SISTERLY DISCOURSE WITH JOHN’S WIFE CONCERNING JOHN.
John is not John until he is married. He assumes the sobriquet at the altar as truly as his bride takes the title of “Mistress” or “Madame.” Once taken, the name is generic, inalienable and untransferable. Yet, as few men marry until they have attained legal majority, it follows that your John—my John—every wife’s John—must have been in making for a term of years before he fell into our hands.
Sometimes he is marred in the making.
The most loyal wife admits to her inmost self in the most confidential season of self-communion, that she could have brought up her husband better than his mother or whatever feminine relative had the training of him succeeded in doing. An opinion which, I remark, is not shared by the relative in question. The mother of a growing son will know how to sympathize with her Mamma-in-law, when her own son—
I am John’s advocate and best friend, but I cannot withhold the admission that he has some grave faults, and one or two incurable disabilities. Grappling, forthwith, with the most obstinate of these last—I name it boldly. John is not—he never can be—and would not be if he could—a woman. Taking into consideration the incontrovertible truth that nobody but a woman ever understood another woman—the situation is serious enough. So desperate in fact, that every mother’s daughter of the missionary sex is fired with zealous desire to mend it, and chooses for a subject her own special John—in esse or in posse.
This may sound like badinage, but it is uttered in sad earnest. The wife’s irrational longing to extract absolute sympathy of taste, opinion and feeling, from her wedded lord, is a baneful growth which is as sure to spring up about the domestic hearth as pursley—named by the Indian, “the white man’s foot”—to show itself about the squatter’s door. Once rooted it is as hard to eradicate as plantain and red sorrel.
I brand it as “irrational,” because common sense shows the extreme improbability that two people—born of different stocks, and brought up in different households—the man, sometimes, in no household at all—should each be the exact counterpart of the other; should come together provided respectively, with the very qualities, likes and dislikes, that the partner needs and prefers.
Add to the improbability aforesaid the inevitable variance of views upon divers important subjects consequent upon the standpoint masculine and the standpoint feminine, and the wonder grows—not that some marriages are unhappy, but that a large percentage of wedded couples jog on comfortably, and, if not without jar, without open scandal. That they do speaks volumes for the wisdom of Him who ordained marriage as man’s best estate—and something—not volumes—perhaps, but a pamphlet or two—in behalf of human powers of philosophical endurance.
Before going farther it would be well to look our subject in the face—inspect it fairly and without prejudice pro or con.
Stand forth, honest John! and let us behold you, as God made and your mother—in blood, or in heart—trained you. Let the imagination of my readers survey him, as he plants himself before us. Albeit a trifle more conscious than a woman would be in like circumstances, of the leading fact that he has the full complement of hands and feet usually prescribed by Nature, he bears scrutiny bravely. He is what he would denominate in another, “a white man;” square in his dealings with his fellow-men and with a soft place, on the sunny side of his heart, for the women. He would add—”God bless them!” did we allow him to speak. Men of his sort rarely think of their own womenkind or of pure, gentle womanhood in the abstract, without a benediction, mental or audible.
Our specimen, you will note, as he begins to feel at ease in the honorable pillory to which we have called him—puts his hands into his pockets. The gesture supplies us with the first clause of our illustrated lecture. Without his pockets John would be a cipher, and a decimal cipher at that. If some men were not all pocket they would never be Johns, for no Jill would be so demented as to “come tumbling after” them. I have seen a pocket marry off a hump-back, a twisted foot and sixty winters’ fall of snow upon the head, while a pocketless Adonis sighed in vain for Beauty’s glance. A full pocket balances an empty skull as a good heart cannot; a plethoric pocket overshadows monstrous vices.
But at his cleanly best, John’s pockets are an integral part of his personality. He feels after his pocket instinctively while yet in what corresponds in the genus homowith the polywog state in batrachia. The incipient man begins to strut as soon as mamma puts pockets into his kilted skirt—a stride as prophetic as the strangled crow of the cockerel upon the lowest bar of the fence.
The direst penance Johnny can know is to have his pockets stitched up because he will keep his hands in them. To deny him the right is to do violence to natural laws. He is the born money-maker, bread-winner, provider—the hüsbonda of our Anglo-Saxon ancestry—and the pocket is his heraldic symbol, his birthright.
