The Temptation Of Eve by Agnes Repplier

Story type: Essay

“My Love in her attire doth shew her wit.”

It is an old and honoured jest that Eve–type of eternal womanhood–sacrificed the peace of Eden for the pleasures of dress. We see this jest reflected in the satire of the Middle Ages, in the bitter gibes of mummer and buffoon. We can hear its echoes in the invectives of the reformer,–“I doubt,” said a good fifteenth-century bishop to the ladies of England in their horned caps,–“I doubt the Devil sit not between those horns.” We find it illustrated with admirable naivete in the tapestries which hang in the entrance corridor of the Belle Arti in Florence.

These tapestries tell the downfall of our first parents. In one we see the newly created and lovely Eve standing by the side of the sleeping Adam, and regarding him with pleasurable anticipation. Another shows us the animals marching in line to be inspected and named. The snail heads the procession and sets the pace. The lion and the tiger stroll gossiping together. The unicorn walks alone, very stiff and proud. Two rats and two mice are closely followed by two sleek cats, who keep them well covered, and plainly await the time when Eve’s amiable indiscretion shall assign them their natural prey. In the third tapestry the deed has been done, the apple had been eaten. The beasts are ravening in the background. Adam, already clad, is engaged in fastening a picturesque girdle of leaves around the unrepentant Eve,–for all the world like a modern husband fastening his wife’s gown,–while she for the first time gathers up her long fair hair. Her attitude is full of innocent yet indescribable coquetry. The passion for self-adornment had already taken possession of her soul. Before her lies a future of many cares and some compensations. She is going to work and she is going to weep, but she is also going to dress. The price was hers to pay.

In the hearts of Eve’s daughters lies an unspoken convincement that the price was not too dear. As far as feminity is known, or can ever be known, one dominant impulse has never wavered or weakened. In every period of the world’s history, in every quarter of the globe, in every stage of savagery or civilization, this elementary instinct has held, and still holds good. The history of the world is largely the history of dress. It is the most illuminating of records, and tells its tale with a candour and completeness which no chronicle can surpass. We all agree in saying that people who reached a high stage of artistic development, like the Greeks and the Italians of the Renaissance, expressed this sense of perfection in their attire; but what we do not acknowledge so frankly is that these same nations encouraged the beauty of dress, even at a ruthless cost, because they felt that in doing so they cooperated with a great natural law,–the law which makes the “wanton lapwing” get himself another crest. They played into nature’s hands.

The nations which sought to bully nature, like the Spartans and the Spaniards, passed the severest sumptuary laws; and for proving the power of fundamental forces over the unprofitable wisdom of reformers, there is nothing like a sumptuary law. In 1563 Spanish women of good repute were forbidden to wear jewels or embroideries,–the result being that many preferred to be thought reputationless, rather than abandon their finery. Some years later it was ordained that only women of loose life should be permitted to bare their shoulders; and all dressmakers who furnished the interdicted gowns to others than courtesans were condemned to four years’ penal servitude. These were stern measures,–“root and branch” was ever the Spaniard’s cry; but he found it easier to stamp out heresy than to eradicate from a woman’s heart something which is called vanity, but which is, in truth, an overmastering impulse which she is too wise to endeavour to resist.

As a matter of fact it was a sumptuary law which incited the women of Rome to make their first great public demonstration, and to besiege the Forum as belligerently as the women of England have, in late years, besieged Parliament. The Senate had thought fit to save money for the second Punic War by curtailing all extravagance in dress; and, when the war was over, showed no disposition to repeal a statute which–to the simple masculine mind–seemed productive of nothing but good. Therefore the women gathered in the streets of Rome, demanding the restitution of their ornaments, and deeply scandalizing poor Cato, who could hardly wedge his way through the crowd. His views on this occasion were expressed with the bewildered bitterness of a modern British conservative. He sighed for the good old days when women were under the strict control of their fathers and husbands, and he very plainly told the Senators that if they had maintained their proper authority at home, their wives and daughters would not then be misbehaving themselves in public. “It was not without painful emotions of shame,” said this outraged Roman gentleman, “that I just now made my way to the Forum through a herd of women. Our ancestors thought it improper that women should transact any private business without a director. We, it seems, suffer them to interfere in the management of state affairs, and to intrude into the general assemblies. Had I not been restrained by the modesty and dignity of some among them, had I not been unwilling that they should be rebuked by a Consul, I should have said to them: ‘What sort of practice is this of running into the streets, and addressing other women’s husbands? Could you not have petitioned at home? Are your blandishments more seductive in public than in private, and with other husbands than your own?’”

