by Wilkie Collins
A SHOCKINGLY RUDE ARTICLE.
[Communicated by a Charming Woman.]
BEFORE I begin to write, I know that this will be an unpopular composition in certain select quarters. I mean to proceed with it, however, in spite of that conviction, because when I have got something on my mind I must positively speak. Is it necessary after that to confess that I am a woman? If it is, I make the confession--to my sorrow. I would much rather be a man. I hope nobody will be misled, by my beginning in this way, into thinking that I am an advocate of the rights of women. Ridiculous creatures! they have too many rights already; and if they don't hold their chattering tongues, one of these days the poor dear, deluded men will find them out.
The poor dear men! Mentioning them reminds me of what I have got to say. I have been staying at the seaside, and reading an immense quantity of novels and periodicals, and all that sort of thing, lately; and my idea is, that the men writers (the only writers worth reading) are in the habit of using each other very unfairly in books and articles, and so on. Look where I may, I find, for instance, that the large proportion of the bad characters in their otherwise very charming stories are always men. As if women were not a great deal worse! Then, again, most of the amusing fools in their books are, strangely and unaccountably, of their own sex, in spite of its being perfectly apparent that the vast majority of that sort of character is to be found in ours. On the other hand, while they make out their own half of humanity (as I have distinctly proved) a great deal too bad, they go to the contrary extreme the other way, and make out our half a great deal too good. What in the world do they mean by representing us as so much better, and so much prettier, than we really are? Upon my word, when I see what angels the dear, nice, good men make of their heroines, and when I think of myself, and of the whole circle of my female friends besides, I feel quite disgusted--I do, indeed.
I should very much like to go into the whole of this subject at once, and speak my sentiments on it at the fullest length. But I will spare the reader, and try to be satisfied with going into a part of the subject instead; for, considering that I am a woman, and making immense allowances for me on that account, I am really not altogether unreasonable. Give me a page or two, and I will show in one particular, and, what is more, from real life, how absurdly partial the men writers are to our sex, and how scandalously unjust they are to their own.
Bores.--What I propose is, that we take for our present example characters of Bores alone. If we were only to read men's novels, articles, and so forth, I don't hesitate to say we should assume that all the Bores in the human creation were of the male sex. It is generally, if not always, a man, in men's books, who tells the long-winded story, and turns up at the wrong time, and makes himself altogether odious and intolerable to every body he comes in contact with, without being in the least aware of it himself. How very unjust, and, I must be allowed to add, how extremely untrue! Women are quite as bad, or worse. Do, good gentlemen, look about you impartially, for once in a way, and own the truth. Good gracious! is not society full of Lady-Bores? Why not give them a turn when you write next?
Two instances: I will quote only two instances out of hundreds I could produce from my own acquaintance. Only two; because, as I said before, I am reasonable about not taking up room. I can put things into a very small space when I write, as well as when I travel. I should like the literary gentleman who kindly prints this (I would not allow a woman to print it for any sum of money that could be offered me) to see how very little luggage I travel with. At any rate, he shall see how little room I can cheerfully put up with in these pages.
My first Lady-Bore--see how quickly I get to the matter in hand, without wasting so much as a single line in prefatory phrases!--my first Lady-Bore is Miss Sticker. I don't in the least mind mentioning her name, because I know, if she got the chance, she would do just the same by me. It is of no use disguising the fact, so I may as well confess at once that Miss Sticker is a fright. Far be it from me to give pain where the thing can by any means be avoided; but if I were to say that Miss Sticker would ever see forty again, I should be guilty of an unwarrantable deception on the public. I have the strongest imaginable objection to mentioning the word petticoats; but if that is the only possible description of Miss Sticker's figure which conveys a true notion of its nature and composition, what am I to do? Perhaps I had better give up describing the poor thing's personal appearance. I shall get into deeper and deeper difficulties if I attempt to go on. The very last time I was in her company, we were strolling about Regent Street, with my sister's husband for escort. As we passed a hairdresser's shop, the dear, simple man looked in, and asked me what those long tails of hair were for that he saw hanging up in the windows. Miss Sticker, poor soul, was on his arm, and heard him put the question. I thought I should have dropped.
This is, I believe, what you call a digression. I shall let it stop in, however, because it will probably explain to the judicious reader why I carefully avoid the subject--the meager subject, an ill-natured person might say--of Miss Sticker's hair. Suppose I pass on to what is more importantly connected with the object of these pages--suppose I describe Miss Sticker's character next.
