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Women's Novels

Brownson's Quarterly Review, July 1875.

(A review of: 1. Grapes and Thorns. By M.A.T., author of "The House of York," "A Winged Word," etc. New York: The Catholic Publication Society. 1874. 8vo,pp.286. 2. Brockley Moore: A Novel. New York: Appleton & Co. 1874. 12mo, pp. 307. 3. Hearts and Hands. By CHRISTIAN REID. New York: Appleton & Co. 1875. 8vo.

In noticing the first of these two works, "Grapes and Thorns," we feel that we must summon up all that remains of our youthful gallantry, and not forget for a moment that the work is written by a sensitive lady. We forget it when reviewing her "House of York," and spoke of it in our natural voice, without softening its tones, according to our honest judgment of its merits, as if the author had been a hard-headed man; and the lady's friends set us down as a bear, and duly berated us. We shall take good care not to get another such a berating, as not she, but her male friends, gave us. Besides, we still remember the lesson read us both publicly and privately by the irrespressible Nun of Kenmare. In the very first number of our revived series, we committed three mortal offences: we criticized the "House of York," we failed to praise the Nun of Kenmare, and we doubted the infallibility of Louis Veuillot; and it shows an extraordinary charity on the part of the Catholic public that we are still enabled to make our quarterly appearance. But, though we frankly confess our literary sins, and promise not to repeat them-unless occasion offers-we are afraid that we do not very sincerely repent them.
But, seriously, while we hold womanhood, as every true man does, in profound reverence, we consider it a sad thing, that women produce so large a share of modern popular literature. It is to this fact, combined with that of journalism, that we attribute the light and superficial, the sensational and sentimental, character of the popular literature of the day, its lack of deep and vigorous thought, its weakness, its enervating tendency on the mind of the reader, and its unhealthy influence on society. The authoress herself shows, in the character of Lawrence Gerald in "Grapes and Thorns," the injury it is to a man to be the pet of the other sex, and to be formed by feminine rather than by masculine influences. He is "a spoiled child," weak in will, feeble in resolution, conceited, overbearing, cruel, unfeeling, incapable of robust thought, manly action, or sustained effort. Let any one, after reading either of the novels before us, leave it and attempt to read a page of St. Thomas, or to make a meditation on any one of the great mysteries of faith, and he will at once understand the damaging effect on the mind and the heart of novel-reading or the effeminate literature of the day. It unfits one for serious and solid study, enervates the mind, wastes the freshness of the heart, and creates a morbid craving for excitement.

We may be very wrong, but we have not yet been able to accept - which appears to be almost universally accepted at present - the doctrine that ascribes all the noble qualities and virtues of the son to the mother. In our opinion, the paternal influence counts for something as well as the maternal in the formation of character; and though we admit that, as a rule, it is a far greater misfortune for very young children to be deprived of their mother, than it is to be deprived of their father, yet we do not believe it is desirable, at least for boys, that they should be brought up exclusively by their mothers. The faults of what we call Young America are in a great measure due to maternal weakness on the one hand, and the absence of paternal authority on the other. Mothers, for the most part, alternate between over-indulgence and over-severity. When they act from their maternal instinct, they put up with and pet their children whatever they do; when they attempt to act from their reason, they pass over nothing. Most American mothers fail to govern their children, because they fail to govern themselves. But, aside from all this, while we hold the mother's influence very essential, as well as her tenderness during all the early life, we do not believe mothers are fitted to form strong and manly characters in their sons. The mother's influence softens, weakens, and enervates, when not tempered and hardened by the influence of the father. Lawrence Gerald, in "Grapes and Thorns," shows that mothers, excellent Catholic mothers, too, are not always qualified to train up their sons to be strong, energetic, self-reliant men, able to meet the rough-and-tumble of life, and to distinguish themselves in society as bold, honest, upright characters. He was idolized by his mother, who saw no fault in him as he grew up; but he was really a lazy, worthless scamp, and, as he himself confessed, a "gambler, a house-breaker, a thief, a sacrilegious liar, a murderer, and a matricide."

