Shrews by James Runciman

Story type: Essay

The greatest masters who ever made studies of the shrew in fiction or in history have never, after all, given us a strictly scientific definition of the creature. They let her exhibit herself in all her drollery or her hatefulness, but they act in somewhat lordly fashion by leaving us to frame our definition from the picturesque data which they supply. Mrs. Mackenzie, in “The Newcomes,” is repulsive to an awful degree, but the figure is as true as true can be, and most of us, no doubt, have seen the type in all its loathsomeness only too many times. Mrs. Mackenzie is a shrew of one sort, but we could not take her vile personality as the basis of a classification. Mrs. Raddle is one of that lower middle-class which Dickens knew so well, still she is not hateful or vile, or anything but droll. I know how maddening that kind of woman can be in real life to those immediately about her, but onlookers find her purely funny; they never think of poor Bob Sawyer’s cruel humiliation; they only laugh themselves helpless over the screeching little woman on the stairs, who humbles her wretched consort and routs the party with such consummate strategy. Mrs. Raddle and Mrs. Mackenzie are as far apart as two creatures may be; nevertheless they are veritable specimens of the British shrew, and it should be within the resources of civilisation to find a definition capable of fitting both of them. As for Queen Elizabeth–that splendid, false, able, cruel, and inexorable shrew–she requires the space of volumes to give even the shadow of her personality and powers. She has puzzled some of the wisest and most learned of men. She was truly royal, and wholly deceitful; self-controlled at times, and madly passionate at others; a lover of pure literature, and yet terribly free in her own writings; kind to her dependants, yet capable of aiming a violent blow at some courtier whom she had caressed a moment before the blow came; an icy virgin, and a confirmed and audacious flirt; a generous mistress, and an odious miser; a free giver to those near her, and a skinflint who let the sailors who saved her country lie rotting to death in the open streets of Ramsgate because she could not find in her heart to give them either medical attendance or shelter. Was there ever such another being known beneath the glimpses of the moon? Some might call her superhuman; I am more inclined to regard her as inhuman, for her blending of characteristics is not like anything ever seen before or since among the children of men. She was a shrew–a magnificent, enigmatic shrew, who was perhaps the more fitted to rule a kingdom which was in a state of transition in that she was lacking in all sense of pity, shame, or remorse. She was the apotheosis of the shrew, and no one of the tribe can ever be like unto her again. Carlyle’s Termagant of Spain is a shadowy figure that flits through all the note-books on Frederick, but we never get so near to her as we do to Elizabeth, and she remains to us as a vast shape that gibbers and threatens and gesticulates in the realms of the dead. Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, must have been a terrible shrew, and I should think that Heber was not master in the house where Sisera died. The calm deliberation, the preliminary coaxing, the quick, cool determination, and the final shrill exultation which was reflected in Deborah’s song all speak of the shrew. Thackeray had a morbid delight in dwelling on the species, and we know that all of his portraits were taken from real life. If he really was intimate with all of the cruel figures that he draws, then I could pardon him for manifesting the most ferocious of cynicisms even if he had been a cynic–which he was not. The Campaigner, Mrs. Clapp, the landlady in “Vanity Fair,” Mrs. Baynes, and all the rest of the deplorable bevy rest like nightmares upon our memory. Dickens always made the shrew laughable, so that we can hardly spare pity for the poor Snagsbys and Raddles and Crupps, or any of her victims in that wonderful gallery; but Thackeray’s, Trollope’s, Charles Reade’s, Mrs. Oliphant’s, and even Miss Broughton’s shrews are always odious, and they all seem to start from the page alive.

