Of course, she was an exceptional person, for have I not intimated that she was a thinker? This was over a hundred years ago, and thinkers were as scarce then as now, for even so-called educated folk, for the most part, only think that they think. Frederic Harrison did not stray far a-field when he referred to Charlotte Perkins Gilman as a reincarnation of Mary Wollstonecraft.
Mary Wollstonecraft had translated Rousseau's "Emile" into English, and had read Voltaire closely and with appreciation.
The momentous times of Seventeen Hundred Ninety-two were on in Paris. That mob of women, ragged and draggled, had tramped out to Versailles, and Marie Antoinette, a foolish girl who rattled around in a place that should have been occupied by a Queen, had looked out of the window and propounded her immortal question, "What do they want?"
"Bread!" was the answer.
"Why don't they eat cake?" asked Her Chatterbox.
Mary Wollstonecraft was a revolutionary by nature. Looking about her she saw London seething with swarms of humanity just one day's rations removed from starvation. A few miles away she saw acres upon acres—thousands of acres—kept and guarded for private parks and game-preserves. Then it was that she supplied Henry George that fine phrase, "Man is a land animal." And she fully comprehended that the question of human rights will never be ended until we settle the land question. She said: "Man is a land animal, and to deprive the many of the right to till the soil is like depriving fishes of the right to swim in the sea. You force fish into a net, and they cease to thrive; you entrap men, through economic necessity, in cities, and allow a few to control the land, and you perpetuate ignorance and crime. And eventually you breed a race of beings who take no joy in Nature, never having gotten acquainted with her. The problem is not one of religion, but of commonsense in economics. Back to the land!" Of course a writing woman who could think like this was deeply interested in the unrest across the Channel.
And so Mary packed up and went over to Paris, lured by three things: a curiosity concerning the great social experiment being there worked out; an ambition to perfect herself in the French language by speaking only French; a writer's natural thirst for good copy.
In all these things the sojourn of Mary Wollstonecraft in Paris was an eminent success, but tragedy was lurking and lying in wait for her. And it came to her as it has come for women ever since time began—through that awful handicap, her nature's crying need for affection.
* * * * *
In Paris martial law reigned supreme; in the streets the death-tumbrel rattled, and through a crack in the closed casement Mary Wollstonecraft peered cautiously out and saw Louis the Sixteenth riding calmly to his death. The fact that she was an Englishwoman brought Mary Wollstonecraft under suspicion, for the English sympathized with royalty. When men with bloody hands come to your door, and question you concerning your business and motives, the mind is not ripe for literature!
The letters Mary Wollstonecraft had written for English journals she now destroyed, since she could not mail them, and to keep them was to run the risk of having them misinterpreted. The air was full of fear and fever.
No one was allowed to leave the city unless positively necessary, and to ask permission to go was to place one's self under surveillance.
It was at this time that Mary Wollstonecraft met Gilbert Imlay, an American, who had fought with Lafayette and Washington. He was a man of some means, alert, active and of good address. On account of his relationship with Lafayette, he stood well with the revolutionaries of Paris. He was stopping at the same hotel where Mary lodged, and very naturally, speaking the same language, they became acquainted. She allowed herself to be placed under his protection, and their simple friendship soon ripened into a warmer feeling. Love is largely a matter of propinquity.
It was a time when all formal rites were in abeyance; and in England any marriage-contract made in France, and not sanctified by the clergy, was not regarded as legal. Mary Wollstonecraft became Mrs. Mary Imlay, and that she regarded herself as much the wife of Imlay as God and right could command, there is no doubt.
In a few months the tempest and tumult subsided so they got away from Paris to Havre, where Imlay was interested in a shipping-office. At Havre their daughter Fanny was born.
Imlay had made investments in timber-lands in Norway, and was shipping lumber to France. Some of these ventures turned out well, and Imlay extended his investments on borrowed capital. The man was a nomad by nature—generous, extravagant and kind—but he lacked the patience and application required to succeed as a businessman. He could not wait—he wanted quick returns.
The wife had insight and intellect, and could follow a reason to its lair. Imlay skimmed the surface.
Leaving his wife and babe at Havre, he went across to London. Mary once made a trip to Norway for him, with the power of attorney, to act as she thought best in his interests. In Norway she found that much of the land that Imlay had bought was worthless, being already stripped of its timber. However, she improved the time by writing letters for London papers, and these eventually found form in her book entitled, "Letters From Norway."