We acknowledge that our Puritan ancestors were too stern and rigid, they knew little or nothing of the gentleness and sweetness of the Gospel; but they maintained family government, and trained up their children to honor and obey their parents, to be honest and upright. The sons grew up with strong and manly characters, patterned after their fathers, and filled worthily their places when they were gone, in the family, in society, in the church - such as they had - and in the state. There is no use in denying it, private and public virtue was the rule: men and women, with rarely an exception, were loyal to their trusts, and could be relied on. But in their time there was no woman - worship. The man was the head of the woman, and the father was the head of the family, and was the principal in maintaining family discipline. We have changed all that. The husband and father, save as providing for the family expenses, counts in the respectable classes for nothing. The mother and daughters hold him in subjection, ruin him by their extravagance, while the sons hasten rapidly to the devil. The deification of woman in the natural order, or the institution of woman-worship, the characteristic of American, if not of all modern, (sic) society, and to which every novelist brings an offering, is only the worship of lust. For him men toil and moil, seek to be rich, traverse sea and land, rob, steal, forge, swindle, peculate, betray their trusts, commit all sorts of crime, and make earth an image of hell. Men do not worship the almighty dollar: it is not the dollar they worship, but that which the dollar is needed to obtain.

We yield to no one in our reverence for true womanhood, or in our high appreciation of woman's influence in her place; but we protest against woman-worship, or making the wife the head of the family. We worship the Blessed Virgin, indeed, but we worship in her, not the woman, but the Mother of God; and in the Mother of God we honor virginity and chaste maternity, spotless purity, and the most exalted virtue. We do not deify her, regard her as a goddess, or call her divine. Between the hyperdulia we render to her and the worship of woman which we condemn, there is no analogy, and all the difference there is between heaven and hell. We honor woman as the helpmate of man, we reverence the meek and chaste wife, the tender and loving mother, who lives in her children, and forgets herself in them and for them; but we do not reverence or honor woman when she forgets her womanhood, and usurps the prerogatives of the other sex, claims to be the superior of man, and to subordinate all in society to her tastes, inclinations, and unchastened ambition, or love of power and display. We object to the influence of women as creators of popular literature, because to enervate the mind, and to foster a weak and watery sentimentalism or a corrupting sensationalism. They who feed on it lose their virility, become incapable of serious and severe study, have no relish for what is grave and profound, and must have excitement, exciting reading, something that saves them the labor of thinking, inflames their imaginations, or moves their senses. This is the effect of modern literature. It is feminine, and feeding on it renders the community effeminate; and, therefore, a community in which passion predominates over reason, and which, consequently, is at once weak and tyrannical. This sort of literature has a direct tendency to barbarism; for the essence of barbarism, as distinguished from civilization, is that in it passion, sentiment, or emotion, uncontrolled by reason, reigns.

We have read too many novels in our day not to have experienced their evil effects; and we are strongly opposed to all novels, but especially to women's novels, for the feminine mind is constitutionally sentimental, and fond of excitement. It should be so, to fit woman for her sphere of duty as a wife and a mother. She needs a quick sensibility, a ready sympathy, deep tenderness, and generous sentiments. These she needs, coupled with strong maternal instincts, to be able to supply what is in some degree wanting in the husband and father, who is usually of a sterner mould. The two combined make an admirable harmony; but either moving alone is defective. The two together are necessary to form a complete whole. "And God made man to his own image and likeness; make and female made he them:" plainly showing that the woman complements the man. The woman is not the complete man. She represents only the feminine element of human nature, not that nature in its entirety; consequently, the literature she can create will represent only her own feminine characteristics, and will lack the strong, masculine, vigorous, and intellectual elements which belong to the head of the race. Hence, women, unless supernaturalized as was St. Theresa or St. Catharine, can as authors of general literature, exert only an effeminating influence.

There are strong-minded women who tell us that there is no sex in intellect. But there is certainly sex in literature. The difference between a book written by a man and a book written by a woman is as marked as the difference between the conversation of a man and that of a woman. The characteristics of the feminine mind are stamped on everything a woman writes. She cannot unsex herself, if she would. A gentleman claimed in conversation with us to be the author of a novel published in Blackwood's Magazine, of considerable merit; we questioned his authorship on the ground that it bore internal evidence of being written by a woman, as we have since ascertained it actually was, namely, by the now well-known Mrs. Oliphant, the authoress of the "Chronicles of Carlingford" and several other popular works. It would be difficult to mistake the conversation, on any subject, of a woman for that of a man. We do not in this deny woman's ability, her keenness of observation, her wit, or even her logic; and two works written by women are reviewed and highly commended in the REVIEW, though neither of them happens to be a novel. We set our face against all novels, especially against women's novels. They are all bad, and since women have taken the lead in writing them, men, in writing novels, write as much like women as they are able. Whether produced by men or women, the same feminine spirit pervades nearly all our popular literature.