But I am not minded to deal with the special instances of shrewism which have been pronounced enough to claim attention from powerful masters of fiction and history; I am rather interested in the swarms of totally commonplace shrews who live around us, and who do their very best–or worst–to make the earth a miserable place. I can laugh as heartily as anybody at Dickens’s “scolds” and female bullies; none the less however am I ready in all seriousness to reckon the shrew as an evil influence, as bad as some of the most subtle and malevolent scourges inflicted by physical nature. All of us have but a little span on earth, and we should be able to economise every minute, so as to extract the maximum of joy from existence; yet how many frail lives are embittered by the shrew! How many men, women, and children has she not forced to wish almost for death as a relief from morbid pain and keen humiliation! Our social conditions tend to foster shrewish temperament, for we are gradually changing the subjection of woman to the enslavement of man; gentle chivalry is developing into maudlin self-advertising self-abnegation on the part of the males who favour the new movement. The sweet and equable lady remains the same in all ages; Imogen and Desdemona and Rosalind and the Roaring Girl have their modern counterparts. The lady never takes advantage of the just homage bestowed on her; she never asserts herself; her good breeding is so absolute that she would not be uncontrolledly familiar with her nearest and dearest, and her thoughts are all for others. But the shrew must always be thrusting herself forward; her cankered nature turns kindness into poison; she resents a benefit conferred as though it were an insult; and yet, if she is not constantly noticed and made, at the least, the recipient of kindly offers, she contrives to cause every one within reach of her to feel the sting of her enraged vanity. When I think of some women who are to be met with in various quarters, from the “slum” to the drawing-room, I am driven to wonder–shocking as it may seem–that crimes of violence are not more frequent than they are. It is most melancholy to notice how well the shrew fares compared with some poor creatures of gentler nature. In the lower classes a meek, toil-worn, obliging woman is most foully ill-used by a vagabond of a husband in only too many cases; while a screaming selfish wretch who, in trying to madden her miserable husband, succeeds in maddening all within earshot, escapes unhurt, and continues to lead her odious life, setting a bad example to impressionable young girls, and perhaps corrupting a neighbourhood. England is the happy hunting-ground for the shrew at present; for in America the average social relation between the sexes has come to be so frank and even that a shrew would be as severely treated as a discourteous man. In England a sham sentiment reigns which gives license to the vilest of women without protecting the martyrs, who, in all conscience, need protection. The scoundrel who maltreats a woman receives far less punishment than is inflicted on a teacher who gives a young Clerkenwell ruffian a stripe with a switch; while the howling shrew who spends a man’s money in drink, empties his house, screeches at him by the hour together, is not censured at all–nay, the ordinary “gusher” would say that “the agonised woman vents the feelings of her overcharged heart.”