The pocket question obtrudes itself at an alarmingly early period of married life—whoever may be the moneyed member of the new firm. When, as most frequently happens, this is John, the ultra-conscientious may think that he ought, prior to the wedding-day, to have hinted to his highland or lowland Mary, that he did not intend to throw unlimited gold into her apron every day. If he had touched this verity however remotely, she would not have married him. The man who speaks the straight-forward truth in such circumstances might as well put a knife to his throat, if love and life are synonyms.
Honest John, thrusting his hands well towards the bottom of his pockets, smiles sheepishly, yet knowingly, in listening to this “discourse.” Courtship is one thing and marriage is another in his code. Mary’s primal mistake is in assuming—(upon John’s authority, I regret as his advocate to say), that the two states are one and the same. Moonlight vows and noonday action should, according to her theory, be in exact harmony. John does not deceive consciously. Wemmick’s office tenets differed diametrically from those he held at Walworth where his aged parent toasted the muffins, and Miss. Skiffins made the tea. The mellow fervency of John’s “With all my worldly goods I thee endow”—must be taken in a Pickwickian and Cupidian sense. Reason and experience sustain him in the belief that a tyro should learn a business before being put in charge of important interests. Mary is a tyro whose abilities and discretion he must test before—in the words of the old song—he
Most women take to married and home-life easily, because naturally. The shadow of the roof-tree, the wholesome restraint of household routine and the peaceful monotony of household tasks accord well with preconceived ideas and early education. John’s liking for domesticity is usually an acquired taste, like that for olives and caviare, and to gain aptitude for the duties it involves, requires patience. He needs filing down and chinking, and rounding off, and sand-papering before he fits decorously into the chimney-corner. And when there, he sometimes does not “season straight.” He was hewed across the grain, or the native grain ran awry, or there is a knot in the wood.
“Why were those newel posts oiled before they were set up?” I asked of a carpenter.
“T’ keep’em from checkin’, to be sure.”
“Yes, ma’am. Goin’ in shaller cracks all over, ‘s wood’s apt to do without it’s properly treated beforehand. Sometimes ‘twould crack clean through ef ‘twarnt for the ile.”
In his new position John is apt “to go in shaller cracks all over,” unless his feminine trainer has been judicious in the use of lubricants—assuasive and dissuasive. If handled aright by the owner he, to do him justice, rarely “cracks clean through.”
“Checking” in this case signifies the lack of the small, sweet courtesies which are the peaceable fruits of the Gospel of Conventionality. Breeding, good or bad, environs the growing lad, as Wordsworth tells us heaven lies about us in our infancy. The boy whose mother allows him to lounge into her presence with his cap upon his head, whose sisters wink indulgently at his shirt sleeves in parlor and at table—will don his hat and doff his coat in his wife’s sitting-room. Politeness, like gingerbread, is only excellent when home-made, and is not to be bought for money.
I wonder if John—disposed by nature and too often by education to hold such niceties of custom as trifles and cheap—suspects what a blow is dealt to his wife’s ideals when he begins to show, either that he respects her less than of old, or that he is less truly a gentleman than his careful conservation of elegant proprieties during their courtship led her to imagine. It costs him but a second’s thought and slight muscular exertion to lift his hat in kissing her on leaving home in the morning, and in returning at evening. It ought not to be an effort for him to rise to his feet when she enters the room, and to comport himself at her table and in her drawing-room as he would at the board and in the parlor of his neighbor’s wife. Each of these slight civilities elevates her in her own and in others’ eyes, and tends to give her her rightful place as queen of the home and of his heart. She may be maid-of-all-work in a modest establishment, worn and depressed by over-much drudgery, but in her husband’s eyes she is the equal of any lady in the land. Her stove-burned face and print gown do not delude him as to her real position. Furthermore—and this hint is directed sidewise at our “model”—a sense of the incongruity between the fine courtesy of her husband’s manner, and of slovenly attire upon the object of his attentions—would incite her to neatness and becomingness in dress. It is worth while to look well in the eyes of one who never for a moment forgets that he is a gentleman, and his wife a lady.
When John finds himself excusing this and that lapse from perfect breeding in his home life with the plea—”It is only my wife!” he needs to look narrowly at his grain and his seasoning. He is in danger of “checking.”
Being a man—or I would better say—not being a woman—John is probably made up without domestic tact, and his wife must be on her guard to cover the deficiency. For example, if by some mortifying combination of mischances, a dish is scantily supplied, he helps it out lavishly, scrapes the bottom officiously, and with innocent barbarity calls your attention to the fact that it needs replenishing.
