The Changed Fashion of the Proposal in Fiction
UNTIL a few years ago, we were able to revel in the proposal and acceptance, and in the love scenes which gradually led up to them. There were the happy accidental meetings, the occult way one knew when the other was in the room, and the electro-magnetic hand-clasp, — all fortunate precursors to a certain moonlight night, with the soft splashing of the fountain, and softer music in the distance (a conservatory has long been the favored spot). The mise en scène was perfect; so seemed the proposal and acceptance.
But the woman with a mission is now upon us, the head of a large and rapidly increasing army. With their nursing and college settlement work, the Avises and Marcellas of fiction have almost thrown the proposal out of date.
Nor is it to be wondered at when the favored replies are something like this: “ I do not know whether you will believe me or not, but, unlike other women, I have never thought of marriage.” Sometimes it is : “I do care for you, but life means more to me than individual happiness. Marriage is for some women, but not for me.” And it is the hard-heartedness of these modern heroines which has caused the decline of the lover on bended knee, since it is difficult for even a novel-hero to get up gracefully, after a refusal, without an awkward pause. He must be able at once to “ turn on his heel and stride toward the door.”
Richardson and the earlier novelists had no refractory heroines like ours of to-day. They were often coy and seemingly indifferent, but always to be won at the end of the fifth or seventh volume.
The priggish Sir Charles Grandison makes his offer first to Harriet’s grandmother, and then humbly asks for an interview in the presence of both grandmother and aunt; “ for neither Miss Byron nor I can wish the absence of two such parental relations.” Through seven volumes he is beset with all the becoming doubts and fears of a modern lover, until his “ Can you, madame ? ” and her “ I can, I do,” close the scene.
Miss Burney’s Evelina ushers in an array of tearful and moist heroines, especially at proposal time. “The pearly fugitives ” are constantly chasing one another down the cheeks of Queechy, and of Gertrude in The Lamplighter. These heroines do not sob, as many children do, but utter “ a succession of piercing shrieks.” When the proposal comes, and the original “ brother and sister ” joke is born, — Willie having exclaimed, “ But even then I did not dream that you would refuse me at least a brother’s claim to your affection,”and Gertrude having cried eagerly, " Oh, Willie, you must not be angry with me. Let me be your sister,”— we are not surprised that “ a tear started to her eye ” !
In Miss Edgeworth is seen a faint foreshadowing of modern heroines. She is able to show with true feminine delicacy their unwillingness to have love thrust upon them. When Falconer has at last proposed, Caroline, who is only eighteen, listens calmly, and then delivers herself of the following : “ I am at present happily occupied in various ways, endeavoring to improve myself, and I should be sorry to have my mind turned from these pursuits.”
With Miss Brontë came the modern treatment of the proposal, one in which there was no tame surrender, but a fight and struggle. This “ duel of hearts" has been followed by most of our women novelists of to-day, notably Elizabeth Stuart Phelps and Mary Wilkins. “ ' Come,’" says Ostrander in The Story of Avis, ” ' I am starving. Come ! Slowly at first, with her head bent as if she resisted some opposing pressure, then swiftly as if she had been drawn by irresistible forces, then blindly like the bird to the lighthouse, she passed the length of the silent room, and put both hands, the palms pressed together as if they had been manacled, into his. ’
No other woman novelist has devoted so much thought to woman, and so little to love-making, as George Eliot. Gwendolen of " the dynamic glance " makes a close approach to the modern woman who never hesitates—if popular report can be trusted — to take a hand in her own wooing. " But can you marry ? “Yes; ” and we are thankful to know that Daniel Deronda has the good grace to say it in a low voice, and then goes off to the colorless Mirah, leaving Gwendolen to suffer the fate of the innovator, and become the victim of his happiness. More fortunate is Dorothea after the declaration of Will Ladislow : “ We can never be married.”“ Some time — we might.” Tito humbly asks Romola, “May I love you?” but Adam Bede cries, “ Dinah, I love you with my whole heart and soul ! ”
In a remarkable book recently given to the world, the heroine is Irene Flower, “ in weight about one hundred and twelve pounds. She had a heavy suit of black hair, and in it a gold pin set with diamonds. She wore this evening" (the evening of the proposal) “a pale blue satin just a little low in the neck, short sleeves, a bouquet of pink roses on her bosom, a diamond ring on her finger, and pale velvet slippers.”We are told elsewhere that these were “4 on a D last.” Lester Wortley proposes to her in the following words : “ I offer myself, a pure heart, filled with love ; one that will always love you, and never deceive you ; one who will always support you.” With this last, which is an especially comforting thought, he closes, and she inquires, “ Mr. Wortley, do you think that your heart would break and your life be thwarted, were I to reject you ? ” which he answers in the following melodramatic style : " I will not be poetical and sickening, Miss Irene. Tomorrow at nine o’clock I expect to be accepted or rejected by you.” And when that hour came, and with it acceptance, “ rivers of delight ran through his soul.”
One of the most puzzling and original proposals in modern fiction is that of Levin to Kitty, in Anna Karénina, when lie traces on the table with chalk, “ w. y. s. i. i. i. w. i. t. o. a.,”which Kitty reads without hesitation as, “ When you said, It is impossible, was it then or always ?" and she answers with “ t. I. c. n. a. d.,”which he reads with equal facility, “ Then I could not answer differently.”Certainly the traditional keen vision of the lovers was not wanting.