Wives, by Washington Irving

Bracebridge Hall, or The Humorists

  Believe me, man, there is no greater blisse
  Than is the quiet joy of loving wife;
  Which whoso wants, half of himselfe doth misse.
  Friend without change, playfellow without strife,
  Food without fulnesse, counsaile without pride,
  Is this sweet doubling of our single life.

—SIR P. SIDNEY.

There is so much talk about matrimony going on around me, in consequence of the approaching event for which we are assembled at the Hall, that I confess I find my thoughts singularly exercised on the subject. Indeed, all the bachelors of the establishment seem to be passing through a kind of fiery ordeal; for Lady Lillycraft is one of those tender, romance-read dames of the old school, whose mind is filled with flames and darts, and who breathe nothing but constancy and wedlock. She is for ever immersed in the concerns of the heart; and, to use a poetical phrase, is perfectly surrounded by "the purple light of love." The very general seems to feel the influence of this sentimental atmosphere; to melt as he approaches her ladyship, and, for the time, to forget all his heresies about matrimony and the sex.

The good lady is generally surrounded by little documents of her prevalent taste; novels of a tender nature; richly bound little books of poetry, that are filled with sonnets and love tales, and perfumed with rose-leaves; and she has always an album at hand, for which she claims the contributions of all her friends. On looking over this last repository, the other day, I found a series of poetical extracts, in the Squire's handwriting, which might have been intended as matrimonial hints to his ward. I was so much struck with several of them, that I took the liberty of copying them out. They are from the old play of Thomas Davenport, published in 1661, entitled "The City Night-Cap;" in which is drawn out and exemplified, in the part of Abstemia, the character of a patient and faithful wife, which, I think, might vie with that of the renowned Griselda.

I have often thought it a pity that plays and novels should always end at the wedding, and should not give us another act, and another volume, to let us know how the hero and heroine conducted themselves when married. Their main object seems to be merely to instruct young ladies how to get husbands, but not how to keep them: now this last, I speak it with all due diffidence, appears to me to be a desideratum in modern married life. It is appalling to those who have not yet adventured into the holy state, to see how soon the flame of romantic love burns out, or rather is quenched in matrimony; and how deplorably the passionate, poetic lover declines into the phlegmatic, prosaic husband. I am inclined to attribute this very much to the defect just mentioned in the plays and novels, which form so important a branch of study of our young ladies; and which teach them how to be heroines, but leave them totally at a loss when they come to be wives. The play from which the quotations before me were made, however, is an exception to this remark; and I cannot refuse myself the pleasure of adducing some of them for the benefit of the reader, and for the honour of an old writer, who has bravely attempted to awaken dramatic interest in favour of a woman, even after she was married!

The following is a commendation of Abstemia to her husband Lorenzo:

  She's modest, but not sullen, and loves silence;
  Not that she wants apt words, (for when she speaks,
  She inflames love with wonder,) but because
  She calls wise silence the soul's harmony.
  She's truly chaste; yet such a foe to coyness,
  The poorest call her courteous; and which is excellent,
  (Though fair and young) she shuns to expose herself
  To the opinion of strange eyes. She either seldom
  Or never walks abroad but in your company.
  And then with such sweet bashfulness, as if
  She were venturing on crack'd ice, and takes delight
  To step into the print your foot hath made,
  And will follow you whole fields; so she will drive
  Tediousness out of time, with her sweet character.

Notwithstanding all this excellence, Abstemia has the misfortune to incur the unmerited jealousy of her husband. Instead, however, of resenting his harsh treatment with clamorous upbraidings, and with the stormy violence of high, windy virtue, by which the sparks of anger are so often blown into a flame, she endures it with the meekness of conscious, but patient, virtue; and makes the following beautiful appeal to a friend who has witnessed her long suffering:

  ———Hast thou not seen me
  Bear all his injuries, as the ocean suffers
  The angry bark to plough through her bosom,
  And yet is presently so smooth, the eye
  Cannot perceive where the wide wound was made?

Lorenzo, being wrought on by false representations, at length repudiates her. To the last, however, she maintains her patient sweetness, and her love for him, in spite of his cruelty. She deplores his error, even more than his unkindness; and laments the delusion which has turned his very affection into a source of bitterness. There is a moving pathos in her parting address to Lorenzo, after their divorce:

  ———Farewell, Lorenzo,
  Whom my soul doth love: if you e'er marry,
  May you meet a good wife; so good, that you
  May not suspect her, nor may she be worthy
  Of your suspicion; and if you hear hereafter
  That I am dead, inquire but my last words,
  And you shall know that to the last I lov'd you.
  And when you walk forth with your second choice
  Into the pleasant fields, and by chance talk of me,
  Imagine that you see me, lean and pale,
  Strewing your path with flowers.—
  But may she never live to pay my debts: (weeps)
  If but in thought she wrong you, may she die
  In the conception of the injury.
  Pray make me wealthy with one kiss: farewell, sir:
  Let it not grieve you when you shall remember
  That I was innocent: nor this forget,
  Though innocence here suffer, sigh, and groan,
  She walks but thorow thorns to find a throne.