“I tried once to hold my husband back from the brink of social disaster,” said one wife. “We sat opposite to one another at a dinner party where the conversation neared a topic that would be, I knew, extremely painful and embarrassing to our hostess. My John led the talk—all unaware of the peril—and when the next sentence would, I felt, be fatal, I pressed his foot under the table. What do you think that blessed innocent did? Winced visibly and sharply—stopped short in the middle of a word, and stared at me with pendulous jaw, and—while everybody looked at him for the next breath—said, resonantly—’Jane! did you touch my foot?‘”
The incident is essentially John-esque. I am as positive as if I had called for a comparison of experience, that every wife who reads this could furnish a parallel sketch from life. The average John is impervious to glance or gesture. I know one who is a model husband in most respects, who, when a danger-signal is hung out from the other end of the table, draws general attention in diplomatic fashion thus—
“Halloo! I have no idea what I have done or said, now! but when Madame gives her three-cornered frown, I know there are reefs ahead, on the starboard or the larboard side, and I’d better take my soundings.”
Women are experts in this sort of telegraphy. From one of them, such an exposé would mean downright malice, or mischief, and be understood as such. John’s voiced bewilderment may be harmful, but it is as guileless as a baby’s. It may be true that men are deceivers ever, in money or love affairs. In everyday home life, there is about the most sophisticated, a simplicity of thought and word, a transparency of motive, and, when vanity is played upon cunningly, a naive gullibility—that move us to wondering admiration. It, furthermore, I grieve to admit, furnishes manoeuvring wives with a ready instrument for the accomplishment of their designs.
For another fixed fact in the natural history of John is that, however kindly and intelligent and reasonable he may be—he needs, in double harness, to be cleverly managed, to be coaxed and petted up to what else would make him shy. If driven straight at it, the chances are forty-eight out of fifty that he will balk or bolt.
A stock story of my girlish days was of a careless, happy-go-lucky housewife, who, upon the arrival of unexpected guests, told her maid “not to bother about changing the cloth, but to set plates and dishes so as to humor the spots.”
She is a thrifty, not a slovenly manager, who accommodates the trend of daily affairs to humor her John’s peculiarities and foibles; who ploughs around stumps, and, instead of breaking the share in tough roots, eases up, and goes over them until they decay of themselves. In really good ground they leave the soil the richer for having suffered natural decomposition. If John is prone to savagery when hungry (and he usually is), our wise wife will wait until he has dined before broaching matters that may ruffle his spirit.
It is more than likely that he has the masculine bias toward wet-blanketism that tries sanguine women’s souls more sorely than open opposition. Some Johns make it a point of manly duty to discourage at first hearing any plan that has originated with a woman. I am fond of John, but this idiosyncrasy cannot be ignored. Nor is it entirely explicable upon any principle known in feminine ethics, unless it be intended by Providence as a counterweight to the womanly proclivity to see but one side of a question when we are interested in carrying it to a vote. John is as positive that there are two sides to everything, as Columbus was that the Eastern Hemisphere must have something to balance it. When Mary looks to him for instant assent and earnest sympathy, he casts about for objections, and sets them in calm array. She may have demonstrated in a thousand instances her ability to judge and act for herself, and may preface her exposition of the case in hand by saying that she has given it mature deliberation. It never occurred to him until she mentioned it; he may have sincerest respect for her sense and prudence—the chances are, nevertheless, a thousand to one that he will begin his reply with—
“That is all very well, my dear—but you must reflect, that, etc., etc., et cetera”—each et cetera a dab of wet wool, taking out more and more stiffening and color, until the beautiful project hangs, a limp rag, on her hands, a forlorn wreck over which she could weep in self-pity.
This is one of the “spots” to be “humored.” Wives there are, and not a few of them, sagacious and tender, who have learned the knack of insinuating a scheme upon husbandly attention until the logical spouses find themselves proposing—they believe of their own free will—the very designs born of their partner’s brains. This is genius, and the practical application thereof is an art in itself. It may also be classified for John’s admonition, as the natural reaction of ingenious wits against wet-blanketism. The funniest part of the transaction is that John never suspects the ruse, even at the hundredth repetition, and esteems himself, in dogged complacency, the author of his spouse’s goodliest ideas.
