From the French of M. J. Michelet. Translated from the Fourth Paris Edition, by, Author of “ The New and The Old,” “ Up and Down the Irawaddi,” etc.
M. MICHELET perhaps longs, like Anacreon, to tell the story of the Atrides and of Cadmus, but here we find him singing only of Love. It is a surprise to us that the historian should have chosen this subject ; — the book itself is another surprise. It starts from a few facts which it borrows from science, and out of them it builds a poem, — a drama in five acts called Books, to disguise them. Two characters figure chiefly on the stage,— a husband and a wife. The unity of time is not very strictly kept, for the pair are traced from youth to age, and even beyond their mortal years. Moral reflections and occasional rhapsodies are wreathed about this physiological and psychological lovedrama.
Here, then, is a book with the most taking word in the language for its title, and one of the most distinguished personages in contemporary literature for its author. It has been extensively read in France, and is attracting general notice in this country. Opinions are divided among us concerning it; it is extravagantly praised, and hastily condemned.
On the whole, the book is destined, we believe, to do much more good than harm. Admit all its high-flown sentimentalism to be half-unconscious affectation, such as we pardon in writers of the Great Nation,— admit that the author is wild and fanciful in many of his statements, that he talks of a state of society of which it has been said that the law is that a man shall hate his neighbor and love his neighbor’s wife, — admit all this and what lesser faults may be added to them, its great lessons are on the side of humanity, and especially of justice to woman, founded on a study of her organic and spiritual limitations.
Woman is an invalid. This is the first axiom, out of which flow the precepts of care, bodily and mental of tenderness, of consideration, with which the book abounds. To show this, 31. Michelet has recourse to the investigations of the physiologists who during the present century have studied the special conditions which according to the old axiom make woman what she is. As nothing short of this can by any possibility enable us to understand the feminine nature, we must not find fault with some details not commonly thought adapted to the general reader. They are given delicately, but they are given, and suggest a certain reserve in introducing the book to the reading classes.
Not only is woman an invalid, but the rhythmic character of her life, “ as. if Scanned by Nature,” is an element not to lie neglected without total failure to read her in health and in disease. There is a great deal relating to this matter, some of it seeming fanciful and overwrought, hut not more so than the natures of many women. For woman herself is an hyperbole, and the plainest statement of lver condition is a figure of speech. Some of those chapters that are written, as we might say, in hysteric paragraphs, only more fitly express the extravagances which belong to the nervous movements of the woman’s nature.
The husband must create the wife. Much of the book is taken up with the precepts by which this new birth of the woman is to lie brought about. 3E Michelet’s “ entire affection ” hateth those “ nicer hands” which would refuse any, even the humblest offices. The husband should be at once nurse and physician. He should regulate the food of the body, and measure out the doses of mental nourishment. All this is kind and good and affectionate; but there is just a suspicion excited that Ma-dame might become slightly ennuyée, it’ she were subjected to this minute surveillance over her physical and spiritual hygiene. Every thing must depend on individual tendencies and aptitudes; we have known husbands that were born for nurses,— and others, not less uflectionnte, Unit worried more than they helped in that capacity.
We cannot follow M. Michelet through his study of the reaction of the characters of the husband and wife upon each other, of the influence of maternity on conjugal relations, of the languishing of love and its rejuvenescence. Still less can we do more than remotely allude to those chapters in which Ids model woman is represented as ready on the slightest occasion to prove the name of her sex synonymous with frailty. We really do not know what to make of such things. The cool calculations of temptation as certain, and failure as probable,— the serious advice not to strike a wife under any circumstances, —such words have literally no meaning to most of our own American readers. Our women are educated to self-reliance,—and our men are. at least, too busy for the trade of tempters.
In a word, this book was written for French people, and is adjusted to the meridian of Paris. Wo must remember this always in reading it, and also remember that a Frenchman does not think English any more than he talks it We sometimes flatter ourselves with the idea that we as a people are original in our tendency to extravagance of thought and language. It is a conceit of ours. Remember Sterne’s perruquier.
“ ‘ You may innuerge it,’ replied he, ‘ into the ocean, and it will stand.’
“ ' What a great scale is everything upon, in this city !' thought I. ‘ The utmost stretch of an English periwig-maker’s ideas could have gone no farther than to have dipped it into a pail of water.’ ”
How much such experiences as the following amount to we must leave to the ecclesiastical bodies to settle.
“The Church is openly against her, [woman,] owing her a grudge for the sin of Eve.”
“ It is very easy for us, educated in the religion of the indulgent God of Nature, to look our common destiny in the face. But she, impressed with the dogma of eternal punishment, though she may have received other ideas from you, still, in her suffering and debility, lias painful foreshadowings of the future slate.”
But here are physiological statements which we take the liberty to question on our own responsibility.
“ A French girl of fifteen is as mature as an English one of eighteen.” What will Mr. Roberton of Manchester, who has exploded so many of our fancies about the women of the East, say to this 1
“A wound, for which the German woman would require surgical aid, in the French woman cures itself.” We must say of such an unproved assertion as the French General said of the charge at Balaklava,—O'est mais ce n’est pas la ” — médecine.
“ Generally, she [woman] is sick from love,— man, from indigestion.” What a pity Nature never makes such pretty epigrams with her facts as wits do with their words !
We have enough, too, of that self-assertion which Carlyle and Ruskin and some of our clerical neighbors have made us familiar with, and which gives flavor to a work of genius. “ I was worth more than my writings, more than my discourses. I brought to this teaching of philosophy and history a soul as yet entire,— a, great freshness of mind, under forms often subtle,— a true simplicity of heart,” etc.
M. Michelet does not undervalue the importance of his work. He thinks he has ruined the dancing-gardens by the startling revelations respecting woman contained in his book. He announces a still greater triumph:—“I believe I have effectually suppressed old women. They will no longer be met with.” M. Michelet has not seen the columns of some of our weekly newspapers.
These are scales from the husk of his book, which, with nil its fantasies, is a generous plea for woman. Wise persons may safely read it, though they he not Parisians.
The translation is, and is generally considered, excellent. We notice two errors, — Jerres, instead of Serves,— and would, for should, after the Scotch and Southern provincial fashion;—with some questionable words, as reliable, for which we have Sir Robert Peel’s authority, which cannot make it as honest a word as trustworthy,— masculize, which is at least intelligible.— and fast, used as college-boys use it in their loose talk, but not with the meaning which sober scholars are wont to give it. With these slight exceptions, the translation appears to us singularly felicitous, notwithstanding the task must have been very difficult, which Dr. Palmer has performed with such rare success.