What disturbs us the most is, that even the guardians of public morals are themselves more or less infected, and give their imprimatur to popular novels, if they only mingle a due amount of piety with their sentimentalism or sensationalism, and take care to commit no flagrant offence against orthodoxy. Little or no account is taken of their silent and subtle influence on the tone and temper of the mind, or its effect in emasculating the intellect. The plea is, that, to overcome the evil of bad novels, we must provide for the Catholic reading public better ones. Such, we are told, are the vicious habits and tastes of the age, that it will read little else than novels and journals, and these of some sort it will have: all we can do is to supply good or harmless ones instead of those that tend to injure or corrupt the moral sense of the community. In accordance with this policy of compromise, even Catholics are preparing and publishing pretty little novels; for the little stories we write for our children are nothing but novels, just fitted to form these vicious mental habits and tastes in the young generation as soon as it can read: which seems to us the way to perpetuate the evil, not to overcome it. The child fed with these pretty little stories will, when grown up, crave more exciting and more highly spiced stories; such as cannot be furnished by Catholics. Happily, the Church does not stand in human wisdom or human strength; for, if she did, she would be as powerless to train men for heaven as is any of the Protestant sects. The natural tendency of Catholics is to conform to the world and its ways, and, if they do not, it is because grace restrains them.

Admitting that we must have novels, and women's novels, too, "Grapes and Thorns" is deserving no especial censure; on the contrary, it is deserving of very high commendation. Its sketches of natural scenery exhibit a poetical love of nature and rare powers of description. Its delineation of character is truthful, shows very careful observation of real life, and nice discrimination. Lawrence Gerald is till the last phase of his worthless life an ordinary character, but truthfully drawn; Mr. Schoninger, the Jew, is intended to be a heroic character, but is not well sustained, and his conversion is due more to his love of Honora Pembroke than to Fr. Chevereuse's sermon on the Passion of our Lord, which contained little or nothing likely to affect favorably the mind of a Jew. Indeed, we think the whole of the book that relates to the Jew's conversion might have been profitably omitted. Honora Pembroke is very proper, very good, but not very lovable. The Mother Ferrier is admirable; but the really noble character of the book is her daughter Annette, who is worth a dozen Honora Pembrokes. She blunders in falling in love with Lawrence Gerald, but it is only the common blunder of her sex, ordinarily more attracted by scamps than by honest men.

In an artistic point of view, the story is continued long after it is ended. It properly ends with the confession and flight of Lawrence, under charge of his heroic wife, and the liberation of Mr. Schoninger falsely condemned for the murder of Mother Chevereuse. The conversations between the priest and the Jew are not very interesting, at least to us, for they do not touch the real merits of the question between the Jew and the Christian. We are glad to learn that Annette remains firm in her resolution to stand by Lawrence, for it is in keeping with her noble character as a Christian wife. We are glad to learn that Lawrence perseveres in his penance, and leads after his flight a true penitential life. But the description is not natural, and is drawn from books, not observation. The authoress, we regret, forgets to tell us what became, after the death of Lawrence, of Annette, the only character in the book in whom we take a deep interest. She loved not wisely, as few women do, but her love was redeemed, elevated, consecrated by the love of God, and the supernatural sense of duty.