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Now let us glance at the various sorts of these awful scourges who dwell in our midst. It may be well to classify them at once, because, unless I mistake many symptoms, the stubborn English may shortly snuff out the sentimentalists who have raised up a plague among us. I may say as a preliminary that in my opinion a shrew may be fairly defined as “a female who takes advantage of the noblest impulses of men and the kindliest laws of nations in order that she may claim the social privileges of both sexes and vent her most wicked temper with freedom.” First, consider the doleful shrew. This is a person not usually found among the classes which lack leisure; she is an exasperating and most entirely selfish woman, and she cannot very well invent her refinements of whining cruelty unless she has a little time on hand; her speciality is to moan incessantly over the ingratitude of people for whom she has done some trivial service; and, as she always moans by choice in presence of the person whom she has afflicted by her generosity, the result is merely distracting. If the victim says, “I allow that you have been very kind, and I am grateful,” he commits an error in tactics, for the torturer is upon him at once. “Oh, you do own it then, and yet see how you behave!”–and then the torrent flows on with swift persistence. If, on the contrary, the sufferer cries, “Why on earth do you go on repeating what you have done? I owned your kindness once, and I do not intend to talk any more about it!” he is still more clearly delivered into the enemy’s hands. He lays himself open to a charge of ingratitude, and the charge is pressed home with relentless fluency. Then, as to the doleful one’s influence on children–the general modern tendency is towards making children happy, but the doleful one is a survival from some bad type, and takes a secret malign delight in wantonly inflicting pain on the minds or bodies of the young. Some dense people perhaps imagine that children cannot suffer mental agony; yet the merest mite may carry a whole tragedy in its innocent soul. We all know the wheedling ways of children; we know how they will coax little luxuries and privileges out of “papa” and “mamma,” and most of us rather like to submit with simulated reluctance to the harmless extortion. If I had heard a certain tiny youth say, “Papa, when I’m a big man, and you’re a little boy, I shall ask you to have some jam,” I should have failed entirely to smother my laughter. Do you think the doleful one would have seen the fun of the remark if she had any power over the body or soul of that devoted child? Nay. She would have whined about slyness, and cunning hints, and greediness, and the probabilities of utter ruin and disgrace overtaking underhand schemers, until that child would have been stunned, puzzled, deprived of self-respect, and rendered entirely wretched. Long ago I heard of a doleful one who turned suddenly on a merry boy who was playing on the floor. “You’re going straight to perdition!” observed the dolorous one; and the light went out of that boy’s life for a time. A gladsome party of young folk may be instantly wrecked by the doleful shrew’s entrance; and, if she cannot attract attention to herself amid a gathering even of sensible, cheerful adults, she will probably break up the evening by dint of a well-timed fit of spasms or something similar. Dickens made Mrs. Gummidge very funny; but the Gummidge of real life is not merely a limp, “lorn” creature–she is a woman who began by being unhealthily vain, and ends by being venomously malignant. I do not think that many people have passed through life very far without meeting with a specimen of the dolorous shrew, and I hope in all charity that the creature is not in the immediate circle of any one who reads this. In impassioned moments, when I have reckoned up all the misery caused by this species, I have been inclined to wish that every peculiarly malign specimen could be secured at the public expense in a safe asylum.

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The aggressive shrew is usually the wife of some phlegmatic man; she insults him at all hours and on all subjects, and she establishes complete domination over him until she happens to touch his conscience fairly, and then he probably crushes her by the sudden exertion of latent moral force. Shall I talk of the drunken shrew? No–not that! My task is unlovely enough already, and I cannot inflict that last horror on those who will read this. Thus much will I say–if ever you know a man tied to a creature whose cheeks are livid purple in the morning and flushed at night, a creature who speaks thick at night and is ready with a villainous word for the most courteous and gentle of all whom she may meet, pray for that man.

The blue-blooded shrew is by no means uncommon. Watch one of this kind yelling on a racecourse in tearful and foul-mouthed rage and you will have a few queer thoughts about human nature. Then there is the ladylike shrew. Ah, that being! What has she to answer for? She is neat, low-spoken, precise; she can purr like a cat, and she has the feline scratch always ready too. Pity the governess, the servant, the poor flunkey whom she has at her mercy, for their bread is earned in bitterness. “My lady” does not raise her voice; she can give orders for the perpetration of the meanest of deeds without varying the silken flow of her acrid tongue; but she is bad–very bad; and I think that, if Dante and Swedenborg were at all near being true prophets, there would be a special quarter in regions dire for the lady-like shrew.