Some extremely sensible man has observed somewhere that a Bore is a person with one idea. Exactly so. Miss Sticker is a person with one idea. Unhappily for society, her notion is that she is bound by the laws of politeness to join in every conversation which happens to be proceeding within the range of her ears. She has no ideas, no information, no flow of language, no tact, no power of saying the right word at the right time, even by chance. And yet she will converse, as she calls it. "A gentlewoman, my dear, becomes a mere cipher in society unless she can converse." That is her way of putting it; and I deeply regret to add, she is one of the few people who preach what they practice. Her course of proceeding is, first, to check the conversation by making a remark which has no kind of relation to the topic under discussion. She next stops it altogether by being suddenly at a loss for some particular word which nobody can suggest. At last the word is given up, another subject is started in despair, and the company become warmly interested in it. Just at that moment Miss Sticker finds the lost word, screams it out triumphantly in the middle of the talk, and so scatters the second subject to the winds, exactly as she has already scattered the first.
The last time I called at my aunt's--I merely mention this by way of example--I found Miss Sticker there, and three delightful men. One was a clergyman of the dear old purple-faced Port-wine school; the other two would have looked military, if one of them had not been an engineer, and the other an editor of a newspaper. We should have had some delightful conversation if the Lady-Bore had not been present. In some way, I really forget how, we got to talking about giving credit and paying debts; and the dear old clergyman, with his twinkling eyes and his jolly voice, treated us to a professional anecdote on the subject.
"Talking about that," he began, "I married a man the other day for the third time. Man in my parish. Capital cricketer when he was young enough to run. 'What's your fee?' says he.-- 'Licensed marriage?' says I; 'guinea, of course.' 'I've got to bring you your tithes in three weeks, sir,' says he; 'give me tick till then.'-- 'All right,' says I, and married him. In three weeks he comes and pays his tithes like a man. 'Now, sir,' says he, 'about this marriage-fee, sir? I do hope you'll kindly let me off at half-price, for I have married a bitter bad 'un this time. I've got a half-guinea about me, sir, if you'll only please to take it. She isn't worth a farthing more--on the word of a man, she isn't, sir!' I looked hard in his face, and saw two scratches on it, and took the half-guinea, more out of pity than anything else. Lesson to me, however. Never marry a man on credit again as long as I live. Cash on all future occasions--cash down, or no marriage."
While he was speaking, I had my eye on Miss Sticker. Thanks to the luncheon which was on the table, she was physically incapable of "conversing" while our reverend friend was telling his humorous little anecdote. Just as he had done, and just as the editor of the newspaper was taking up the subject, she finished her chicken and turned round from the table.
"Cash down, my dear sir, as you say," continued the editor. "You exactly describe our great principle of action in the Press. Some of the most extraordinary and amusing things happen with subscribers to newspapers--"
"Ah, the Press!" burst in Miss Sticker, beginning to converse. ""What a wonderful engine! and how grateful we ought to feel when we get the paper so regularly every morning at breakfast. The only question is--at least many people think so--I mean with regard to the Press, the only question is whether it ought to be--"
Here Miss Sticker lost the next word, and all the company had to look for it.
"With regard to the Press, the only question is, whether it ought to be-- Oh, dear, dear, dear me!" cried Miss Sticker, lifting both her hands in despair, "what is the word?"
"Cheaper?" suggested our reverend friend. "Hang it, ma'am! it can hardly be that, when it is down to a penny already."
"Oh no; not cheaper," said Miss Sticker.
"More independent!" inquired the editor. "If you mean that, I defy anybody to find more fearless exposures of corruption--"
"No, no!" cried Miss Sticker, in an agony of polite confusion. I didn't mean that. More independent wasn't the word."
"Better printed?" suggested the engineer.
"On better paper?" added my aunt.
"It can't be done--if you refer to the cheap press--it can't be done for the money," interposed the editor, irritably.
"Oh, but that's not it!" continued Miss Sticker, wringing her bony fingers, with horrid black mittens on them, "I didn't mean to say better printed or better paper. It was one word I meant, not two. With regard to the Press," pursued Miss Sticker, repeating her own ridiculous words carefully, as an aid to memory, "the only question is whether it ought to be-- Bless my heart, how extraordinary! Well, well, never mind; I'm quite shocked, and ashamed of myself. Pray go on talking, and don't notice me."
It was all very well to say, Go on talking; but the editor's amusing story about subscribers to newspapers had been by this time fatally interrupted. As usual, Miss Sticker had stopped us in full flow. The engineer considerately broke the silence by starting another subject.
