Victorian London - Women - 'A Book for Brides'


I COULD fill, in a few minutes, an imperial bushel with French books specially and directly treating of marriage; the volumes discoursing of it indirectly are as numerous as the grains of wheat in an incalculable assemblage of imperial bushels. The majority of these, as far as I know them, are melancholy-inspiring works, sad to the heart, and repulsive to the moral feeling of all who hope for elevation in human nature. I have fallen upon one,* [* Le Livre des Fiancées, by Octave Féré and Vallentin] however, which might be translated with advantage, for the perusal of English-speaking maidens.
    It opens with the betrothal, a ceremony which, amongst civilised and Christian peoples, has dwindled down to a few Consultations between families (even when it amounts to that), and a few words exchanged by the future husband and wife. But the Bible tells us how seriously it was regarded by the Hebrews, and to what an extent it bound the contracting parties. Breaches of promise of marriage, except for good and valid reasons, were things unheard of. The Israelites, faithful to their traditions, practise at the present day the ceremony of betrothal with the same solemnity as in olden time; or at least, if they do not take to the synagogue the very same presents that Joseph and Mary carried to the Temple, they still make their offering by breaking a vase before the altar.
    To mark the importance and validity of a betrothal, the Council of Trent declared clandestine betrothals to be null and void. It required them to be celebrated before the curé, in the presence of two or three witnesses at least. Greater weight was afterwards given to this article by an ordonnance of Louis the Thirteenth, which forbade any notary (that is, any civilian) to sanction or receive any promise of the kind. Before the first French Revolution, such was the importance attached to this pious custom, that, except with an express dispensation from the bishop, a priest could not betroth and marry a young couple in the same day. It was requisite that a certain lapse of time, as a test of their fidelity, should intervene between the one ceremony and the other. The old French canon law had provided for the case in which a faithless fiancé should marry any other than his betrothed bride. The marriage, consecrated by a sacrament, was more binding than the simple engagement of betrothal; but if the culprit became a widower, and his first love required it of him, he was obliged to purge his guilt by taking her to wife.
    The pervading thought of Le Livre des Fiancées is that Love and Duty are brothers, and not enemies. The great secret is, not to separate them. To those who love, everything becomes easy and agreeable. Our authors think they have discovered the means of preventing married love from flying away. If that be true, their book may fairly claim to be called the Book of Happiness. Let the reader judge of its quality.
    Before marriage there is unclouded sunshine. The young woman, adorned with the charms of her spring-tide, is kind and artless; she is careful not to err in her slightest actions. A good and provident genius, her mother, is always at hand to watch her movements, divine her thoughts, and to rectify whatever might tend to lead her astray.
    The young man, captivated by those pleasing qualities which are heightened by his own enthusiastic imagination, ardently longs for the blissful moment when so charming a companion shall become his own. He loves, he hopes, be does his very utmost to please. Any defects he may have, like those of his fair one, are completely hidden. Each party is enchanted with the other.
    Fear, then, the inevitable moment when illusions shall be dissipated, and commonplace daylight succeed to the hues of the prism. Meet it rather by preparing the means of avoiding successive falls from deception to deception. The ideal flowers which embalm the soul frequently fade for want of proper culture.
    In the first place, fair readers, in order that unchanging love may take possession of your hearts and gain your husbands', you must trample underfoot the paltry ambition which has undone many charming women, who otherwise would have been adored, namely, the spirit of mastery.
    To fulfil one's duties properly, it is necessary, above all, to know them thoroughly, and then to lay down a strict rule to oneself never to fail in their observance. Weak people are frightened at such a notion, and weak people suffer the consequences. A rare merit, for example, is to take a strict account of one's exact position, and then to conform oneself to it. How many young wives have created for themselves deception after deception, for want of having had the good sense to accept cheerfully certain rules laid down by their husbands Which brings us back to the relative positions of husband and wife.
    Civil and religious laws, which are not the work of arbitrary caprice but the consequence of the laws of nature, require that the wife should be obedient to her husband. She undertakes, in France, a solemn engagement, both before the magistrate and before the minister of God. Twice she makes that promise on oath. No constraint is put upon her, Up to the last moment she has only to say "No," and the marriage does not take place-of which there arc not infrequent instances. Why, then, should she revolt against this authority, thus freely accepted? Remain single, mademoiselle, if you have no inclination for the duties imposed on a wife. Many brides, while promising obedience, make a sort of mental reservation, which is equally offensive to honesty and to good sense. In all times, and in all countries, a chief is absolutely necessary. Attachment to a worthy prince  thus becomes a virtue, because his person represents the country, which is the image of the common interest. In a family, which constitutes a little state, a chief is equally requisite. That chief is the husband, and all the members of the family owe him respect, submission, devotion.
