Wives, by Washington Irving
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
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:
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."