Saturday, 19 October 2013

1 March 1884 - 'Ill-Assorted Couples' by Nanette Mason

An essay by Mrs Mason, in which she seems to put the burden of responsibility on women rather for making the marriage a happy one. And in which literary and intellectual husbands get a pass for being utter tools at home.

A clergyman, so the story goes, once married a couple, received his fee, and sent the two away. A few weeks afterwards, the bridegroom returned and said he had come back to pay more, for his wife had turned out much better than he had expected.

No doubt there are many such contented husbands, though few express their satisfaction in this original way. With a host of others, however, things do not go so well, and marriage proves with them, alas! only the high road to repentance. Yes, girls, sorrow, lies in wait at everyone's door, and often it enters with the wedding party. The gayest homecoming in all my experience was followed by the most miserable married life - had a cat and dog gone into partnership it could not have been worse.

"You have spoken about husbands," say skate; "what about wives?' What is true, Kate, of the one is true also of the other, though we hear less of woman's side of the question, for men have greater advantages in the way of communicating their woes to the world. When we meet ill-assorted couples, it is often hard to tell which is most in the wrong, which most unfortunate, which most miserable - the husband or the wife. "Frailty, thy name is woman," says Darby; "Men were deceivers ever," answers Joan.

That there are a great many ill-assorted couples in the world is certain - everyone who has read anything, or moved about at all in society knows that. I do not say that a want of harmony between husband and wife is always visible to the eye; indeed, some people, ill-assorted enough, manage to wear the mask of harmony so as to deceive, for a time, even their most intimate friends; but, sooner or later, the secret comes out, just as it did the other evening with Christina, who in a moment of confidence confessed that she could, with perfect truth, say of herself and her husband, in the words of a character in an old play, "When we are alone we walk like lions in a room - he one way and I the other".

The natural commencement for unhappy domestic life is a marriage entered into without either thought or prudence. If it happens to be, as it often is, the most hasty, the most rash, the most foolish deed of all one's existence, what else can you expect?

A young man, for example, meets a girl and takes a violent fancy for her. Why? Because she has more fascinating eyes than any other girl in England. For that reason, and for no other, he resolves to marry her. A young woman meets a young man and falls deeply in love with him, and her reason is - not that he is good, or wise, or industrious - but that he has a moustache and stand six feet high.

People go into marriage lightly, as if it were a joke or an experiment, or a lottery in which chance is everything, and judgment nothing. They forget altogether that it is not an affair out of which, if unsuccessful, they can retire as easily as one could withdraw from a new house of which the chimneys smoked or through the walls of which the damp comes. It is an engagement for life, and for life it must make us happy or miserable. There is no alternative; we must either be well matched or ill assorted. The conditions of life are such that one may lose one's heart at any time. NO advice is effectual to guard against love which comes we know not how - precisely, someone says, as it often goes away. Our heads, however, are always our own, and where the heart goes the head need not follow unless sober judgment and common sense approve.

Let your hearts, then, girls, keep watch over your hearts. You may often be in danger of throwing yourselves away on those who, though pleasant to meet, are not in the least suited for living all one's life with, and it is much better that the bubble should burst before marriage than after. Many a one travels through a fool's paradise to a land of desolation, and finds that, even though the first month of matrimony may be a honeymoon, all the rest of her wedded life is a season of wormwood.

Even at the last moment one may be excused for halting. It needs a good deal of charity, however, to put a favourable construction on the conduct of a youth of whom I read the other day. He had gone to church with his intended to get married, but found on arriving there that they had no money to pay the customary fees. He went to get the money whilst the lady waited in the vestry. During his walk the youth changed his mind and never returned to church. The young girl waited two hours for him, and then went home. "Scot free," the writer dryly remarks who tells the story.

Sometimes it is as clear as noonday that the infatuated couple are making misery for themselves. Everyone said so when our friend Alexander conceived an eccentric passion for the girl he afterwards married. We all saw that he would forever after have to endure prolonged fits of ill-health, bad temper, and ungovernable jealousy. Then there was Ethel, who was indeed, contrary to the advice of all her friends, to become the wife of Frederick. The union, as everyone knows, proved an unhappy one, and they soon separated. Sophia, too, did not expect to have a miserable life of it; but, as she married in haste, so is she now repenting at leisure, and appropriating to herself the slightly ungrammatical reflections of the old ballad-

"When I think on what I am,
And what I used to was, 
I feel I've throwed myself away
Without sufficient cause"

Better a hundred times live alone, the most isolated of lonely people, than spend life with one with whom we have no sympathy and for whom we have come to be without regard. The only sensible marriages are those based on judgment as well as affection. When two are joined together simply from a sort of fatal fascination, what can you look for but unhappy domestic experiences? Beside, by way of contradiction, says that people are fated to marry one another, and quotes the proverb that marriage and hanging go by destiny; but that is only an antiquated superstition.

