Why Didn’t He Marry The Girl? by Jerome K Jerome

Story type: Essay

What is wrong with marriage, anyhow? I find myself pondering this question so often, when reading high-class literature. I put it to myself again the other evening, during a performance of Faust. Why could not Faust have married the girl? I would not have married her myself for any consideration whatsoever; but that is not the argument. Faust, apparently, could not see anything amiss with her. Both of them were mad about each other. Yet the idea of a quiet, unostentatious marriage with a week’s honeymoon, say, in Vienna, followed by a neat little cottage orne, not too far from Nurnberg, so that their friends could have come out to them, never seems to have occurred to either of them.

There could have been a garden. Marguerite might have kept chickens and a cow. That sort of girl, brought up to hard work and by no means too well educated, is all the better for having something to do. Later, with the gradual arrival of the family, a good, all-round woman might have been hired in to assist. Faust, of course, would have had his study and got to work again; that would have kept him out of further mischief. The idea that a brainy man, his age, was going to be happy with nothing to do all day but fool round a petticoat was ridiculous from the beginning. Valentine–a good fellow, Valentine, with nice ideas–would have spent his Saturdays to Monday with them. Over a pipe and a glass of wine, he and Faust would have discussed the local politics.

He would have danced the children on his knee, have told them tales about the war–taught the eldest boy to shoot. Faust, with a practical man like Valentine to help him, would probably have invented a new gun. Valentine would have got it taken up.

Things might have come of it. Sybil, in course of time, would have married and settled down–perhaps have taken a little house near to them. He and Marguerite would have joked–when Mrs. Sybil was not around–about his early infatuation. The old mother would have toddled over from Nurnberg–not too often, just for the day.

The picture grows upon one the more one thinks of it. Why did it never occur to them? There would have been a bit of a bother with the Old Man. I can imagine Mephistopheles being upset about it, thinking himself swindled. Of course, if that was the reason–if Faust said to himself:

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“I should like to marry the girl, but I won’t do it; it would not be fair to the Old Man; he has been to a lot of trouble working this thing up; in common gratitude I cannot turn round now and behave like a decent, sensible man; it would not be playing the game”–if this was the way Faust looked at the matter there is nothing more to be said. Indeed, it shows him in rather a fine light–noble, if quixotic.

If, on the other hand, he looked at the question from the point of view of himself and the girl, I think the thing might have been managed. All one had to do in those days when one wanted to get rid of the Devil was to show him a sword hilt. Faust and Marguerite could have slipped into a church one morning, and have kept him out of the way with a sword hilt till the ceremony was through. They might have hired a small boy:

“You see the gentleman in red? Well, he wants us and we don’t want him. That is the only difference between us. Now, you take this sword, and when you see him coming show him the hilt. Don’t hurt him; just show him the sword and shake your head. He will understand.”

The old gentleman’s expression, when subsequently Faust presented him to Marguerite, would have been interesting:

“Allow me, my wife. My dear, a–a friend of mine. You may remember meeting him that night at your aunt’s.”

As I have said, there would have been ructions; but I do not myself see what could have been done. There was nothing in the bond to the effect that Faust should not marry, so far as we are told. The Old Man had a sense of humour. My own opinion is that, after getting over the first annoyance, he himself would have seen the joke. I can even picture him looking in now and again on Mr. and Mrs. Faust. The children would be hurried off to bed. There would be, for a while, an atmosphere of constraint.

But the Old Man had a way with him. He would have told one or two stories at which Marguerite would have blushed, at which Faust would have grinned. I can see the old fellow occasionally joining the homely social board. The children, awed at first, would have sat silent, with staring eyes. But, as I have said, the Old Man had a way with him. Why should he not have reformed? The good woman’s unconsciously exerted influence–the sweet childish prattle! One hears of such things. Might he not have come to be known as “Nunkie”?

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Myself–I believe I have already mentioned it–I would not have married Marguerite. She is not my ideal of a good girl. I never liked the way she deceived her mother. And that aunt of hers! Well, a nice girl would not have been friends with such a woman. She did not behave at all too well to Sybil, either. It is clear to me that she led the boy on. And what was she doing with that box of jewels, anyhow? She was not a fool. She could not have gone every day to that fountain, chatted with those girl friends of hers, and learnt nothing. She must have known that people don’t go leaving twenty thousand pounds’ worth of jewels about on doorsteps as part of a round game. Her own instinct, if she had been a good girl, would have told her to leave the thing alone.

I don’t believe in these innocent people who do not know what they are doing half their time. Ask any London magistrate what he thinks of the lady who explains that she picked up the diamond brooch:-

“Not meaning, of course, your Worship, to take it. I would not do such a thing. It just happened this way, your Worship. I was standing as you might say here, and not seeing anyone about in the shop I opened the case and took it out, thinking as perhaps it might belong to someone; and then this gentleman here, as I had not noticed before, comes up quite suddenly and says; ‘You come along with me,’ he says. ‘What for,’ I says, ‘when I don’t even know you?’ I says. ‘For stealing,’ he says. ‘Well, that’s a hard word to use to a lady,’ I says; ‘I don’t know what you mean, I’m sure.’”