Arriving at Havre she found that Imlay had dismantled their home, and for a time she did not know his whereabouts. Later they met in London.
When the time of separation came, however, she was sufficiently disillusioned to make the actual parting without pain. When Imlay saw she would no longer consent to be his wife, he proposed to provide for her, but she declined the offer, fearing it would give him some claim upon her and upon their child. And so Gilbert Imlay sailed away to America and out of the life of Mary Wollstonecraft. Exit Imlay.
* * * * *
In London the position of Mary Wollstonecraft was most trying.
Penniless, deserted by Imlay, her husband, with a hungry babe at her breast, she was looked at askance by most of her old acquaintances. There were not wanting good folks who gathered their skirts about them, sneezed as she passed, and said, "I told you so."
Her brother Charles—a degenerate, pettifogging barrister, with all his father's faults and none of his grandfather's virtues—for whom Mary had advanced money so that he could go to college, came to her in her dire extremity and proffered help. But it was on condition that she should give up her babe and allow him to place it in a foundlings' home. This being done, the virtuous Charles would get Mary a position as weaver in a woolen-mill, under an assumed name, and the past would be as if it never had been. This in the face of the assertion of Pliny, who said, eighteen hundred years before, that one of the things even God could not do, was to obliterate the past; and of Omar's words, "Nor all your tears shall blot a line of it."
The mental processes of Charles are shown in his suggestion of a pleasant plan whereby Imlay could be lured back to England, arrested, and with the assistance of a bumbailiff, marriage forced upon him. His scheme was rejected by the obdurate Mary, who held that the very essence of marriage was freedom.
The tragic humor of the action of Charles turns on his assumption that his sister was "a fallen woman," and must be saved from disgrace. This opinion was shared by various other shady respectables, who kept the matter secret by lifting a soprano wail of woe from the housetops, declaring that Mary had smirched their good names and those of their friends by her outrageous conduct. These people also busied themselves in spreading a report that Mary had gone into "French ways," it being strongly held, then as now, by the rank and file of burly English beef-eaters, male and female, that morality in France is an iridescent dream—only that is not the exact expression they use.
Hope sank in the heart of the lone woman, and for a few weeks it appeared that suicide was the only way out. As for parting with her child, or with her brother Charles and his kin, Mary would stand by her child. It is related that on one occasion her sister Everina came to visit her, and Mary made bold to minister to her babe in the beautiful maternal way sanctified by time, before bottle-babies became the vogue and Nature was voted vulgar. The sight proved too much for Everina's nerves, and she fainted, first loudly calling for the camphor.
The family din evidently caused Mary to go a step further than she otherwise might, and she dropped the name Imlay and called herself plain Mary Wollstonecraft, thus glorifying the disgrace. This increased fortitude had come about by discovering that she could still work and earn enough money to live on by proofreading and translations; and it seemed that she had a head full of ideas. There in her lonely lodgings at Blackfriars, in the third story back, she was writing "The Rights of Woman." The book in places shows heat and haste, and its fault is not that it leads people in the wrong direction, but that it leads them too far in the right direction—that is, further than a sin-stained and hypocritical world can follow.
When men deserve the ideal, it will be here. If mankind were honest and unselfish, then every proposition held out by Mary Wollstonecraft would hold true. Her book is a vindication, in one sense, of her own position—for at the last, all literature is a confession. But Mary Wollstonecraft's book is also a plea for faith in the Divinity that shapes humanity and "leads us on amid the encircling gloom."
It is moreover a protest against the theological idea that woman is the instrument of the Devil, who tempted man to his ruin. Very frank is the entire expression, all written by a Tess of the D'Urbervilles, a pure woman whom Fate had freed from the conventional, and who, wanting little and having nothing to lose, not even a reputation, was placed in a position where she could speak the truth.
Parts of the book seem trite enough to us at this day, since many of the things advocated have come about, and we accept them as if they always were. For instance, there is an argument in favor of women being employed as schoolteachers; then there is the plea for public schools and for co-education.
* * * * *
William and Mary first met in February, Seventeen Hundred Ninety-six. In this matter dates are authentic, for Godwin kept a diary for forty-eight years, in which he set down his acts, gave the titles of books he read, and named the distinguished people he met. This diary is nearly as valuable as that of Samuel Pepys, save that unfortunately it does not record the inconsequential and amplify the irrelevant, for it is the seemingly trivial that pictures character. Godwin's diary forms a continuous history of literary and artistic London.