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How natural it all sounds, how modern, how familiar! And with what knowledge of the immutable laws of nature, as opposed to the capricious laws of man, did Lucius Valerius defend the rebellious women of Rome! “Elegance of apparel,” he pleaded before the Senate, “and jewels, and ornaments,–these are a woman’s badges of distinction; in these she glories and delights; these our ancestors called the woman’s world. What else does she lay aside in mourning save her purple and gold? What else does she resume when the mourning is over? How does she manifest her sympathy on occasions of public rejoicing, but by adding to the splendour of her dress?”[1]

[Footnote 1: Livy.]

Of course the statute was repealed. The only sumptuary laws which defied resistance were those which draped the Venetian gondolas and the Milanese priests in black, and with such restrictions women had no concern.

The symbolism of dress is a subject which has never received its due share of attention, yet it stands for attributes in the human race which otherwise defy analysis. It is interwoven with all our carnal and with all our spiritual instincts. It represents a cunning triumph over hard conditions, a turning of needs into victories. It voices desires and dignities without number, it subjects the importance of the thing done to the importance of the manner of doing it. “Man wears a special dress to kill, to govern, to judge, to preach, to mourn, to play. In every age the fashion in which he retains or discards some portion of this dress denotes a subtle change in his feelings.” All visible things are emblematic of invisible forces. Man fixed the association of colours with grief and gladness, he made ornaments the insignia of office, he ordained that fabric should grace the majesty of power.

Yet though we know this well, it is our careless custom to talk about dress, and to write about dress, as if it had no meaning at all; as if the breaking waves of fashion which carry with them the record of pride and gentleness, of distinction and folly, of the rising and shattering of ideals,–“the cut which betokens intellect and talent, the colour which betokens temper and heart,”–were guided by no other law than chance, were a mere purposeless tyranny. Historians dwell upon the mad excesses of ruff and farthingale, of pointed shoe and swelling skirt, as if these things stood for nothing in a society forever alternating between rigid formalism and the irrepressible spirit of democracy.

Is it possible to look at a single costume painted by Velasquez without realizing that the Spanish court under Philip the Fourth had lost the mobility which has characterized it in the days of Ferdinand and Isabella, and had hardened into a formalism, replete with dignity, but lacking intelligence, and out of touch with the great social issues of the day? French chroniclers have written page after page of description–aimless and tiresome description, for the most part–of those amazing head-dresses which, at the court of Marie Antoinette, rose to such heights that the ladies looked as if their heads were in the middle of their bodies. They stood seven feet high when their hair was dressed, and a trifle over five when it wasn’t. The Duchesse de Lauzun wore upon one memorable occasion a head-dress presenting a landscape in high relief on the shore of a stormy lake, ducks swimming on the lake, a sportsman shooting at the ducks, a mill which rose from the crown of her head, a miller’s wife courted by an abbe, and a miller placidly driving his donkey down the steep incline over the lady’s left ear.

It sounds like a Christmas pantomime; but when we remember that the French court, that model of patrician pride, was playing with democracy, with republicanism, with the simple life, as presented by Rousseau to its consideration, we see plainly enough how the real self-sufficiency of caste and the purely artificial sentiment of the day found expression in absurdities of costume. Women dared to wear such things, because, being aristocrats, they felt sure of themselves: and they professed to admire them, because, being engulfed in sentiment, they had lost all sense of proportion. A miller and his donkey were rustic (Marie Antoinette adored rusticity); an abbe flirting with a miller’s wife was as obviously artificial as Watteau. It would have been hard to find a happier or more expressive combination. And when Rousseau and republicanism had won the race, we find the ladies of the Directoire illustrating the national illusions with clinging and diaphanous draperies; and asserting their affinity with the high ideals of ancient Greece by wearing sandals instead of shoes, and rings on their bare white toes. The reaction from the magnificent formalism of court dress to this abrupt nudity is in itself a record as graphic and as illuminating as anything that historians have to tell. The same great principle was at work in England when the Early Victorian virtues asserted their supremacy, when the fashionable world, becoming for a spell domestic and demure, expressed these qualities in smoothly banded hair, and draperies of decorous amplitude. There is, in fact, no phase of national life or national sentiment which has not betrayed itself to the world in dress.

