OF the great mystery of human Love, and that most intimate personal relation of two souls to each other--perhaps the firmest, most basic and indissoluble fact (after our own existence) that we know; of that strange sense--often, perhaps generally, instantaneous--of long precedent familiarity and kinship, that deep reliance on and acceptation of another in his or her entirety; of the tremendous strength of the chain which thus at times will bind two hearts in lifelong dedication and devotion, persuading and indeed not seldom compelling the persons concerned to the sacrifice of some of the other elements of their lives and characters; and, withal, of a certain inscrutable veiledness from each other which so frequently accompanies the relation of the opposite sexes, and which forms at once the abiding charm, and the pain, sometimes the tragedy, of their union; of this palpitating winged living thing, which one may perhaps call the real Marriage--I would say but little; for indeed it is only fitting
or possible to speak of it by indirect language and suggestion, nor may one venture to rudely drag it from its sanctuary into the light of the common gaze.
Compared with this, the actual marriage, in its squalid perversity as we too often have occasion of knowing it, is as the wretched idol of the savage to the reality which it is supposed to represent; and one seems to hear the Aristophanic laughter of the gods as they contemplate man's little clay image of the Heavenly Love--which, cracked in the fire of daily life, he is fain to bind together with rusty hoops of law, and parchment bonds, lest it should crumble and fall to pieces altogether.
The whole subject, wide as life itself--as Heaven and Hell--eludes anything like adequate treatment, and we need make no apology for narrowing down our considerations here to just a few practical points; and if we cannot navigate upward into the very heart of the matter-namely, into the causes which make some people love each other with a true and perfect love, and others unite in obedience to but a counterfeit passion--yet we may fairly, I imagine, study some of the conditions which give to actual marriage its present form, or which in the future are likely to provide real affection, with a more satisfactory expression than it has as a rule to-day.
As long as man is only half-grown, and woman is
a serf or a parasite, it can hardly be expected that Marriage should be particularly successful. Two people come together, who know but little of each other, who have been brought up along different lines, who certainly do not understand each other's nature; whose mental interests and occupations are different, whose worldly interests and advantage are also different; to one of whom the subject of sex is probably a sealed book, to the other perhaps a book whose most dismal page has been opened first. The man needs an outlet for his passion; the girl is looking for a 'home' and a proprietor. A glamor of illusion descends upon the two, and drives them into each other's arms. It envelopes in a gracious and misty halo all their differences and misapprehensions. They marry without misgiving; and their hearts overflow with gratitude to the white-surpliced old gentleman who reads the service over them.
But at a later hour, and with calmer thought, they begin to realise that it is a life-sentence which he has so suavely passed upon them--not reducible (as in the case of ordinary convicts) even to a term of 20 years. The brief burst of their first satisfaction has been followed by satiety on the physical plane, then by mere vacuity of affection, then by boredom, and even nausea. The girl, full perhaps of a tender
emotion, and missing the sympathy and consolation she expected in the man's love, only to find its more materialistic side--"This, this then is what I am wanted for;" the man, who looked for a companion, finding he can rouse no mortal interest in his wife's mind save in the most exasperating trivialities;--whatever the cause may be, a veil has fallen from before their faces, and there they sit, held together now by the least honorable interests, the interests which they themselves can least respect, but to which Law and Religion lend all their weight. The monetary dependence of the woman, the mere sex-needs of the man, the fear of public opinion, all form motives, and motives of the meanest kind, for maintaining the seeming tie; and the relation of the two hardens down into a dull neutrality, in which lives and characters are narrowed and blunted, and deceit becomes the common weapon which guards divided interests.
A sad picture! and of course in this case a portrayal deliberately of the seamy side of the matter. But who shall say what agonies are often gone through in those first few years of married life? Anyhow, this is the sort of problem which we have to face to-day, and which shows its actuality by the amazing rate at which it is breaking out in literature on all sides.
It may be said--and often of course is said--that such cases as these only prove that marriage was entered into under the influence of a passing glamor and delusion, and that there was not much real devotion to begin with. And no doubt there is truth enough in such remarks. But--we may say in reply--because two people make a mistake in youth, to condemn them, for that reason, to lifelong suffering and mutual degradation, or to see them so condemned, without proposing any hope or way of deliverance, but with the one word "serves you right" on the lips, is a course which can commend itself only to the grimmest and dullest Calvinist. Whatever safe-guards against a too frivolous view of the relationship may be proposed by the good sense of society in the future, it is certain that the time has gone past when Marriage can continue to be regarded as a supernatural institution to whose maintenance human bodies and souls must be indiscriminately sacrificed; a humaner, wiser, and less panic-stricken treatment of the subject must set in; and if there are difficulties in the way they must be met by patient and calm consideration of human welfare--superior to any law, however ancient and respectable.
