Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
Men and Women at Home
By Oliver Bell Bunce (18281890)
[Born in New York, N. Y., 1828. Died there, 1890. Bachelor Bluff: His Opinions, Sentiments, and Disputations. 1882.]
JACK BUNKER is a whole-souled fellow, who knows when a thing is recherché, and who has the wit to appreciate a bit of bachelor felicity. He always breakfasts in his librarythis being the name his man James gives to his book-roomwhere he has a few books, a few pictures, and gathers all the little tasteful articles that he ownsa vase or two, a statuette, a rare print, a bit of china, all of which he tones up with warm upholstery. I, for my own part, like to eat in my best apartment; to partake of my meals under the pleasantest and most enlivening conditions. Eating and drinking is with me a fine art. That good digestion may wait on appetite and health on both, I put my mind in its sweetest, its calmest, its most contented mood, by means of all the agreeable surroundings I can command. Hence I looked around Jack Bunkers cozy apartment, tasting all the points. There was a glowing blaze from bituminous coal in the low, polished grate. On a brass pendant stood the shining coffee-pot, from which issued low, murmuring music and delicious odors. The firelight was glancing up on the picture-frames, and the gilt backs of the books, on the warm-tinted walls and the ceiling, and on drapery that fell over the doorway, and partly shut out, partly let in at the windows the bright glances of light from the morning sun. Then the brilliant white cloth on the table, and the easy-chairs for host and guest, and a new picture only sent home the day before, standing on an easel near, and the morning paper warming by the firewell, it was a pleasant picture. Jack rubbed his hands, evidently enjoying the air of comfort, brightness, and warmth that filled the whole space, and delighted with my appreciation of it all; and sat himself down in his cozy chair and invited me to mine, and looked around at the books and the pictures, and hoped I was pleased.
I am not going to describe the breakfast further. My sole purpose has been to draw two pictures, in order to show that domestic bliss is not better understood or oftener realized by Benedicks than bachelors. But no doubt some one will ask why all these conditions of domestic happiness are not possible with lovely women to enhance the bliss of the scene.
But think, said young Carriway, who had a weakness for sentimentthink of some beautiful creature sitting by the side of the urn, serving your coffee, applauding your pictures, listening to you as you read a bit of news from the morning journal, perhaps with her hands in yours, or with her dainty foot on the fender, chatting with you softly but joyously over many pleasant themes.
Humph! replied Bluff, it must be admitted that this is a pretty picture. But what if the lovely woman comes down to the breakfast-room frouzy and fierce? What if she appears in a dressing-gown and curl-papers? What if she has a chronic fondness for déshabillé? What if she prove one of those whose nerves never get calm or in accord until after the morning is well passed? In my bachelor-home, domestic bliss is mine, beyond doubt; if I open the door to a lovely woman, there is no telling what Pandoras box I shall uncover. Besides, it is a conviction of mine that refined and perfect domestic comfort is understood by men only.
Heresy it may be, but my opinion is well-grounded for all that. Women are not personally selfish enough to be fastidious in these things. They are usually neat to circumspection; but it is a cheerless and aggressive neatnessmoral and inflammatory rather than luxurious and artistic. They are neat because they constitutionally hate dust, not because neatness is important to their own selfish comfort. Women are rarely epicureans. They have no keen enjoyment of eating and drinking in dreams and laziness; they do not understand intellectual repose. It is not the quiet, the serenity, the atmosphere of home, that they at heart care about. Give a woman a new ribbon, and she will go without her dinner. Promise her a ball, and she will sit nightly for a month in a fireless room, muffled up in a shawl, and never murmur. She is fond of dress, not of comfort; of decoration, not of peace; of excitement, not felicity. And then, moreover, she is too willing to be ill-at-ease; too easily satisfied in all those things that pertain to personal comfort, and is far too much disposed to make the best of everything to enter fully into the necessity of creating domestic comfort. She likes home because there she has authority, there she receives her friends and shows her furniture, there she can give parties, and thereby get invitations to other parties. When matrimony introduces a man to recherché breakfasts, to perfect little dinners, to delightful social evenings, to perfectly-appointed parlors, then I shall believe that true domestic bliss is feminine in conception.
