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DEBATABLE GROUND. Should custom and conventionality rule the lives of women, or no? Has Mrs. Grundy a beneficial influence ?
Mrs. Grundy is, on the whole, surprisingly popular. Chelsea China considers her in this western world a changeable old lady, constantly modified for evil and for good by those who defy her. She rather wonders that no one has had a good fling at her. Very few have recognised that she may encourage as well as repress evil. On which side was she in the evil days of the Regency? Where, alas! in some circles is she now?
Look at India, where she has reigned supreme for centuries. What is it but Mrs. Grundy grown to a Begum, who rules the lives of Indian widows now?
Leonora, strongly in favour of Mrs. Grundy, who, she says, has moved with the times.' (Who have moved her—those who obeyed, or those who defied her ?)
Matilda thinks our social laws and customs served our forefathers -why should we pretend to know better than our forefathers? They were governed by them, why not we?' (How about Undine's woad?)
Tre Pol and Pen writes a good paper on the sort of follies committed by girls, who wish to be thought unconventional. But if the public opinion of a 'set' is in favour of such license, it is rather hard to say on which side is the special Mrs. Grundy. .
Bournemouth Beetle thinks that though custom and conventionality are not infallible, there are few such valuable guides to the young and inexperienced.
Harrie speaks well of the protection afforded by the rules of society, as a standard of appeal to young ladies placed in difficult and responsible situations, both as giving a comfortable sense of correctness, and as steering them through social difficulties. This is quite true.
Dorigen thinks Mrs. Grundy a great assistance to people who cannot do without her.
Elcaam, in a very good paper, recognises the fact that Mrs. Grundy can rule for evil as well as for good ; but thinks that conventionality is quite necessary to the organisation of society, and thinks it valuable as tending to oneness, and therefore to love and sympathy. This is
quite a new idea to Chelsea China, who would like to see it rather more worked out.
Lamda, a very good and moderate paper, distinguishing between small things and great.
Unconventional thinks that at the present day, when progress is easy and certain, Mrs. Grundy, though an inferior goddess, may act as a useful check.
Spinning Jenny, though arguing for a reasonable obedience, is on the side of the 'ages,' and thinks that if a woman desires her life to be useful and beneficial, she should be ruled by custom and conventionality.
Rudge perceives that as the world moves onwards customs change and advance. Mrs. Grundy alters, and she adds: Let us discover to ourselves our true motive before we break through time-honoured conventionalities. Let us ask ourselves whether we do it to be remarkable, or because we think it right. If the latter, we may be sure courage and strength will be given us to brave the world's opinions; if the former, we may find that in refusing the guidance of conventionality, we have lost our way.
The following assertion of Emerson’s is a safe maxim
“What I must do is all that concerns me, not what people think.”'
Alicia.- Dear, excellent, much-maligned Mrs. Grundy! May I seize the present occasion to lay a slight tribute of affection at your feet. I was just stepping forward when I heard a kind of gasp, and saw a sweet pretty girl standing beside me, “Mrs. Grundy, but she is so very uninteresting!' “Yes, just as uninteresting as the Ancient Roman or the Modern Englishman (whom she most resembles), for all three are Road-makers. Just think what we owe to the people who have made communication safe, swift, and easy by road or rail.'
Undine.--It is the good green wood in late autumn, a north-easterly gale is blowing, and the oak leaves are scattering fast. Piles of acorns lie on the ground. An Ancient Briton, becomingly attired in a coating of brilliant blue woad, but otherwise unprotected from the cold, is contemplating a wolf skin at his feet. A friend, also blue as the skies of Italy, sits on a fallen log beside him.
First A. B.- The wind is cold. That slain beast did not feel it. Ha! why should not I too wear a coat?' (seizes the wolf skin and wraps it gracefully round him). •Ha-ha-ha! The wind may blow, I am warm !'
Second A. B.—Degenerate chieftain! When did a warrior care to protect himself from the cold. Coward! How, thus disfigured, can you appear on the battle-field! Woman! what maiden will be wooed by a creature thus disguised ? Our fathers wore woad—and woad alone—it is our custom, the only covering of a hero? Are you a wild beast, or a feeble girl?'
First A. B., after a moment of painful doubt.— Hang the custom, and bother the maidens, I'll risk it!'
(Stalks off in his new-fangled cloak, while his conservative friend consoles himself with a meal of raw acorns, and reflects on the degeneracy of modern times. But the next time he went to a gathering of his tribe, one frosty day in December, he found that wolf skins had become the fashion !)