I take it then that, without disguising the fact
that the question is a complex one, and that our conclusions may be only very tentative, we have to consider as rationally as we conveniently can, first, some of the drawbacks or defects of the present marriage customs, and secondly such improvements in these as may seem feasible.
And with regard to the former, one of the most important points--which we have already touched on--is the extraordinary absence of any allusion to these subjects in the teaching of young folk. In a day when every possible study seems to be crammed into the school curriculum, it is curious that the one matter which is of supreme importance to the individual and the community is most carefully ignored. That one ought to be able to distinguish a passing sex-spell from a true comradeship and devotion is no doubt a very sapient remark; but since it is a thing which mature folk often fail to do, how young things with no experience of their own or hint from others should be expected to do it is not easy to understand. The search for a fitting mate 77, especially among the more sensitive and highly-organised types of mankind, is a very complex affair; and it is really monstrous that the girl or youth should have to, set out--as they mostly have to do to-day--on this difficult quest without a word of help as to the choice of
the way or the very real doubts and perplexities that beset it.
If the pair whom we have supposed as about to be married had been brought up in almost any tribe of savages, they would a few years previously have gone through regular offices of initiation into manhood and womanhood, during which time ceremonies (possibly indecent in our eyes) would at any rate have made many misapprehensions impossible. As it is, the civilised girl is led to the 'altar' often in uttermost ignorance and misunderstanding as to the nature of the sacrificial rites about to be consummated. The youth too is ignorant in his way. Perhaps he is unaware that love in the female is, in a sense, more diffused than in the male, less specially sexual: that it dwells longer in caresses and embraces, and determines itself more slowly towards the reproductive system. Impatient, he injures and horrifies his partner, and unconsciously perhaps aggravates the very hysterical tendency which marriage might and should have allayed. 1
Among the middle and well-to-do classes
especially, the conditions of high civilisation, by inducing an overfed masculinity in the males and a nervous and hysterical tendency in the females, 1 increase the difficulties mentioned; and it is among the 'classes' too that the special evils exist of sex-starvation and sex-ignorance on the one hand, and of mere licentiousness on the other.
Among the comparatively uncivilised mass of the people, where a good deal of familiarity between the sexes takes place before marriage, and where probably there is less ignorance on the one side and less licentiousness on the other, these ills are not so prominent. But here too the need for some sensible teaching is clear; and sheer neglect of the law of Transmutation, or sheer want of self-control, are liable to make the proletarian union brutish enough.
So far with regard to difficulties arising from personal ignorance and inexperience. But stretching beyond and around all these are those others that arise from the special property- relation between the two sexes, and from deep-lying historic and economic
causes generally. The long historic serfdom of woman, creeping down into the moral and intellectual natures of the two sexes, has exaggerated the naturally complementary relation of the male and the female into an absurd caricature of strength on the one hand and dependence on the other. This is well seen in the ordinary marriage-relation of the common-prayer-book type. The frail and delicate female is supposed to cling round the sturdy husband's form, or to depend from his arm in graceful incapacity; and the spectator is called upon to admire the charming effect of the union--as of the ivy with the oak--forgetful of the terrible moral, namely, that (in the case of the trees at any rate) it is really a death-struggle which is going on, in which either the oak must perish suffocated in the embraces of its partner, or in order to free the former into anything like healthy development the ivy must be sacrificed.
Too often of course of such marriages the egoism, lordship and physical satisfaction of the man are the chief motive causes. The woman is practically sacrificed to the part of the maintenance of these male virtues. It is for her to spend her days in little forgotten details of labor and anxiety for the sake of the man's superior comfort and importance, to give up her needs to his whims, to 'humor' him in
all ways she can; it is for her to wipe her mind clear of all opinions in order that she may hold it up as a kind of mirror in which he may behold reflected his lordly self; and it is for her to sacrifice even her physical health and natural instincts in deference to what is called her 'duty' to her husband.
How bitterly alone many such a woman feels! She has dreamed of being folded in the arms of a strong man, and surrendering herself, her life, her mind, her all, to his service. Of course it is an unhealthy dream, an illusion, a mere luxury of love; and it is destined to be dashed. She has to learn that self-surrender may be just as great a crime as self-assertion. She finds that her very willingness to be sacrificed only fosters in the man, perhaps for his own self-defence, the egotism and coldness that so cruelly wound her.
