's used to whippin'; I 'spects it's good for me."

  There is also a serious elfishness in the modern romantic ideal of girlhood in literature; and this we exemplify in "Pearl" of "The Scarlet Letter." Some conditions attached to Mignon's destiny belong to Pearl's. like Mignon, she is the child of guilt and of a priest. of passion and of genius she is born. She is the occasion of shame, remorse, anguish, and despair; she is nursed upon a bosom branded with infamy; but lonely though she grows, she does not fail of society; the abundance of soul within transfers itself into all without, so that sticks have ears to hear, and stones have tongues to speak, and Heaven has eyes to see, and under the scarlet letter there is the heart of a scorned mother to feel for her outcast child. Pearl is a singular impersonation, in impassioned and imaginative childhood, of influences abnormally vital. In Pearl we have a being that puzzles curiosity, evades examination, that changes like the glancings of a thought, and is lovely in every change. There is no word which implies strange and fitful enchantment, connected with depth of nature, that we might not apply to her. And such words would but faintly indicate the poetry, music, and beauty which unite in the essence of her existence. She is a fascinating sprite among the inhabitants of that world which is visible only to


388

the mind; she has a charm of preternatural interest, not alone in her own ideal origin and destiny, but in the mysterious gloom of the boundless forests, which covered primitive New England; also in the traditionary, legendary, necromantic atmosphere of the period, which rounds her visionary story,—even as an unearthly dream is rounded by a poet's sleep.

  Let us now, in closing, review this series of illustrations. We regret that Undine, one off the purest of poetic creations, one of the most beautiful ideals of girlhood and love, that ever was conceived, is not included in it; but, as we wished to deal only with representations of Eve's own race, we felt compelled to omit Undine, most pathetically human though she is. As to the others, Mignon, Fenella, Esmeralda, Pearl, have each the shadow of mystery and sin around her origin. Little Nell and Eva are born into sorrows not their own: Topsy is branded by her color and her race. All of them except Eva are without fixed relations to society, and the society to which Eva finds herself related would not, had she lived, have tolerated her. Most of them are vagrant. Each is in her way fascinating;—Mignon, by her wild inspirations and her lyric soul; Fenella, by her intensity of will and feeling; Nydia, by her devotedness; Esmeralda, by the vehemence of her attachment and the splendor of her beauty; all of them, by force and singleness of passion. In each case the object of the passion is unworthy of it, and inferior to the being that feels it. Wilhelm Meister is a mediocrity; Julian Peveril, a sham; Glaucus, a shadow or non-entity; Phoebus, a debauchee. In the whole series there is no happy life; and when the close is not in early death, sometime tragic as well as as early, it is in uncertainty. Mignon breaks her heart; Nydia drowns herself; Esmeralda is strangled as a sorceress; Fenella goes into exile; Little Nell and Eva die as in a dream; Pearl—it is merely hinted—found in England a wealthy husband; Topsy accompanied Aunt Ophelia to Vermont, and there, we may conclude, she died of cold. On the other side, the men become benedicts; each masculine platitude mates himself with a feminine platitude; then husbands and wives, with increasing families of hopeful children, are, for the rest of their lives, as happy as the day is


389

long. Each of these resistless heroes had generally broken several hearts ere he consented to delight one heart for ever; and only when he has become weary of killing, does he bow, smile, and surrender. But, then, women like to be killed,—especially in fiction. Is this representation of woman in literature honorable to her? Does she abound in soul to lavish her abundance on the contemptible or the hateful? Is she rich in heart and fancy only to implore vainly that some conceited pauper will accept her wealth, and to perish because he will not? Is she impassioned only towards objects that deserve her enthusiasm,—impassioned to be disappointed and rejected,—to shower her burning and golden youth upon a block, and lose herself in darkness by the mistake that the stolidity of a wooden idol is the sublime indifference of a god? Satire treats woman badly enough. The whole tone of satire respecting woman is an utter denial or scepticism of all the qualities which we most desire in her,—for which we hold her sacred. Satire seems to be man's reprisal from woman in literature for the homage that he pays in society. But we doubt whether, even in the satire of Rabelais, Montaigne, Bayle, or Gibbon, woman is so degraded as in many ideal representations of her in modern romance. Such, especially, are those which place desire on her side, and make man the object of it; which show her as the seeker, and man as the sought; which leave him the option of avoidance or concession, to her the humiliation of being rejected, or the misery of being destroyed. This is to reverse entirely the method of chivalry; this indicates a radical revolution in the spirit of social manners. We notice it first in Goethe; Scott is not wholly free from it; it was intensified by Byron; and it has been exaggerated by Bulwer.

