Woman in the Nineteenth Century

by Margaret Fuller

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Review of "Memoirs and Essays of Mrs. Jameson"

Mrs. Jameson appears to be growing more and more desperately modest, if we may judge from the motto:

  "What if the little rain should say,
     'So small a drop as I
   Can ne'er refresh the thirsty plain,—
     I'll tarry in the sky'"

and other superstitious doubts and disclaimers proffered in the course of the volume. We thought the time had gone by when it was necessary to plead "request of friends" for printing, and that it was understood now-a-days that, from the facility of getting thoughts into print, literature has become not merely an archive for the preservation of great thoughts, but a means of general communication between all classes of minds, and all grades of culture.

If writers write much that is good, and write it well, they are read much and long; if the reverse, people simply pass them by, and go in search of what is more interesting. There needs be no great fuss about publishing or not publishing. Those who forbear may rather be considered the vain ones, who wish to be distinguished among the crowd. Especially this extreme modesty looks superfluous in a person who knows her thoughts have been received with interest for ten or twelve years back. We do not like this from Mrs. Jameson, because we think she would be amazed if others spoke of her as this little humble flower, doubtful whether it ought to raise its head to the light. She should leave such affectations to her aunts; they were the fashion in their day.

It is very true, however, that she should not have published the very first paragraph in her book, which presents an inaccuracy and shallowness of thought quite amazing in a person of her fine perceptions, talent and culture. We allude to the contrast she attempts to establish between Raphael and Titian, in placing mind in contradistinction to beauty, as if beauty were merely physical. Of course she means no such thing; but the passage means this or nothing, and, as an opening to a paper on art, is indeed reprehensible and fallacious.

The rest of this paper, called the House of Titian, is full of pleasant chat, though some of the judgments—that passed on Canaletti's pictures, for instance—are opposed to those of persons of the purest taste; and in other respects, such as in speaking of the railroad to Venice, Mrs. Jameson is much less wise than those over whom she assumes superiority. The railroad will destroy Venice; the two things cannot coëxist; and those who do not look upon that wondrous dream in this age, will, probably, find only vestiges of its existence.

The picture of Adelaide Kemble is very pretty, though there is an attempt of a sort too common with Mrs. Jameson to make more of the subject than it deserves. Adelaide Kemble was not the true artist, or she could not so soon or so lightly have stept into another sphere. It is enough to paint her as a lovely woman, and a woman-genius. The true artist cannot forswear his vocation; Heaven does not permit it; the attempt makes him too unhappy, nor will he form ties with those who can consent to such sacrilege. Adelaide Kemble loved art, but was not truly an artist.

The "Xanthian Marbles," and "Washington Allston," are very pleasing papers. The most interesting part, however, are the sentences copied from Mr. Allston. These have his chaste, superior tone. We copy some of them.

"What light is in the natural world, such is fame in the intellectual,—both requiring an atmosphere in order to become perceptible. Hence the fame of Michel Angelo is to some minds a nonentity; even as the Sun itself would be invisible in vacuo"

(A very pregnant statement, containing the true reason why "no man is a hero to his valet de chambre.")

"Fame does not depend on the will of any man; but reputation may be given and taken away; for fame is the sympathy of kindred intellects, and sympathy is not a subject of willing; while reputation, having its source in the popular voice, is a sentence which may be altered or suppressed at pleasure. Reputation, being essentially contemporaneous, is always at the mercy of the envious and ignorant. But Fame, whose very birth is posthumous, and which is only known to exist by the echoes of its footsteps through congenial minds, can neither be increased nor diminished by any degree of wilfulness."

"An original mind is rarely understood until it has been reflected from some half-dozen congenial with it; so averse are men to admitting the true in an unusual form; while any novelty, however fantastic, however false, is greedily swallowed. Nor is this to be wondered at, for all truth demands a response, and few people care to think, yet they must have something to supply the place of thought. Every mind would appear original if every man had the power of projecting his own into the minds of others."