    Never persist in useless discussions with your husband. Should such begin, remember J. P. Richter's saying, "Many men resemble glass, which is smooth and inoffensive so long as it is unbroken; but which, - once broken, cuts and pierces with every edge and angle." Doubtless, there are moments when it is difficult to restrain oneself - which increases the merit of self-command. By repressing any utterance of displeasure or acerbity, you will be better able to have a satisfactory explanation with your husband. There is great art in choosing the propitious moment. Remember, also, the words of Daniel Stern, "The vulgar complain of being hated, calumniated, or rejoice at being cherished, beloved. The wise man cares less about the sentiments he inspires, than about those he feels. He knows that what is really  bitter and painful is, not to be hated, but to hate; that what is pleasant, noble, and great, is, not to be loved, but to love."
    To sustain love a long time and transform it eventually into a warm and lasting friendship, it is requisite to keep one's heart above all weakness. The first thing is to inspire esteem; and esteem is not heedlessly bestowed, but must be won by an irreproachable conduct. Nor does this solid quality alone suffice; the form must be added to the substance; that is, you must be at the same time estimable and attractive. In the efforts you make with that intention, remember that "a woman has often mom wrinkles in her temper than on her face."
    It is not so easy as young wives imagine to keep their husbands within household bounds. That is to say, those gentlemen often feel the wish to seek amusement elsewhere without their spouses. It is  hanging matter; but it happens only too frequently. Recollect that men, by marrying, renounce their most valuable possession  -or, at least, what they consider such -  namely, their liberty. Eh bien! women us general hardly appreciate the sacrifice sufficiently, and refuse to believe that their condition is at all changed in that respect. Nevertheless, you cannot help allowing that if men, by marrying, give up their liberty, your sex on the contrary  (in France) gets married for the sake of acquiring more liberty. In exchange for this liberty which he valued so highly, a man expects some different kind of satisfaction. If he does not find it at home, he seeks compensating pleasures elsewhere. From that day the wife's existence is embittered. Her heart is full; and a brimful heart is as hard to carry as a brimful cup. The slightest shock causes it to overflow.
    Whenever your husband returns to his home, invariably receive him with a pleasant smile. Accost him with warm and open cheerfulness; let your countenance express the delight you feel at seeing him again; let a day's absence appear, for you, as if it were a separation of a quarter of a century. It is the surest way to make him cheerful in return. Do not take the trouble to examine whether his countenance be anxious or no; above all, not to inquire whether ho be good or ill tempered at the moment; drive from your thoughts the idea of ascertaining whether he is disposed to make himself agreeable; but display instinctively your expansive affection, and contrive cleverly to chase any dark clouds from his mind, if your warm reception has not sufficed to do so. Accustom yourself to address your husband with such frankness that he must see your soul is on your lips. Do we not all feel a natural sympathy for countenances which beam with cheerfulness?
    If you say to yourself, "To-day I mean to be happy," it is a rash promise, a hasty project. But if you say, "To-day I mean to give some one pleasure," it is an amiable intention, which will rarely deceive your hopes. Such conduct is generous and delicate in the extreme and cannot fail to bear good fruit.  Delicacy, moreover, is the combined expression of the best qualities of the head and the heart. "The first fault committed by married people," says Madame de Puisieux, "is the want of sufficient mutual respect and deference."
    Observe, therefore, great consideration and deference for your husband's tastes and opinions. Such proofs of affection will both touch his heart and flatter his self-esteem. To have even the air of doubting your husband's judgment, capacity, and ability, will not only offend his allowable confidence in his own opinions, it does worse; it makes him suspect that your confiding love for him has ceased. Have we not enormous faith in those whom we really love? And do we not stand up for  their personal merit as much as, or more than, we would for our own? Love forgiveth all things, hopeth all things.
    Never lose sight of the principle that  your duties to your husband ought to take precedence of all other duties. Let no excuse or pretext induce you to fail in them. Better, a hundred times better, to sacrifice every acquaintance, every friend, than to sacrifice one's own dear husband.
    Carefully avoid appearing to despise your husband's friends. If you perceive that they are insincere, warn him of the fact with great precaution. If you believe it contrary to your interest that he should continue to frequent them, take great pains not to offend his self-esteem by the measures you adopt to wean him from  them. It is a great humiliation to be obliged to confess that one has set one's affections on unworthy persons. If you can lead him to make the discovery himself, your object will be gained, with offence to no one.
    Never strive to have the last word. Say what you want to say, and then change the conversation with tact and cheerfulness. The reverse of this too often takes place. A witty Englishman pleasantly remarked, "Two sets of men attempt a labour in vain. The first set try to have the last word with their wives. The second set, after they have had it, try to make them own that they have been in the  wrong."
