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Harper's Weekly 05/04/1895


LIFE
AND
LETTERS


The English seem, the most of them, to be writing two
kinds of novels at present: the old-fashioned novel of ad-
venture, with heroes and heroines and villains in them,
and lots of fighting and incision and blood-shedding, and
perils and escapes; and a new-fashioned novel of emotions
and manners, and moral and intellectual poses of several
bizarre sorts. I am past the age when pyrotechnics and
explosives amuse, and the commoner feats of legerdemain
console, and so I do not read the first of these two kinds
of novels at all; but now and then I read one of the sec-
ond. Both kinds seem to me wholly inferior to the fiction
of other countries, where people deal artistically and not
hysterically with life; but if you will once put the ques-
tion of art out of your mind, you will perhaps be interest-
ed by some of the curious stuff you will find in the Eng-
lish novel of emotions and manners. You will at least be
moved to conjecture concerning the world they represent,
and may possibly find your account in wondering whether
such a world anywhere really exists, whether there are
anywhere such men, and above all such women.


I.

A very characteristic example of the kind of English
fiction I mean is a story or a study by the author of that
startlingly clever book, A Girl in the Carpathians, which
was almost too startlingly clever. In her recent novel
you feel that in freeing herself from the allegiance to
fact altogether, and availing herself frankly of the arts
of invention, she has perhaps given her creative powers
too great scope. It may not be so, but if it is not so,
then we are confronted with actualities that have appar-
ently no counterpart in our own simpler life. The daugh-
ter of an English peer and cabinet minister, who has fed
her mind upon sociology almost from the cradle, and
has lived her most daring convictions as fast she has
got them, finds herself in the necessity of telling a young
man that she loves him, in order that he may fully un-
derstand her behavior in the moment of letting him put
on her glove for her. He is quite as candid, and con-
fesses that he has no love for her whatever; but after-
wards he comes to love her, and though by this time
she is not so sure of her love for him, or perhaps of
her wish to marry him, she does not mind his kissing her
a number of times, and behaving toward her with all the
just ardor of an accepted lover. In the mean time she has
lost her mother, and in the reflections that she has made
beside her bier, she has divined that her mother never
loved her father, but only loved her child. It then ap-
pears to her that if she cannot feel the one kind of love in
her own marriage, she can feel the other; and so when she
meets the man who does love her, and accepts him, she is
again in the necessity of being extremely frank, and opens
her heart to this effect. She has not cared that he is al-
ready married in everything but form, that he is what she
calls a widower; she has chosen him, with due regard to
the qualities of his mind, and the general excellence of
his character, simply as the man who can best afford her
the means of the kind of love she believes herself most
capable of feeling. One cannot be very distinct about all
this, or fully report the lengths and breadths to which
this very new young woman allows herself to go in her
talk; but it is no more than honest to add that except for
her wrong-headedness, as some people may think it, there
is nothing wrong about her. She is a good daughter, an
admirable friend, a true person in every relation of life,
and of course without stain.


II.

The present question is not, however, whether she be-
haved wisely or not, but whether she, or anything very
like her, ever happened. I confess I have my doubts,
and I have my doubts of the existence of the New Woman
on any extended scale, outside of the fancy of the writers
and readers of certain books; the writers seem to have
created her, and the readers believe in her. There has al-
ways been the woman who goes to lengths and breadths
in her talk, and the woman who goes to lengths and
breadths in her behavior; and undoubtedly now there is
a tendency to free women from the control of mere con-
vention more and more, which is a very good thing. Men
have to let them ask why men may do certain wrong
things and women may not, but apparently they do not
abuse this right to go and do the wrong things because
men have no good answer to make. So much of new
womanhood as this seems to be in the air, and the air is
all the fresher and purer for it; but if any one will ob-
serve the facts, will he find more than this? The New
Woman is the type of woman whom fictive art is just
now dealing with, because she amuses, and because she is
easier to do than the woman with less salient character-
istics. We notice her in life because we have found her
in books, and because we have begun to notice her in life,
she abounds in books more and more, and again more in
life. One cannot say just how such things originate, or
how they will end. An artist draws a succession of charm-
ing pictures from some tall, slender girl; the tall, slender
girl seems to step from them into the street, and then you
can get nothing but tall, slender girls in any of the illus-
trations. Nature and art seem to play into each other's
hands, and by-and-by they seem to get tired of this play-
thing or that, and suddenly drop it. Perhaps in time, in
a very short time, the New Woman will be flung out on
the dust heap, with her clothes in tatters, her nose broken,
an eye gone, an arm pulled out, and the sawdust oozing
from every pore.


This will happen after she has got into life out of the
books much more than I think she has done as yet. As
yet she seems to me a phrase, like fin de siècle, and she
does not vitally mean anything. There is no more fin de
siècle now than there was before the century was in its
teens. Time is continuous; there are days and months;
but otherwise it does not divide itself into epochs, except
in the imagination of men. The eternal womanly is even
more continuous; she is maid, and wife and mother; but
otherwise, except in the imagination of men, she does not
divide herself into any other very distinctive phases. Of
course she has her moods, as time has, but the moods are
personal, rather than generic, and after they are past, she
remains very much what she has been from the beginning
of the world. The eternal womanly may now be in one
of these moods, and the mood may be that of some such
newness of ideals, of purposes, of principles, and of atti-
tudes as is attributed to her by the books.


III.

