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Women—Wives or Mothers

By a Woman

WE believe it to be well within the truth to say that most
men cherish, hidden away in an inner pocket of conscious-
ness, their own particular ideal of the perfect woman. Sole
sovereign she of that unseen kingdom, and crowned and sceptred
she remains long after her faithful subject has put aside the other
playthings of his youth. The fetish is from time to time regarded
rapturously, though sorrowfully, by its possessor, but it is never
brought forth for public exhibition. If to worship and adore
were the beginning and end of the pastime, no cavilling word
need be said, for the power to worship is a great and good gift,
and, save in the fabulous region of politics, is nowadays so rare an
one, that when discovered in the actual world its steady encour-
agement becomes a duty. But to this apparently innocent diver-
sion there is another side. Somewhat grave consequences are apt
to follow, and it is to this point of view that we wish to call

When the woman uncreate becomes the measuring rod by which
her unconscious living rivals are judged, and are mostly found
wanting, then we are minded to lift up our voice and put in
a plea for fair-play. To the shrined deity are given by the acolo-
thyst, not only all the perfections of person demanded by a severely


                        12 Women—Wives or Mothers

aesthetic sense, but all the moral qualities as well. Every grace of
every fair woman he has ever met—the best attributes of his
mother, his sister, and his aunt—are freely hers. None of the
slight blemishes which occasionally tarnish the high lustre of
virtue, none of the caprices to which sirens are constitutionally
liable, are permitted. Faultless wife and faultless mother must she
be, faithful lover and long-suffering friend, or he will have none
of her in his temple. Now, this is surely a wholly unreasonable,
an utterly extravagant demand on the part of man, and if analysed
carefully, will, we believe, be found to yield egoism and gluttony
in about equal parts. How, we venture to inquire, would he meet
a like claim, were it in turn presented to him ? A witty and light-
hearted lady—a remnant yet remains, in spite of the advent of the
leaping, bounding, new womanhood—once startled a selected
audience by the general statement, “All men are widowers.”
But even if this generous utterance can be accepted as absolutely
accurate, it can hardly be taken as a proof of man’s fitness for
both the important roles involved.

For our own part, we are convinced that, broadly speaking,
the exception only proving the rule—whatever that supporting
phrase may mean—woman, fresh from Nature’s moulding, is, so far
as first intention is concerned, a predestined wife or mother. She
is not both, though doubtless by constant endeavour, art and duty
taking it turn and turn about, the dual end may, with hardness, be
attained unto. For Nature is not economic. Far from her is
the fatal utilitarian spirit which too often prompts the improver
man (or—dare we confess it ?—still more frequently woman) to
attempt to make one object do the work of two. From all such
sorry makeshifts Nature, the great modeller in clay, turns contemp-
tuously away. Not long ago we read in a lady’s journal of a
‘combination gown’ which by some cunning arrangement, the


                        By a Woman 13

secret whereof was only known to its lucky possessor, would do
alternate day and night duty with equal credit and despatch. We
have no desire to disparage the varied merits of this ingenious con-
trivance, but at the best it must remain an unlovely hybrid thing.
Probably it knew this well, for gowns, too, have their feelings, and
before now have been seen to go limp in a twinkling, overcome
by a sudden access of despondency. Such a moment must certainly
have come to the omnibus garment referred to above, when it
found itself breakfasting with a severe and one-idea’d “tailor-made,”
or, more cruel experience still, dining skirt by skirt with a
“mysterious miracle”—the latest label—in gossamer and satin.

We dare to go even further, and to declare that every woman
knows in her heart—though never, never will she admit it to you—
within which fold she was intended to pass. Is it an exaggeration
to say that many a girl marries out of the superabundance of the
maternal instinct, though she may the while be absolutely ignorant
of the motive power at work ? Believing herself to be wildly
enamoured of the man of her (or her parents’) choice, she is in
reality only in love with the nursery of an after-day. Of worship
between husband and wife, as a factor in the transaction, she
knows nothing, or likely enough she imagines it present when it
is the sweet passion of pity, or the more subtle patronage of
bestowal, one or both, which are urging her forward into marriage.
Gratitude, none the less real because unrealised, towards the man
who thus enables her to fulfil her true destiny—the saving of souls
alive—has also its share in the complex energy. Well for the
husband of this wife if he allows himself gradually to occupy the
position of eldest and most important of her children, to whom
indeed a somewhat larger liberty is accorded, but from whom also
more is required. In return for this submission boundless will be
the care and devotion bestowed upon his upbringing day by day.


