We are all speculating about the changes to be brought about in this century from which we women hope so much, and a great many people are making practical experiments. Myself, I am of that tranquil nature which willingly follows the advice of Punch when he says: “Never practise what you preach, to do so is to hold up your opinions to obvious ridicule.”
I must confess to an altogether selfish concern for my own comfort. I dislike the home because it means that one has to live with people who are privileged to behave without politeness in each other’s company. Most of us share the feeling, I think, that we like to be the worst-behaved person present. This can only be achieved satisfactorily to all when one lives by oneself. My own experiments have mostly been in the attempt to modify the solitary life with an exactly pleasant proportion of social life. I was brought up in a large family until I was twenty-three, and I lived the orthodox married life for four years, so that I have given home and the family as much trial as seemed necessary.
As a hermit with mitigating friends and enemies, and the various societies I have helped to run, my life has been unusually full of varied interests. I have no regrets, because my failures have been some of my most valuable experiences, and my moments of bitterness have been the cause of my greatest contentment.
At the same time, one is horribly afraid that one might induce courage in some other person whose heart is too tender to get through trouble. One is rather apt to dread the grey life of a patient woman without any kind of artistic talent, who makes a muddle of her affairs because she religiously practises instead of preaching.
Some people say that example is better than precept; but in the case of social reform and the need of a real change in public opinion, my experience shows me that precept is no good at all, if one is suspected of inventing it to serve one’s own purposes of self-indulgence. I own I have indulged myself by leading a solitary life as described above, therefore I do not propose to try to destroy the home and family life. Those who are suffering from the home want to do away with it. With philosophic calm I can suggest improvements and ways of escape that would make it bearable, but would not destroy it. As a matter of fact the home is in a very poor way just at present. Public-houses, clubs, restaurants, the servant difficulty are all devastating it. Still, it does not do to say we are glad, so I register the fact with as long a face as I can pull, and trust my readers will recognize the sad truth in the same serious spirit.
But, to return to experiments, let us go back a little in time, and we find that all gay societies, such as that under Louis XIV and XV of France, The Empire and the Second Empire, practised every kind of experiment. Yet one looks upon Rousseau, Mary Wolstonecraft, Shelley, and Godwin as the real pioneers of experiment, because they made a kind of religion of their protests against convention. Of late years it has become the fashion to solemnly register a protest every time one omits to register one’s marriage.
It is partly my stupid objection to public indecency that makes me object to the advertisement of marriage, legal or illegal. One has to clean one’s teeth, some people have to marry, but for the life of me I cannot see the use of talking about either of these necessities. Surely the whole object of modern civilization is to conceal the fact that we are animals. It is true that we have begun to made a public art of eating, but although we permit ourselves to munch in public, we disguise the nature of our food, and we have sternly suppressed the more ancient freedoms of the dinner-table. We no longer think it polite to go about when we suffer from catarrh, and it is seldom that we encounter unpleasant expectorations, except in the immediate haunts of admittedly hooligan circles.
They say that nowadays it is possible to talk of any subject as long as one does so with sufficient delicacy and avoids the words of the gutter and the club smoking-room. Still, I admit that it is difficult to explain that just as we feel that every other necessary function of nature should be performed without attracting attention to it, so I feel that I would rather not be informed every time the bold experimenters in marriage see fit to take a partner.
When outspokenness is for the public good, when a “hushed-up disease’ becomes disastrous simply because it is “hushed up,” then there is some meaning in making a gospel and parade of the truth. But I really think it is time we accepted the convention that men and women seek each other’s society in order to exchange ideas.
Strangely enough it is often the case. A woman has only to talk and listen well, and she will find that the less she desires love the more friendliness she will receive from men. Saint Teresa of Spain was am excellent example of this. I suppose she had more warmly affectionate friendships with men, without a shadow of scandal, than any other woman. A perfectly frank woman will generally keep men as her friends, they will not dare to be her lovers unless she deliberately ceases to be frank.
Unfortunately experimenters have to be original in order to be successful. The people for whom I am sorry are those who are led into making experiments which are unnatural to them by the hypnotic power of seductive example.
Save us from our imitators is the cry of all great poets; and the only valuable advice one can give is, if you must experiment be careful that you lead the way and are not seduced by the example of anyone else. If by nature you must follow, it is a sign that you are a gregarious animal, and had better remain with the main body of the herd. The real experimenters are quite ready for solitude, and when they have found fair country and good pasture the rest of the herd will come over in a body with one accord. It is no use perishing with cold on the way to the Pole, unless you have the capacity to find it. Much better stop at home by the fireside.