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And not national life only, but individual life as well. Clothes are more than historical, they are autobiographical. They tell their story in broad outlines and in minute detail. Was it for nothing that Charles the First devised that rich and sombre costume of black and white from which he never sought relief? Was it for nothing that Garibaldi wore a red shirt, and Napoleon an old grey coat? In proof that these things stood for character and destiny, we have but to look at the resolute but futile attempt which Charles the Second made to follow his father’s lead, to express something beyond a fluctuating fashion in his dress. In 1666 he announced to his Council–which was, we trust, gratified by the intelligence–that he intended to wear one unaltered costume for the rest of his days. A month later he donned this costume, the distinguishing features of which were a long, close-fitting, black waistcoat, pinked with white, a loose embroidered surtout, and buskins. The court followed his example, and Charles not unnaturally complained that so many black and white waistcoats made him feel as though he were surrounded by magpies. So the white pinking was discarded, and plain black velvet waistcoats substituted. These were neither very gay, nor very becoming to a swarthy monarch; and the never-to-be-altered costume lasted less than two years, to the great relief of the courtiers, especially of those who had risked betting with the king himself on its speedy disappearance. Expressing nothing but a caprice, it had the futility and the impermanence of all caprices.

Within the last century, men have gradually, and it would seem permanently, abandoned the effort to reveal their personality in dress. They have allowed themselves to be committed for life to a costume of ruthless utilitarianism, which takes no count of physical beauty, or of its just display. Comfort, convenience, and sanitation have conspired to establish a rigidity of rule never seen before, to which men yield a docile and lamblike obedience. Robert Burton’s axiom, “Nothing sooner dejects a man than clothes out of fashion,” is as true now as it was three hundred years ago. Fashion sways the shape of a collar, and the infinitesimal gradations of a hat-brim; but the sense of fitness, and the power of interpreting life, which ennobled fashion in Burton’s day, have disappeared in an enforced monotony.

Men take a strange perverted pride in this mournful sameness of attire,–delight in wearing a hat like every other man’s hat, are content that it should be a perfected miracle of ugliness, that it should be hot, that it should be heavy, that it should be disfiguring, if only they can make sure of seeing fifty, or a hundred and fifty, other hats exactly like it on their way downtown. So absolute is this uniformity that the late Marquess of Ailesbury bore all his life a reputation for eccentricity, which seems to have had no other foundation than the fact of his wearing hats, or rather a hat, of distinctive shape, chosen with reference to his own head rather than to the heads of some odd millions of fellow citizens. The story is told of his standing bare-headed in a hatter’s shop, awaiting the return of a salesman who had carried off his own beloved head-gear, when a shortsighted bishop entered, and, not recognizing the peer, took him for an assistant, and handed him his hat, asking him if he had any exactly like it. Lord Ailesbury turned the bishop’s hat over and over, examined it carefully inside and out, and gave it back again. “No,” he said, “I haven’t, and I’ll be damned if I’d wear it, if I had.”

Even before the establishment of the invincible despotism which clothes the gentlemen of Christendom in a livery, we find the masculine mind disposed to severity in the ruling of fashions. Steele, for example, tells us the shocking story of an English gentleman who would persist in wearing a broad belt with a hanger, instead of the light sword then carried by men of rank, although in other respects he was a “perfectly well-bred person.” Steele naturally regarded this acquaintance with deep suspicion, which was justified when, twenty-two years afterwards, the innovator married his cook-maid. “Others were amazed at this,” writes the essayist, “but I must confess that I was not. I had always known that his deviation from the costume of a gentleman indicated an ill-balanced mind.”

