Story type: Essay
Women endowed by nature with the indescribable quality we call “charm” (for want of a better word), are the supreme development of a perfected race, the last word, as it were, of civilization; the flower of their kind, crowning centuries of growing refinement and cultivation. Other women may unite a thousand brilliant qualities, and attractive attributes, may be beautiful as Astarte or witty as Madame de Montespan, those endowed with the power of charm, have in all ages and under every sky, held undisputed rule over the hearts of their generation.
When we look at the portraits of the enchantresses whom history tells us have ruled the world by their charm, and swayed the destinies of empires at their fancy, we are astonished to find that they have rarely been beautiful. From Cleopatra or Mary of Scotland down to Lola Montez, the tell-tale coin or canvas reveals the same marvellous fact. We wonder how these women attained such influence over the men of their day, their husbands or lovers. We would do better to look around us, or inward, and observe what is passing in our own hearts.
Pause, reader mine, a moment and reflect. Who has held the first place in your thoughts, filled your soul, and influenced your life? Was she the most beautiful of your acquaintances, the radiant vision that dazzled your boyish eyes? Has she not rather been some gentle, quiet woman whom you hardly noticed the first time your paths crossed, but who gradually grew to be a part of your life–to whom you instinctively turned for consolation in moments of discouragement, for counsel in your difficulties, and whose welcome was the bright moment in your day, looked forward to through long hours of toil and worry?
In the hurly-burly of life we lose sight of so many things our fathers and mothers clung to, and have drifted so far away from their gentle customs and simple, home-loving habits, that one wonders what impression our society would make on a woman of a century ago, could she by some spell be dropped into the swing of modern days. The good soul would be apt to find it rather a far cry from the quiet pleasures of her youth, to “a ladies’ amateur bicycle race” that formed the attraction recently at a summer resort.
That we should have come to think it natural and proper for a young wife and mother to pass her mornings at golf, lunching at the club-house to “save time,” returning home only for a hurried change of toilet to start again on a bicycle or for a round of calls, an occupation that will leave her just the half-hour necessary to slip into a dinner gown, and then for her to pass the evening in dancing or at the card-table, shows, when one takes the time to think of it, how unconsciously we have changed, and (with all apologies to the gay hostesses and graceful athletes of to-day) not for the better.
It is just in the subtle quality of charm that the women of the last ten years have fallen away from their elder sisters. They have been carried along by a love of sport, and by the set of fashion’s tide, not stopping to ask themselves whither they are floating. They do not realize all the importance of their acts nor the true meaning of their metamorphosis.
The dear creatures should be content, for they have at last escaped from the bondage of ages, have broken their chains, and vaulted over their prison walls. “Lords and masters” have gradually become very humble and obedient servants, and the “love, honour, and obey” of the marriage service might now more logically be spoken by the man; on the lips of the women of to-day it is but a graceful “facon de parler,” and holds only those who choose to be bound.
It is not my intention to rail against the short-comings of the day. That ungrateful task I leave to sterner moralists, and hopeful souls who naively imagine they can stem the current of an epoch with the barrier of their eloquence, or sweep back an ocean of innovations by their logic. I should like, however, to ask my sisters one question: Are they quite sure that women gain by these changes? Do they imagine, these “sporty” young females in short-cut skirts and mannish shirts and ties, that it is seductive to a lover, or a husband to see his idol in a violent perspiration, her draggled hair blowing across a sunburned face, panting up a long hill in front of him on a bicycle, frantic at having lost her race? Shade of gentle William! who said
A woman moved, is like a fountain troubled,–
Muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty.
And while it is so, none so dry or thirsty
Will deign to sip or touch one drop of it.
Is the modern girl under the impression that men will be contented with poor imitations of themselves, to share their homes and be the mothers of their children? She is throwing away the substance for the shadow!