  Yet we have no desire to recall the chivalric ideal of girlhood or womanhood, if with it must likewise be recalled the actual Feudalism, to which that ideal belonged. The devotion of Feudalism was to a class, that class a narrow and a special one,—the ladyhood of hall and bower. The courtly knight wooed the high-bred maiden with courtly grace. The lady of the castle was of high dignity. The lord of the castle was awful to regard. The grandeur of the parents was a


390

halo around daughters, which no vulgar eye could pierce; yet both mothers and daughters were under a domestic despotism which now, in any free condition, would to the humblest be intolerable. Small as were the liberties which Feudalism gave to women, noble dames alone were those who shared them. Chivalry might have commanded swords to start from their scabbards for a queen; but Feudalism could have put its booted foot into the peasant's bridal bed, and the husband must have choked his wrath, and the wife must have borne her shame. That which we think true reverence to woman, that from which alone true courtesy can spring, is a gracious and generous inspiration, which is not bounded by the limits of condition or of class. Show us the man who can leave the music of the beautiful and the young to listen to the complaints of the suffering, or to aid the infirmities of the aged; who would no more look rudely at the poorest girl in an emigrant-ship, than he would at the richest heiress in the presence of her parents; who treats indigent and unprotected maidenhood with even more cautious deference than he would wealthy beauties, encompassed in family shelter, and cared for with jealous guardianship; who scorns a boaster over woman's weakness as the meanest of cowards, and fears him as he would a poisoner or a Thug; who abhors the libertine blasphemer of feminine nature as he would the desecrator of his mother's grave;—show us such a man, you show us more than a knightly gentleman; you show us a nobleman of nature's best materials, and of God's own anointing and consecration.

  It would be of great interest to review, at some length, the different forms which the ideal of womanhood has assumed, according to the various influences of civilization, literature, and religion that have acted on it. But to conduct such an examination adequately, would be to go deeply into the philosophy of history. The highest ideals of womanhood we should find to be the Hebrew, the Classic, and the Christian. The Hebrew ideal was the domestic; the Classic, artistic; the Christian, spiritual. The Hebrew institutions clad woman with maiden and matron honor. The Hebrew commonwealth stands alone among ancient nations for the sacredness which


391

it gave to woman. Classic Paganism deified womanhood, as it deified manhood. As it had its highest conception of man in strength, so its highest conception of woman was in grace. This strength, this grace, was not all material; still, the influence of sense predominated. Thus, poetry was often sculpture in words; sculpture, poetry in marble. The Hebrews, forbidden the use of images, cultivated the ideal of the moral and inward life. Christianity did not discard the grace of the classic ideal; it enlarged the sentiment of the Hebrew, and to both it added the conviction of immortality. Immortality was not excluded from Hebrew feeling, but in Christian feeling it is essential. This presents woman and man ever to the mind as equals,—equals in the sublimest relations of existence. The Christian ideal is, therefore, not only the loftiest, but the broadest; it embraces not alone the peculiar claims of woman's sex, but the whole of her humanity. In the degree that this is felt by man, in the degree it is made real in woman herself, in the degree it is recognized and acted on in society, humanity is advanced, refined, purified. With the polemics of the woman question, we have neither time nor inclination to concern ourselves. Among men of sense there is, we apprehend, no disposition to underrate the nature of woman; and as to the relative dignity of the sexes, the controversy must mainly be a quarrel about words. Within the arena in which is won the pure and bloodless fame of spiritual achievement, woman needs no champion; she is her own vindication. Eloquence, poetry, art, philosophy, science, acknowledge her queenliness, and do her grateful homage. The genius of woman has its peculiarities. So has the genius of man. Both are the common glory and property of all. In like manner, the goodness of woman has its peculiarities; man's goodliness, too, has it peculiarities; and without the union of both in benefactions to the world, the grandest plans would only be abortive dreams. Much and manifold improvement is needed for the condition of man; but however bettered and elevated these conditions may become, nature necessitates relative differences in them, which no changes can eradicate, and which it is not desirable that they should.


392

  We might have speculated, in this closing part of our reflections, on the character and circumstances of the artist-woman, and used for illustration the imaginative beings to which thew body of our essay has been devoted. In the elfish, the ethereal, the wild, the wayward, the weird, the impassioned, the poetic,—in the lyric qualities which belong to these beings, we might have found the character of the artist-woman in its elements. In the isolation of these beings, in their vagrancy, in their sufferings and struggles, longings and disappointments, we might have found the circumstances of the artist-woman, and the analogies of her destiny. But the idea was too pregnant; we did not feel adequate to unfold it. After all, it is in the common relations of life that we have the influences of woman that are the most blessed for humanity; and if we sometimes turn from them to luxuriate in the poetic and romantic, it is only as we leave the open scope of creation to gaze on a landscape in a picture. True indeed it is, and terrible as true, that sin has often an agency in woman, which startles and affrights us; sin is, often as she commits it, a paradox and problem of guilt,—an enigma of crime. Instances we have of the obdurate heart, and deeds proper to it, under the glow of beauty, under the guise of sweetness, at which a Borgia might have shuddered; instances we have, in which a show of affection concealed the guile of death, yet seemed so true to the reality of love as to lull suspicion into sleep; instances we have, wherein the will and hand of woman have been strong to blood, when the will and hand of a pirate would have been weak to pity; instances we have, when accusations, even convictions, of direful wickedness, have hardly paled the rose upon the girl's cheek or dimmed the brightness of her eye. All this we admit, because it is truth. But truth likewise it is, that the best things, when perverted, are the basest; and that woman, capable though she is of almost unimaginable degradation, is, even in her ordinary and average existence, the heart of goodness, the fountain of charity,—the vital spring, that nourishes, that beautifies, that sanctifies our natural and our common life.