And if she had put them all on, not thinking, what would a really nice girl have done when the gentleman came up and assured her they were hers? She would have been thirty seconds taking them off and flinging them back into the box.

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“Thank you,” she would have said, “I’ll trouble you to leave this garden as quickly as you entered it and take them with you. I’m not that sort of girl.”

Marguerite clings to the jewels, and accepts the young man’s arm for a moonlight promenade. And when it does enter into her innocent head that he and she have walked that shady garden long enough, what does she do when she has said good-bye and shut the door? She opens the ground-floor window and begins to sing!

Maybe I am not poetical, but I do like justice. When other girls do these sort of things they get called names. I cannot see why this particular girl should be held up as an ideal. She kills her mother. According to her own account this was an accident. It is not an original line of defence, and we are not allowed to hear the evidence for the prosecution. She also kills her baby. You are not to blame her for that, because at the time she was feeling poorly. I don’t see why this girl should have a special line of angels to take her up to heaven. There must have been decent, hard-working women in Nurnburg more entitled to the ticket.

Why is it that all these years we have been content to accept Marguerite as a type of innocence and virtue? The explanation is, I suppose, that Goethe wrote at a time when it was the convention to regard all women as good. Anything in petticoats was virtuous. If she did wrong it was always somebody else’s fault. Cherchez la femme was a later notion. In the days of Goethe it was always Cherchez l’homme. It was the man’s fault. It was the devil’s fault. It was anybody’s fault you liked, but not her’s.

The convention has not yet died out. I was reading the other day a most interesting book by a brilliant American authoress. Seeing I live far away from the lady’s haunts, I venture to mention names. I am speaking of “Patience Sparhawk,” by Gertrude Atherton. I take this book because it is typical of a large body of fiction. Miss Sparhawk lives a troubled life: it puzzles her. She asks herself what is wrong. Her own idea is that it is civilisation.

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If it is not civilisation, then it is the American man or Nature–or Democracy. Miss Sparhawk marries the wrong man. Later on she gets engaged to another wrong man. In the end we are left to believe she is about to be married to the right man. I should be better satisfied if I could hear Miss Sparhawk talking six months after that last marriage. But if a mistake has again been made I am confident that, in Miss Sparhawk’s opinion, the fault will not be Miss Sparhawk’s. The argument is always the same: Miss Sparhawk, being a lady, can do no wrong.

If Miss Sparhawk cared to listen to me for five minutes, I feel I could put her right on this point.

“It is quite true, my dear girl,” I should say to her, “something is wrong–very wrong. But it is not the American man. Never you mind the American man: you leave him to worry out his own salvation. You are not the girl to put him right, even where he is wrong. And it is not civilisation. Civilisation has a deal to answer for, I admit: don’t you load it up with this additional trouble. The thing that is wrong in this case of yours–if you will forgive my saying so–is you. You make a fool of yourself; you marry a man who is a mere animal because he appeals to your animal instincts. Then, like the lady who cried out ‘Alack, I’ve married a black,’ you appeal to heaven against the injustice of being mated with a clown. You are not a nice girl, either in your ideas or in your behaviour. I don’t blame you for it; you did not make yourself. But when you set to work to attract all that is lowest in man, why be so astonished at your own success? There are plenty of shocking American men, I agree. One meets the class even outside America. But nice American girls will tell you that there are also nice American men. There is an old proverb about birds of a feather. Next time you find yourself in the company of a shocking American man, you just ask yourself how he got there, and how it is he seems to be feeling at home. You learn self-control. Get it out of your head that you are the centre of the universe, and grasp the idea that a petticoat is not a halo, and you will find civilisation not half as wrong as you thought it.”

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I know what Miss Sparhawk’s reply would be.

“You say all this to me–to me, a lady? Great Heavens! What has become of chivalry?”

A Frenchman was once put on trial for murdering his father and mother. He confessed his guilt, but begged for mercy on the plea that he was an orphan. Chivalry was founded on the assumption that woman was worthy to be worshipped. The modern woman’s notion is that when she does wrong she ought to be excused by chivalrous man because she is a lady.

I like the naughty heroine; we all of us do. The early Victorian heroine–the angel in a white frock, was a bore. We knew exactly what she was going to do–the right thing. We did not even have to ask ourselves, “What will she think is the right thing to do under the circumstances?” It was always the conventional right thing. You could have put it to a Sunday school and have got the answer every time. The heroine with passions, instincts, emotions, is to be welcomed. But I want her to grasp the fact that after all she is only one of us. I should like her better if, instead of demanding:

“What is wrong in civilisation? What is the world coming to?” and so forth, she would occasionally say to herself:

“Guess I’ve made a fool of myself this time. I do feel that ‘shamed of myself.”

She would not lose by it. We should respect her all the more.

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