NEW MAN OF FEELING.
by WILLIAM GODWIN.
"What I have been yet saying," continued Macneil, "is speculation; let us now come to the most important part of my function, which is practice. Fleetwood, you are too much alone. I hear people talk of the raptures of solitude; and with what tenderness of affection they can love a tree, a rivulet, or a mountain. Believe me, they are pretenders; they deceive themselves, or they seek, with their eyes open, to impose upon others. In addition to their trees and their mountains, I will give them the whole brute creation; still it will not do. There is a principle in the heart of man, which demands the society of his like. He that has no such society, is in a state but one degree removed from insanity. He pines for an ear into which he might pour the story of his thoughts, for an eye that shall flash upon him with responsive intelligence, for a face the lines of which shall talk to him in dumb, but eloquent discourse, for a heart that shall beat in unison with his own. If there is any thing in human form that does not feel these wants, that thing is not to be counted in the file for a man; the form it bears is a deception, and the legend, Man, which you read in its front, is a lie. Talk to me of rivers and mountains! I venerate the grand and beautiful exhibitions and shapes of nature, no man more; I delight in solitude; I could shut myself up in it for successive days. But I know, that Christ did not with more alacrity come out of the wilderness after his forty days' sequestration, than every man, at the end of a course of this sort, will seek for the interchange of sentiments and language. The magnificence of nature, after a time, will produce much the same effect upon him, as if I were to set down a hungry man to a sumptuous service of plate, where all that presented itself on every side was massy silver and burnished gold, but there was no food.
"He is a wise physician, that knows how to prescribe for his own malady. Were the case you have described to me, the case of a bystander, you would immediately see into its merits, as clearly as I do. You have no certain and regular pursuit; you have no equal alliances and connections. The miracle would be, if it were possible for you to be happy. You are too rich, to be able to engage with sincere eagerness in any undertaking or employment. The remedy therefore in your case must be derived from the other quarter. Marry! beget yourself a family of children! You are somewhat advanced in life; time must elapse before your children will be at an age to occupy much of your cares; if you feel any vacuity in the interval, call about you your distant relations! Sit down every day at table with a circle of five or six persons, constituting your own domestic groupe. Enquire out the young men on the threshold of life, who, from the regulations of society, have the best claim upon your assistance. Call them round you; contribute to their means; contribute to their improvement; consult with them as to the most promising adventure in which they can launch themselves on the ocean of life. Depend upon it, you will not then feel a vacuity; your mind will no longer prey upon itself."
I was some time before I could believe that my friend was in earnest. — "I, to entangle myself with a numerous family, whose temper was so fastidious and sensitive that I could scarcely chuse a companion for a day, that did not become in twenty ways disgusting and insupportable to me before the close of the day!
"I, to marry! Had I not now passed the flower of my days in a state of celibacy? Whom was I to marry? I was near forty-five years of age. Was I to make what is called a suitable match; that is, marry a woman of the same age as myself? Beside that there would then be small chance of offspring, I could not say I felt in myself much propensity to fall in love with a lady of this staid and matronly age.
"Add to all this, I am impressed with no favourable prepossessions toward the female sex. I cannot be blind enough to credit what some have maintained, probably more from the love of paradox than any other cause, that there is any parity between the sexes. Till the softer sex has produced a Bacon, a Newton, a Homer, or a Shakespear, I never will believe it. Who does not see that the quickness and vivacity of their temper sets them at an immense distance from profound sense, sublime feeling, and that grand species of adventure, which engrosses, from puberty to the grave, the whole energies of the human soul? But, beside this, I think ill of their dispositions. The impressions of my adventures of gallantry in France I cannot overcome. Perhaps, in the tranquillity of sober discussion, you might bring me to confess that these impressions are unjust; but there they are; such are the associations of my mind; I never can think seriously of a woman, still less propose her to myself as a companion, without calling to mind the marchioness de L., and the countess of B.
"I have another disqualification for marriage, worse even than this. I am grown old in the habits of a bachelor. I can bear no restraint. You, sir, happy as you are in your family, must be fully aware, that it is impossible for two persons to associate for a day, without some clash of their different inclinations. It is like hounds in a leash; the chain is upon their necks, and not upon their wills. But we bear this wonderfully well for a time, because we see where it will end; most men bear it better than I do. But let the chain be such the padlock of which cannot be unloosed, but by the death of one party or the other; Gods, how galling does it become! In an 'agreeable companion in a post-chaise,' in the guest that visits, or the host that receives, me for a day, though his desires are absurd, though his manner be abrupt, and his sentiments dissimilar to my own, I am too proud to suffer my temper to be much ruffled by so fugitive an inconvenience. But how trifles swell into importance, when the individual whose temper jars with mine, is to live with me for ever! Whatever offends me I feel as in the utmost degree grave; every accidental difference preys upon my heart, and corrodes my vitals."