William was not favorably impressed with Mary, the first time they met each other. Tom Paine was present, and Godwin wanted to hear him talk about America, and instead Mary insisted upon talking about Paris, and Tom preferred to listen to her rather than to talk himself.
"The drawing-room was not big enough for this precious pair," says Godwin, and passes on to minor themes, not realizing that destiny was waiting for him around the corner.
The next time they met, William liked Mary better, for he did most of the talking, and she listened. When we are pleased with ourselves we are pleased with others. "She has wondrous eyes, and they welled with tears as we conversed. She surely has suffered, for her soul is all alive," wrote Godwin.
The third time they met, she asked permission to quote from his book, "Political Justice," in her own book, "The Rights of Woman," upon which she was hard at work. They were getting quite well acquainted, and he was so impressed with her personality that he ceased to mention her in his diary.
Godwin's book had placed him upon the topmost turret of contemporary literary fame. Since the publication of the work he was fairly prosperous, although his temperament was of that gently procrastinating and gracious kind that buys peace with a faith in men and things. Mary had an eager, alert and enthusiastic way of approaching things that grew on the easy-going Godwin. Her animation was contagious.
The bold stand Mary had taken on the subject of marriage; her frankness and absolute honesty; her perfect willingness at all times to abide by the consequences of her mistakes, all pleased Godwin beyond words.
He told Coleridge that she was the greatest woman in England, and Coleridge looked her over with a philosopher's eye, and reported her favorably to Southey. In a letter to Cottle, Robert Southey says: "Of all the lions or literati I have seen here, Mary Imlay's countenance is the best, infinitely the best; the only fault in it is an expression somewhat similar to what the prints of Horne Tooke display—an expression indicating superiority; not haughtiness, not sarcasm, in Mary Imlay, but still it is unpleasant. Her eyes are light brown, and although the lid of one of them is affected by a little paralysis, they are the most meaning I ever saw. As for Godwin himself, he has large, noble eyes, and a nose—oh, a most abominable nose! Language is not vituperatious enough to describe the effect of its downward elongation." In mentioning the matter of Godwin's nose, it is perhaps well to remember that Southey merely gave a pretty good description of his own.
In August, Seventeen Hundred Ninety-six, Godwin borrowed fifty pounds from Thomas Wedgwood, son of Josiah Wedgwood of Etruria, which money was to tide Mary over a financial stress, and afford her the necessary leisure to complete "The Rights of Woman." The experience that Mary Wollstonecraft had in the publishing business, now enabled her to make favorable arrangements for the issue of her book. The radicalism of America and France had leavened England until there was quite a market for progressive literature. Twenty years later, the work would have been ignored in silence or censored out of existence, so zigzag is the path of progress.
As it was, the work sold so that in six months from the time it was put on sale, Mary had received upwards of two hundred pounds in royalties. Recognition and success are hygienic. Mrs. Blood, an erstwhile friend, saw Mary about this time, and wrote to an acquaintance: "I declare if she isn't getting handsome and knows it. She has well turned thirty and has a sprinkling of gray hair and a few wrinkles, but she is doing her best to retrieve her youth."
Mary had now quit Blackfriars for better quarters near Hyde Park. Her health was fully restored, and she moved in her own old circle of writers and thinkers.
At this time William and Mary were both well out of the kindergarten. He was forty and she was thirty-seven. Several years before, William had issued a sort of proclamation to the public, and a warning to women of the quest that bachelordom was his by choice, and that he was wedded to philosophy. Very young people are given to this habit of declaration, "I intend never to wed," and it seems that older heads are just as absurd as young ones. It is well to refrain from mentioning what we intend to do, or intend not to do, since we are all sailing under sealed orders and nothing is so apt to occur as the unexpected.
Towards the last of the year Seventeen Hundred Ninety-six, William was introducing Mary as his wife, and congratulations were in order. To them, mutual love constituted marriage, and when love died, marriage was at an end.
A sharp rebuke was printed about this time by Mary, evidently prompted by that pestiferous class of law-breakers who do not recognize that the opposites of things are alike, and that there is a difference between those who rise above law and those who burst through it. Said Mary, "Freedom without a sense of responsibility, is license, and license is a ship at sea without rudder or sail." That the careless, mentally slipshod, restless, and morally unsound should look upon her as one of them caused Mary more pain than the criticisms of the unco guid. It was this persistent pointing out by the crowd, as well as regard for the unborn, that caused William and Mary to go quietly in the month of March, Seventeen Hundred Ninety-seven, to Saint Pancras Church and be married all according to the laws of England.