Now the adoption of a rigorous and monotonous utilitarianism in masculine attire has had two unlovely results. In the first place, men, since they ceased to covet beautiful clothes for themselves, have wasted much valuable time in counselling and censuring women; and, in the second place, there has come, with the loss of their fine trappings, a corresponding loss of illusions on the part of the women who look at them. Black broadcloth and derby hats are calculated to destroy the most robust illusions in Christendom; and men–from motives hard to fathom–have refused to retain in their wardrobes a single article which can amend an imperfect ideal. This does not imply that women fail to value friends in black broadcloth, nor that they refuse their affections to lovers and husbands in derby hats. Nature is not to be balked by such impediments. But as long as men wore costumes which interpreted their strength, enhanced their persuasiveness, and concealed their shortcomings, women accepted their dominance without demur. They made no idle claim to equality with creatures, not only bigger and stronger, not only more capable and more resolute, not only wiser and more experienced, but more noble and distinguished in appearance than they were themselves. What if the assertive attitude of the modern woman, her easy arrogance, and the confidence she places in her own untried powers, may be accounted for by the dispiriting clothes which men have determined to wear, and the wearing of which may have cost them no small portion of their authority?

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The whole attitude of women in this regard is fraught with significance. Men have rashly discarded those details of costume which enhanced their comeliness and charm (we have but to look at Van Dyck’s portraits to see how much rare distinction is traceable to subdued elegance of dress); but women have never through the long centuries laid aside the pleasant duty of self-adornment. They dare not if they would,–too much is at stake; and they experience the just delight which comes from cooperation with a natural law. The flexibility of their dress gives them every opportunity to modify, to enhance, to reveal, and to conceal. It is in the highest degree interpretative, and through it they express their aspirations and ideals, their thirst for combat and their realization of defeat, their fluctuating sentiments and their permanent predispositions.

“A winning wave, deserving note,
In the tempestuous petticoat;
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility.”

Naturally, in a matter so vital, they are not disposed to listen to reason, and they cannot be argued out of a great fundamental instinct. Women are constitutionally incapable of being influenced by argument,–a limitation which is in the nature of a safeguard. The cunning words in which M. Marcel Provost urges them to follow the example of men, sounds, to their ears, a little like the words in which the fox which had lost its tail counsels its fellow foxes to rid themselves of so despicable an appendage. “Before the Revolution,” writes M. Provost, in his “Lettres a Francois,” “the clothes worn by men of quality were more costly than those worn by women. To-day all men dress with such uniformity that a Huron, transported to Paris or to London, could not distinguish master from valet. This will assuredly be the fate of feminine toilets in a future more or less near. The time must come when the varying costumes now seen at balls, at the races, at the theatre, will all be swept away; and in their place women will wear, as men do, a species of uniform. There will be a ‘woman’s suit,’ costing sixty francs at Batignolles, and five hundred francs in the rue de la Paix; and, this reform once accomplished, it will never be possible to return to old conditions. Reason will have triumphed.”

Perhaps! But reason has been routed so often from the field that one no longer feels confident of her success. M. Baudrillart had a world of reason on his side when, before the Chamber of Deputies, he urged reform in dress, and the legal suppression of jewels and costly fabrics. M. de Lavaleye, the Belgian statist, was fortified by reason when he proposed his grey serge uniform for women of all classes. If we turn back a page or two of history, and look at the failure of the sumptuary laws in England, we find the wives of London tradesmen, who were not permitted to wear velvet in public, lining their grogram gowns with this costly fabric, for the mere pleasure of possession, for the meaningless–and most unreasonable–joy of expenditure. And when Queen Elizabeth, who considered extravagance in dress to be a royal prerogative, attempted to coerce the ladies of her court into simplicity, the Countess of Shrewsbury comments with ill-concealed irony on the result of such reasonable endeavours. “How often hath her majestie, with the grave advice of her honourable Councell, sette down the limits of apparell of every degree; and how soon again hath the pride of our harts overflown the chanell.”

There are two classes of critics who still waste their vital forces in a futile attempt to reform feminine dress. The first class cherish artistic sensibilities which are grievously wounded by the caprices of fashion. They anathematize a civilization which tolerates ear-rings, or feathered hats, or artificial flowers. They appear to suffer vicarious torments from high-heeled shoes, spotted veils, and stays. They have occasional doubts as to the moral influence of ball-dresses. An unusually sanguine writer of this order has assured us, in the pages of the “Contemporary Review,” that when women once assume their civic responsibilities, they will dress as austerely as men. The first fruits of the suffrage will be seen in sober and virtue-compelling gowns at the opera.