    There are topics which must not be neglected because they are far from pleasant to treat of; amongst these is jealousy. Jealousy is the sister of Love, as Satan is the brother of the angels. Weep with love, but never with jealousy. Cold rains do not produce beautiful flowers. 
    To manifest the desire of possessing, to the exclusion of all other women, your husband's affections; to display affectionate confidence, boundless devotion, and a preference for him above all other men, is no more natural than honourable. Such conduct inspires, and merits, a complete  reciprocity of love. But to take offence, to become suspicious, and give way to ill-humour, is to render oneself at once un just and ridiculous. Coarse and violent jealousy is mistrust of the beloved object subdued and smothered jealousy is mistrust to oneself. "Suspicion," says J P Richter, "is the base coin of truth." "When love turns jealous," says M. Muller "he has a hundred eyes like Argus but not two of his hundred eyes see clear." If your husband makes himself agreeable in society, and you impute it to him as a crime; if, on returning home, you pout, sulk, and treat him coldly, the consequence will be to make you insupportable, and you will pay dear for it before very long.
    Domestic happiness is a work of patience; its continuance depends on moderation and prudence. It is only slowly and by degrees that we reach the summit of the ladder, whilst one false step suffices to precipitate us from the top to the bottom. It is certainly strange that, for years, young people are taught their grammar, "to enable them to speak and write correctly;" but no one has yet compiled a grammar, within the reach of ordinary capacities, to help them to lead a happy life. The Livre des des Fiancées makes the attempt, relying mainly on the conjugation of the verb aimer, to love.
    One thing which people do not always manage to avoid in a new-established household is monotony. It is, nevertheless, possible to combat this dangerous enemy who has furnished the subject of unnumbered jokes, amongst which "toujours perdrix" stands conspicuous. A grand resource is to acquire a good store of conversation to be augmented continually by reading and reflection. The quality called "esprit" by the French-cleverness, intellect, mental vigour, wit -  is certainly improved by practice, quite as much as piano-playing is The woman who exercises her conversational powers, polishing and repolishing them day by day, takes the sure steps to arrive at perfection. It will greatly help her, if she can lay down clear ideas and fixed principles respecting certain subjects. She can then speak of them lucidly and decidedly, which will not prevent her adopting a modest tone, and will also bring into greater relief the caution she will exercise, in giving her opinion on questions she has not yet fathomed. 
    Practice, which produces the sharp debater, also makes the ready converser. It also gives the presence of mind which enables the exercise of repartee, and the faculty of parrying inconvenient observations in a manner which shall be amusing instead of offensive. Often, in the course of their lives, have women need of this useful power, of which men are so proud when they possess it. And it really is no trifling advantage to be able to decide instantaneously, under difficult circumstances, what is best to say or do.
    Young married women must expect their trials. There is no concealing the fact that men are not always perfect. They have their faults, like everybody else. One of the worst is giving way to passion; and the great danger of this failing is that it tends to go on increasing; in which case, it would ruin the happiness of the household. If your husband unfortunately be so inclined, endeavour to check him at the very outset. A sensible woman has her arms ready at hand - amiability, gentleness, persuasion. Inspire your husband, whatever be his temper, with confidence, and, above all, with esteem and affection, and you will exercise over him a powerful influence. But beware of letting it appear that you are proud, or even conscious of that influence. The slightest symptom of such a feeling would inevitably offend your husband. The merest trifle would shake your empire. Moreover, by ignoring the authority of the head of the family, you make your husband ridiculous and lower your own consideration.
    After the charms of your pretty person, what, think you, were the qualities which attracted your husband? Were they not the favourable opinion he conceived of your good management, your economy, the orderly life you led, your fondness for home? Henceforth and immediately let your actions prove that if you practised those virtues under your parents' eyes, it was because they were intimately bound up with your nature. It follows that a young wife's first care should be to render her home agreeable. Let her apartments be kept in perfect neatness, with order in the slightest minutiae, and abundant taste. When the eyes are flattered, the imagination easily yields to the charm. Let her also remember that simplicity is the coquetry of good taste.
    If the poetic aspect of the household offers great seductions, the material details of life must not be neglected; and to attend to these properly, great patience is often requisite. The most reasonable of men- pity they should-have their moments of irritation. The wife ought to keep to herself all the worries and troubles that spring from cooks, domestics, and seamstresses. All the husband wants is the result, which the wife will render as satisfactory as possible without disturbing his mind by recounting at length the difficulties she has had in accomplishing the feat.
    Time has two wings, with one of which he wipes our tears, and with the other sweeps away our joys. Keep that second wing at a distance as long as you can. Happiness also has wings; and he is a bird who, having once taken flight, seldom perches twice on the same branch.
    After this pretty little allegory we take leave of our Book for Brides, which contains a good deal of common sense, although it will not commend itself greatly to the strong-minded sisterhood.

All the Year Round, 1871