Such a one dreads nothing more than the reputation of being ruled by his wife. The more hen-pecked he is, the less he knows it—and vice versâ. “He jests at scars who never felt a wound.” She who has her John well in hand has broken him in too thoroughly to allow him to resent the curb, or to play with the bit.
His intentions—so far as he knows them—are so good, he tries so steadfastly to please his wife—he is so often piteously perplexed—this big, burly, blundering, blind-folded, blesséd John of ours—that our knowledge of his disabilities enwraps him in a mantle of affectionate charity. His efforts to master the delicate intricacy of his darling’s mental and spiritual organization may be like the would-be careful hold of thumb and finger upon a butterfly’s wing, but the pain he causes is inconceivable by him. The suspicion of hurt to the beautiful thing would break his heart. He could more easily lie down and die for her than sympathize intelligently in her vague, delicious dreams, the aspirations, half agony, half rapture, which she cannot convey to his comprehension—yet which she feels that he ought to share.
Ah! the pathos and the pity—sometimes the godlike patience of that silent side of our dear John! Mrs. Whitney, writing of Richard Hathaway, tells us enough of it to beget in us infinite tolerance.
“Everything takes hold away down where I can’t reach or help,” says the poor fellow of his sensitive, poetical wife. “She is all the time holding up her soul to me with a thorn in it.”
“He did not know that that was poetry and pathos. It was a natural illustration out of his homely, gentle, compassionate life. He knew how to help dumb things in their hurts. His wife he could not help.”
It reminds us of Ham Peggotty’s tender adjustment upon his palm of the purse committed to him by Emily for fallen Martha.
“‘Such a toy as it is!’ apostrophized Ham, thoughtfully, looking on it. ‘With, such a little money in it, Em’ly, my dear.'”
We are reminded more strongly of rough, gray boulders holding in their hearts the warmth of the sunshine for the comfortable growth of mosses that creep over and cling to and beautify them.
John is neither saint nor hero, except in Mary’s fancy sketch of the Coming Man. He remonstrates against canonization strenuously—dissent that passes with the idealist for modesty, and enhances her admiration. She is oftener to blame for the disillusion than he. With the perverseness of feminine nature she construes strength into coarseness of fibre, slowness into brutal indifference. Until women get at the truth in this matter of self-deception, disappointment surely awaits upon awakening from Love’s young dream.
The surest guard against the shock of broken ideals is to keep ever before the mind that men are not to be measured by feminine standards of perfection. Mary has as little perception of perspective as a Chinese landscape painter; she colors floridly and her drawing is out of line.
Put John in his proper place as regards distances, shadow and environment, and survey him in the cool white light of common sense. Unless he is a poseur of uncommon skill, he will appear best thus.
Conjugal quarrels are so constantly the theme of ridicule and the text of warnings to the unwedded that we lose sight of the plain truth that husbands and wives bicker no more than parents and children, brothers and sisters. In every community there are more blood-relations who do not speak to one another than divorced couples. Wars and fightings come upon us, not through matrimony so much as through the manifold infirmities of mortal nature. John, albeit not a woman, is a vertebrate human being, “with hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions. If you prick him he will bleed, if you tickle him he will laugh, if you poison him he will die.” In the true marriage, he is the wife’s other self—one lobe of her brain—one ventricle of her heart—the right hand to her left. This is the marriage the Lord hath made.
The occasional clash of opinions, the passing heat of temper, are but surface-gusts that do not stir the brooding love of hearts at rest in one another.
While John remains loyal to his wedded wife, forsaking all others and cleaving to her alone, the inventory of his faults should be a sealed book to her closest confidante, the carping discussion of his failings be prohibited by pride, affection and right taste. This leads me to offer one last tribute to our patient (and maybe bored) subject. He has as a rule, a nicer sense of honor in the matter of comment upon his wife’s shortcomings and foibles than she exhibits with regard to his.
Set it down to gallantry, chivalry, pride—custom—what you will—but the truth sheds a lustre upon our John of which I mean he shall have the full advantage. Perhaps the noblest reticence belongs to the Silent Side of him. I hardly think it is because he has no yearning for sympathy, no need of counsel, when he reluctantly admits to himself that that upon which he has ventured most is, in some measure, a disappointment. Be this as it may, Mary may learn discretion from him—and the lesson conned should be forbearance with offensive peculiarities, and, what she names to her sore spirit, lack of appreciation. Given the conditions of his fidelity and devotion—and she may well “down on her knees and thank God fasting for a good man’s love.”
Categories: English Literature