Occasionally people marry to please others, and not at all to gratify their own inclination. Such are often the marriages of princes, and of these very few indeed are successes. An alliance contracted solely from motives of State policy or family interest makes but a poor beginning, and many an ill-assorted couple in high life wish they had been lowly born, to place their affections where they chose, and love in the enjoyment of that happy home which is now denied them for ever.

When we inquire what matrimonial quarrels are about, it often appears that they originate in trifles, and that the first misunderstanding are about next to nothing. We have all read of the husband and wife who came to high words on the subject of whether what they saw was a drop of rain or a flake of snow; and you know of the other two whose first ill-tempered dispute turned on the point whether the husband had been revaccinated - his wife declared he had, and he contradicted her.

Of all causes of unhappy marriages bad tempers may be put foremost; and these same bad tempers may be of every degree, from the simply peevish to the outrageously violent. This is a woman's failing, much more than a man's - indeed a husband's temper will, as a rule, be kept sweet, provided only that a sweet temper characterises his wife. How some husbands can endure the hideous outcries and worrying ways of their wives, I never can understand. Why, I have heard a woman, whose tongue you could distinguish a mile off, scold her husband as if he were a pickpocket, and he all the while listening as coolly as if her taunts were compliments. Perhaps it was custom, and that, you know, will reconcile us to almost anything.

Many illustrious men have been plagued with ill-tempered wives. There was Socrates, for instance, whose Xantippe was an arrant scold. That he should have married such a wife was a puzzle to all his friends, and he used to explain his choice in an odd way. "Those who wish," he said, "to become skilled in horsemanship select the most spirited horses, and after being able to bridle those they believe they can bridle all others. Now as it is my wish to live and converse with men, I married this woman, being firmly convinced that in the event of being able to endure her I should be able to endure all others."

Many instances are told of her impatience and his long-suffering. One day, before some of his friends, she fell into an extravagant passion at the philosopher. He said nothing but left the house, and he was no sooner out of the door than she ran upstairs and threw water on his head. On this, Socrates turned to his companions: "Did I not tell you," said he, "that after so much thunder we should have rain".

Dante was another famous man who had a wife of a savage disposition. No doubt she was a well meaning woman, but the violence of her temper proved a source of the bitterest suffering to the post, who could not encounter it with the amiability of a Socrates.

Unreasonable jealousy is one of the leading characteristics of ill-assorted couples. Where love is, there will be certainly be jealousy, but it is jealousy run mad that ruins the happiness of homes and drives husbands and wives far apart.

The most famous example that I remember of the jealous wife is she whom Wesley married. It is told that when Mrs Wesley wearied of her husband's rigid and unsettled life she took to playing the spy, opening his letters, following him from town to town, and plaguing him in every way, openly and secretly, that her malice could contrive. "By her outrageous jealousy," says Southey, "she deserves to be classed in a triad with Xantippe and the wife of Job as one of the three bad wives". She proved a thorn in the flesh of Wesley for twenty years, and at last she left his house, carrying off his journals and papers, which she never returned. Her husband acted in a way which may be recommended to the attention of all who are tried with jealous wives; he simply stated in his diary the fact of her leaving, saying that he had no idea what the cause had been, and adding, "I did not forsake her; I did not dismiss her; I will not recall her."

The rock on which a great many married couples split is that of money, which is not to be wondered at, seeing money is at the bottom of half the quarrels and disputes of the world. When a man marries for money, says the proverb, he sells his liberty, and he is apt to find that he has made but a poor bargain. This was the case of David, who made a rich marriage, which enabled him to give up work; but it turned out ill, and he betook himself to his former labours with great joy. "A wife," say she, "with whom one cannot get on is dear as any money".

Prudence, however, suggests that as the world goes a little money on both sides is not undesirable, and no one can object to a man saying, like our friend George, "Give me a wife with some money, that she may not increase my charges". But there should not be a great difference either on one side or the other. When a man with nothing marries fifty thousand pounds, he is apt pretty often to have it cast in his teeth; and a penniless lass who has formed an alliance with wealth, is not likely to fare much better. Money, after all, is not essential to happiness. The happiest people I have known were a man and his wife who did not possess so much as a plate or teaspoon, and whose only wealth was a great deal of experience.

Sometimes a man marries a poor girl because he understands that she has great expectations. These may be disappointed, and I have heard that when Annie's uncle died and left her only enough to buy a mourning ring, instead of the fortune that was looked for, her husband lost all taste of her, and they have never since had a single day of happiness and content.

Extravagance is also the source of much domestic unhappiness, and it can hardly be expected to make a man at all good-natured when he finds his wife taking no pains to live within his income.