The moment women step out from the sanctuary of their homes, the glamour that girlhood or maternity has thrown around them cast aside, that moment will they cease to rule mankind. Women may agitate until they have obtained political recognition, but will awake from their foolish dream of power, realizing too late what they have sacrificed to obtain it, that the price has been very heavy, and the fruit of their struggles bitter on their lips.
There are few men, I imagine, of my generation to whom the words “home” and “mother” have not a penetrating charm, who do not look back with softened heart and tender thoughts to fireside scenes of evening readings and twilight talks at a mother’s knee, realizing that the best in their natures owes its growth to these influences.
I sometimes look about me and wonder what the word “mother” will mean later, to modern little boys. It will evoke, I fear, a confused remembrance of some centaur-like being, half woman, half wheel, or as it did to neglected little Rawdon Crawley, the vision of a radiant creature in gauze and jewels, driving away to endless fetes—fetes followed by long mornings, when he was told not to make any noise, or play too loudly, “as poor mamma is resting.” What other memories can the “successful” woman of to-day hope to leave in the minds of her children? If the child remembers his mother in this way, will not the man who has known and perhaps loved her, feel the same sensation of empty futility when her name is mentioned?
The woman who proposes a game of cards to a youth who comes to pass an hour in her society, can hardly expect him to carry away a particularly tender memory of her as he leaves the house. The girl who has rowed, ridden, or raced at a man’s side for days, with the object of getting the better of him at some sport or pastime, cannot reasonably hope to be connected in his thoughts with ideas more tender or more elevated than “odds” or “handicaps,” with an undercurrent of pique if his unsexed companion has “downed” him successfully.
What man, unless he be singularly dissolute or unfortunate, but turns his steps, when he can, towards some dainty parlor where he is sure of finding a smiling, soft-voiced woman, whose welcome he knows will soothe his irritated nerves and restore the even balance of his temper, whose charm will work its subtle way into his troubled spirit? The wife he loves, or the friend he admires and respects, will do more for him in one such quiet hour when two minds commune, coming closer to the real man, and moving him to braver efforts, and nobler aims, than all the beauties and “sporty” acquaintances of a lifetime. No matter what a man’s education or taste is, none are insensible to such an atmosphere or to the grace and witchery a woman can lend to the simplest surroundings. She need not be beautiful or brilliant to hold him in lifelong allegiance, if she but possess this magnetism.
Madame Recamier was a beautiful, but not a brilliant woman, yet she held men her slaves for years. To know her was to fall under her charm, and to feel it once was to remain her adorer for life. She will go down to history as the type of a fascinating woman. Being asked once by an acquaintance what spell she worked on mankind that enabled her to hold them for ever at her feet, she laughingly answered:
“I have always found two words sufficient. When a visitor comes into my salon, I say, ‘Enfin!’ and when he gets up to go away, I say, ‘Deja!’”
“What is this wonderful ‘charm’ he is writing about?” I hear some sprightly maiden inquire as she reads these lines. My dear young lady, if you ask the question, you have judged yourself and been found wanting. But to satisfy you as far as I can, I will try and define it–not by telling you what it is; that is beyond my power–but by negatives, the only way in which subtle subjects can be approached.
A woman of charm is never flustered and never distraite. She talks little, and rarely of herself, remembering that bores are persons who insist on talking about themselves. She does not break the thread of a conversation by irrelevant questions or confabulate in an undertone with the servants. No one of her guests receives more of her attention than another and none are neglected. She offers to each one who speaks the homage of her entire attention. She never makes an effort to be brilliant or entertain with her wit. She is far too clever for that. Neither does she volunteer information nor converse about her troubles or her ailments, nor wander off into details about people you do not know.
She is all things–to each man she likes, in the best sense of that phrase, appreciating his qualities, stimulating him to better things.
–for his gayer hours
She has a voice of gladness and a smile and eloquence of beauty;
and she glides
Into his darker musings with a mild and healing sympathy that steals away
Their sharpness ere he is aware.