"Mistress of herself, though China fell."
Women, in general, are indignant that the satirist should have made this the climax to his praise of a woman. And yet, we fear, he saw only too truly. What unexpected failures have we seen, literally, in this respect! How often did the Martha blur the Mary out of the face of a lovely woman at the sound of a crash amid glass and porcelain! What sad littleness in all the department thus represented! Obtrusion of the mop and duster on the tranquil meditation of a husband and brother. Impatience if the carpet be defaced by the feet even of cherished friends.
There is a beautiful side, and a good reason here; but why must the beauty degenerate, and give place to meanness?
To Woman the care of home is confided. It is the sanctuary, of which she should be the guardian angel. To all elements that are introduced there she should be the "ordering mind." She represents the spirit of beauty, and her influence should be spring-like, clothing all objects within her sphere with lively, fresh and tender hues.
She represents purity, and all that appertains to her should be kept delicately pure. She is modesty, and draperies should soften all rude lineaments, and exclude glare and dust. She is harmony, and all objects should be in their places ready for, and matched to, their uses.
We all know that there is substantial reason for the offence we feel at defect in any of these ways. A woman who wants purity, modesty and harmony, in her dress and manners, is insufferable; one who wants them in the arrangements of her house, disagreeable to everybody. She neglects the most obvious ways of expressing what we desire to see in her, and the inference is ready, that the inward sense is wanting.
It is with no merely gross and selfish feeling that all men commend the good housekeeper, the good nurse. Neither is it slight praise to say of a woman that she does well the honors of her house in the way of hospitality. The wisdom that can maintain serenity, cheerfulness and order, in a little world of ten or twelve persons, and keep ready the resources that are needed for their sustenance and recovery in sickness and sorrow, is the same that holds the stars in their places, and patiently prepares the precious metals in the most secret chambers of the earth. The art of exercising a refined hospitality is a fine art, and the music thus produced only differs from that of the orchestra in this, that in the former case the overture or sonata cannot be played twice in the same manner. It requires that the hostess shall combine true self-respect and repose,
"The simple art of not too much,"
with refined perception of individual traits and moods in character, with variety and vivacity, an ease, grace and gentleness, that diffuse their sweetness insensibly through every nook of an assembly, and call out reciprocal sweetness wherever there is any to be found.
The only danger in all this is the same that besets us in every walk of life; to wit, that of preferring the outward sign to the inward spirit whenever there is cause to hesitate between the two.
"I admire," says Goethe, "the Chinese novels; they express so happily ease, peace and a finish unknown to other nations in the interior arrangements of their homes.
"In one of them I came upon the line, 'I heard the lovely maidens laughing, and found my way to the garden, where they were seated in their light cane-chairs,' To me this brings an immediate animation, by the images it suggests of lightness, brightness and elegance."
This is most true, but it is also most true that the garden-house would not seem thus charming unless its light cane-chairs had lovely, laughing maidens seated in them. And the lady who values her porcelain, that most exquisite product of the peace and thorough-breeding of China, so highly, should take the hint, and remember that unless the fragrant herb of wit, sweetened by kindness, and softened by the cream of affability, also crown her board, the prettiest tea-cups in the world might as well lie in fragments in the gutter, as adorn her social show. The show loses its beauty when it ceases to represent a substance.
Here, as elsewhere, it is only vanity, narrowness and self-seeking, that spoil a good thing. Women would never be too good housekeepers for their own peace and that of others, if they considered housekeeping only as a means to an end. If their object were really the peace and joy of all concerned, they could bear to have their cups and saucers broken more easily than their tempers, and to have curtains and carpets soiled, rather than their hearts by mean and small feelings. But they are brought up to think it is a disgrace to be a bad housekeeper, not because they must, by such a defect, be a cause of suffering and loss of time to all within their sphere, but because all other women will laugh at them if they are so. Here is the vice,—for want of a high motive there can be no truly good action.
We have seen a woman, otherwise noble and magnanimous in a high degree, so insane on this point as to weep bitterly because she found a little dust on her picture-frames, and torment her guests all dinner-time with excuses for the way in which the dinner was cooked.
We have known others to join with their servants to backbite the best and noblest friends for trifling derelictions against the accustomed order of the house. The broom swept out the memory of much sweet counsel and loving-kindness, and spots on the table-cloth were more regarded than those they made on their own loyalty and honor in the most intimate relations.
"The worst of furies is a woman scorned," and the sex, so lively, mobile, impassioned, when passion is aroused at all, are in danger of frightful error, under great temptation. The angel can give place to a more subtle and treacherous demon, though one, generally, of less tantalizing influence, than in the breast of man. In great crises, Woman needs the highest reason to restrain her; but her besetting sin is that of littleness. Just because nature and society unite to call on her for such fineness and finish, she can be so petty, so fretful, so vain, envious and base! O, women, see your danger! See how much you need a great object in all your little actions. You cannot be fair, nor can your homes be fair, unless you are holy and noble. Will you sweep and garnish the house, only that it may be ready for a legion of evil spirits to enter in—for imps and demons of gossip, frivolity, detraction, and a restless fever about small ills? What is the house for, if good spirits cannot peacefully abide there? Lo! they are asking for the bill in more than one well-garnished mansion. They sought a home and found a work-house. Martha! it was thy fault!