A TRANSCENDENTAL VIEW OF WOMAN.
MRS. J. R. GREEN, who professes to write in the Nineteenth Century for June on " Woman's Place in Literature," says exceedingly little on that subject. She devotes herself almost entirely to painting woman as a mystery to which we have not as yet even any approach to a key. " Even in her litcrary venture," she says, " woman remains essentially mysterious. It is as though some inherent diffidence, some over-mastering self-distrust, had made her fear to venture out into the open unprotected and bare to attack. She covers her advance with a whole complicated maLirery of arrow-proof hides and wooden shelters. Or she seeks safety in what is known in Nature as protective mimicry,—one recalls the touching forms of beautiful creatures
that, dwelling in the arid desert, have shrouded themselves in the dull hue of the soil, or in arctic cold have taken on a snowy whiteness ; of live breathing things that have made themselves after the likeness of a dead twig, and harmless beings who in their alarm have donned the gay air of predatory insects and poisonous reptiles. Over wide seas, where it is hard to say if she fears man .or Nature most, woman sails under any colour but her own,—as though in perilous days a racing yacht hoisted the black flag of the pirate to be in fashion with the wild world."
But, if this he true, as Mrs. Green shows, it makes the study of woman extremely difficult. You have too often to study a skilful disguise instead of woman's real nature. On the surface she appears to be giving us happy variations on what man's genius has achieved already, while in her real nature she is altogether different from man. Deep in woman's nature is a " mysterious unconsciousness " which is not only beyond the range of man's ordinary nature, but almost in • internecine conflict with it. " That elemental power which inspires the whole of unconscious Being reaches in her its highest expression, welling up from hidden springs of Nature. Whether feeling surges up to flood and submerge her con- sciousness, or sinks back into fathomless recesses, leaving the sensible shore bare and desolate, it transcends the bounds of direct observation or just expression. Hidden from herself, as it were, in the unsounded deeps of Life, she mast ever be helpless to justify experiences as imperative as they are obscure, or to find in mere language, which in every age of the world still lags behind thought and perception, terms to express the subtle intima- tions that visit her. Hence her strange inarticulateness, as of primitive peoples painfully forging speech to serve the violent needs of the Life that possesses them. Conscious expression becomes a sort of agony :-
' With stammering lips and insufficient sound I strive and struggle to deliver right
The music of my nature. . . . .
But if I did it, as the thunder-roll
Breaks it:, own cloud, my flesh would perish there
Before that dread apocalypse of soul.'"
And again Mrs. Green strives to explain "that dread apocalypse of soul," of which she thinks woman is the chief • oracle, in the following dark words :—" Life mocks her with the awful panorama. of emotion continually swept before the .power of common realities of the world, like shifting sand driven before the storm,—nothing stable that is not compre-
hended. Nowhere is the bewildering civil strife of Nature, the battle that is with confused noise and garments rolled in blood, stranger or less intelligible than in the devastated field of woman's experience." The word "devastated," like a good many other words of Mrs. Green's study of woman, is never explained. For some reason Mrs. Green thinks that the field of woman's experience has been much more devastated than that of man's, but she does not tell us why or how. She tells us that for woman " the world has practically no past,—it begins here and now where she stands. It is, indeed, astonishing to survey all that she has tacitly rejected in making her selection out of the world's material, as one might fastidiously pick a rosy apple from a decaying heap ; nor can we feel that the problem is met by easy explanations and commonplaces of want of opportunity or want of capacity. As we watch this strange indifference, at times indeed these spasms of hostility, to the Past and to all Law that the Past has revealed, are there not moments when we again seem to touch those profound instincts whose roots go down into the deep of unconscious Being ?