To my mind, remarked Auger, a grave doctor of laws, your notions about domestic bliss are dangerous and revolutionary. They will be construed into arguments against marriage; and marriage, you know, is the great conserver of public morality, and the great promoter of public welfare.
No doubt, Auger replied, if woman had reason to believe that she did not bestow this boon upon man, she would be sure to seek out the way to secure for him the felicity she knows so well how to appreciate for herself.
Now, there you are wrong, exclaimed Bluff. Women have no true appreciation of this domestic felicity, even while they have remained calm in the assurance that men, hungering for the peace of home, must come to them for it. They have, with very great egotism, scorned with a supreme scorn the idea of men being able to have anything orderly, neat, or tasteful around them without women to supply the conditions. They have carried this idea so far as to look upon celibacy as not only a cheerless thing, but as by necessary implication a wicked thing; and yet instead of women being, as they suppose, the source of domestic bliss, they are radically and constitutionally its obstacles and enemies.
I shall not quote history, replied the Bachelor, coolly, to show that domesticity in women has always been enforced; that in Eastern countries it is secured by compelled seclusion; that in all times it has been the tyranny of man which has subjected her to the boundary of home: but I will simply give you a reason or two why in the nature of things women have not the keen sympathy with domestic felicity that men havethat is, if you care to hear them.
Men and women, as a consequence of their distinct daily occupations, have very different aspirations and expectations in regard to matrimony. How many of our young women, for instance, think of domestic well-being as the desired end of marriage? Do they not contemplate the gayeties rather than the serenities which marriage is to assure them? Are not their marriage-dreams of balls, of parties, of the opera, of visiting, of travelling? of carriages, dresses, jewels, household splendor? of social success, and the triumph of position attained? Instead of Lares and Penates, do they not dream of the dazzle and the dash of life? And this is a natural consequence of their peculiar position. Marriage is to give them their career, and hence within it centre all their ambitions, all their hopes, all the largeness of their future. But, with man, marriage is something very different. Men are out in the world, busy in the great battle of lifeabsorbed in its contests, filled sometimes with the triumph of success, and sometimes with the chagrin of defeat. Spurred by the stern necessity of achieving, they have surrendered all their energies to the struggle; they are busy with stratagems and manuvres, keenly occupied with hopes and anxieties, and sometimes even struggling desperately against ruin. This is the life of the man; and this stirring career away from home renders home to him necessary as a place of repose, where he may take off his armor, relax his strained attention, and surrender himself to perfect rest.
But home is not this to a woman. It is not her retreat, but her battle-ground. She does not fly to its shelter as an escape from defeat or for a temporary lull; it is her arena, her boundary, her sphere. To a woman the house is life militant; to a man it is life in repose. She at home is armed with all her energies; he at home has thrown down his arms. She has no other sphere for her activities: ordering her household, subduing its rebellions, directing its affairs, make up her existence. She bustles, she stirs, she controls, she directs, she exhausts herself in its demands, and then seeks for recreation and rest elsewhere. I am wearied, says the husband; let me sit by the fire and smoke, and dream, and rest. I am wearied, says the wife; let me be refreshed by a visit to my friends, by an evening at the opera, at the theatre, at the concert.
And so we see how a natural and radical antagonism may exist between man and wife as to the pleasures and the needs of home. Of course, in a vast majority of cases, these antagonisms are compromised. Between affectionate couples they never break out into warfare; but they assuredly exist, and two such distinct sets of ideas must be watched by both husband and wife if they would not have them the father of many discontents and much infelicity. Do you not see how woman, by the very necessities of her existence, must have a different idea of home than what man has?
This, said Carriway, is very like arguing that the play of Hamlet is better with the part of Hamlet omitted. We all know the grace and charm women give to life; we all think with pleasure of that spot which woman renders an oasis in the desert of life.
Yes, my dear sir, we all think of that oasis because we love to contemplate it, because it is so essential to our happiness. We make an ideal home, and place an ideal woman in it; but, when the reality comes, how confoundedly often we are disappointed!
