Project Canterbury

The Victorian Woman

A Paper read at the Church Congress at Southampton, October, 1913

By L. H. M. Soulsby.

London and New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1914.

THE task given to me is only to put before you a piece of ancient history: to describe the Ideals of the Women of fifty years ago.

Do not feel as if I were saying what ought to be: I only say what was, while younger people will have to settle if it shall continue to be.

We shall all agree that the virtues of fifty years ago need translating into modern language, and, while some need reinforcing, some need replacing by better equivalents.

One thing I will ask of you, which is to realize that while I dwell on what seem to me the strong points of the Woman of Yesterday, no one more heartily wishes God-speed to the Woman of To-day than I do, in her task of Reconstruction.

One great feature of her problem is that--while the Victorian Age (which it is my part to describe) was the age of the Married Woman--she has to study how the old virtues may best be developed among the Unmarried, who have [3/4] such a large share in making the World of To-day.

The magnitude of her task, in constructing an adequate Georgian Ideal, is largely consequent on the Victorian woman's deficiencies in acting up to her own ideal and slowness in widening that ideal.

It is in part the shortcomings of us older women, who have not risen to our possibilities, that make young ones feel as if a new order of things was needed.

There are words in a "Call to Prayer," known and valued by many of us, which run thus, "In all that we deplore in the events that are passing let us try to realize that towards it our own negligence and inertia have contributed."

I do not think that the Woman of Yesterday was personally, and individually, more true to her Ideal, than the Woman of To-day: I doubt if human nature alters much. The girl of today seems to me quite as lovable as the girl of yesterday but she lives in a more difficult time, since the Ideal of Yesterday was accepted and enforced by public opinion--there was a recognized standard of womanliness, whereas the standard of to-day is in the melting-pot.

What was that old Ideal?

Before I pick out its special features I should like to suggest two points.

First, the Woman of Yesterday was taught to accept circumstances as an expression of the will [4/5] of God, and therefore as a means of growth. To her, circumstances were not a Dead Hand fettering the energies of the soul, but raw material with which to build Jerusalem

"On England's green and pleasant land."

Secondly, the virtues of the Woman of Yesterday were largely created by her circumstances and the limitations which they created.

To recognize one's limitations is part of realizing one's power: she recognized hers, and, instead of quarrelling with them, worked with them, and in so doing was a Fellow Worker with the God who has chosen to work through an imperfect world.

The great feature of her outlook on life was that she was on the lines of steady growth in the existing order. She had no place in her theory of life for Cataclysm and a sudden irruption of the Kingdom of God: her leaven worked secretly.

Among the various constituents of that leaven, I will remind you of three, which seem to me the most characteristic and the most valuable.

I once saw a long-winded epitaph in a Cornish Church which said of a lady of the eighteenth century that "She performed her Relative Duties."

I. This Duty-Doing was the keynote of the woman of the past generation.

She took it as the right and natural thing that [5/6] everybody expected her to do her duty--and she expected it of herself.

Furthermore she did not feel that someone else's failure exempted her. She would have fallen below her own standard if she left off trying to be a good wife, no matter how badly her husband performed his relative duties.

Many say nowadays that the woman had better break off in her duties, till the man does his.

I own that to go on performing all your Relative Duties, while your Relations neglect all theirs, is a very one-sided business, and no one feels more strongly than I do the mistake--nay, the crime--of doing other people's duties for them. Still, as regards continuing to do one's own duty, I cannot help believing that Woman's faithfulness to duty on those old lines was a stronger force for good, than if she had asserted herself and gone on strike.

Strikes are ineffective as a form of constructive policy.

In estimating the value and the consequences of this duty-doing part of her Ideal, we must bear in mind that it was assisted by the fact that she knew nothing of the Right to be Happy which is the Charter of to-day.

The Woman of Yesterday held with V. V. (in the novel which you have all read) that Happiness is not a Right but a by-product of life. It never occurred to her that when [6/7] a duty became irksome, or an employment monotonous, she had reached the psychological moment for leaving off.

II. If duty was the first note, Self-Restraint (with its attendant Reticence) was the second.

The Woman of Yesterday listens wonderingly to the modern cry for Self-Expression, for she did not take herself so seriously.

