One Of Our “Two Puzzles” by Charles Lever

Story type: Essay

The two puzzles of our era are, how to employ our women, and what to do with our convicts; and how little soever gallant it may seem to place them in collocation, there is a bond that unites the attempt to keep the good in virtue with the desire to reform the bad from vice, which will save me from any imputation of deficient delicacy.

Let us begin with the Women. An enormous amount of ingenuity has been expended in devising occupations where female labour might be advantageously employed, and where the more patient industry and more delicate handiwork of women might replace the coarser mechanism of men. Printing, bookbinding, cigar-making, and the working of the telegraph, have been freely opened–and, I believe, very successfully–to female skill; and scores of other callings have been also placed at their disposal: but, strange enough, the more that we do, the more there remains to be done; and never have the professed advocates of woman’s rights been so loud in their demands as since we have shared with them many of what we used to regard as the especial fields of man’s industry. Women have taken to the practice of Medicine, and have threatened to invade the Bar–steps doubtless anticipatory of the time when they shall “rise in the House” or sit on the Treasury benches. Now, I have very little doubt that we used not to be as liberal as we might in sharing our callings with women. We had got into the habit of underrating their capacities, and disparaging their fitness for labour, which was very illiberal; but let us take care that the reaction does not cany us too far on the other side, and that in our zeal to make a reparation we only make a blunder, and that we encourage them to adopt careers and crafts totally unsuited to their tastes and their powers.

It is quite clear–in fact, a mere glance at the detail of the preliminary studies will suffice to show it–that medicine and surgery should not be shared with them. For a variety of reasons, they ought not to be encouraged to take holy orders; and, on the whole, it is very doubtful if it would be a wise step to introduce them into the army, much less into the navy. Seeing this, therefore, the question naturally arises, Are women to be the mere drudges–the Helots of our civilisation? Are we only to employ them in such humble callings as exclude all ideas of future distinction? A very serious question this, and one over which I pondered for more than half an hour last night, as I lay under the influence of some very strong tea and a slight menace of gout.

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Women are very haughty creatures–very resentful of any supposed slight–very aggressive, besides, if they imagine the time for attack favourable. Will they sit down patiently as makers of pill-boxes and artificial flowers? Will they be satisfied with their small gains and smaller consideration? Will there not be ambitious spirits amongst them who will ask, What do you mean to offer us? We are of a class who neither care to bind books nor draw patterns. We are your equals–if we were not distinctively modest, we might say something more than your equals–in acquirement and information. We have our smattering of physical-science humbug, as you have; we are read up in theological disputation, and are as ready as you to stand by Colenso against Moses; in modern languages we are more than your match. What have you to offer us if we are too proud, or too poor, or too anything else, to stand waiting for a buyer in the marriage-market of Belgravia? You will not suffer us to enter the learned professions nor the Service; you will not encourage us to be architects, attorneys, land-agents, or engineers. We know and we feel that there is not one of these callings either above our capacity or unsuited to our habits, but you deny us admittance; and now we ask, What is your scheme for our employment? what project have you that may point out to us a future of independence and a station of respect? Have you such a plan? or, failing it, have you the courage to proclaim to the world that all your boasted civilisation can offer us is to become the governesses to the children of our luckier sisters? But there are many of us totally unsuited to this, brought up with ways and habits that would make such an existence something very like penal servitude–what will you do with us?

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With this cry–for it became a cry–in my ears, I tried to go asleep. I counted seventeen hundred and forty-four; I thought of the sea; I imagined I was listening to Dr Cumming; and I endeavoured to repeat a distich of Martin Tupper: but the force of conscience and the congo carried the day, and I addressed myself vigorously to the question. I thought of making them missionaries, lighthouse-keepers, lunacy commissioners, Garter Kings-at-Arms, and suchlike, when a brilliant thought flashed across my brain, and, with the instinct of a great success, I saw I had triumphed. “Yes,” cried I aloud, “there is one grand career for women–a career which shall engage not alone all the higher and more delicate traits of their organisation, which will call forth their marvellous clear-sightedness and quick perception, their tact, their persuasiveness, and their ingenuity, but will actually employ the less commendable features of female nature, and find work for their powers of concealment, their craft in deception, and their passion for intrigue. How is it that we have never hit upon it before? for of all the careers meant by nature for women, was there any one could compare with Diplomacy!”