The second class of critics is made up of economists, who believe that too much of the world’s earnings is spent upon clothes, and that this universal spirit of extravagance retards marriage, and blocks the progress of the race. It is in an ignoble effort to pacify these last censors that women writers undertake to tell their women readers, in the pages of women’s periodicals, how to dress on sums of incredible insufficiency. Such misleading guides would be harmless, and even in their way amusing, if nobody believed them; but unhappily somebody always does believe them, and that somebody is too often a married man. There is no measure to the credulity of the average semi-educated man when confronted by a printed page (print carries such authority in his eyes), and with rows of figures, all showing conclusively that two and two make three, and that with economy and good management they can be reduced to one and a half. He has never mastered, and apparently never will master, the exact shade of difference between a statement and a fact.

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Women are, under most circumstances, even more readily deceived; but, in the matter of dress, they have walked the thorny paths of experience. They know the cruel cost of everything they wear,–a cost which in this country is artificially maintained by a high protective tariff,–and they are not to be cajoled by that delusive word “simplicity,” being too well aware that it is, when synonymous with good taste, the consummate success of artists, and the crowning achievement of wealth. Some years ago there appeared in one of the English magazines an article entitled, “How to Dress on Thirty Pounds a Year. As a Lady. By a Lady.” Whereupon “Punch” offered the following light-minded amendment: “How to Dress on Nothing a Year. As a Kaffir. By a Kaffir.” At least a practical proposition.

Mr. Henry James has written some charming paragraphs on the symbolic value of clothes, as illustrated by the costumes worn by the French actresses of the Comedie,–women to whose unerring taste dress affords an expression of fine dramatic quality. He describes with enthusiasm the appearance of Madame Nathalie, when playing the part of an elderly provincial bourgeoise in a curtain-lifter called “Le Village.”

“It was the quiet felicity of the old lady’s dress that used to charm me. She wore a large black silk mantilla of a peculiar cut, which looked as if she had just taken it tenderly out of some old wardrobe where it lay folded in lavender, and a large dark bonnet, adorned with handsome black silk loops and bows. The extreme suggestiveness, and yet the taste and temperateness of this costume, seemed to me inimitable. The bonnet alone, with its handsome, decent, virtuous bows, was worth coming to see.”

If we compare this “quiet felicity” of the artist with the absurd travesties worn on our American stage, we can better understand the pleasure which filled Mr. James’s heart. What, for example, would Madame Nathalie have thought of the modish gowns which Mrs. Fiske introduces into the middle-class Norwegian life of Ibsen’s dramas? No plays can less well bear such inaccuracies, because they depend on their stage-setting to bring before our eyes their alien aspect, to make us feel an atmosphere with which we are wholly unfamiliar. The accessories are few, but of supreme importance; and it is inconceivable that a keenly intelligent actress like Mrs. Fiske should sacrifice vraisemblance to a meaningless refinement. In the second act of “Rosmersholm,” to take a single instance, the text calls for a morning wrapper, a thing so manifestly careless and informal that the school-master, Kroll, is scandalized at seeing Rebecca in it, and says so plainly. But as Mrs. Fiske plays the scene in a tea-gown of elaborate elegance, in which she might with propriety have received the Archbishop of Canterbury, Kroll’s studied apologies for intruding upon her before she has had time to dress, and the whole suggestion of undue intimacy between Rebecca and Rosmer, which Ibsen meant to convey, is irrevocably lost. And to weaken a situation for the sake of being prettily dressed would be impossible to a French actress, trained in the delicacies of her art.

If the feeling for clothes, the sense of their correspondence with time and place, with public enthusiasms and with private sensibilities, has always belonged to France, it was a no less dominant note in Italy during the two hundred years in which she eclipsed and bewildered the rest of Christendom; and it bore fruit in those great historic wardrobes which the Italian chroniclers describe with loving minuteness. We know all about Isabella d’ Este’s gowns, as if she had worn them yesterday. We know all about the jewels which were the assertion of her husband’s pride in times of peace, and his security with the Lombard bankers in times of war. We know what costumes the young Beatrice d’ Este carried with her on her mission to Venice, and how favourably they impressed the grave Venetian Senate. We can count the shifts in Lucretia Borgia’s trousseau, when that much-slandered woman became Duchess of Ferrara, and we can reckon the cost of the gold fringe which hung from her linen sleeves. We are told which of her robes was wrought with fish scales, and which with interlacing leaves, and which with a hem of pure and flame-like gold. Ambassadors described in state papers her green velvet cap with its golden ornaments, and the emerald she wore on her forehead, and the black ribbon which tied her beautiful fair hair.