NIggardliness is just as great a fault. Andrew and Alice are an ill-assorted couple, and it is all Alice's fault, for she so rules her house that, without her permission, not even her husband can get so much as a lump of sugar. Her way of looking at Andrew is to regard him as a mere beast of burden, and indeed many wives look on their husbands in the same light.

To give an historical example, there was the wife of Berghen, the Dutch artist, who never let her husband quit his occupation, and allowed him to keep very little of the money he made, for he was too ready, she thought, to spend it freely in buying Italian drawings. She contrived an odd expedient for detecting his indolence. "The artist," says Isaac Disraeli, in his "Curiosities of Literature", "worked in a room above her; ever and anon she roused him by thumping a long stick against the ceiling, while the obedient Berghem answered by stamping his foot, to satisfy Mrs Berghem that he was not napping". When a man puts up with this sort of thing he may be very considerable as an artist, but otherwise he is but a contemptible creature.

Family pride sometimes has a good deal to do with unhappy marriages. When a woman with a pedigree eight feet long by two feet broad marries a man who cannot even give a satisfactory account of his grandfather, I am not sure but that we may look out for disagreement. Both should possess an equal pride in their ancestors, or be equally ignorant and indifferent about them. Many a man has cause to lament that his wife came to him, hampered by family ties and family prejudices, like our friend Augustas, who married a daughter of a poor but proud race, who had spent her youth in pondering over the ancient glories of her family, encouraged thereto by a mother who was a schemer, and a father who had no visible means of subsistence. "I wish," he has been often heard to say, "our wives could be received out of space, without a single relation or a single tradition".

This leads me to speak of mothers-in-law, who, as everyone knows, are credited with destroying the happiness of many a fireside. But in denouncing them, critics have often been led by personal feeling to say things more picturesque than true. Mothers-in-law are not so bad as they are called, and it may be taken as a general rule that one can get along famously with a mother-in-law - when she is at the other end of the island. All are not of the sort referred to in the Spanish proverb, quoted some time back in THE GIRL'S OWN PAPER which says that "A newly-married couple are the geese and the mother-in-law is the cunning old fox who solicits entrance to their house that she may leisurely devour them".

There is too often a want of confidence between husbands and wives, and this naturally gives rise to quarrelling as that of married life can endure with a complacency anything approaching to distrust. When husbands exhibit this want of confidence, it is the result, generally, of a belief that women are not prudent and not to be trusted with matters of importance. It was a husband of this class who wrote long ago that "He knows little who will tell his wife all he knows" and the proverb "A newly-married man tells his wife everything" shows what the popular belief is on the subject. The imprudence of women has also given rise to such tales as that of the man who lost the gift of understanding the talk of animals by imparting he secret to his wife. Indeed, if everything said be true, he must be a bold man who relies on his wife's discretion, and trusts her with anything but trifles.

Now, girls, if this really be so, the sooner we all mend the better. You know the proverb: "As a jewel of gold in a swine's snout, so is a fair woman which is without discretion". Wives by their prudence should merit the confidence of their husbands, and husbands by their gentleness and affection should encourage the confidence of their wives. Trouble is never far off when secrets are kept from each other.

When two married people are ill assorted, we usually find them hanging very loosely together - one knows nothing of the doings of the other, and cares nothing either; they have separate interests, and for that matter, might almost have separate establishments. When this is the case in a family, there are pretty sure to be two parties in the house - the first led by the father and the second by the mother; and I remember a funny example in the case of the Thomsons - you never met them, girls - who got on very ill together; the mother, supported by two daughters and a son being on one side, and the father and one daughter forming an opposition camp. Things came at last to such a pass that one party lived, without in the least recognising the other, in the upper portion of the house, whilst the other inhabited the dining room floor.

A great want of consideration is frequently shown by husbands. They glorify themselves at the expense of their wives, magnify their own labours, and make light of woman's work. It is a great mistake. We all know how the old man who lived in a wood came to grief who "said he could do as much work in a day as his wife could do in three". And wives sometimes fall into a similar error. Many a wife thinks herself immeasurably superior to her husband, and not only in private, but "before folk" talks contemptuously of his judgment. This is also a mistake, for woman's true place is in the background.

"Nothing lovelier can be found
TIN woman than to study household good,
And good works in her husband to promote."

"Our guidwife's aye in the right and I am aye in the wrang, Jo," says the man in the Scotch ballad, and when that is the husband's complaint farewell to domestic peace and tranquility.
For examples of ill-assorted couples, just look into the lives of philosophers and men of learning; there you will find plenty. Indeed the domestic history of such people has generally been so unfortunate that it has become a question whether marriage is a prudent thing for them at all.