Here we have at once the long-sought-for career–the desideratum tanti studii–the occupation for which men are too coarse, too clumsy, too inept, and which requires the lighter touch and more delicate treatment of female fingers. It is the everyday reproach heard of us abroad, that our representatives are deficient in those smaller and nicer traits by which irritations are avoided and unpleasant situations relieved. John, they say, always imagines that to be national he must be “Bull,” and toss on his horns “all and every” that opposes him. Now, late events might have disabused foreign cabinets on this score: a quieter beast than he has shown himself need not be wished for. Still, he has bellowed, and lashed his tail, and cut a few absurd capers, to show what he would be at if provoked; but the world has grown too wise to be terrified by such exhibitions, and quietly settled down to the opinion that there is nothing to fear from him. Now, how very differently might all this have been if the Duchess of S. were Ambassador at Paris, and the Countess of C. at St Petersburg, and Lady N. at Vienna! There would have been no bluster, no rudeness, no bullying–none of that blundering about declining a Congress to-day because a Congress “ought to follow a war,” and proposing one to-morrow, “to prevent a war.” Women despise logic, and consequently would not stultify it. A temperance apostle is not likely to adulterate the liquor that he does not drink; and for this reason, female intelligence would have escaped this “muddle.” Her Ladyship would have thrown her blandishments over Rechberg–he is now of the age when men are easy victims–all the little cajoleries and flatteries of women’s art would have been exerted first to find out, and then to thwart, his policy. It is notorious that English diplomacy knows next to nothing through secret agency. Would such be the case if we had women as envoys? What mystery would stand the assault of a fine lady, trained and practised by the habits of her daily life?

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They tell us that our fox-hunters would form the finest scout-cavalry in Europe; and I am convinced that a London leader of fashion–I have a dozen in my eye at this moment–would track an intrigue through all its stages, and learn its intimate details of place and time and agency, weeks before a merely male intelligence began to suspect the thing was possible.

Imagine what a blue-book would be in these times–would there be any reading could compare with it? We used to admire a certain diplomatist–a pleasant narrator of court gossip–giving, as he did, little traits of Kings and Kaisers, and telling us the way in which majesty was graciously pleased to blow his royal nose. Imagine a female pen engaged on such themes! What clever and sharp little touches would reveal the whole tone of a “reception”! We should not be told “His Majesty received me coldly,” but we would have a beautiful analysis of the royal mind in all its varied moods of displeasure, concealment, urbanity, reserve, and deception. Compared with the male version of the same incident, it would be like Faraday’s report on a case of supposed poisoning beside the blundering narrative of a country apothecary!

It is a long time–a very long time–before an old country has energy enough to throw off any of its accustomed ways. It requires the vigorous assault of young and sturdy intelligences, and, above all, immense persistence, to effect it.

Light comes very slowly indeed through the fog of centuries’ growth, and there is hope always when even the faintest flicker of a ray pierces the Boeotian cloud. Now, for some years back, it may have been remarked that a sort of suspicion has been breaking on the minds of our rulers, that the finer, the higher, and subtler organisations of women might find their suitable sphere of occupation in the diplomatic service.

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“I don’t speak German, but I play the German flute,” said the apologetic gentleman; and so might we say. We don’t engage ladies in diplomacy, but we employ all the old women of our own sex! Wherever we find a well-mannered, soft-spoken, fussy old soul, with a taste for fine clothes and fine dinners, fond of court festivities, and heart and soul devoted to royalties, we promote him. If he speak French tolerably, we make him a Minister; if he be fluent, an Envoy Extraordinary.

I remember an old medical lecturer in Dublin formerly, who used to hold forth on the Materia Medica in the hall of the University, and who, seeing a “student” whose studies had been for some time before pursued in Germany, appear in the lecture-room, with a note-book and pen to take down the lecture–

“Tell that young gentleman,” said the Professor, “to put up his writing materials, for there’s not one word he’ll hear from me that he’ll not find in the oldest editions of the ‘Dublin Pharmacopoeia.’” In the same spirit our diplomatists may sneer at the call for blue-books. We have all of us had the whole thing already in the ‘Times;’ and why? Because we choose to employ unsuitable tools. We want to shave with a hatchet instead of a razor; for be it remarked, as no things are so essentially unlike as those that have a certain resemblance, there is nothing in nature so remote from the truly feminine finesse as the mind of a male “old woman.”

It is simply to the flaws and failures of female intelligence that the parallel applies. A very pleasant old parson, whom I knew when I was a boy, and who used to discourse to me much about Edmund Burke and Gavin Hamilton, told me once that he met old Primate Stewart one day returning from a visitation, and turned his horse round to accompany the carriage for some distance. “Doctor G.,” said the Archbishop, “you remind me most strikingly of my friend Paley.”

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“Oh, my Lord, it is too much honour: I have not the shadow of a pretension to such distinction.”

“Well, sir, it is true; I have Paley before me as I look at you.”

“I am overwhelmed by your Lordship’s flattery.”

“Yes, sir; Paley rode just such another broken-down old grey nag as that.”

Do not therefore disparage my plan for the employment of women in diplomacy by any ungenerous comparisons with the elderly ladies at present engaged in it. This would be as unfair as it is ungallant.

There are a variety of minor considerations which I might press into the cause, but some of them would appeal less to the general mind than to the official, and I omit them–merely observing what facilities it would give for the despatch of business, if the Minister, besieged, as he often now is, by lady-applicants for a husband’s promotion, instead of the tedious inquiry, “Who is Mr D.?–where has he been?–what has he done?–what is he capable of?” could simply say, “Make Mrs T. Third Secretary at Stuttgart, and send Mrs O’Dowd as Vice-Consul to Simoom!”

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