Paper Knife.—Is Mrs. Grundy of use ? Yes; for her teachings are not very clever, nor always very kind, but till better can be put in their place, they are often a substitute for principlo, and an anticipation of experience. The old story of Rachel's training is precisely to the point. Using too much gesture in recitation the girl's hands were tied, till her excitement broke the bonds. You inay be free, because now you must !' were in effect her teacher's words. The same in life-conventionalities are restaints on social awkwardness, only to be cast off when there must be freedom, then the inner zeal breaks out into superbly natural expression. Conventionalities should be consciously known before it is safe to cast them off. They are the symbols of certain social hindrances to bad manners and morals on which it is not expedient for every one to reason afresh, nor do they profess more than to ease the friction of everyday life. Hence, whilst not mistaking Conventionality for her superiors, the average mortal will do well to remain within her tutelage in default of wider experience; and also it is clear that she has a power of advance, and that even the average mortal may advance with her from day to day.
Lucciola.—We define conventionality as the unwritten law of good society, formulated gradually, varying with degrees of social progress, but accepted by common consent, as helping to regulate the minor morals which escape larger codes. Every corporate body has conventionalisms and would fall to pieces without them. Our answer to the question is an affirmative absolute. We cannot lay down general rules for exceptional cases, each must be met and dealt with on its own merits. It is usually urged on the negative side, that good will be left undone, and evil often flourish, from a cowardly fear of Mrs. Grundy's tongue. This is part of the cry of our time, that woman is to be enfranchised from some fancied slaving of the past—that she has been too long treated as a cypher. So she is—to life's great reckoning as the cypher to arithmetic-one without whom the sum cannot possibly be worked. But her value depends on her place at man's right hand ; alone, or on the wrong side of the integer, she is valueless. Mr. Ruskin has brought out the principles of convention in Art in a way that should equally help us in common life. You can't,' he says, “have noble Art without conventionalism. What is beautiful in the wild woods will not necessarily be so on the temple-walls, unless the artist knows how to conventionalise; you do not fetter or enslave by bringing beauty
fitness which check teaching apply to pali of artistic
into obedience to law.' Among natural objects he instances vineleaves, and gives in one of his exquisite drawings from Venice an example of what he terms, 'vine-leaves in service.' He marks the decadence of art, when in the Renaissance the individual will was suffered to turn the perfect freedom of noble service into the unchartered freedom of license and excess. The very spirit of artistic creation died out, as men forgot the principle of artistic obedience. Will not Mr. Ruskin's teaching apply to all unwritten laws of taste and fitness which check individual will? Granted that conventionality must exist, is the would-be law-breaker the best judge of its utility ? The Apostle who, of all others, taught the “woman-cypher' of Christendom to attain her full value on the right side of the integer, asks us not to let our good be evil spoken of—to give none offence in anything that the ministry be not blamed. Conventionality must be the rule, its defiance the very rare exception, in a woman's life. Mrs. Grundy may be a tiresome old lady, but we have a fellow-feeling for the class. If even a dumb ass might rebuke the madness of a prophet, may not she (or we) rank with Balaam's ass in warning people off a dangerous road? We claim no more for Mrs. Grundy.
Pellegrina.—Custom, or what has been the usual conduct under given circumstances; conventionality, or the social agreements of the civilisation of the period, should certainly influence the life of woman, and of man also, in any wholesome society; and so far as Mrs. Grundy expresses the public opinion of such a society, she also is entitled to respect.
But this influence (a term I prefer to rule as less liable to be misunderstood) is subject to various limitations.
Custom and conventionality are the expressions of civilisation at the point at which we stand, and are always altering. Society is a living corporate body, and change, either of growth or decay, is always active in it. What is usual, and agreed upon is, in healthy society, becoming enlarged towards a broader life, which expands unusual excellence into the general custom, and that in time into a better form
‘Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.' Persons who live keenly, who have strong characters, though they may instinctively avoid collision with rules, are often outgrowing them and influencing others in the same direction, and thus society progresses and customs differ in each generation. But real originality is a positive quality, inferring strength in great matters; and is not shown in a meaningless defiance of rules, which is rather the mark of a childish or a dull character.
Again, · Nice customs curtsey to great kings. No custom is more important than its origin. They must yield to great emergencies also.
Further, the qu'en dira t'on should be an influence, but must never be a tyrant, and should not be too eagerly listened for. Also we should avoid yielding to unreasonable customs—it is with 'fools' that
Custom more than reason rules :
Laid upon their fellow-man.' Spermologos.—Mrs. Grundy is a useful censor in things indifferent, but no further. She is quite competent to decide what things a woman can do without making herself conspicuous, and as long as there is no right or wrong in the actual habit, the duties of meekness and modesty require that remark should not be courted one way or the other. But the instant the indifferent is passed, we must go to a higher tribunal than Mrs. Grundy, or she will either lead us into evil, or paralyse us for good.
On the other hand, Mrs. Grundy, i.e. public opinion, does, when wholesome and healthy, actually prevent the commission of many sins, which would otherwise leave a stain and a blot. Being a creature of breath, whom we all have a share in forming, she is utterly unreliable, and no substitute for principle; but still her existence (?), when she is of a right kind, often saves the inexperienced from evils they are not able to understand, even when guided by Religion. But when Religion and Mrs. Grundy clash, she becomes that world to which we may not be conformed.