In a short time Lorenzo discovers his error, and the innocence of his injured wife. In the transports of his repentance, he calls to mind all her feminine excellence; her gentle, uncomplaining, womanly fortitude under wrongs and sorrows:

  ———Oh, Abstemia!
  How lovely thou lookest now! now thou appearest
  Chaster than is the morning's modesty
  That rises with a blush, over whose bosom
  The western wind creeps softly; now I remember
  How, when she sat at table, her obedient eye
  Would dwell on mine, as if it were not well,
  Unless it look'd where I look'd: oh how proud
  She was, when she could cross herself to please me!
  But where now is this fair soul? Like a silver cloud
  She hath wept herself, I fear, into the dead sea.
  And will be found no more.

It is but doing right by the reader, if interested in the fate of Abstemia by the preceding extracts, to say, that she was restored to the arms and affections of her husband, rendered fonder than ever, by that disposition in every good heart, to atone for past injustice, by an overflowing measure of returning kindness:

  Thou wealth, worth more than kingdoms; I am now
  Confirmed past all suspicion; thou art far
  Sweeter in thy sincere truth than a sacrifice
  Deck'd up for death with garlands. The Indian winds
  That blow from off the coast and cheer the sailor
  With the sweet savour of their spices, want
  The delight flows in thee.

I have been more affected and interested by this little dramatic picture, than by many a popular love tale; though, as I said before, I do not think it likely either Abstemia or patient Grizzle stand much chance of being taken for a model. Still I like to see poetry now and then extending its views beyond the wedding-day, and teaching a lady how to make herself attractive even after marriage. There is no great need of enforcing on an unmarried lady the necessity of being agreeable; nor is there any great art requisite in a youthful beauty to enable her to please. Nature has multiplied attractions around her. Youth is in itself attractive. The freshness of budding beauty needs no foreign aid to set it off; it pleases merely because it is fresh, and budding, and beautiful. But it is for the married state that a woman needs the most instruction, and in which she should be most on her guard to maintain her powers of pleasing. No woman can expect to be to her husband all that he fancied her when he was a lover. Men are always doomed to be duped, not so much by the arts of the sex, as by their own imaginations. They are always wooing goddesses, and marrying mere mortals. A woman should, therefore, ascertain what was the charm that rendered her so fascinating when a girl, and endeavour to keep it up when she has become a wife. One great thing undoubtedly was, the chariness of herself and her conduct, which an unmarried female always observes. She should maintain the same niceness and reserve in her person and habits, and endeavour still to preserve a freshness and virgin delicacy in the eye of her husband. She should remember that the province of woman is to be wooed, not to woo; to be caressed, not to caress. Man is an ungrateful being in love; bounty loses instead of winning him. The secret of a woman's power does not consist so much in giving, as in withholding.

A woman may give up too much even to her husband. It is to a thousand little delicacies of conduct that she must trust to keep alive passion, and to protect herself from that dangerous familiarity, that thorough acquaintance with every weakness and imperfection incident to matrimony. By these means she may still maintain her power, though she has surrendered her person, and may continue the romance of love even beyond the honeymoon.

"She that hath a wise husband," says Jeremy Taylor, "must entice him to an eternal dearnesse by the veil of modesty, and the grave robes of chastity, the ornament of meekness, and the jewels of faith and charity. She must have no painting but blushings; her brightness must be purity, and she must shine round about with sweetness and friendship; and she shall be pleasant while she lives, and desired when she dies."

I have wandered into a rambling series of remarks on a trite subject, and a dangerous one for a bachelor to meddle with. That I may not, however, appear to confine my observations entirely to the wife, I will conclude with another quotation from Jeremy Taylor, in which the duties of both parties are mentioned; while I would recommend his sermon on the marriage-ring to all those who, wiser than myself, are about entering the happy state of wedlock.

"There is scarce any matter of duty but it concerns them both alike, and is only distinguished by names, and hath its variety by circumstances and little accidents: and what in one is called love, in the other is called reverence; and what in the wife is obedience, the same in the man is duty. He provides, and she dispenses; he gives commandments, and she rules by them; he rules her by authority, and she rules him by love; she ought by all means to please him, and he must by no means displease her."