"Here are some wedding-cards on your table," he said to my aunt, "which I am very glad to see there. The bridegroom is an old friend of mine. His wife is really a beauty. You know how he first became acquainted with her? No? It was quite an adventure, I assure you. One evening he was on the Brighton Railway; last down train. A lovely girl in the carriage; our friend Dilberry immensely struck with her. Got her to talk after a long time, with great difficulty. Within half an hour of Brighton, the lovely girl smiles and says, to our friend, 'Shall we be very long now, sir, before we get to Gravesend?' Case of confusion at that dreadful London Bridge terminus. Dilberry explained that she would be at Brighton in half an hour, upon which the lovely girl instantly and properly burst into tears. 'Oh, what shall I do! Oh, what will my friends think!' Second flood of tears. 'Suppose you telegraph?' says Dilberry, soothingly. 'Oh, but I don't know how!' says the lovely girl. Out comes Dilberry's pocket-book. Sly dog! he saw his way now to finding out who her friends were. 'Pray let me write the necessary message for you,' says Dilberry. 'Who shall I direct to at Gravesend?'--'My father and mother are staying there with some friends,' says the lovely girl. 'I came up with a day-ticket, and I saw a crowd of people, when I came back to the station, all going one way, and I was hurried and frightened, and nobody told me, and it was late in the evening, and the bell was ringing, and, oh heavens! what will become of me!' Third burst of tears. 'We will telegraph to your father,' says Dilberry. 'Pray don't distress yourself. Only tell me who your father is.'--'Thank you a thousand times,' says the lovely girl, 'my father is--' "
"ANONYMOUS!" shouts Miss Sticker, producing her lost word with a perfect burst of triumph. "How glad I am I remember it at last! Bless me!" exclaims the Lady-Bore, quite unconscious that she has brought the engineer's story to an abrupt conclusion, by giving his distressed damsel an anonymous father; "bless me! what are you all laughing at? I only meant to say that the question with regard to the Press was, whether it ought to be anonymous. What in the world is there to laugh at in that? I really don't see the joke."
And this woman escapes scot-free, while comparatively innocent men are held up to ridicule, in novel after novel, by dozens at a time! When will the deluded male writers see my sex in its true colors, and describe it accordingly? When will Miss Sticker take her proper place in the literature of England?
~ My second Lady-Bore is that hateful creature, Mrs. Tincklepaw. Where, over the whole interesting surface of male humanity (including cannibals)--where is the man to be found whom it would not be scandalous to mention in the same breath with Mrs. Tincklepaw? The great delight of this shocking woman's life is to squabble with her husband (poor man, he has my warmest sympathy and best good wishes), and then to bring the quarrel away from home with her, and to let it off again at society in general, in a series of short, spiteful hints. Mrs. Tincklepaw is the exact opposite of Miss Sticker. She is a very little woman; she is (and more shame for her, considering how she acts) young enough to be Miss Sticker's daughter; and she has a kind of snappish tact in worrying innocent people, under every possible turn of circumstances, which distinguishes her (disgracefully) from the poor feeble-minded Maid-Bore, to whom the reader has been already introduced. Here are some examples--all taken, be it observed, from my own personal observation of the manner in which Mrs. Tincklepaw contrives to persecute her harmless fellow-creatures wherever she happens to meet with them:
Let us say I am out walking, and I happen to meet Mr. and Mrs. Tincklepaw. (By-the-by, she never lets her husband out of her sight--he is too necessary to the execution of her schemes of petty torment. And such a noble creature, to be used for so base a purpose! He stands six feet two, and is additionally distinguished by a glorious and majestic stoutness, which has no sort of connection with the comparatively comic element of fat. His nature, considering what a wife he has got, is inexcusably meek and patient. Instead of answering her, he strokes his magnificent flaxen whiskers, and looks up resignedly at the sky. I sometimes fancy that he stands top high to hear what his dwarf of a wife says. For his sake, poor man, I hope this view of the matter may be the true one.)
I am afraid I have contrived to lose myself in a long parenthesis. Where was I? Oh! out walking, and happening to meet with Mr. and Mrs. Tincklepaw. She has had a quarrel with her husband at home, and this is how she contrives to let me know it.
"Delightful weather, dear, is it not?" I say, as we shake hands.
"Charming, indeed," says Mrs. Tincklepaw. "Do you know, love, I am so glad you made that remark to me, and not to Mr. Tincklepaw?"
"Really?" I ask. "Pray tell me why?"
"Because," answers the malicious creature, "if you had said it was a fine day to Mr. Tincklepaw, I should have been so afraid of his frowning at you directly, and saying, 'Stuff! talk of something worth listening to, if you talk at all!' What a love of a bonnet you have got on! and how Mr. Tincklepaw would have liked to be staying in your house when you were getting ready to-day to go out. He would have waited for you so patiently, dear. He would never have stamped in the passage; and no such words as, 'Deuce take the woman! is she going to keep me here all day?' would by any possibility have escaped his lips. Don't, love! don't look at the shops, while Mr. Tincklepaw is with us. He might say, 'Oh, bother! you're always wanting to buy something!' I shouldn't like that to happen. Should you, dear?"