Mr. Macneil laughed at the vehemence of my satire against marriage. "No," said he, "I do not absolutely insist, that you shall fix upon a lady of forty-five years of age, or that you shall estimate her fitness to become your wife by the wrinkles in her brow. The man may love the wife at forty-five, whom, twenty years before, he received a blushing virgin to his bed; habit may do much for him; a friendship has gradually sprung up between them, which death only is powerful enough to dissolve; but this is not exactly the period at which the familiarity should commence. No; if you marry, Fleetwood, chuse a girl, whom no disappointments have soured, and no misfortunes have bent to the earth; let her be lively, gay as the morning, and smiling as the day. If your habits are somewhat rooted and obstinate, take care that there is no responsive stiffness in her, to jar and shock with. Let her be all pliancy, accommodation and good-humour. Form her to your mind; educate her yourself. By thus grafting a young shoot upon your venerable trunk, you will obtain, as it were, a new hold upon life. You will be another creature; new views, new desires, new thoughts, will rise within you. While you are anxious to please and sympathise with your beauteous bride, you will feel as alert as a boy, and as free and rapid in your conceptions as a stripling.
"You will tell me perhaps, that you could not make such a young creature happy. I differ from you in that. The women are not like us in their tastes. A lady, as you say, past the meridian of life, will seldom be courted for a bride, unless with some sinister view; but at least half the young girls you meet with, would be well contented with a husband considerably older than themselves. Man marries, because he desires a lovely and soothing companion for his vacant hours; woman marries, because she feels the want of a protector, a guardian, a guide and an oracle, some one to look up to with respect, and in whose judgment and direction she may securely confide. Besides, Fleetwood, you mistake yourself, if you think you are old. Your visage is not wrinkled, and your hair is not grey. The activity of your temper, the many plans of life you have tried, your perpetual change of place, have effectually preserved you from that running down of the wheels of fancy, that decay of the principle of life, which should render you an unfit companion for a blooming bride.
"You allege, that your temper, which is so fastidious and sensitive that you can seldom support the companion of a day, is a cause that would reduce you to make an ill figure, in a domestic circle, with five or six individuals who sat down with you every day to table. Alas, Fleetwood, this is the very thing you want, the cause why your temper is so blameably fastidious. The horse, however generous his blood, and graceful his limbs, who has never learned certain paces, and had his temper subdued to the intimations of the bridle, will never be victor in the race. Subject yourself to the law of associating with your fellow-men, place yourself in the situation to be the guardian and benefactor of your consort and kindred, and you will soon feel and bend to the necessity of consulting their predilections as well as your own. You will be a million times the better and the happier for it.
"But the main error into which you have fallen, is to suppose that the way of living between a man and his wife, bears any resemblance to that with a chance-companion in a post-chaise, or between an ordinary host and his guest. The first principle of society in this relation, if it is actuated with any spirit of kindness, is the desire each party feels, to be the sacrifice of the other. Instead of regretting the unavoidable differences of inclination, they become, where the topics to which they relate are not fundamental, an additional source of pleasure. Each party is eager to anticipate the desires of the other, to smooth the way to their gratification, to provide for their happiness. If, between a pair thus kind and thus wise, any little debates chance to arise, this too adds to their enjoyment. You know the proverb which says, The falling out of lovers is the renewal of love. Between man and man differences are gravely discussed and argumentatively settled. Each revises the imaginary brief of his own cause, and becomes confirmed in his private view of the question at issue. But, between man and woman, the smile which unexpectedly displaces the clouded brow, is the symbol of peace. Arguments are thrust away by hundreds, like beggars from the facade of a palace. The party most in the right, mourns over this degrading advantage. The party most in the wrong, confesses the error incurred with so ingenuous a grace, as to make error look as if it gave new improvement and finishing to a character. — Marry, Fleetwood! If you live, marry! You know nothing of happiness, if you do not! You are as ignorant of the true zest of human life, as the oak which at this moment overcanopies us with its branches!"
Such were the advices of the intelligent and kind-hearted friend I had thus accidentally acquired. They made a strong impression upon me. I know not whether the impression would have been so forcible, had the circumstances under which the advice was given been different. But the reader must recollect that it was addressed to me in the midst of an amiable family, the children of which were daughters. While Macneil was earnest in describing the sort of wife he would recommend to me, I thought of these accomplished young women: when we returned home from the walk or ride which these discussions had occupied, I looked round upon the circle, with different emotions from those which had previously accompanied the spectacle: could it be otherwise? I have already said that the junior of the three particularly engaged my attention: I now caught myself repeatedly in my solitude uttering the involuntary exclamation, "Mary, if ever I marry, it is thou that shalt be my bride!"
The conversations between me and my host, the sense of which I have thus compressed, occupied many successive excursions. One day when Macneil was most deeply engaged in the argument, I turned suddenly upon him, and cried out somewhat gaily, "Now, my friend, shall I try whether you are in earnest in all this declamation? If such a marriage as you describe is desirable for me, it will be no less desirable for the woman I shall chuse; one of the parties in wedlock cannot be happy alone. You say, I should chuse a young person, a person of pleasing manners, and a cultivated mind: where can I verify this description so truly, as by your fire-side? Will you give me one of your daughters?"
