Modern Women and What Is Said of Them. A Reprint of a Series of Articles in the Saturday Review
With an Introduction by MRS. LUCIA GILBERT CALHOUN. New York : J. S. Redfield.
THE general impression received from these varying and very unequal essays is that the Girl of the Period is entirely worthy of the Critic of the Period. In him the fine elements of satire are as degenerate as those of dressing and pleasing in her; extravagance, coarseness, and commonness characterize them both; and if the girl has taken her costume and manners from Anonyma, it appears that the critic has formed his ideas and opinions upon the same authority. We give a passage from a paper entitled “Costume and its Morals,” which is offered as a sketch of fashionable life, and which will illustrate our meaning very well : —
“ A white or spotted veil is thrown over the visage, in order that the adjuncts that properly belong to the theatre may not be immediately detected in the glare of daylight ; and thus, with diaphanous tinted face, large painted eyes, and stereotyped smile, the lady goes forth looking much more as if she had stepped out of the green-room of a theatre, or from a Haymarket saloon, than from an English home. But it is in evening costume that our women have reached the minimum of dress and the maximum of brass. We remember a venerable old lady whose ideas of decorum were such, that in her speech all above the foot was ankle, and all below the chin was chest; but now the female bosom is less the subject of a revelation than the feature of an exposition, and charms that were once reserved are now made the common property of every looker-on. A costume which has been described as consisting of a smock, a waistband, and a frill seems to exceed the bounds of honest liberality, and resembles most perhaps the attire mentioned by Rabelais, ‘ nothing before and nothing behind, with sleeves of the same.’ Not very long ago two gentlemen were standing together at the Opera.
‘ Did you ever see anything like that ? ’ inquired one, with a significant glance, directing the eyes of his companion to the uncovered bust of a lady immediately below. ‘ Not since I was weaned,’ was the suggestive reply. We are not aware whether the speaker was consciously or unconsciously reproducing a well-known archiepiscopal mot.”
We imagine the late Miss Menken, if she had taken to satire instead of serious poetry, treating the same subject in exactly this manner, — a little more decently, perhaps ; and we are not unjust to very many papers in this collection in offering the quoted passages as characteristic. It is not, of course, to be supposed that they depict any but the most exceptional phases of English society; and if anything is to be argued from the notoriety these essays from the Saturday Review have attained, it is an intellectual, not a moral decay. It is very sad to reflect that the ideas of brilliancy in our generation are derived from sarcasms like the follow* ing: —
“ There is a certain melancholy in tracing further the career of the Fading Flower. We long to arrest it at each of these picturesque stages, as we long to arrest the sunset in its lovelier moments of violet and gold. But the sunset dies into the gray of eve, and woman sets with the same fatal persistency. The evanescent tints fade into the gray. Woman becomes hard, angular, colorless. Her floating sentiment, so graceful in its mobility, curdles into opinions. Her conversation, so charmingly impalpable, solidifies into discussion. Her character, like her face, becomes rigid and osseous. She intrenches herself in the ’ologies. She works pinafores for New-Zealanders in the May Meetings, and appears in wondrous bonnets at the Church Congress. She adores Mr. Kingsley because he is earnest, and groans over the triviality of the literature of the day. She takes up the grievances of her sex, and badgers the puzzled overseer who has omitted to place her name on the register. She pronounces old men fogies, and young men intolerable. She throws out dark hints of her intention to compose a great work which shall settle everything. Then she bursts into poetry, and pens poems of so fiery a passion that her family are in consternation lest she should elope with the half-pay officer who meets her by moonlight on the pier. Then she plunges into science, and cuts her hair short to be in proper trim for Professor Huxley’s lectures.”
It strikes us that the ideas and sarcasms here are of about equal value with the Girl of the Periods’ pinchbeck gauds and ornaments, and that the satirist has not even the poor advantage of displaying them at first-hand. We have all seen this dreary, dreary stuff before ; it is inexpressibly cheap and poor.
We have already hinted a distinction between the two classes of essays in this book, which are apparently by several hands. Those studying modern women’s minds, as “ Woman’s Heroines,” “ Interference,” “ Plain Girls,”“ Ambitious Minds,” “ Pretty Preachers,” etc., are much better than the pictures of women’s manners. But there is throughout the book an air ofbrutality and of savage excess as far from true satire as from truth ; and the dull, industrious pounding of denunciation in the worse papers, unrelieved by any flash of humor or wit, is to the last degree tedious.