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These vanities harmonized with character and circumstance. The joy of living was then expressing itself in an overwhelming sense of beauty, and in material splendour which, unlike the material splendour of to-day, never overstepped the standard set by the intellect. Taste had become a triumphant principle, and as women grew in dignity and importance, they set a higher and higher value on the compelling power of dress. They had no more doubt on this score than had wise Homer when he hung the necklaces around Aphrodite’s tender neck before she was well out of the sea, winding them row after row in as many circles as there are stars clustering about the moon. No more doubt than had the fair and virtuous Countess of Salisbury, who, so Froissart tells us, chilled the lawless passion of Edward the Third by the simple expedient of wearing unbefitting clothes. Saint Lucy, under somewhat similar circumstances, felt it necessary to put out her beautiful eyes; but Katharine of Salisbury knew men better than the saint knew them. She shamed her loveliness by going to Edward’s banquet looking like a rustic, and found herself in consequence very comfortably free from royal attentions.

In the wise old days when men outshone their consorts, we find their hearts set discerningly on one supreme extravagance. Lace, the most artistic fabric that taste and ingenuity have devised, “the fine web which feeds the pride of the world,” was for centuries the delight of every well-dressed gentleman. We know not by what marital cajolery Mr. Pepys persuaded Mrs. Pepys to give him the lace from her best petticoat, “that she had when I married her”; but we do know that he used it to trim a new coat; and that he subsequently noted down in his diary one simple, serious, and heartfelt resolution, which we feel sure was faithfully kept: “Henceforth I am determined my chief expense shall be in lace bands.” Charles the Second paid fifteen pounds apiece for his lace-trimmed night-caps; William the Third, five hundred pounds for a set of lace-trimmed night-shirts; and Cinq-Mars, the favourite of Louis the Thirteenth, who was beheaded when he was barely twenty-two, found time in his short life to acquire three hundred sets of lace ruffles. The lace collars of Van Dyck’s portraits, the lace cravats which Grahame of Claverhouse and Montrose wear over their armour, are subtly suggestive of the strength that lies in delicacy. The fighting qualities of Claverhouse were not less effective because of those soft folds of lace and linen. The death of Montrose was no less noble because he went to the scaffold in scarlet and fine linen, with “stockings of incarnate silk, and roses on his shoon.” Once Carlyle was disparaging Montrose, as (being in a denunciatory mood) he would have disparaged the Archangel Michael; and, finding his hearers disposed to disagree with him, asked bitterly: “What did Montrose do anyway?” Whereupon Irving retorted: “He put on a clean shirt to be hanged in, and that is more than you, Carlyle, would ever have done in his place.”

It was the association of the scaffold with an ignoble victim which banished black satin from the London world. Because a foul-hearted murderess[2] elected to be hanged in this material, Englishwomen refused for years to wear it, and many bales of black satin languished on the drapers’ shelves,–a memorable instance of the significance which attaches itself to dress. The caprices of fashion do more than illustrate a woman’s capacity or incapacity for selection. They mirror her inward refinements, and symbolize those feminine virtues and vanities which are so closely akin as to be occasionally undistinguishable.

[Footnote 2: Mrs. Manning.]

“A saint in crape is twice a saint in lawn,”

mocked Pope; and woman smiles at the satire, knowing more about the matter than Pope could ever have known, and seeing a little sparkle of truth glimmering beneath the gibe. Fashion fluctuates from one charming absurdity to another, and each in turn is welcomed and dismissed; through each in turn woman endeavours to reveal her own elusive personality. Poets no longer praise With Herrick the brave vibrations of her petticoats. Ambassadors no longer describe her caps and ribbons in their official documents. Novelists no longer devote twenty pages, as did the admirable Richardson, to the wedding finery of their heroines. Men have ceased to be vitally interested in dress, but none the less are they sensitive to its influence and enslaved by its results; while women, preserving through the centuries the great traditions of their sex, still rate at its utmost value the prize for which Eve sold her freehold in the Garden of Paradise.

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