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Men’s Women and Women’s Women


ISSUE:  Winter 1926

“Iris is a man’s woman right through”—Weekly Paper.

What a lot of silly sayings carry weight just because they are so old that nobody remembers who it was that said them! Heaven knows I don’t inveigh against them on the score of age: like Old Hardcastle “I love everything that’s old; old friends, old times, old manners, old books, old wine.” The mere burden of years has a sort of ennobling virtue: it is difficult to look critically at bowed shoulders and white hair. However firmly you say to yourself—”I know that this man and this woman have led unattractive fives: I know that he is a rogue and she’s a fool: Why then should I pay them attention or respect merely on account of stiff limbs, dim eyes, and the burden of the grasshopper? Age in itself is no virtue!” Yet, when it comes to the moment of encounter, sentiment steps in (if you choose to call it sentiment, though I like to think it is something better) and persists in according this weak man and that ineffectual woman respect and attention just because each— “… sits and gazes on a faded fire, When all the goodlier guests are past away.” And when the old are not merely old, but wisely, serenely, gloriously old, then it is difficult to express the sort of reverence that they extract from us, the precise emotion of mingled awe, envy and pity that we have for them.

And yet—why pity? Because youth is gone and beauty with it? But isn’t that absurd? Aren’t we making ourselves ridiculous with our superior prime o’ life airs? For what youth compares with the vitality of a Goethe or a Hardy? What Helen’s rose and gold with the beauty of Mother Carey?

I remember learning in my schooldays the queer German poem of Chidher. One day “Chidher, ever-young,” passes a certain way where flowers grow, the brilliant wild harebells and blue campanulas, one fancies, of a Saxon meadow. “When five hundred years are come and gone” he passes that way again: a roaring city stands where the field bloomed! “When five hundred years are come and gone” he passes that way again: there is once more a field with flowers!

“And when five hundred years are o’er,
Chidher will pass that way once more.”
concludes the story. Isn’t that a pleasant, smiling epitome of human life and human progress? But I never see the immortal as a boy. “Chidher, always young,” has the thick white hair, the brilliant, deep-seeing eyes of a Whitman and the old man’s vigorous figure is only a little bent upon the scarce-used staff. Chidher smiles on meadow, on city, on city, on meadow; but his smile could not have that whimsical sweetness if he were a young man. Youth is so bowed and solemn under its conscientious acquisition of experiences. It is only old age, ripe with experience rather than experiences that knows the secret of feeling young.

What is the secret? Wherein lies this incommunicable charm of old age? They have outlived the trials and chances of this mortal life, is that it? They are serene because the hungers—love, passion, greed, even the mere body’s need of food, drink, and rest, have dwindled to a habit. That is what the young believe, and the old know it and smile their young, their tolerant smile. What (they do not ask) is the grief of fourteen year old Juliet, with her quick easy make-way out of all her hideous fears, to the grief of a woman like Elizabeth the Queen, dying at eighty literally of a broken heart. If there is any connection between youth and vigor, youth and the capacity to suffer, which is the younger of the two? Juliet was never young: she was not old enough to be young. The old only suffer vicariously— is that the sop to our consciences? But which passion hurts you the more to witness on the dramatic stage or, if you like it better, on the stage of real life (we have all had our chance of watching “The Trojan Women” on both stages within the last few years) the passion of Andromache, young wife and mother, or the passion of the “mobled queen” herself? Or, if you will judge by joy rather than grief, which is the more heart-warming? Sunrise or sunset? The song of Hannah or the song of Simeon? Awe indeed we may feel before the old, and envy we may feel, but not pity: the old, like the newly born, are too near the unknown for that. Indeed, to look at a child or an old woman asleep is to feel in yourself a sense of high strange things drawing near. The baby and the crone both smile in sleep and, compared with those smiling faces, Mona Lisa becomes a common, comprehended creature. What do they see in their dreams, a few weeks behind them, a few months ahead? There is magic in youth, and holy magic in old age.

We all know it: we all feel the spell, whether we acknowledge it or not, and the feeling shows itself sometimes in queer ways enough, carrying over into things as well as people— “It was so old a ship—who knows, who knows?
And yet so beautiful, I watched in vain
To see the mast burst open with a rose,
And the whole deck put on its leaves again.”

Lovely lines—but it is the word “old” that puts the listener into the mood the poet desifes. It is the oldest oak in the wood, not the tallest, that we walk five miles to see. It is so old—Mab’s self planted it: King Charles hid in its branches. And coming home through the village you stop in spite of your short purse at the local “antique” shop as a matter of course, when you would not stop at Maple’s or Hampton’s. Why? Twenty pounds for a plain gate-leg table? Preposterous! Two pounds ten for a knife box? Never!

“Madam, they are old ones—guaranteed—out of an old house near here—.”

You shrug and pay.

Still, when it comes to submitting ourselves to some impracticable law because Henry the something enacted it, to pooh-poohing everything new because our fathers have declared unto us that it was not so in their days, above all when it comes to measuring ourselves and condemning our fellows by some old wives’ phrase that mere antiquity and nothing else has hallowed, that is carrying due respect too far altogether. Besides, who does not hate having a proverb flung at her instead of argument? When I want to wear my new summer frock on Easter Monday because it is hot enough to bathe in the river, I hate being told that I must stick to woolens, all dingy and out-dated in the merciless spring sunshine, just because some great-Granny once said, “Ere May is out, ne’er change a clout I” It’s maddening to be told that “a stitch in time will save nine” when your glove button wears loose and you are already late for the theatre! That you will only “live and thrive” if you “let a spider run alive” is not true. In spite of all my care the broom and I have occasional misunderstanding with spiders, and here I am still! To catch together a hole in your stocking without taking it off when you’ve a train to catch is not “slut’s work,” it’s common sense: and an apple going to bed doesn’t make the doctor beg his bread: it’s worse than lobster salad for attracting “the night-mare and her nine-fold.”