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I must distinctly own that the genuine shrew endeavours to make life more or less unhappy for both sexes. Usually we are apt to think of the shrew as resembling the village scolds who used to be promptly ducked in horse-ponds in the unregenerate days; but the scold was an individual who was usually chastised for making a dead-set at her husband alone. The real shrew is like the puff-adder or the whip-snake–she tries to bite impartially all round; and she is often able to bite in comparative silence, but with a most deadly effect. The vulgar shrieker is a deplorable source of mischief, but she cannot match the reticent stabber who is always ready, out of sheer wickedness, to thrust a venomed point into man, woman, or child. I shall give my readers an extreme instance towards which they may probably find it hard to extend belief. I am right however, and have fullest warrant for my statement. I learn on good authority, and with plenitude of proof, that trained nurses are rather too frequently subjected to the tender mercies of the shrew. Nothing is more grateful to a cankered woman than the chance of humiliating some one who possesses superior gifts of any description, and a well-bred lady who has taken to the profession of nursing is excellent “game.” Thus I find that delicate young women of gentle nurture have been sent away to sleep in damp cellars at the back of great town-houses; they have had to stay their necessarily fastidious appetites with cold broken food–and this too after a weary vigil in the sick-room. Greatest triumph of all, the nurses have been compelled to go as strangers to the servants’ table and make friends as best they could. It is not easy to form any clear notion of a mind capable of devising such useless indignities, because the shrew ought to know that her conduct is contrasted with that of good and considerate people. The nurse bears with composure all that is imposed on her, but she despises the shabby woman, and she compares the behaviour of the acrid tyrant with that of the majority of warm-hearted and generous ladies who think nothing too good for their hired guests. I quote this extreme example just to show how far the shrew is ready to go, and I wish it were not all true.

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Next let me deal with the mean shrew, who has one servant or more under her control. The records of the servants’ aid societies will show plainly that there are women against whose names a significant mark must be put, and the reason is that they turn away one girl after another with incredible rapidity, or that despairing girls leave them after finding life unendurable. I know that there are insolent, sluttish, lazy, and incompetent servants, and I certainly wish to be fair toward the mistresses; but I also know that too many of the persons who send wild and whirling words to the newspapers belong without doubt to the class of mean shrews. Whenever I see one of those periodical letters which tell of the writer’s lifelong tribulation, I like to refresh my mind by repeating certain golden utterances of the man whom we regard as one of the wisest of living Englishmen–“There is only one way to have good servants–that is, to be worthy of being well served. All nature and all humanity will serve a good master and rebel against an ignoble one. And there is no surer test of the quality of a nation than the quality of its servants, for they are their masters’ shadows and distort their faults in a flattened mimicry. A wise nation will have philosophers in its servants’-hall, a knavish nation will have knaves there, and a kindly nation will have friends there. Only let it be remembered that ‘kindness’ means, as with your child, not indulgence, but care.” Substitute “mistress” for “master” in this passage of John Ruskin’s, and we have a little lesson which the mean shrew might possibly take to heart–if she had any heart. What is the kind of “care” which the mean one bestows on her dependants? “That’s my little woman a-giving it to ‘Tilda,” pensively observed Mr. Snagsby; and I suspect that a very great many little women employ a trifle too much of their time in “giving it to ‘Tilda.” That is the “care” which poor ‘Tilda gets. Consider the kind of life which a girl leads when she comes for a time under the domination of the mean shrew. Say that her father is a decent cottager; then she has probably been used to plain and sufficient food, dressed in rough country fashion, and she has at all events had a fairly warm place to sleep in. When she enters her situation, she finds herself placed in a bare chill garret; she has not a scrap of carpet on the floor, and very likely she is bitterly cold at nights. She is expected to be astir and alert from six in the morning until ten or later at night; she is required to show almost preternatural activity and intelligence, and she is not supposed to have any of the ordinary human being’s desire for recreation or leisure. When her Sunday out comes–ah, that Sunday out, what a tragic farce it is!–she does not know exactly where to go. If she is near a park or heath, she may fall in with other girls and pass a little time in giggling and chattering; but of rational pleasure she knows nothing. Then her home is the bare dismal kitchen, with the inevitable deal table, frowsy cloth, and rickety chairs. The walls of this interesting apartment are possibly decked with a few tradesmen’s almanacs, whereon Grace Darling is depicted with magnificent bluish hair, pink cheeks, and fashionable dress; or his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales assumes a heroic attitude, and poses as a field-marshal of the most stern and lofty description. Thus are ‘Tilda’s aesthetic tastes developed. The mean shrew cannot give servants such expensive company as a cat; but the beetles are there, and a girl of powerful imagination may possibly come to regard them as eligible pets. Then the food–the breakfast of weak tea and scanty bread; the mid-day meal of horrid scraps measured out with eager care to the due starvation limit; the tasteless, dreadful “tea” once more at six o’clock, and the bread and water for supper! And the incessant scold, scold, scold, the cunning inquiries after missing morsels of meat or potatoes, the exasperating orders! It is too depressing; and, when I see some of the virtuous letters from ill-used mistresses, I smile a little sardonically, and wish that the servants could air their eloquence in the columns of great newspapers. Some time ago there was a case in which a perfectly rich shrew went away from home from Saturday morning till Monday night, leaving one shilling to provide all food for two young women. This person of course needed fresh servants every month, and was no doubt surprised at the ingratitude of the starvelings who perpetually left her. I call up memories of homes, refuges, emigration-agencies, and so forth, and do most sternly and bitterly blame the mean shrew for mischief which well-nigh passes credence. There is nothing more delightful than to watch the dexterous, healthy, cheerful maids in well-ordered households where the mistress is the mother; but there is very little of the mother about the mean shrew–she is rather more like the slave-driver. “Stinted means,” observes some tender apologist. What ineffable rubbish! If a woman is married to a man of limited means, does that give her any right to starve and bully a fellow-creature? How many brave women have done all necessary housework and despised ignoble “gentility”! No, I cannot quite accept the “stinted means” excuse; the fact is that the mean shrew is hard on her dependants solely because her nature is not good; and we need not beat about the bush any longer for reasons. A domestic servant under a wise, dignified, and kind mistress or housekeeper may live a healthy and happy life; the servant of the mean shrew does not live at all in any true sense of the word. No rational man can blame girls for preferring the freedom of shop or factory to the thraldom of certain kinds of domestic service. If we consider only the case of well-managed houses, then we may wonder why any girl should enter a factory; but, on the other hand, there is that dire vision of the mean shrew with gimlet eye and bitter tongue! What would the mean shrew have made of Margaret Catchpole, the Suffolk girl who was transported about one hundred years ago? There is a problem. That girl’s letters to her mistress are simply throbbing with passionate love and gratitude; and the phrases “My beloved mistress,” “My dear, dear mistress,” recur like sobs. Margaret would have become a fiend under the mean shrew; but the holy influence of a good lady made a noble woman of her, and she became a pattern of goodness long after one rash but blameless freak was forgotten. All Margaret’s race now rise up and call her blessed, and her spirit must have rejoiced when she saw her brilliant descendant appearing in England two years ago as representative of a mighty colony.