What if these things should be but signs that woman is herself no better than a stranger in the visible established order of this world, —a strayed wanderer
from some different sphere,—a witness, a herald it may be, of another system lying on the ultimate marge and confines of Space and Time." We have not ourselves the slightest conception how any system can lie on " the ultimate marge and confines of Space and Time," or if that were possible, how such a borderland would differ essentially from the inner- most regions of Space and Time; but what we suppose Mrs. Green to be aiming at is to impress upon us that woman it an alien here, and is filled with longings and hopes that are far deeper and more passionate than those of man. Indeed she speaks of woman as "inspired by a ceaseless passion,— unconscious, inarticulate, blind, with no warrant of triumph," and she declares that woman "appears as the astonishing and miraculous manifestation of a new Force that has never reigned here as Law, the Force of redeeming Love." We are further told that she is "an Anarchist of the deepest dye," and that "a certain license runs through all her work." Yet none the less, Woman is in much closer communication than Man with "the Divine passion" that "casts down the formal barriers that hedge in duty and part Law from Love." Mrs. Green assures us that of this divine passion Shakespeare's Desdemona will ever stand as the "tragic prophetess," and in proof of this she quotes Desdemona's dying denial that she had been murdered and assertion that she had killed herself, with the final message, " Commend me to my kind lord," as evidence that there had been no anger between them. This the essayist regards as the proof of Desdemona's "great emancipation" from "the barriers that hedge in duty and part Law from Love." But if it be so, what does that prove except that Shakespeare, who created Desdemona, re- garded the highest love of woman as always ready to ignore those barriers and to violate Law at the promptings of Love P But did Shakespeare approve that readiness, or did he regard it as an evidence of the shortcomings of woman's nature ? Who can say? He certainly did not consider Lady Macbeth's willingness to dare any crime, however ghastly, for the gratification of her husband's ambition, as a signal that she had the same "Divine passion " in her. And it is simply impossible to solve the problem whether he regarded Desdemona as representing woman's superiority to man, or rather as representing the limi- tation and infirmity which even the noblest women encourage in themselves, in their profound idolatry for those to whom they have given their hearts. Our own impression is that Shakespeare himself never knew, or perhaps tried to know, whether he held the feminine or masculine standard of duty and love to be the better representation of the " Divine passion." He painted the two standards as he discerned them, in the noblest men and noblest women he knew, but probably never passed judgment on their relative merits. At all events, no one can say that he held with Mrs. Green that woman at her best is the " tragic prophetess " of the " emancipation " of the truest love from the fetters of duty and law. From what we see of his Lady Macbeth, we should conjecture that he held that " emancipation " to be the consequence of the infirmity rather than of the triumphant excellence of woman's nature ; but in any case, Desdemona's nature is the creation of Shakespeare, not of God, and we see no reason at all to think that Shakespeare regarded her as the "tragic prophetess" of any great spiritual "emancipation" which it was woman's mission to reveal to man. Indeed, all this dithyrambic ecstasy over the great gulf placed between woman and the laws of our world as we know it, seems to us far from an accurate representation either of the facts of human life, or of Shakespeare's view of those facts.
Mrs. Green sees clearly bow eagerly women (like men) often busy themselves with the external details of human vanity and pettiness ; and she contrives for them the excuse that this is only a "protective mimicry" to hide from the world the depth of their own emotions and the divine passion that abhors the barriers between Law and Love. But is there the least trace of the truth of this explanation in either Miss Burney's or Miss Austen's or Mrs. Gaskell's or George Eliot's humour ? Is it not evident that none of them were half as much at home with the "tragic prophetesses " of divine passion as they were with the harmless vanities and vulgar pretensions of our social life P Mrs. Green can undP..stand very little of Miss Austen if she thinks that that delicate humourist was hiding a " divine passion " for superseding Law by Love under the "protective mimicry" of the mockery dis- played in such figures as Mr. Woodhouse or Miss Bates or Mr. and Mrs. Elton. And even in the case of George Eliot we venture to say that her hearty enjoyment of Mrs. Pullet's pride in the number of her medicine - bottles, or of Mr. Brooke's amazement when he found himself face to face with a caricature of his own helplessness as a public orator, was infinitely greater than her satisfaction in the picture of Dorothea's ardent womanliness or of Dinah Morris's earnest attempt to convert Hetty Sorrel to a nobler and more disinterested frame of mind. As a matter of fact, we believe that there are more spiritual enthusiasts among men than among women, and that when women do become spiritual enthusiasts, it is quite as often due to one of the forms of "protective mimicry" as it is when they delight us with their subtle and delicate raillery on the whims of valetudi- narian age or of aristocratic impertinence. Men and women are endowed very much alike both in their stronger and in their weaker qualities, only that men are a little ruder and women a little weaker. As for women being the special oracles of " unconscious Being," we believe about as much of that as we do of men being the special oracles of conscious Being. To tell the truth, we do not know how any of us are to judge what "unconscious Being" urges us to be,—un- consciousness not being very easy for conscious creatures to interpret. Mrs. Green reminds us a good deal in some of her sentences of " the mother of the modern Gracchi," who was so great a puzzle to Martin Chuzzlewit. At times she surpasses both Mrs. Hominy and Miss Codger in the grandiloquence of what seems to us her deep no-meaning." But if she means, as we suppose she does, that woman is the true evangelist of the gospel of love, we think not only that she might have explained that meaning very much more lucidly, but that there is great reason to believe that woman has after all accepted that gospel from man, and that Mrs. Green has not improved upon it in her own version. Like Miss Codger, she gasps Herself and makes us gasp, and in her effort to lift woman to the skies, she lets her drop among the rubbish-heaps which she proclaims it to be man's great function to clear away. That is not a very great function, but if he discharges it effectually, no small proportion of this amazing panegyric will be cleared away with them.