But more than all these wise saws I dislike that phrase that is invariably employed against every woman who knows how to dress and hold a court—So-and-so is a man’s woman!’ “A man’s woman!” Vague, offensive, stupid phrase! I wonder who invented it. I wonder what it is supposed to mean. And there is its equally silly counter irritant—a woman’s woman. The latter phrase is, of course, so meaningless as to be negligible, but “a man’s woman” has become enough of a sneer to be worth a protest, especially as the phrase nowadays seems to me to be always used, not so much against the old notion of a man’s woman that has come down to us, I suppose, from Cleopatra, but against any woman possessing beauty and personal charm whose interests and friendships are formed regardless of sex or age.

I have an acquaintance— “Stand still, true woman that you are,
I know you—let me try and draw you!”
a tall, wild-rose coloured creature, with a mouth that is always trying, not too successfully, to conceal the fact that something is amusing her. The circumstances of her life have surrounded her with men, among whom she has many close friends. If she has fewer women friends, at least she can say that of those few she has never lost one. For she is a living contradiction to that other stupid pronouncement “No woman can keep a secret!” Tell one to this woman and it drops like a stone flung into a mountain pool. Ask her advice and she gives it, briefly, and never reproaches you for not having taken it. She is practical, with a business head, but she has also charming manners and knows how to catch the tone of her world. She is a wise wife, a faithful mother, a patient daughter, a friend in a thousand: and yet, because she is astonishingly pretty and enjoys her own good looks; because she dances well, dresses well, walks well, talks well, listens well, and perhaps because that fleeting smile of hers is not always perfectly under control at a tea-party, she has the reputation among acquaintances, who ought to know better, of despising her sisters—of being, “one of those young ladies” as Miss Bingley would put it, “who seek to recommend themselves to the other sex by undervaluing their own. . . a paltry device, a very mean art”—of being, that is “a man’s woman.”

It’s an astonishingly unfair and wounding phrase, used as I have heard it used. And yet the women are right. My acquaintance is, in spite of herself, a man’s woman: if by that we mean (if we think it over), the sort of woman who, brains or no brains, impresses herself on all whom she meets. What is the secret of her charm? What is the quality in her that makes every man admire and every woman long to shake her? I think it lies in her smile. It is the smile of a woman who has a working understanding with life. Life, her smile asserts, may not have been kind, but, thank the Lord, it has always been amusing. She has always been able to laugh at life’s incredible dexterity in making a fool of her, and in that laughter the bitterness of disillusionment and failure has been dissolved. And with that laughter has come the knowledge that, from now on, she will be able to keep her balance and her head in any earthquake that life has yet in reserve. She has learnt to belong to no man or woman, but to own herself. Principles support her: she does not lean on people any more. And it is that air of poise, that noble self-reliance, that pleasant and easily pleased indifference which attracts her fellow creatures to her as bees are drawn to a flower; but especially attracts men, who are apt to value most highly what they don’t understand— “ ’Tis expectation makes a blessing dear:
Heaven were not heaven, if we knew what it were.”

If we knew what it were! How can they be expected to accept the paradox that the man’s woman is always a woman’s woman at heart, glad to be drawn into the woman-world and deeply interested enough, slightly puzzled by her sisters’ odd display of romantic curiosity over that half of the human family which she understands instinctively, but which has never puzzled nor particularly intrigued her. To hear a man’s woman in a relaxed moment recount her experiences and give her considered opinion of the sex in whom she is supposed to be expertly interested, is a shock to that naive, sentimentalizing creature that the phrase “a woman’s woman” is designed to describe. For, to the woman’s woman, a man, whom she sometimes meets as an acquaintance, seldom as a husband, and never as a lover, remains the most interesting creature in the universe, complex, inexplicable, unexpected, the last guardian of that last of the high places, the Castle of Romance. It is the woman’s woman (if she exists outside the phrase) who still preserves the tradition of masculine superiority and masculine chivalry, who will not allow, even in the twentieth century, common sense and comradeship to replace glamour. It is the woman’s woman who tells tales in the twilight of St. George and the Dragon, of Prince Charming and the enchanted Princess, while the man’s woman listens and smiles. But, draw her aside, while the cheerful, excitable, believing voice of the woman’s woman (such an excellent nurse, such a faithful guardian, such a kind friend) rings through the shadows and the children hang upon her every word—

“So Prince Charming picked her up in his arms—”

“Did he?” you ask the man’s woman in a whisper.

“Well,” says the man’s woman, “as a matter of fact, I was rather too heavy for him, but—”

“—flung her upon the horse Falada—”

“He did get so hot, poor dear!”

“—and galloped away!”

“And what happened then?” demanded the children.

“Yes, what did happen then?” you second it.

The man’s woman considers:

“Well—we—we waited till it was over.”

“Till what was over?”

“The fuss—” “Well—and then?” “Oh, then we went back.” “What? To the castle?”

“Well, where else was there to go? He hadn’t a penny —the youngest son, you know. Father got him a job. Mother and I fixed it. Mother always liked him. Mother’s so romantic.”

“And was that all?”

“Why, yes.”

“And were you—happy?”

But as the man’s woman hesitates, the voice of the woman’s woman rings out, rather beautiful in its hushed triumph—

“And they had two children and lived happy ever after.”

“Yes, we had two children,” says the man’s woman, smiling, and lets it go at that.

Men’s women and women’s women! What rubbishy phrases they are! Yet I suppose they embody a kind of truth, and that there are two types of women in the world. Which is the happier, I wonder? Which is better, to eat your cake or have it—to dream or to wake from dreams?

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