Moore, in his "Life of Byron", lay sit down as an established rule that a man of the highest order of genius must in the unavoidable nature of things quarrel with his wife. Certainly, Byron and his wife formed a striking instance of an ill-assorted couple. Everyone knows also how Dickens got on his domestic relations. We find him writing about his wife: "Poor ____ and I are not made for each other, and there is no help for it. It is not that she makes me uneasy and unhappy, but that I make her so too - and much more so". Then Shelley and Harriet Westbrook might be mentioned; and we have already spoken of Socrates and Xantippe, and Dante and Gemma Donati, and Wesley and his wife. Milton also and his first wife did not get on at all harmoniously at least in the beginning of their married career, though we shall try to believe that they lived together more pleasantly at the close. Hazlitt, the critic, though a lesser light, is another, and quite as instructive an example. "Never," says Hazlitt's grandson, "was there a worse-assorted pair than my grandfather and grandmother. Mrs Hazlitt was a well-read woman, a true wife, a fond mother, but there was a sheer want of cordial sympathy from the first set out". But space would fail to tell all the instances which go to prove that fortunate marriages amongst the literary and the learned are not so common as might be wished. It is strange that men who in many cases have sounded all the depths and explored all the recesses of the human heart, should not have exhibited more wisdom when they came to love-making on their own account.

A common error with a man of culture is to marry a girl of the Philistine class. He may get along well enough with her for a month or two, but he soon finds that he is exposed to unintelligent criticisms and interferences, not only from her but from those relations of hers with whom he is now brought into contact.

Perhaps she knows nothing, or next to nothing, when he marries her; he tries to teach her something, but it makes her angry and he gives it up; then he has to make the best of it, and to endure the intolerable tedium of her companionship. Low and illiterate to begin with, she remains all her life the same, chilling her husband's enthusiasm, and often hindering his advance in knowledge.

Such a woman is apt to be jealous of her husband's books. Cultivated women, indeed, have exhibited the same ridiculous jealousy; and William, for one, I know is afraid to marry lest his wife should not love his library. She might be fond of him but what if her affection took no more sensible a form than that of the wife who, thinking that her husband was overworking himself, went and burned all his papers?

But why does a man of genius ally himself to a woman not in the least suitable? You may well inquire. Partly, perhaps, it is because he falls in love, not with herself, but with his own creation - his love is nothing but imagination. I read the other day of a case of the sort. A man of intellect and position had married an uneducated woman. "She came to him poor and meanly clad" says he who tells the story; "but his genius was rich enough to deck her out in purple and fine linen. So long as these lasted all went on comfortably; but when they were worn out and the stock was exhausted, alas! poor wife! shall I not rather say, alas! - poor man?"

Occasionally the learned makes foolish marriages, because they trust to the recommendation of other people rather than to their own judgment. As regards the ways of the world they are far too simple. Look at Richard Hooker, the famous author of the "Ecclesiastical Polity". He, like a true Nathaniel, fearing no guile, married a young woman on the recommendation of the young woman's mother. Joan "brought him" says Izaak Walton, "neither beauty nor portion; and for her conditions they were too much like that wife's, which is by Solomon compared to a dripping house; so that the good man had no reason to 'rejoice in the wife of his youth;' but too just cause to say with the holy prophet, 'Woe is me, that I am constrained to dwell in the tents of Kedar'!"

Hooker set a praiseworthy example by putting up meekly with his unhappy lot. Two pupils of his once took a journey to visit him, but a single night in his house was enough; they were then forced to leave to seek for themselves "a quieter lodging". On coming away, one of them expressed to Hooker his sorrow that his wife did not prove a more comfortable companion. "My dear George," answered Hooker, "if saints have usually a double share in the miseries of this life, I, that am none, ought not to repine at what my wise Creator hath appointed for me; but labour - as, indeed, I do daily - to submit mine to His will, and possess my soul in patience and peace."

Men of the literary and leaned class are usually of a highly sensitive organisation, and little things make an impression on them, and interfere with their happiness and usefulness, which would have no influence on the minds of people following other and less nervous pursuits. Their wives thus have often a hard time of it, and enjoy countless opportunities for the exercise of tact and sympathy. A woman may have many amiable and attractive qualities, but as a literary man's wife she may be a failure and a stumbling block, just because she is incapable of understanding or sympathising with her husband's mine.

a literary man, of course, is seldom a hero to his wife. She sees too much, says someone, of the other side of the moon, and has little admiration to spare for that interesting and picturesque side of her husband, which is turned to the public in his books. Occasionally, however, there are exceptions, and it would not be difficult to name some women who are very vain of the literary reputations of their husbands. I have read of a funny example - but indeed it was pushing the thing rather far - in the case of the wife of one of the minor literary lights at the close of the seventeenth century. She had the most sublime conceptions of her husband's compilations, and we are told that his word was a law to her, and that she never rose from table without making him a curtsey or drank to him without bowing. A nice wife! "John! she would just have been the one for you - but there are few such in the world." "Less than few; one sometimes," says John.

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