For how often does he with keen prevision see that if he gives way from his coldness the clinging dependent creature will infallibly overgrow and smother him!--that she will cut her woman-friends, will throw aside all her own interests and pursuits in order to 'devote' herself to him, and, affording no sturdy character of her own in which he can take any interest, will hang the festoons of her affection on every ramification of his wretched life-nor leave him a corner free--till he perishes
from all manhood and social or heroic uses into a mere matrimonial clothespeg, a warning and a wonderment to passers by!
However, as an alternative, it sometimes happens that the Woman, too wise to sacrifice her own life indiscriminately to the egoism of her husband, and not caring for the 'festoon' method, adopts the middle course of appearing to minister to him while really pursuing her own purposes. She cultivates the gentle science of indirectness. While holding up a mirror for the Man to admire himself in, behind that mirror she goes her own way and carries out her own designs, separate from him; and while sacrificing her body to his wants, she does so quite deliberately and for a definite reason, namely, because she has found out that she can so get a shelter for herself and her children, and can solve the problem of that maintenance which society has hitherto denied to her in her own right. For indeed by a cruel fate women have been placed in exactly that position where the sacrifice of their self-respect for base motives has easily passed beyond a temptation into being a necessity. They have had to live, and have too often only been able to do so by selling themselves into bondage to the man. Willing or unwilling, overworked or dying, they have had to bear children to the caprice of
their lords; and in this serf-life their very natures have been blunted; they have lost--what indeed should be the very glory and crown of woman's being--the perfect freedom and the purity of their love. 1 83
At this whole spectacle of woman's degradation the human male has looked on with stupid and open-mouthed indifference--as an ox might look on at a drowning ox-herd--not even dimly divining that his own fate was somehow involved. He has calmly and obliviously watched the woman drift farther and farther away from him, till at last, with the loss of an intelligent and mutual understanding between the sexes, Love with unequal wings has fallen lamed to the ground. Yet it would be idle to deny that even in such a state of affairs as that depicted, men and women have in the past and do often even now find some degree of satisfaction--simply indeed because their types of character are such as belong to, and have been evolved in accordance with, this relation.
To-day, however, there are thousands of women--and everyday more thousands--to whom such a lopsided alliance is detestable; who are determined that they will no longer endure the arrogant lordship and egoism of men, nor countenance in themselves
or other women the craft and servility which are the necessary complements of the relation; who see too clearly in the oak-and-ivy marriage its parasitism on the one hand and strangulation on the other to be sensible of any picturesqueness; who feel too that they have capacities and powers of their own which need space and liberty, and some degree of sympathy and help, for their unfolding; and who believe that they have work to do in the world, as important in its own way as any that men do in theirs. Such women have broken into open warfare--not against marriage, but against a marriage which makes true and equal love an impossibility. They feel that as long as women are economically dependent they cannot stand up for themselves and insist on those rights which men from stupidity and selfishness will not voluntarily grant them.
On the other hand there are thousands--and one would hope every day more thousands--of men who (whatever their forerunners may have thought) do not desire or think it delightful to have a glass continually held up for them to admire themselves in; who look for a partner in whose life and pursuits they can find some interest, rather than for one who has no interest but in them; who think perhaps that they would rather minister than be (like a monkey fed with nuts in a cage) the melancholy
object of another person's ministrations; and who at any rate feel that love, in order to be love at all, must be absolutely open and sincere, and free from any sentiment of dependence or inequality. They see that the present cramped condition of women is not only the cause of the false relation between the sexes, but that it is the fruitful source--through its debarment of any common interests--of that fatal boredom of which we have spoken, and which is the bugbear of marriage; and they would gladly surrender all of that masterhood and authority which is supposed to be their due, if they could only get in return something like a frank and level comradeship.
Thus while we see in the present inequality of the sexes an undoubted source of marriage troubles and unsatisfactory alliances, we see also forces at work which are tending to reaction, and to bringing the two nearer again to each other--so that while differentiated they will not perhaps in the future be quite so much differentiated as now, but only to a degree which will enhance and adorn, instead of destroy, their sense of mutual sympathy.
There is another point which ought to be considered as contributing to the ill-success of many marriages, and which no doubt is closely connected with that just discussed--but which deserves
separate treatment. I mean the harshness of the line, the kind of 'ring-fence,' which social opinion (at any rate in this country) draws round the married pair with respect to their relations to outsiders. On the one hand, and within the fence, society allows practically the utmost passional excess or indulgence, and condones it; on the other hand (I am speaking of the middling bulk of the people, not of the extreme aristocratic and slum classes) beyond that limit, the slightest familiarity, or any expression of affection which might by any possibility be interpreted as deriving from sexual feeling, is sternly anathematised. Marriage, by a kind of absurd fiction, is represented as an oasis situated in the midst of an arid desert--in which latter, it is pretended, neither of the two parties is so fortunate as to find any objects of real affectional interest. If they do they have carefully to conceal the same from the other party.