                        14 Women—Wives or Mothers

He will be foolish if he utters aloud, or even says in the silence of
his heart, that motherhood is good, but that wifehood was what he
wanted. It would be but a bootless kicking against the pricks.
For he has chosen the mother-woman, and it is beyond his
power, or that of any other specialist, to effect the fundamental
change for which his soul may long. It only remains for him to
make the best of a very good bargain, and one to which it is very
probable his strict personal merits may hardly have entitled him.

If such a marriage is childless, it may still be a very useful one.
Nature’s accommodations often verge on the miraculous. The
unemployed maternal instincts of the wife easily work themselves
out in an unlimited and universal auntdom. It must be confessed
that bad blunders are apt to ensue, but where the intentions are
good, the pavement should not be too closely scanned. In fiction
these are the Dinahs, the Romolas, the Dorotheas, the Mary
Garths. Dear to the soul of the female writer is the maternal
type. With loving, if tiresome frequency, she is presented to us
again and yet again. In truth we sometimes grow a little weary
of her saintly monotony. But as it is given to few of us to have
the courage of our tastes, we bear with her, as we bear with other
not altogether pleasing appliances, presented to us by earnest
friends, with the assurance that they are for our good, or for our
education, or some other equally superfluous purpose.

With the male artist this female model is not nearly so popular.
It may be that he feels himself wholly unequal to cope with her
countless perfections. Certain it is that he makes but a sad
muddle of it when he tries. Witness Thackeray’s faded, bloodless
Lady Esmond, as set against his glowing wayward Trix—she,
by the way, a beautifully-marked specimen of the wife-woman—
though whether it would be pure wisdom to take her to wife
must be left an open question. Still, we have in our time loved


                        By a Woman 15

her well, and some of us have found it hard to forgive the black
treachery done in bringing her back in her old age, a painted
and scolding harridan. For these, well-loved of the gods, should, in
fiction at least, die young.

Truth compels us to own regretfully that man in his self-indul-
gence shrinks from both the giving and receiving of dull moments,
whilst woman, believing devoutly in their saving grace, is altruistic
enough to devote herself with enthusiasm to the task of their ad-
ministration. Now, dull moments are apt to lie hidden about the
creases of the severely classic robe, which, in the story-books at
any rate, these heroines always wear. We must all agree that
during the last twenty years this type, with its portentous accumu-
lation of self-conscious responsibility has increased alarmingly.
To what is the increase to be attributed ? The too rapid growth
of the female population stands out plainly as prime cause. Legis-
lators are athirst for things practical. Is it beyond their power to
devise some method of dealing with this problem ? The Chinese
plan is painfully obvious, but only as a last and despairful resource,
when the wise men of Westminster sitting on committees and
commissions have failed, can it be mentioned for adoption in
Europe. We are, alas ! Science-ridden, and are likely to remain
thus bridled and saddled for weary years to come. Every bush
and every bug grows its own specialist, and yet we, the patient,
the long-suffering public, are left to endure both the fogs that
make of London one murky pit, and the redundant female birth-
rate which threatens more revolutions than all the forces of the
Anarchists in active combination. Meanwhile these devotees of
the abstract play about with all sorts of trifles, masquerading as
grave thinkers, hoping thus to escape their certain judgment-day.
The identification of criminals by the variation of thumb-prints
is a pretty conceit ; so too is the record of the influence of the


                        16 Women—Wives or Mothers

moon on the tides, which, we are informed, employs all to itself a
whole and highly paid professor with a yearly average of three
pupils at Cambridge. But what are these save mere fads, on a par
with leapfrog and skittles, in the presence of the momentous
problems about and around us ? Let these gentlemen jockeys look
to it. The hour is not far distant when public opinion shall
discover their uselessness and send them about their business.

