Ill-Assorted Marriages by James Runciman

Story type: Essay

The people who joke and talk lightly about marriage do not seem to have the faintest rational conception of the awful nature of the subject. Awful it is; and, as serious men go through life, they become more and more impressed with the momentous results which depend on the choice made by a man or woman. A lad of nineteen lightly engages himself; he knows nothing of the gloom, the terror, the sordid horror of the fate that lies before him; and the unhappy girl is equally ignorant. In fourteen years the actual substance of that young fellow’s very body is twice completely changed; he is a man utterly different from the boy who contracted the marriage; there is not a muscle or a thought in common between the boy and the man–yet the man takes all the consequences of the boy’s act. Supposing that the pair are well matched, life goes on happily enough for them; but, alas, if the man or the woman has to wake up and face the ghastly results of a mistake, then there is a tragedy of the direst order! Let us suppose that the lad is cultured and ambitious, and that he is attracted at first by a rosy face or pretty figure only; supposing that he is thus early bound to a vulgar commonplace woman, the consequences when the woman happens to have a powerful will and an unscrupulous tongue are almost too dreadful to be pictured in words.

Let no young folk fancy that mind counts for nothing in marriage. A man must have congenial company, or he will fly to company that is uncongenial; he must have joy of some kind, or he will fall into despair. The company and the joy can best be supplied by the wife to the husband, and by the husband to the wife. If the woman is dull and trivial, then her husband soon begins to neglect her; if she is meek and submissive, the neglect does not rouse her, and there are no violent consequences; but it is awful to think of the poor creature who sits at home and dimly wonders in the depth of her simple soul what can have happened to change the man who loved her. She has no resources–she can only love; she is perhaps kindly enough–yet she is punished only because she and her lad made a blundering choice before their judgments were formed. But, if the woman is spirited and aggressive, then the lookers-on see part of a hideous game which might well frighten the bravest into celibacy. She is self-assertive, she desires–very rightly–to be first, and at the first symptom of a slight from her husband she begins the process of nagging. The man is refined, and the coarseness which he did not perceive before marriage strikes him like a venomed point now; he replies fiercely, and perhaps shows contempt; then the woman tries the effect of weeping. Unhappily the tears are more exasperating than the scolding, and the quarrel ends by the man rushing from the house. Then for the first time the pair find that they have to deal with the whole forces of society; in their rage they would gladly part and meet no more–or they think so–but inexorable society steps in and declares that the alliance is fixed until death or rascality looses it. For a little while the estrangement lasts, and then there is a reconciliation, after which all goes well for a time. But the shocking thing about the ill-assorted marriage is that the estrangements grow longer and longer and the quarrels ever more bitter. Even children do but little to reconcile the jarring claims of man and wife, for they are a sign of the lasting shackle which each of the miserable beings wants to break.

Worst of all in the whole terrible affair is the fact that it matters not who gets the mastery–both are made more wretched. If the man has an indomitable will and conquers the woman, he becomes a morose and sarcastic tyrant, who makes her tremble at his scowl, while she becomes a beaten drudge who makes up for long spells of submission by shrill outbursts of casual defiance. If the woman gains the mastery, I honestly believe that the cause of strict morality is better served; but the sight of the man’s gradual degradation is so sickening that most people prefer keeping out of the house where a henpecked individual lives. As time goes by, it matters not which wins in the odious contest: both undergo a subtle loss of self-respect. In an ordinary quarrel between men reason may possibly come in to some degree; but in a quarrel between man and wife reason is utterly excluded. The man becomes feminine, the woman grows masculine, and the effect of this change of nature is disgusting and ludicrous to an outsider, but serious in the extreme to the parties principally concerned. By degrees indifference and rage give way to sullen, secret hatred, which finds a vent usually in poisonous sarcasm.

Matters are not much better when the superiority is on the woman’s side. It is delightful to see a husband who is proud of his wife’s cleverness, and good-natured men are pleased by his innocent boasting. The most pleasant of households may be found in cases where a clever, good-humoured, dexterous woman rules over a sweet-tempered but somewhat stupid man. She respects his manhood, he adores her as a superior being, and they live a life of pure happiness. But, sad to say, the husband is not usually good-humouredly willing to acknowledge his partner’s superiority, and in that case the girl’s doom is a cruel one. She may marry a gross, stupid lout, who begins by yawning away his time in leisure hours, and ends by going out to meet companions of his own sort. By and by comes the time when the ruffian grows aggressive, and then the proud girl has to bear brutalities which rack her very soul. Steadily the work of degradation goes on, and at last the brutal man becomes a capricious bully, while the refined lady sinks into a careless draggletail.