Yet we have one fault, common to most women's novels, to find with "Grapes and Thorns:" it is the immense superiority it ascribes, unconsciously, no doubt, to women over men. No doubt, women novelists are sufficiently severe upon their own sex, paint them as heartless, coquettish, intriguing, artful, tyrannical, abusing power whenever they have it, or as a weak, puny, whimpering, broken-hearted thing; but, on the other hand, their women are almost always superior to their men, have higher moral aims, a better knowledge of life, better judgment in affairs, and more firmness and strength of character. Our authoress sins less in this respect than most of her sister novelists, and yet, - aside form the priests she introduces, and who by their sacred profession are placed out of the account, - there is, with the exception of the Jew, who has no particular merit, except his excellence as a music-teacher, not a man in her "Grapes and Thorns" from the beginning to end. The women lead in everything; men simply dance attendance on the women, and lean on them for support, for advice, for direction, and for extrication from perils or difficulty. Most of the little books designed for children are written by women, and present us good little girls and naughty little boys; and we have seen even in the church, at Confirmation, the girls placed before the boys. Even public lecturers to mixed assemblies no longer venture to say in their address "Gentlemen and Ladies," but violate propriety, and even grammar, which holds the masculine the more dignified gender, in saying "Ladies and Gentlemen." Yet who in pure English would say, in addressing a mixed audience, "Women and Men"? This all goes to show that modern literature, even society itself, treats woman as the stronger, not as the weaker vessel, and reverses the order of nature, which makes the man the head of the woman, and the husband the lord of the wife.

Now, we do not believe that this assumed superiority, unless in individual cases, really exists, in either an intellectual or a moral point of view. Our reasons we shall not inflict at length upon our readers. God made woman an inchoate man; and women, like children, need a master. What woman is and what she can do when acting under the direction of a husband, a father, a brother, or the priest, is no index to what she will be or what she will do when left to her own head, to her own guidance, without make counsel or direction. The most corrupt periods of history are precisely those in which women's influence is greatest; and we may say, Woe unto any age or people where the women bear rule. They can be harder-hearted, more despotic, more cruel, and less scrupulous in effecting their purposes than men. Stepmothers bear a very different reputation from that borne by step-fathers. Not a little of man's iniquity is done to please his wife, or at her dictation. "The woman thou gavest me to be my companion gave me of the tree, and I did eat."

The man is not blameless, far from it; for he should not have listened to his wife and abdicated his headship. ""Because thou hast hearkened to the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldst not eat, cursed be the earth in thy work; with labor and toil shalt thou eat thereof all the days of thy life." (Gen., iii, 12, 17.) Under the Jewish law, which treats her with great tenderness and respect, woman is a perpetual minor, and is always subject to her father, her husband, or her male relatives. This was in accordance with the law of nature, which Christianity confirms, but does not abrogate.
The authoress of "Grapes and Thorns" has not the least sympathy with the Women's-Rights party: she is in this respect a true Catholic, as well as a true woman; but, perhaps, it has never occurred to her that novels, in which the men are nobodies, and all the wisdom, virtue, intelligence, and strength and energy of character are ascribed to the women, are so many powerful auxiliaries to that party, and prepare the way for its success, or at least its favorable reception by multitudes who never think for themselves, but take their premises from novels and journals. The Women's-Rights party is only a logical sequence of the immense intellectual and moral superiority feminine literature ascribes to women.
M.A.T. is not a chief sinner in this respect, and it would be difficult to name a woman novelist freer from the objectionable peculiarities of women authors of fiction. She is no mawkish sentimentalist, but has in her character a substratum of strong common-sense. Her tone of mind is sound and healthy. She is not subjective, forever dwelling on her own emotions and sentiments, and treating her readers to learned psychological analyses of her interior state. She has so few of the characteristics of feminine novelists, that we have heard her gravely charged by women as wanting in feminine refinement and delicacy,--a charge which, as far as we have been able to judge from her writings, is wholly unwarranted. She is a New-England lady, and, we presume, of Puritan ancestry, and appears to have been, prior to her conversion, more or less affected by the Transcendentalism so rife in Boston a few years since. We half suspect that it was the detection, in her earlier writings, of the phrases and turns of thought peculiar to the Transcendental school, that prejudiced us for a time against them, and made us fancy her only half converted. We have no doubt we did her injustice, though we have no sympathy with her admiration of the Brownings and other pets of the literary society of "the Hub."