One of the great signs of this novelty, perhaps the chief
sign, seems to be smoking. The New Woman, by all the
witnesses, smokes, and she smokes cigarettes. In the
novel I have spoken of she smokes so habitually that
when the young man she has made love to brings back a
book he has borrowed with a hole burnt into it from his
cigarette ash, she begs him not to mind in the least, for it
was very likely to have happened from her own cigarette
ash, and when she and two of her girl friends meet for a
quiet talk, they light their cigarettes and smoke and talk
like three young men. There is really no more reason
why they should not do it, than why the young men
should smoke; in the vices, as in the virtues, there is no
sex, though some causists pretend to make a distinction,
and I am not saying that smoking is a vice. The question
is whether English girls do smoke, or smoke in real life.
It is said that they do, and very generally, but I suspect
that, if it were looked for, the proof might be wanting. I
feel pretty sure that it would be wanting in the case of
American girls, and I think I could confidently call upon
the average diner-out to testify whether he has seen wo-
men among us light their cigars or cigarettes after dinner.
In my own slight observance I have never once happened
to find the air of the drawing-room, whither the ladies
have withdrawn to have their coffee, in sad exile at the
signal of the hostess, blue with the fumes of tobacco;
and the only taint of it that I have ever perceived has
been brought by the men who rejoined them there; they
smell of it, abominably, all the rest of the evening. It is
very possible that our women are still ashamed of smok-
ing, and that they only smoke privately, or very confi-
dentially. One hears of their smoking, of their smoking
all the time, of their never having a cigarette out of their
mouths, and such things, but it is not easy to verify the
facts, and I must confess that with a life-long willingness
to note their peculiarities, the American women whom I
have seen smoking were exactly two, and no more. I
once saw a Russian woman smoking before the Caffè
Florian, and during a four years' sojourn in Venice I saw
but one other woman smoke. She was a Venetian, and
she said, plaintively, while she lighted a very large and
very black cigar which an American had given her, “Why
should they,” the men, namely, “deny us this innocent
pleasure?” and I suppose that there was some criticism
of the habit among her compatriots. Of course I know
that in the South, with us, the women of the Cracker class
smoke, and in the earlier days throughout the West it was
common for elderly women to smoke. They generally
smoked clay pipes, or corn-cob pipes, and I suppose their
smoking was not in any wise symbolical of a social or
moral newness. In the absence of statistics, each of us
must decide from his own knowledge whether the New
Woman, if she has come, has come smoking.


But if she has not come smoking, has she come at all?
She is distinguished, among those who have imagined her,
from former phases of the eternal womanly. She is not
what used to be called the woman of the period, she is by
no means what used to be called fast, even in the less re-
proachful sense of the word. She is supposed to have
certain views of marriage; she is supposed to have asked
herself what her status would be if there was no marriage,
in rare and extreme cases she is supposed to have tried to
find out. Whether she is for the enlargement of her civic
rights or not, as a rule, it would not be easy to say; but
she takes herself seriously, and she wishes to be thought
serious when she does not take herself seriously. It
would be hard to find her historical antetype; perhaps
Mary Wollstonecraft, who was a New Woman about this
time a hundred years ago, is as nearly she as any one who
could be found in history; but Mary Wollstonecraft was
tragically in earnest, and the New Woman of our time does
not go so far as tragedy outside of the novels. New-Wo-
manhood is a pose, but, if such a thing can be, an uncon-
scious pose, or, if it cannot be, a semi-conscious pose.


IV.

The New Woman who comes smoking, comes talking,
and she talks to all lengths and breadths in fiction. But
if this is true, has she come talking in any greater number
than before? There were always women who liked the
excitement of thin ice, in their choice of topics, especially
if the water was not very deep underneath, and this sort
are still sliding about in conversation. Perhaps there is
really a greater frankness in the matters spoken of in
mixed companies than there was a generation ago, but
within the same period women have greatly abridged the
freedom of their innocent relations with men in our own
country. The chaperon has come, and has come to stay,
in all her superfluity, as it would have been accounted
by mothers of daughters when they were only daughters
themselves. In this respect the American woman of 1895
is vastly less new than the woman of 1845, for what was
really a novelty among young people, and of our own in-
vention, has been exchanged, in good society at least, for
a remnant of the old conditions which Europe has been
slowly outgrowing, and which we had flung aside with
our political allegiance to England. It was one of the
few social growths indigenous to our soil, it was graceful
and sweet and pretty, and it was rooted in our purer
life; but for the last quarter of a century we have been
rapidly recolonizing ourselves, and in nothing more than
in our wish to extinguish the charming liberty that once
existed among young people here.


I suppose there is a sort of newness in women's wish to
know rather more of all sorts of things than they used;
they have a great many contrivances for the improvement
of their minds; they take up different varieties of work,
sociological and economical; they interest themselves in
the condition of the poor; they have opinions favorable to
the unhappy; they wish to take large views, and to act
helpfully and generously; and I should be very glad to
believe that men were equally renewing themselves in the
same ways. But we do not hear much of the New Man,
and we are left to believe that he has not only not arrived,
but has not started. No one really knows whether he has
arrived or not, however, except the New Woman, and she
is still so uncertain herself, in life, that we have no means
of authenticating him from her knowledge. In fiction,
such fiction as I began with in this rambling inquiry, he
is not a pleasant companion. He is rude to the new girl,
brutally rude, and he is not very kind to the old girl. He
says and does things that only the lady novelist has hith-
erto conceived of men's doings, and his behavior in fic-
tion makes us willing to get on without him in life for a
long time yet. What is certain is that if the New Man
ever does come, the New Woman will be too good for him,
just as the old woman is too good for the old man now,
and always has been.

W. D. Howells.

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