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What shall I say about the literary shrew? Let no one be mistaken–we have a good many of them, and we shall have more and more of them. There are kind and charming lady-novelists in plenty, and we all owe them fervent thanks for happy hours; there are deeply-cultured ladies who make the joy of placid English homes; there are hundreds on hundreds of honest literary workers who never set down an impure or ungentle line. I am grateful in reason to all these; but there is another sort of literary woman towards whom I pretend to feel no gratitude whatever, and that is the downright literary shrew, who usually writes, so to speak, in a scream, and whose sentences resemble bursting packets of pins and needles. She is what the Americans would call “death on man,” and she likes to emphasize her invectives by always printing “Men” with a capital “M.” She is however rigidly impartial in her distribution of abuse, and she finds out at frequent intervals that English women and girls are going year by year from bad to worse. That the earth does not hold a daintier, purer, more exquisitely lovable being than the well-educated, well-bred English girl, is an opinion held even by some very cynical males; but the literary shrew rattles out her libels, and, in order to show how very virtuous she is, she usually makes her articles unfit to be brought within the doors of any respectable house. Not that she is ribald–she is merely so slangy, so audacious, and so bitter that no “prudent” man would let his daughters glance at a single article turned out by our emphatic shrew. As to men–well, those ignoble beings fare very badly at her hands. I do not know exactly what she wants to do with the poor things, but on paper and on the platform she insists that they shall practically give up their political power entirely, for women, being in an immense majority, would naturally outvote the inferior sex. Sometimes, when the shrew is more than usually capricious and enraged with her own sex, she may magnanimously propose to disfranchise huge numbers of women; but, as a rule, she is bent on mastering the enemy–Man. If you happen to remark that it would be rather awkward if a majority of women should happen to bring about a war in which myriads of men would destroy each other, we rather pity you; that argument always beats the shrew, and she resorts to the literary equivalent for hysterics. If the controversialist ventures to ask some questions about the share which women have had in bringing about the great wars known to history, he draws on himself more and more hysterical abuse. What a strange being is this! Her life is one long squabble, she is the most reckless and violent of fighters, and yet she is always crying out that Men are brutal and bloodthirsty, and that she and her sisters would introduce the elements of peace and goodwill to political relations. We may have a harmless laugh at the literary shrew so long as she confines herself to haphazard scribbling, because no one is forced to read; but it is no laughing matter when she transfers her literary powers to some public body, and inflicts essays on the members. Her life on a School Board may be summarised as consisting of a battle and a screech; she has the bliss of abusing individual Men rudely–nay, even savagely–and she knows that chivalry prevents them from replying. But she is worst when she rises to read an essay; then the affrighted males flee away and rest in corners while the shrew denounces things in general. It is terrible. Among the higher products of civilisation the literary shrew is about the most disconcerting, and, if any man wants to know what the most gloomy possible view of life is like, I advise him to attend some large board-meeting during a whole afternoon while the literary shrew gets through her series of fights and reads her inevitable essay. He will not come away much wiser perhaps, but he will be appreciably sadder.