"All effort at originality must end either in the quaint or monstrous; for no man knows himself as on original; he can only believe it on the report of others to whom he is made known, as he is by the projecting power before spoken of."

"There is an essential meanness in wishing to get the better of any one. The only competition worthy of a wise man is with himself."

"Reverence is an ennobling sentiment; it is felt to be degrading only by the vulgar mind, which would escape the sense of its own littleness by elevating itself into the antagonist of what is above it."

"He that has no pleasure in looking up is not fit to look down; of such minds are the mannerists in art, and in the world—the tyrants of all sorts."

"Make no man your idol; for the best man must have faults, and his faults will naturally become yours, in addition to your own. This is as true in art as in morals."

"The Devil's heartiest laugh is at a detracting witticism. Hence the phrase 'devilish good' has sometimes a literal meaning."

"Woman's Mission and Woman's Position" is an excellent paper, in which plain truths ere spoken with an honorable straight-forwardness, and a great deal of good feeling. We despise the woman who, knowing such facts, is afraid to speak of them; yet we honor one, too, who does the plain right thing, for she exposes herself to the assaults of vulgarity, in a way painful to a person who has not strength to find shelter and repose in her motives. We recommend this paper to the consideration of all those, the unthinking, wilfully unseeing million, who are in the habit of talking of "Woman's sphere," as if it really were, at present, for the majority, one of protection, and the gentle offices of home. The rhetorical gentlemen and silken dames, who, quite forgetting their washerwomen, their seamstresses, and the poor hirelings for the sensual pleasures of Man, that jostle them daily in the streets, talk as if women need be fitted for no other chance than that of growing like cherished flowers in the garden of domestic love, are requested to look at this paper, in which the state of women, both in the manufacturing and agricultural districts of England, is exposed with eloquence, and just inferences drawn.

"This, then, is what I mean when I speak of the anomalous condition of women in these days. I would point out, as a primary source of incalculable mischief, the contradiction between her assumed and her real position; between what is called her proper sphere by the laws of God and Nature, and what has become her real sphere by the laws of necessity, and through the complex relations of artificial existence. In the strong language of Carlyle, I would say that 'Here is a lie standing up in the midst of society.' I would say 'Down with it, even to the ground;' for while this perplexing and barbarous anomaly exists, fretting like an ulcer at the very heart of society, all new specifics and palliatives are in vain. The question must be settled one way or another; either let the man in all the relations of life be held the natural guardian of the woman, constrained to fulfil that trust, responsible in society for her well-being and her maintenance; or, if she be liable to be thrust from the sanctuary of home, to provide for herself through the exercise of such faculties as God has given her, let her at least have fair play; let it not be avowed, in the same breath that protection is necessary to her, and that it is refused her; and while we send her forth into the desert, and bind the burthen on her back, and put the staff in her hand, let not her steps be beset, her limbs fettered, and her eyes blindfolded." Amen.

The sixth and last of these papers, on the relative social position of "mothers and governesses," exhibits in true and full colors a state of things in England, beside which the custom in some parts of China of drowning female infants looks mild, generous, and refined;—an accursed state of things, beneath whose influence nothing can, and nothing ought to thrive. Though this paper, of which we have not patience to speak further at this moment, is valuable from putting the facts into due relief, it is very inferior to the other, and shows the want of thoroughness and depth in Mrs. Jameson's intellect. She has taste, feeling and knowledge, but she cannot think out a subject thoroughly, and is unconsciously tainted and hampered by conventionalities. Her advice to the governesses reads like a piece of irony, but we believe it was not meant as such. Advise them to be burnt at the stake at once, rather than submit to this slow process of petrifaction. She is as bad as the Reports of the "Society for the relief of distressed and dilapidated Governesses." We have no more patience. We must go to England ourselves, and see these victims under the water torture. Till then, à Dieu!

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