I have traversed many lands and seen men and cities, and know that the cruel work which I have described goes on in too many quarters. The ill-assorted marriage is made more wretched by the occasional glimpses which the man and woman get of happy homes. The loveliest sight that can be watched on earth is the daily life of a well-matched couple. They need not be even in intellect, but each must have some quality which gives superiority; such people, even if they have to struggle hard, lead a life which is almost ideally happy. The great thing which gives happiness is mutual confidence, and, when we see man and wife exhibiting quiet and mutually respectful familiarity, we may be fairly certain that they are to be looked on as most fortunate in the world. By an exquisite natural law it happens that mentally a woman is the exact complement of the man who is her proper mate, and her intellect has qualities far finer and more subtle than the man’s. Among hard City men it is a common saying that no one would ever make a bad debt if he took his customer home to dinner first. That means that the wife would instantly measure the guest’s character with that lightning-footed tact which women possess. No man ever yet was completely successful in life unless he took women’s counsel in great affairs; and, when a man has a wife with whom he can consult, his chance is bettered a thousandfold.

To see a household where love and unity reign drives ill-matched folk to madness. The man declares that his friend’s wife makes the felicity; the woman praises the other husband; and the unhappy souls grow jealous together, and hate each other more cordially by reason of the joy which they have seen. All sorts of evil ends come to these wretched unions–in every workhouse, asylum, and prison the traces of the social catastrophe may be seen; and, even when the misery is hidden from general view, the tragedy is shocking to those who can peep behind the scenes and look at the bad play. A very wise man has said that “success is a constitutional trait.” The phrase is a profound one. A man who is born with “constitutional” power of choosing the right mate is all but assured of success, and a woman has the same fortune; but, in addition to the power of choosing, both man and woman need training; and we cannot call a civilised being properly trained unless he has some idea of the way to set about his choice.

The cases in which idleness, or pique, or dulness drives a man or woman to take alcohol are numerous and loathsome. Women who start married life as bright, merry, hopeful creatures become mere degraded animals; and the odd thing about the matter is that the husband is always the last to see the turn that his affairs are taking. A woman’s name may be in the mouths of scores of people before the party most concerned wakes up to a sense of his position and is faced by a picture of helpless and lost womanhood. If the man falls into the alcoholic death-trap, we have once more a spectacle of dull misery which may be indicated but which cannot be accurately described. The victim grows hateful–his symptoms have been scientifically described by one of the finest of modern physiologists–he is uncertain in mind, and vengeful and revengeful. His wife is obliged to live with him, under his rule and power, but she finds it hopeless to meet his wishes, desires, fancies, and fantasies, however much she may study and do her best to oblige, conciliate, and concede. To persons of this class everything must be conceded, and yet they are neither pacified nor satisfied; they cannot agree even with themselves, and their homes are, literally speaking, hells on earth.

Then we have the cases wherein a poetic and artistic spirit is allied to a gross and worldly soul of the lowest type. One of the most brilliant artists and poets of his generation was informed by his wife that she did not care for art and poetry and that sort of stuff. “It’s all high-falutin’ nonsense,” remarked this gifted and confident dame; and the shock of surprise which thrilled her husband will be transmitted to generations of readers. Hitherto we have dwelt upon mere brutalities; but those who know the world best know that the most acute forms of agony may be inflicted without any outward show of brutality being visible. A generous high-souled girl with a passion for truth and justice is often tied to a fellow whose “company” manners are polished, but who is at heart a cruel boor. He can stab her with a sneer which only she can understand; he can delicately hint to her that she is in subjection, and he can assume an air of cool triumph as he watches her writhe. I have often observed passages of domestic drama which looked very like comedy at first sight, but which were really quivering, torturing tragedy.

It is strange that the jars of married life have been so constantly made the subject for joking. The attitude of the ordinary witling is well known; but even great men have made fun out of a subject which is the most momentous of all that can engage the attention of the children of men. In running through Thackeray’s works lately I was struck by the flippancy with which some of the most heartbreaking stories in literature are treated. Thackeray was one of the sweetest and tenderest beings that ever lived, and no doubt his jocularity was assumed; but minor men take him seriously, and imitate him. Look at the stories of Frank Berry, of Rawdon Crawley, of Clive and Rosie Newcome, and of General Baynes–they are sad indeed, but the tragic element in them is only shadowed forth by the great master. There is nothing droll in the history of mistaken marriages. At the very best each error leads to the ruin or deterioration of one soul, and that is no laughing matter.

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