My friend paused. "A question like this compels one to be serious indeed. — But — you have no grave meaning in proposing the interrogatory?"
"I cannot tell. Your arguments have made me think: I do not say they have converted me. Macneil, I do not wish to trifle with you: if my question touches you too nearly, I dispense you from a reply."
"No; the question has been asked, and it shall be answered. Only, as I by no means wish to restrain you, by treating your question as a proposal, so I must request you in return to consider my answer, as belonging merely to an abstract illustration, as a logical experiment to try the soundness of my recommendation. I should be as much to blame in violating the modesty and maiden dignity of my children, as in imposing fetters of any sort on the freedom of your deliberations."
"Agreed! Nothing can be more reasonable."
'Well then; I have no objection to your person, your family, your fortune, your understanding, your accomplishments, not even to your age. But then as to your temper, —
"Ay, there is the point!"
"What a strange thing is advice! How difficult is it to put one's self exactly in the place of another? How hard, to be sure that the advice we give, is exactly that which we should think reasonable, could we change persons with the man upon whom we are so ready to obtrude it? Fleetwood, I swear that I am your friend: I swear that the project I urged upon you, was urged in the sincerity of my heart." —
"Io, triumphe! I see, I shall die a bachelor!" — Shall I confess my secret weakness? My Io, triumphe, was uttered with a heavy heart. The lovely Mary had gained a station in my bosom, from which I felt I could with difficulty dislodge her.
"I love my children; you, all the world, would despise me if I did not. It is so difficult to judge for a child, conscious of unripened discernment, and relying on my superior penetration and experience, or by whom, if this reliance is not placed, it clearly ought to be! I could cheerfully commit my own happiness to the lottery of human affairs, but thus to dispose of the little all of one's daughter, is a fearful responsibility! —
"Yet, after all, this responsibility I must encounter. If my daughter marries a wise man or a fool, a prodigal or an economist, an honest man or a knave, and it is done with my approbation, it must alike happen that I may consider myself as the author of her happiness or her misery.
"Well then, Fleetwood, I confess that the woman who marries you, will engage in a considerable risk. But, God knows, all marriage is a risk, is the deepest game that can be played in this sublunary scene. You say true, that your risk will not be less, than that of the dame who accepts your hand. Yet I adhere to my advice, 'Marry!' or, which is indeed merely dressing that advice in another guise, 'Fleetwood, take the child of my bosom! win her partiality and kindness; my approbation waits on her preference!'
"By this question however, which, as I said, I have answered merely under the notion of a logical experiment, you have brought to my recollection a part of the subject, which, before, I ought not to have forgotten; and I thank you for it. If you should ever feel seriously disposed to adopt my recommendation, let it not be done lightly and unadvisedly. Consider it as the most important transaction of your life. Consider that not merely your own happiness, but that of the woman who has consented to embark hers under your protection, the virtue and respectability of your possible offspring, and the peace of the venerable parents who have resigned her to your discretion, are at stake upon the due regulation of your temper. Here indeed lies the great difference between your present condition, and that which I have been chalking out for you. Independent and sole as you now stand, you find yourself answerable to none: you can discard your servants when you please; you can break off with your acquaintance; and you need scarcely deign to ask yourself, Was I in fault? But you cannot so break off from the ties of affinity and blood. Believe me, too much independence is not good for man. It conduces neither to his virtue, nor his happiness. The discipline which arises out of the domestic charities, has an admirable tendency to make man, individually considered, what man ought to be. I do not think you, Fleetwood, worse than your neighbours. You are an honest and a just man, with sense enough to discern the right, and courage enough to pursue it. If you are now wayward and peevish and indolent and hypochondriacal, it is because you weakly hover on the outside of the pale of human society, instead of gallantly entering yourself in the ranks, and becoming one in the great congregation of man."
It was in such conversation that Macneil and I passed our time in our excursions on the banks of the Windermere. With what delight I recollect this happy interval of my life! Ruffigny and Macneil were the only two men I ever knew, the clearness of whose thinking was an ever fresh source of delight, and the generosity of whose souls, enlightening their discourse, made their face occasionally look, as if it had been the face of an angel. But in the society of Macneil my happiness was even purer than in that of my father's friend. Ruffigny, gallant, noble-hearted mortal as he was, stood alone; my intercourse with him was a perpetual tête à tête, and had too much of monotony and uniformity for the unsatisfied cravings of the human mind; but to return home with Macneil, after a morning's temperate and sober discussion, and to see him surrounded with his blameless wife and accomplished daughters, what could the heart of man look for more? Add to which, I was occupied with the new sensations which agitated my bosom for the charming Mary. While I talked with her, I forgot my prejudices against her sex; the marchioness de L. and the countess of B. seemed daily more and more to become the shadow of a dream; her conversation was so inexpressibly ingenuous, and her sallies so artless, that, in spite of my preconceptions, she stole away my heart. Her delight was in flowers; and she seemed like one of the beauties of her own parterre, soft and smooth and brilliant and fragrant and unsullied.
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