I partly feel with what the last speaker said about Self-Expression. A great difficulty of my position is, that I generally sympathise with half of what the other side say! But, for all that, in the old days, all the women worth their salt were so busy trying to express their Master, and to help others to express themselves, that they never had time to worry about their own Self-Expression.

She got all the training she could, in order that she might be as useful as she knew how to other people and make as few blunders as possible, but not because she felt her Self was a valuable asset to the world.

Her action was the same as if she had lived now--she first trained and then set to work--but her point of view was different.

The difference lay not merely in due (or possibly undue) humility: it was rather that the older woman had a deep-rooted conviction of the positive value of Self-Restraint and of the danger of Self-Expression.

[8] From this resulted one of her strongest characteristics--avoidance of the discussion of Sex Questions.

She made a mistake in confusing innocence, with ignorance of elementary facts; and, in consequence of that mistake, the Woman of To-day is apt to look on the whole attitude of the Woman of Yesterday as one of ridiculous prudery.

But for all that, there was deep wisdom in her belief that only the married can rightly weigh marriage problems; and that, as of old, the uninitiated do only harm when they intrude into the Mysteries.--I believe there is a Race of Mothers and a Race of Spinsters, though I must own that the marriage service sometimes get read over the wrong people.

Certainly there is far more danger to-day of harm to herself, when the unmarried woman turns her mind on those things, because she lacks the safeguard of the old standard which enforced Self-Restraint on a woman, as her right and normal--in fact, her inevitable--attitude.

This is not the right place, nor am I the right speaker, to pursue this subject to its possible practical conclusions, but it must be faced by those who construct the new Ideal.

III. To these ideals of Duty and Self-Restraint I would add a third, which for want of a more descriptive term I must call Humility, though [8/9] perhaps Mother Wit would meet the case better.

I mean the temper which realized that "Where two ride a-horse-back, one must ride behind," and which went on to say "Why should not I be the one?"

What mattered to the Woman of Yesterday was that the cart should be well-balanced,--whether she sat in the place of honour, was a minor matter.

The Duke of Wellington once wanted a retreat sounded: his Spanish colleague refused to do it unless the Commander-in-Chief of the British Forces went down on his knees to ask it. "I didn't care a twopenny Curse," said the Great Duke, "whether I went on my knees or not, but I cared enormously that the retreat should be sounded, so down I plumped."

It was due to this power of seizing the essentials of a situation, and not considering personal recognition as a thing to be grasped at, that the Woman of Yesterday always put her Husband forward, instead of enforcing reforms in her own name.

Besides, it would have been against her tradition. The Woman of To-day says, "the sooner she breaks loose from such a tradition the better!" But here again tradition may hold the wisdom of the ages.

The Woman of Yesterday knew by instinct, as the Woman of To-morrow may learn by [9/10] experience, that Man turns sulky if his womenkind try to drag him further than he means to go!

The Woman of Yesterday was content to be a spiritual (i.e. an unseen) force, and to inspire Man to carry out reforms on his own account, knowing that only so would he enforce them. She was content to be the leaven and knew that if she tried to be the flour as well, she would spoil the baking.

I began by dwelling on the general fact that the Woman of Yesterday accepted her circumstances and used them.

I would end by dwelling on a special feature of this turn of mind, namely, that she accepted existing relationships and worked through them--not "on her own."

She worked in the spirit of that immortal chapter, where Savonarola sends Romola back to her calling as a wife: She performed her Relative Duties and (in spite of individual shortcomings) relied on Man to do his.

This surely is the only workable basis for such a complicated business as Human Life.

Anyhow, it is workable, for the position of Woman has gone steadily onwards, in the stream of general progress during the last fifty years.

And this progress has been a steady normal growth, "based broad on the roots of things," consolidated by mutual consent of both Man and Woman.

[11] The old Ideal of Duty lent itself to this mutual work, in a way impossible to the new Ideal of Rights.

The Individualistic Ideal of Rights has indeed power to

"Shatter this sorry scheme of things,"

but it is the old Ideal of Relative Duties which has power, slowly but surely, to

"Remould it to our heart's desire."

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