A Query Concerning Up-to-Date Novelists

THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB

THE proper age for broken hearts has increased decidedly within a century. It used to be about fifteen. At that tender age woman once reached the height of her intellectual and physical charm. This is proved by the overwhelming testimony of biographers, poets, and novelists. Did n’t Goethe, for example, who rivals Solomon not only for his wisdom, but also for the number and variety of his heart entanglements, fall in and out of love with his Lili when she was just at that proper age ? At fourscore and over he still had a vivid recollection of her beauty, wit, and grace in those far-off days. Of course I am wandering from my subject a little here, for no hearts were broken in this transaction, as Goethe did n’t finally get his Lili, and she made it lively for him during their brief engagement. But even if we set aside this case as not wholly belonging here, what are we to do with the testimony of countless biographers, poets, and novelists ? Take the profoundly philosophical and wholly unsentimental Jane Austen, in her Sense and Sensibility, to make one illustration do for all. Doesn’t she let her Marianne finally marry the flannel-waistcoated, rheumatic colonel of nearly forty after her recovery from a broken heart due to “an affection formed so late in life as at seventeen ” ? No, whatever the scoffing may say, the proper age for broken hearts used to be about fifteen.

Before I became a Darwinist I was a scoffer and ignorant, too. I could not close my eyes to the fact that girls of fifteen are nowadays exceedingly crude, unformed, and trying, and in my ignorance I scoffed particularly at the old-time novelists. Darwinism has shown wherein they were right and I was wrong. I was ignoring entirely the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest. Our up-to-date novelists will hardly permit a broken heart under twenty-five, and such an impaired organ at forty-nine is not at all uncommon. They are right, too. Any one who chooses to look carefully into the reasons for the rush citywards, the rising cost of beef, and the increasing age at which marriages are contracted, sees at once why the novelists were right then and are right now.

Of course, the broken heart is almost exclusively a prerogative of the fair sex. The male is, in general, the tougher animal. Besides, he has one privilege which every self-respecting novelist denies to woman, he can drown his cares in drink and so preserve his heart in alcohol.

But there is another psychological inquiry which is at present troubling me, and on which I should like to have light. Our novelists (I speak of novelists only, for biographers do not give testimony on this point, and we have no poets) invariably cause the hero to make all the advances when it comes to proposals of marriage. Are they right? Is there something in the make-up of the Englishman or American which causes him to be the aggressor in all affairs of this kind ? My experience with the broken heart has taught me to be cautious about doubting novelists, but there are certain considerations which lead me to suspect that they are on the wrong track here.

The inquiry was forced upon me more than a score of years ago during my student days in Germany. In my strolls through the university city the most frequently recurring sight was some servant girl roaming about with her arm around her soldier’s waist. Or perhaps they were sitting on a bench with her arm tenderly encircling his neck, while his head rested on her shoulder. Here evidently woman was the aggressor, and man the passive victim. Sometimes he would look ashamed, but she never. While in the contemplative mood caused by this oft-viewed spectacle, I ran across a French picture entitled Love’s First Kiss. It represented a stalwart youth, with hands down at his side, while a pretty young woman (undoubtedly not a servant, but some sort of duchess, countess, or princess) stood on tiptoe with her arms resting on his shoulders, and in the fit attitude, not to receive, but to give, love’s first kiss. Here, again,woman was clearly the aggressor.

This led me to consult Continental poets and novelists with this particular point in view. To my surprise they helped confirm the mute testimony of the servant girls and the picture by frequently making the hero the victim, not the victimizer, in those acts of aggression by which love comes into its own. One example may suffice for all. In his Alexis and Dora, Goethe, who is chosen again because he is such a past master in all that pertains to love affairs, lets the youth admire Dora as he might admire the beauty of the moon, but with no more desire to have her than he felt to make that pale orb his own. But, enticed into her garden where she gathers a basket of fruit for his journey, he suddenly finds her arms about him, and succumbs at once. When his ship sails away a few minutes later, we see him leaning against the mast in a veritable delirium tremens of love and jealousy.

But the most serious consideration is still to come. Lay hold of almost any one of your intimate friends, make him mellow by any agency in your power, and he will confess to you privately or in a circle of confidential friends that he is married simply and solely because his wife led him on. Men have even been known to say this in the very presence of their wives without contradiction. Such confessions seem to show, among other things, that the Continental novelists are not wrong in their practice. Hence the query, Is our upto-date novelist up to date?