By no means. What I hope to do is to convince lovely woman that, if we are to continue to marry her, she must endeavor to work up to our ideals of domestic felicity. She must try and find an outlet for her energies, so that at home she can fall into our luxuriousness, our love of repose, our enjoyment of supreme ease. You see womenI purposely do not use the word ladiesare very busy endeavoring to make a world of their pent-up Utica. They sometimes are disposed to have it brilliant and animated; but too often, in blind servility to one of their gods, Propriety, make it very cold and orderly. The amount of absolute cheerlessness a woman can stand is my amazement.
Yes, cheerlessness, replied the Bachelor, emphatically. Our women have an affection for flowers, ribbons, laces, silks, music, pets; but are singularly insensible to cheerlessness. They like dark rooms. They prefer heat from a hole in the wall rather than from a bright blaze. They ask you to dine under a dim jet of gas. They will shiver through a cold storm in autumn, rather than light a fire a day earlier than the almanac permits. A woman may have all the known virtues of her class; all the gentleness, humility, grace, domestic virtue, poets have sung aboutand yet, if you should ask for a blaze on the hearth on a dark, wet, chilly day in September, ten chances to one the request would be too much for her patience.
Some women, continued the Bachelor, finding that no one interrupted him, are slovenlylet us hope not manyI have seen untidy toilets, though; but, when a woman is not slovenly, she is often so neat, trim, precise, methodical, and circumspect, that she excludes all color, all freedom, all tone from her house. Upon all forms of untidiness such a woman makes tempestuous warfare. Now, this is utterly destructive to domestic blissan essential element of which is ease and a sense of completeness. One cannot be content if always under the smell of soap-suds, or if ceaselessly disturbed by the bustle of administration. The ultimatum of a womans household luxury is apt to be the satisfaction of saying, There is not a speck of dust to be seen. But this negative idea of home will not do. It is not sufficient to say there is no dust, no disorder, no untidiness, no confusion. We must have active ideas at work. We must have colors and sounds and sights to cheer, to refine, to delight us. But, you see, to create a paradise of indolence, to fill the mind with an ecstasy of repose, to render home a heaven of the senseswomen are usually too virtuous to do this. Daintiness in man takes an artistic form; in woman it assumes a formidable order, a fearful cleanliness. a precision of arrangement that freeze us.
But all this, broke in Carriway, is no longer the case. There was a time, no doubt, when your picture would have been strictly true. But now art has entered the house; color, banished by Puritan asceticism, has reasserted itself. Do we not see on every hand the new arts and the new devices for making home beautiful?
For making home a museum! growled the Bachelor. Yes, there is now a craze for what is called household art, but it is for the most part only a new form of cheerlessness, a passion for making the parlor a show-room, the splendor of which must not be touched and scarcely looked upon save by the outside world. It is art for Mrs. Grundy, and not for the inmates of the house. Mrs. Grundy is the power of powers. If a woman has only two rooms in the world, one of these is furnished, garnished, set in order, and kept for the approbation of that venerable lady. Domestic comfort must live elsewhere than in the apartments devoted to this ladywho exacts of all her devotees velvet carpet that must not be trod on, damask furniture that must not be sat on, and all forms of finery that must not be warmed by good, honest fires, lest the dust alight on them, or opened to the pleasant rays of the sun, lest his beams fade them. The disorder that sometimes is held up as domestic comfort I feel no sympathy with; domestic bliss is to my taste first-cousin to elegance, and an elegance that enters into ones daily being. Unless one is a man of wealth it is better to banish set-up conventional parlors altogether, live and dine in the best apartment, and, seated among books, pictures, and the best furniture, invoke peace and comfort. Give us, I emphatically say, in our households color and cheerinessnot cold art nor cold pretensions of any kind, but warmth, brightness, animation. Bring in pleasing colors, choice pictures, bric-à-brac, and what-not; but let in also the sun; light the fires; and have everything for daily use.
Ah! that is something which bachelors, however agreeable they may make their apartments, must often sigh for. But love flourishes well when such notions as I have advanced are heeded; and then, men are such devotees of the senses, that so fair and delicate a thing as love will perish if women do not look well to make it a companion of domestic felicity.