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And so this long procession of shrews passes before us, scolding and gibbering and dispensing miseries. Is there no way of appealing to reason so that they may be led to see that inflicting pain can never bring them anything but a low degree of pleasure? No human creature was ever made better or more useful by a shrew, for the very means by which the acrid woman tries to secure notice or power only serves to belittle her. Take the case of a vulgar schoolmistress who is continually scolding. What happens in her school? She is mocked, hated, tricked, and despised; real discipline is non-existent; the bullied assistants go about their work without heart; and the whole organisation–or rather disorganisation–gradually crumbles, until a place which should be the home of order and happiness becomes an ugly nest of anarchy. But look at one of the lovely high schools which are now so common; read Miss Kingsley’s most fervent and accurate description of the scholars, and observe how poorly the scolding teacher fares in the comparison. Who ever heard of a girl being scolded or punished in a good modern high school? Such a catastrophe is hardly conceivable, for one quiet look of reproach from a good teacher is quite sufficient to render the average girl inconsolable until forgiveness is granted. This illustrates my point–the shrew never succeeds in doing anything but intensifying the fault or evil which she pretends to remove. The shrew who shrieks at a drunkard only makes him dive further into the gulf in search of oblivion; the shrew who snaps constantly at a servant makes the girl dull, fierce, and probably wicked; the shrew who tortures a patient man ends by making him desperate and morose; the shrew who weeps continually out of spite, and hopes to earn pity or attention in that fashion, ends by being despised by men and women, abhorred by children, and left in the region of entire neglect. Perhaps if public teachers could only show again and again that the shrew makes herself more unhappy, if possible, than she makes other people, then the selfish instinct which is dominant might answer to the appeal; but, though I make the suggestion I have no great hope of its being very fruitful.

After all, I fear the odious individual whose existence and attributes we have discussed must be accepted as a scourge sent to punish us for past sins of the race. Certainly women had a very bad time in days gone by–they were slaves; and at odd moments I am tempted to conclude that the slave instinct survives in some of them, and they take their revenge in true servile fashion. This line of thought would carry me back over more ages than I care to traverse; I am content with knowing that the shrews are in a minority, and that the majority of my countrywomen are sweet and benign.

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