Once more. Say I meet Mr. and Mrs. Tincklepaw at a dinner-party, given in honor of a bride and bridegroom. From the instant when she enters the house, Mrs. Tincklepaw never has her eye off the young couple. She looks at them with an expression of heart-broken curiosity. Whenever they happen to speak to each other, she instantly suspends any conversation in which she is engaged, and listens to them with a mournful eagerness. When the ladies retire, she gets the bride into a corner, appropriates her to herself for the rest of the evening, and persecutes the wretched young woman in this manner:
"May I ask, is this your first dinner since you came back?"
"Oh, no! we have been in town for some weeks."
"Indeed? I should really have thought, now, that this was your first dinner."
"Should you? I can't imagine why."
"How very odd, when the reason is as plain as possible! Why, I noticed you all dinner-time, eating and drinking what you liked, without looking at your husband for orders. I saw nothing rebellious in your face when you eat all these nice sweet things at dessert. Dear! dear! don't you understand? Do you really mean to say that your husband has not begun yet? Did he not say, as you drove here to-day, 'Now, mind, I'm not going to have another night's rest broken, because you always choose to make yourself ill with stuffing creams and sweets, and all that sort of thing?' No!!! Mercy on me, what an odd man he must be! Perhaps he waits till he gets home again? Oh, come, come; you don't mean to tell me that he doesn't storm at you frightfully for having every one of your glasses filled with wine, and then never touching a drop of it, but asking for cold water instead, at the very elbow of the master of the house? If he says, 'Cursed perversity, and want of proper tact' once, I know he says it a dozen times. And as for treading on your dress in the hall, and then bullying you before the servant for not holding it up out of his way, it's too common a thing to be mentioned--isn't it? Did you notice Mr. Tincklepaw particularly? Ah, you did, and you thought he looked good-natured? No! no! don't say any more; don't say you know better than to trust to appearances. Please do take leave of all common sense and experience, and pray trust to appearances, without thinking of their invariable deceitfulness, this once. Do, dear, to oblige me."
I might fill pages with similar examples of the manners and conversation of this intolerable Lady-Bore. I might add other equally aggravating characters, to her character and to Miss Sticker's, without extending my researches an inch beyond the circle of my own acquaintance. But I am true to my unfeminine resolution to write as briefly as if I were a man; and I feel that I have said enough already, to show that I can prove my case. When a woman like me can produce, without the least hesitation, or the slightest difficulty, two such instances of Lady-Bores as I have just exhibited, the additional number which she might pick out of her list, after a little mature reflection, may be logically inferred by all impartial readers.
In the mean time, let me hope I have succeeded sufficiently well in my present purpose to induce our next great satirist to pause before he, too, attacks his harmless fellow-men, and to make him turn his withering glance in the direction of our sex. Let all rising young gentlemen who are racking their brains in search of originality take the timely hint which I have given them in these pages. Let us have a new fictitious literature, in which not only the Bores shall be women, but the villains too. Look at Shakspeare--do, pray, look at Shakspeare. Who is most in fault, in that shocking business of the murder of King Duncan? Lady Macbeth, to be sure! Look at King Lear, with a small family of only three daughters, and two of the three wretches; and even the third an aggravating girl, who can't be commonly civil to her own father in the first act, out of sheer contradiction, because her elder sisters happen to have been civil before her. Look at Desdemona, who falls in love with a horrid, copper-colored foreigner, and then, like a fool, instead of managing him, aggravates him into smothering her. Ah! Shakspeare was a great man, and knew our sex, and was not afraid to show he knew it. What a blessing it would be if some of his literary brethren in modern times could muster courage enough to follow his example!
I have fifty different things to say, but I shall bring myself to a conclusion by only mentioning one of them. If it would at all contribute toward forwarding the literary reform that I advocate, to make a present of the characters of Miss Sticker and Mrs. Tincklepaw to modern writers of fiction, I shall be delighted to abandon all right of proprietorship in those two odious women. At the same time, I think it fair to explain that, when I speak of modern writers, I mean gentlemen writers only. I wish to say nothing uncivil to the ladies who compose books, whose effusions may, by the rule of contraries, be exceedingly agreeable to male readers; but I positively forbid them to lay hands upon my two characters. I am charmed to be of use to the men, in a literary point of view, but I decline altogether to mix myself up with the women. There need be no fear of offending them by printing this candid expression of my intentions. Depend on it, they will all declare, on their sides, that they would much rather have nothing to do with me.