In humbler ways, too, much might be done to stem the morbid
activity of the collective female conscience. Big sins lie at the
doors of the hosts of good men and women who turn out year by
year tons of “books for the young” to serve as nutriment for the
hungry nestlings of culpable, thoughtless parents. It is hard to
overstate the pernicious effect of this class of motif literature.
Féerie in old or new dress is the only nourishing food for the
happy child who is to remain happy. The little girl, aged seven,
who lately wrote in her diary before going to bed, “Of what real
use am I in the world ?” had, it is certain, been denied her
Andersen, her Grimm, her Carroll, even her Blue fairy book.
Turned in to browse on ” Ministering Children,” “Agatha’s First
Prayer,” and the fatal “Eric”—into how many editions has this
last well-meaning but poisonous romance not passed—the little
victim of parental stupidity is thus left with an organ damaged for
life by over-much stimulation at the start. This new massacre of
the innocents is of purely nineteenth-century growth. It dates
from the era of the awakened conscience, and is coincident
with the formation of all the societies for the regeneration of the
human race.

Per contra, the wife-woman, though but seldom to be met
with in the multitudinous pages written by women, is the well-
beloved, the chosen of the male artist. Week-days and Sundays
he paints her portrait. Shakespeare returns to her again and again,


                        By a Woman 17

as though it were hard to part from her. Wicked Trix stands out
as bold leader of one bad band. Tess belongs to the family, though
she is of another branch ; so does Cathy of Wuthering Heights,
and Lyndall of the African Farm ; whilst latest and slightest scamp
of the lot comes dancing Dodo of Lambeth. Save in a strictly
specialised sense, none of this class can be said to contrive the
greatest good of the greatest number. These are the women to
whom the nursery is at best but an interlude, and at worst a real
interruption of their life’s strongest interests. They are not
skilled in dealing with early teething troubles, nor in the rival
merits of Welsh and Saxony flannel stuffs. Their crass ignorance
of all this deep lore may, it is true, go far to kill off superfluous
offspring, but, unjust as it would appear, these are the mothers
who each succeeding year become more and more adored of their
sons. Fribblers though they be, they sweeten the world’s corners
with the perfume of their charm. And the bit of world’s work in
which they excel is the keeping alive the tradition of woman’s
witchery. Who, then, can deny them their plain uses ? When
Fate is kind and bestows the fitting partner, the fires of their love
never die down. They remain lovers to the end. Their husbands
need fear no rival, not even in the person of their own superior
son. When Fate is unkind and things go crookedly, these are the
women whose wreckage strews life’s high road, and from whom
their wiser sisters turn reprovingly away. For the good woman
who has to “work for her living,” and who pretends to enjoy the
healthful after-pains in her moral system, is rarely tolerant of the
existence of the leichtsinriige sister for whom, as to Elijah at the
brook, dainty morsels without labour are cheerfully provided by
that inconsequent raven, man. This lady goes gaily, wearing
what she has not spun, reaping where she has not sown. Sad
reflections these for the high-souled woman whose enlightened


                        18 Women—Wives or Mothers

demand for justice turns in its present day impotency to wrath and

Wisdom and foresight are never the “attributes of the wife-
woman. Charm, beguilement, fascination of sorts, form her poor
equipment for life’s selective struggle. These gifts cannot be said
to promise, save when the stars are in happiest conjunction, long
life and useful days for her intimates. Variations of the two types
of Primitive Woman may abound, but the broad distinction
between them is clearly cut and readily to be made out by
the dullest groper after truth. We can imagine a modern Daniel
addressing (quite uselessly) a modem disciple thus :

“Look to it now, O young man ! that your feet go straight, and
slip not in search for the pearl that may be hid away for you.
For she who loveth you best may work you all evil, and she who
loveth her own soul’s travail best will hardly fail you in the days
and the years. But Love remaineth, and the way of return
is not.”

MLA citation:

Greenwood, Frederick. “Women—Wives or Mothers.” The Yellow Book, vol. 3, October 1894, pp. 11-18. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2010-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019.