The result of this convention is obvious enough. The married pair, thus driven as well as drawn into closest continual contact with each other, are put through an ordeal which might well cause the stoutest affection to quail. To have to spend all your life with another person is severe; but to have all outside personal interests, except of the most abstract kind, debarred, and if there happens to be
any natural jealousy in the case, to have it tenfold increased by public interference, is terrible; and yet unless the contracting parties are fortunate enough to be, both of them, of such a temperament that they are capable of strong attachments to persons of their own sex--and this does not always exclude jealousy--such must be their fate.
It is hardly necessary to say, not only how dull a place this makes the home, but also how narrowing it acts on the lives of the married pair. However appropriate the union may be in itself it cannot be good that it should degenerate--as it tends to degenerate so often, and where man and wife are most faithful to each other--into a mere égoisme à deux. And right enough no doubt as a great number of such unions actually are, it must be confessed that the bourgeois marriage as a rule, and just in its most successful and pious and respectable form, carries with it an odious sense of Stuffiness and narrowness, moral and intellectual; and that the type of Family which it provides is too often like that which is disclosed when on turning over a large stone we disturb an insect Home that seldom sees the light.
But in cases where the marriage does not happen to be particularly successful or unsuccessful, when perhaps a true but not overpoweringly intense
affection is satiated at a needlessly early stage by the continual and unrelieved impingement of the two personalities on each other, then the boredom resulting is something frightful to contemplate--and all the more so because of the genuine affection behind it, which contemplates with horror its own suicide. The weary couples that may be seen at seaside places and pleasure resorts--the respectable working-man with his wife trailing along by his side, or the highly respectable stock-jobber arm-in-arm with his better and larger half--their blank faces, utter want of any common topic of conversation which has not been exhausted a thousand times already, and their obvious relief when the hour comes which will take them back to their several and divided occupations--these illustrate sufficiently what I mean. The curious thing is that jealousy (accentuated as it is by social opinion) sometimes increases in exact proportion to mutual boredom; and there are thousands of cases of married couples leading a cat-and-dog life, and knowing that they weary each other to distraction, who for that very reason dread all the more to lose sight of each other, and thus never get a chance of that holiday from their own society, and renewal of outside interests, which would make a real good time for them possible.
Thus the sharpness of the line which society draws around the pair, and the kind of fatal snap-of-the-lock with which marriage suddenly cuts them off from the world, not only precluding the two, as might fairly be thought advisable, from sexual, but also barring any openly affectional relations with outsiders, and corroborating the selfish sense of monopoly which each has in the other,--these things lead inevitably to the narrowing down of lives and the blunting of general human interests, to intense mutual ennui, and when (as an escape from these evils) outside relations are covertly indulged in, to prolonged and systematic deceit.
From all which the only conclusion seems to be that marriage must be either alive or dead. As a dead thing it can of course be petrified into a hard and fast formula, but if it is to be a living bond, that living bond must be trusted to, to hold the lovers together; nor be too forcibly stiffened and contracted by private jealousy and public censorship, lest the thing that it would preserve for us perish so, and cease altogether to be beautiful. It is the same with this as with everything else. If we would have a living thing, we must give that thing some degree of liberty--even though liberty bring with it risk. If we would debar all liberty and all
risk, then we can have only the mummy and dead husk of the thing.
Thus far I have had the somewhat invidious task, but perhaps necessary as a preliminary one, of dwelling on the defects and drawbacks of the present marriage system. I am sensible that, with due discretion, some things might have been said, which have not been said, in its praise; its successful, instead of its unsuccessful, instances might have been cited; and taking for granted the dependence of women, and other points which have already been sufficiently discussed, it might have been possible to show that the bourgeois arrangement was on the whole as satisfactory as could be expected. But such a course would neither have been sincere nor have served any practical purpose. In view of the actually changing relations between the sexes, it is obvious that changes in the form of the marriage institution are impending, and the questions which are really pressing on folks' mind are: What are those changes going to be? and, Of what kind do we wish them to be?
78:1 It must be remembered too that to many women (though of course by no means a majority) the thought of Sex brings but little sense of pleasure, and the fulfilment of its duties constitutes a real, even though a willing, sacrifice. See Appendix. 78
79:1 Thus Bebel in his book on Woman speaks of the idle and luxurious life of so many women in the upper classes, the nervous stimulant afforded by exquisite perfumes, the overdosing with poetry, music, the stage--which is regarded as the chief means of education, and is the chief occupation, of a sex already suffering from hypertrophy of nerves and sensibility."
83:1 See Appendix. 83