Wanted a Few Heroes

— A little time ago there appeared in the Contributors’ Club papers one which, I think, was hardly up to the standard of that agreeable and piquant collection. It purported to discuss the age of the heroines of the Waverley novels ; and though that portion of it was well enough, it was introduced by a slur upon modern girlhood, and the very objectionable position was taken that it would be difficult nowadays to discover any such ideals of womanhood as those which Sir Walter has drawn. The writer was manifestly of the broadcloth section of humanity. We who “ walk in silk attire, and siller hae to spare,” have a right to be heard in reply. We propose to view the world from the top of a coach or from the deck of a yacht whereon we are placed, displaying the colors of our chosen college, and whence we “ruin influence and judge the prize" over the regatta, the baseball diamond, or the football field. As a fact, we do nothing of the sort, and, so far as my limited reading goes, we never have been allowed to do it, either in Milton’s day or since. But the pleasing fiction is kept up, and, I suppose, will be till the end of time or the advent of female suffrage. Of course the heroes of the athletic strife are heroes, but they are not our heroes ; that is to say, the ones to whom we talk, on whom we smile, and who, theoretically, sigh at our feet. It is to the lookers-on, the betters and abettors, who shout and yell the university war-cry, who are faultlessly appareled and glib of tongue to utter the technicalities of the sports they do not share, — it is to these that we are expected to look for the possible lord and master, who, with help of his best man, shall agitatedly await us at the chancel rail, amid the provisional palms and evanescent smilax. These gentlemen do not offer to make us famous by their bat or glorious by their oar. We know that they are not unregardant of the beaux yeux du notre cassette, and that the A. B. which their diplomas entitle them to write after their names but too often may signify that they have stopped short at the first alphabetical stages of literary acquirement.

I am tempted to ask of my cynical brother of the Club where he proposes to find for us the counterparts of the heroes whom the author of Waverley pictured, — the heroes who set our young hearts throbbing, and became the light of our dreams when the painful hours of French verbs and the hatefulness of mathematics gave way to balmy sleep. Where are the Ivanhoes, the Bois-Guilberts, the Harry Bertrams, the Quentin Durwards, the Julian Peverils ? Where, let me ask, shall we find the considerate courtesy, the modest valor, the deep, unstained, honest devotion, which shine so conspicuously in the young gentlemen throughout that delightful row of volumes whose titled backs look down on me as I write ?

Nay, I am willing to avow (in the confidential secrecy of the Club) that I would not disdain even the unsuccessful suitors. I could put up with Master Tressilian, or Edward Glendinning, or Hector MacIntyre, or Darsie Latimer, or Lord Evandale.

In vain my governess, to whom I have confided these earlier lines, reminds me that the old order changeth, giving place to the new. If my brother Contributor turns up his nose at the morning procession of boarding-school girls, I misdoubt that he does it under spectacles which are like those of Major Pendennis, “ artfully disguised as a double eyeglass,” I do not wish to be personal, but I suspect that his may be the vulpine reason for pronouncing us so far inferior to the incomparable heroines (dowdy little dunces, some of them) of the Waverley gallery.

This is not, however, what I set out to write when I suffered my just indignation to get the better of me. It was rather to note how little, as a rule, Sir Walter tells us of the feelings and inner life of these paragon damsels. Were we to try to pattern after them, we might find a rather vague outline. In several instances their perfections are simply taken for granted, and their whole part in the story consists in being made love to, and consenting, at the right time, to reward the fortunate wooer. In the majority of the novels the lady stands committed before she enters upon the stage. Julia Mannering, Lucy Bertram, Isabella Wardour, Edith Bellenden, Jeanie Deans, Edith Plantagenet, Amy Robsart, Rowena, Clara Mowbray, Alice Lee, make their début with the engagement diamond, so to speak, already on the proper finger. Of the rest, Die Vernon has no real choice. She must marry an Osbaldistone or take the veil, and Frank is the only possible parti in the lot. Isabella Vere and Rose Bradwardine are mere lay figures ; Mary Avenel, Alice Bridgenorth, and Brenda Troil practically accept the fate which follows them from their infancy. This leaves, properly, but five, — Catharine Seyton, Margaret Ramsay, Anne of Geierstein, Isabelle of Croye, and Catharine Glover, — who seem to undergo a normally conducted love-making. Of these, Margaret Ramsay is hardly a model maiden, as even my brother Contributor will concede, and the countesses of Croye and Geierstein are little more than passive occasions for their lovers to distinguish themselves. Catharine Seyton and Catharine Glover are almost the sole examples of womanly feeling in the development of the affection. Lilias Redgauntlet is indeed a very nice girl, but what we know of her is entirely through her brother. Alan Fairford and she meet only in the closing scenes, where the interest is entirely in another channel.

The modern novel is vastly different. Where it deals at all with the tender passion, it certainly gives the lady her full share of attention. Not infrequently it displays its best power in antagonizing the complex and conflicting workings of a woman’s heart and mind. Of course, we women are writing the best novels of to-day, and in this we show that we know what we are describing. To borrow a phrase from the other (and sporting) sex, we can give points to the best of them. Mr. James and Mr. Howells are acute observers, though swayed, naturally, by their masculine incapacity of fairness. Even Thackeray — whom no woman can forgive — has not wholly missed the mark. Ethel Newcome Beatrix Esmond, and, in spite of her prudery, Laura Pendennis are not absolutely disagreeable women,

I do not like George Eliot’s women ; I should not care to have any one of them for my sister, still less for my sister-in-law ; but they are women through and through. As for Miss Austen, I confess that I have read Emma and Pride and Prejudice once a year since I first made their acquaintance. To say how many times that is would be to betray a secret which only the Census Bureau has a right to ask.

Bat the point here made is that modern fiction deals less with the aspects of life than with the facts. It may view these facts through a distorted medium, or it may be moved to rebel against some prevailing conventionality. This only the more compels the nice drawing of character. Everything hinges on the point that it is one of ourselves, and not an imaginary impossibility, who is trying conclusions with some part of the decalogue. The question is, How, in view of the unprecedented, is a woman to act without forfeiting her womanliness? Like Rosalind and Viola, the doublet and hose are assumed only as disguise.

In the novel restricted to normal life the only escape from the commonplace is by the most thorough insight and the most dexterous handling. The greater number of Scott’s heroines are not works of high art. He showed what he could do in such characters as the Deans sisters, Minna Troil, Rebecca, Catharine Seyton, and Mary Queen of Scots ; but as a rule he reserved his power for other personages in his storytelling. That which he alone did or could do was to make real the surroundings of all eras and times from the Crusades to the Stuart rebellion, so that we feel ourselves to be brought in touch with the actual life of the day.

Therefore, when my brother Contributor asks of us girls that we emulate these heroines of the past, we think we have a right to ask of him to restore that fairyland of Eld, not as it appears in history, but as it is glorified in the pages of Sir Walter.