The Modern Decadence, Its Causes and Significance
How Women Suffer and How They are Partly Responsible for the Change - Chivalry Impossible When They Become Rivals of Man - Concealing Emotion and the Accomplishment of "Wheedling"
From the London Saturday Review, March 1882
If modern manners fall short of perfection, their defects can hardly be due to a want of instruction. A host of etiquette books provide for the exigencies of decorum with the grotesque minuteness, and over and above these official sources of information there is a growing tendency among private persons to constitute themselves irresponsible judges of what is popularly known as "form."
However, the state of things suggests the uncomfortable reflection that an age which has produced such a multitude of counselors may have much to learn, and possibly general progress may have impaired our manners. The question is one which can hardly be answered offhand; for in manners as in religion, what is heterodox in one age maybe orthodox in its successor, and a true estimate of the manners in a given society requires a careful regard to the surrounding social conditions. The relations of the sexes supply us at once with the origin of manners and their chief field of exercise; and a glance at the past reveals some curious variations, from time to time fashionable, in the manners of men to women.
Women are wont to pride themselves, and with some justice, on their higher powers of reading character and concealing emotion, which together with the peculiarly feminine accomplishment of wheedling, they insist on claiming as original sexual superiorities. However, philosophy declares, with the most brutal candor, that these qualities owe their origin to the animal instinct of self-preservation, working under conditions which happily differ widely from those which at present prevail.
A woman's desire to fascinate must have received a considerable stimulus from the sense that safety of life and limb from the fury of a morose barbarian depended on the success of her efforts at ingratiation; and it is safe to conclude her powers of interpreting the moods of her savage mate or repressing exhibitions a feeling likely to give him offense or marvelously quickened by the reflection that her lord and master might resent any error in the one direction or indiscretion in the other by dashing her brains out, and not in probably eating her afterward. "When Adam delved and Eve span, where was then the gentleman?" fairly expresses a feeling which is common among ignorant opponents of social distinctions.
The traditional mother of mankind might have echoed this sentiment, but in a very different sense. It is conceivable that some of the amenities at a later civilization might have proved a welcome relief to the harshness of her ordinary life. We can imagine that Adam, after a days delving in the earth cursed for his sake, or a toilsome war of the extermination against thorns and thistles, may have required some little "managing" in the bosom of his family; and it is hard to suppose that the domestic harmony of this primitive circle can have been largely promoted by the presence of such a person as Cain. However, with the habits of these early times we have no further concern then to mark their contrast with those of the present day. We no longer habitually butcher our wives, nor dine off them, nor even subject them to that modica castigatio sanctioned by Roman law. On the contrary, the tables have been completely turned; woman has made good use of the weapons which her wants have fashioned; the arts which originated in self-defense are now employed for subjugation; from the cowering squaw of antiquity natural selection is involved in the lady of civilization "I fearfully efficient manner wheedling machine."
Theoretically, then, woman's claim to the courtesy and homage of a man is now admitted on all hands, but practical experience makes it difficult to resist the conclusion that the Silvius of the 19th century is not "all adoration, duty, and observance" in his attitude to the other sex. Without reviving in full detail the practices of the times when woman was "half wife, half chattel," we are careful to keep alive the relics of their actuating spirit. In a ballroom, for instance, we may be seen appropriating their fans to our exclusive enjoyment. We "give" them dances in our own lordly way, and if a mistake arises in respect of a dance so "given," we sometimes express our convictions with an engaging frankness which savors less of the retort courteous then the lie direct. We leave their invitations answered or unanswered at our own sweet will (probably as a token of suzerainty.) and we repay our hostess's efforts to entertain us by the graceful tribute of looking bored.
Mr. Trollope has recorded a protest against the men and the manners the can endure to discuss ladies openly by their Christian names; but the practice enjoys the strong growth of all ill weeds and thrives apace. Feminine views on the subject of tobacco have of the late years been so far modified as to partially vitiate any comparison with the past; but it would be instructive to know how many yet adhere to the graceful custom of removing the cigar from the lips on meeting a lady. The easy grace of courtesy is too often replaced by a slangy familiarity not seldom tinged with a strain of indelicacy, and in all ways there is probably less inward respect and certainly less outward deference to women than an older ideal of manners demanded.
It is sometimes urged that, whatever be the defects of modern manners, they contrast most favorably with those which prevailed in the "good old times "so often eulogized and so seldom understood. But here, again, we must take into account the different social conditions of a century ago. Modern taste may sicken at a grossness of speech and action which even the presence of woman was not always effectual to restrain, but it must not be forgotten that these belong to an age when the culture of the average man was practically nil, and that of the average woman culminated in deportment and sampler work. Coarseness that would now be resented as an insult formerly passed as the merest badinage, and, without defending dueling, it may be doubted whether intentional slights, especially to women, were not rare in the days when the ethics of courtesy had their sanction in the sword.
Women, no doubt, are the principal victims of this degeneracy of manners, but at the same time they are partly responsible for its existence. The same progressive influences which of acted so powerfully on men have had their effect on the opposite sex also. Woman has at last awakened from the torpor of ages, and is fain to be up and doing such share of the common work of humanity as falls to her hand. The gain to the community from this accession to its working power is immense; but the wholesome impulse which prompts it is mischievously perverted in the present tendency of women to identify their activities of mind and body with those of men. That there is much common ground where man and woman may profitably work hand-in-hand is daily becoming more manifest; but it is equally plain that there are distinct social functions peculiarly appropriate to the special energies of either sex, which at best can be only imperfectly discharged by the other.
So long, therefore, as the activities of womankind do not encroach on the domain of peculiarly masculine occupations, the work of the community is relatively well done, and the social equilibrium remains unshaken. But the moment this line is passed, not only does the sum total of work suffer, man being constrained to regard woman less as a coadjutor and more as a rival, there ensues a disturbance of social relations in which the delicate graces of life are apt to go to the wall. That chivalry or deference to woman should flourish in such an atmosphere is out of the question; for though these are not, as the noisy advocates of her so-called rights would have it, mere concessions accorded in good-natured contempt to her supposed inferiority, they are the outward and visible signs of an inward, and we may almost Sais be ritual, feeling of tender reverence for the beauty of her womanhood-a feeling which becomes meaningless and impossible if men and women are held to be in all respects alike.
But though the responsibility for this social disorder must be shared by both sexes, its remedy lies almost wholly in the hand of woman. Where the instincts are faulty, direct appeals to the reason are not of much of avail. To exhort a man not to be a snob is as idle as to recommend a change of skin to the Ethiop. But beyond the power which belongs to a woman as queen of society of excluding her by simple veto contaminating influences from the circles over which she reigns, she also enjoys, in virtue of her womanliness, the rare gift of insensibly refining by her presence the coarseness with which she may be brought in contact.
Austin Dobson was an English essayist and poet.
Mr. Austin Dobson has described one whose
"Purity doth hedge her
Round with such delicate divinity, that men
Strained to the soul with money-bag and ledger
Bend to the goddess manifest again."
Beyond all doubt there are many such, and it is to them that we must look for the regenerating impulse which modern manners demand. The value of their womanly qualities to society should make us regard with jealousy all influences tending to their distraction. Their total disappearance would be a calamity with which we hope and believe we may never be visited; but, should time give the lie to our predictions and the evil days come upon us when, by the decay of these qualities, society shall have lost its best bulwark against an influx of corrupting elements, the world may gird upon its loins and prepare to enter upon a new phase of social development, for the age of chivalry will indeed have departed.London Saturday Review, March 1882
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