But to return to our subject. One of our gravest objections to our women's novels in general, and which many regard as a merit, is their intense subjectiveness, and their habit of dissecting emotions and sentiments, passions and affections. The heroine does not know whether she loves or not, and so must go into a psychological analysis of her sentiments and affections, and argue the question pro and con. We are entertained with long and tedious accounts of the growth of love in the heart,--love, which, as a sentiment, has no growth, but is born, if at all, full-grown. Whoever loves at all-taking love as a sentiment-loves at first sight, and in this sense love has no historical development, and submits to no analysis. Nothing is more wearisome and unprofitable, to say the least, than the long-winded details of the ever-changing emotions and varying states or moods of the affections, or, rather, of the sensibility. Many women writers are fond of raising nice questions in morals, and settle in a summary way the most difficult cases of conscience. There are no casuists equal to your female causists. St. Liguori were a fool to them.

One other objection, and this applies not to women's novels only, is that of treating love as an affection of the sensitive soul, instead of an affection of the rational soul. Nearly all popular-literature represents love as a sentiment, and therefore, independent of the will. There is, no doubt, such a love, distinguishable from mere lust or sensuality, and regarded by its possessors as pure and holy; but it is an affection of the sensibility, and not elicitable or controllable by the will. It is fatal; and it is mistaking this sort of love for that which should subsist between husband and wife, that causes so many to look upon Christian marriage, the only sure basis of the family, as intolerable tyranny, a burden too great to be borne. Hence comes the demand for the liberty of divorce, and, with the more advanced party, for Free Love, the real aim of the Women's-Rights movement, the success of which would prove the greatest of all curses to women.

Neither the individual nor the race is absolutely illogical, and the gravest and most destructive errors that ever gain currency are in some sense logical conclusions from widely accepted premises. The horrible doctrines of the champions of divorce and Free Love are only logical conclusions from the premises supplied by the popular novels of the day. Make love a sentiment independent of reason and will, and deprive marriage of the grace of the sacrament, and it may justly be held that Christian marriage would be too oppressive to be endured. The sentiments, however pure and sweet, are little endurable, lasting rarely beyond the honeymoon, sometimes not so long. The sentiments also border on the senses; and conjugal fidelity on the part of the husband, and even of the wife, assailed through her sentiments,--what she mistakes for "true inwardness,"-becomes very difficult to maintain. Considering the sort of religion, called by some the "religion of gush," which obtains in Plymouth Church, Brooklyn, it would be more difficult to believe in the innocence than in the guilt of its eloquent pastor. This religion of gush is a very legitimate development of the emotional side of Protestantism. Indeed, modern literature itself is the offspring of Protestantism, or the revolt against the Church, that is to say, against God; and it is only by a return to the Church and Catholic principles and influences, that we can overcome its evils.
It is only simple justice to our American women who write novels, to say that they, even when non-Catholic, avoid most of the objectionable features we have pointed out, and that their novels are pure and healthy compared with those with which English women flood our literary market. The worst and most corrupt and corrupting literary works that circulate amongst us are of English origin, not of American growth. Even the Women's-Rights movements is of English, not American origin. Mary Wolstonecroft and Frances Wright were English women. American women have their foibles, their vanities, their extravagances, but hitherto, as a rule, they have had a due appreciation of the proper duties and sphere of their sex, and deserve to be held in honor for their modesty and good sense. Long may it continue to be so.

In conclusion, we repeat that we yield to no one in our high appreciation of true womanhood. We hold, it is true, that the woman is for the man, not the man for the woman; that the man is the head of the woman; and that, while husbands should love their wives, wives should love and obey their husbands. We hold also that the appropriate spheres of the sexes are different; but we do not consider that of woman, though different, inferior to that of man. In her proper sphere, woman is the equal of man. Though we do not believe every woman an angel, nor every man a devil, or that all the virtue of society is on the part of women, any more than all the suffering, we have no difficulty in believing that the religion and virtue of the community depend even more on the women for their maintenance than on the men. They are more susceptible to religious impressions and more persevering in their resolutions. They are different in their mental and moral characteristics from men, but in no respect inferior, and in some respects decidedly superior. They have more quickness, more tact, and, in general, greater executive ability. There is no better proof of a frivolous mind and a depraved heart than the disposition to speak disparagingly of women. The true man honors womanhood; and the worst effect of our feminine literature and our Women's Rights movements is their tendency to destroy that chivalric respect for women native to every man whose heart is uncorrupted.