Godwin wrote of the mating thus: "The partiality we conceived for each other was in that mode which I have always considered as the purest and most refined quality of love. It grew with equal advances in the minds of each. It would have been impossible for the most minute observer to have said who was before and who was after. One sex did not take the priority which long-established custom had awarded it, nor the other overstep that delicacy which is so severely imposed. I am not conscious that either part can assume to have been the principal agent in the affair. When, in the course of things, the disclosure came, there was nothing, in a manner, for either party to disclose to the other. There was no period of throes and resolute explanation attendant on the tale. It was friendship melting into love."
Mary was now happier than she had ever been before in her life. She wrote to a friend: "My bark has at last glided out upon the smooth waters. Married to a man whom I respect, revere and love, who understands my highest flights of fancy, and with whom complete companionship exists, my literary success assured, and the bugaboo of poverty at last removed, you can imagine how serene is my happiness." But this time of joy was to be short.
She died three months later, September Tenth, Seventeen Hundred Ninety-seven, leaving behind her a baby girl eleven days old.
This girl, grown to womanhood, was Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, and without whom the name of Shelley would be to us unknown.
In writing of the mother who died in giving her birth, Mary Shelley says: "Mary Wollstonecraft was one of those rare beings who appear once, perhaps, in a generation, to gild humanity with a ray which no difference of opinion nor chance of circumstance can cloud. Her genius was undeniable. She had been bred in the hard school of adversity, and having experienced the sorrows entailed on the poor and oppressed, an earnest desire was kindled within her to diminish these sorrows.
"Her sound understanding, her intrepidity, her sensibility and eager sympathy, stamped all her writings with force and truth, and endowed them with a tender charm that enchants while it enlightens. Many years have passed since that beating heart has been laid in the cold, still grave, but no one who has ever seen her speaks of her without enthusiastic love and veneration. Was there discord among friends or relatives, she stood by the weaker party, and by her earnest appeals and kindliness awoke latent affection, and healed all wounds. Open as day to melting charity, with a heart brimming with generous affection, yearning for sympathy, helpful, hopeful and self-reliant, such was Mary Wollstonecraft." And here let us leave her.
DANTE AND BEATRICE
What should be said of him can not be said; By too great splendor is his name attended; To blame is easier those who him offended, Than reach the faintest glory round him shed. This man descended to the doomed and dead For our instruction; then to God ascended; Heaven opened wide to him its portals splendid, Who from his country's, closed against him, fled. Ungrateful land! To its own prejudice Nurse of his fortunes; and this showeth well, That the most perfect, most of grief shall see. Among a thousand proofs let one suffice, That as his exile hath no parallel, Ne'er walked the earth a greater man than he.
It was George Bernard Shaw who placed in the pillory of letters what he was pleased to call "The Disagreeable Girl."
And he has done the deed by a dry-plate, quick-shutter process in a way that surely lays him liable for criminal libel in society's assize.
I say society's assize advisedly, because it is only in society that the Disagreeable Girl plays a prominent part, assuming the center of the stage. Society, in the society sense, is built on vacuity, its favors being for those who reveal a fine capacity to waste and consume. Those who would write their names high on society's honor-roll need not be either useful or intelligent—they need only seem.
And this gives the Disagreeable Girl her opportunity. In the paper-box factory she would have to make good; Cluett, Coon and Company ask for results; the stage demands a modicum at least of intellect, in addition to shape; but society asks for nothing but pretense, and the palm is awarded to palaver.
But do not, if you please, imagine that the Disagreeable Girl does not wield an influence.
That is the very point: her influence is so far-reaching that George Bernard Shaw, giving cross-sections of life, in the form of dramas, can not write a play and leave her out.
She is ubiquitous, omniscient and omnipresent—is the Disagreeable Girl. She is a disappointment to her father, a humiliation to her mother, a pest to brothers and sisters, and when she finally marries, she saps the inspiration of her husband and often converts a proud and ambitious man into a weak and cowardly cur.
Only in society does the Disagreeable Girl shine: everywhere else she is an abject failure. The much-vaunted Gibson Girl is a kind of deluxe edition of Shaw's Disagreeable Girl. The Gibson Girl lolls, loafs, pouts, weeps, talks back, lies in wait, dreams, eats, drinks, sleeps and yawns. She rides in a coach in a red jacket, plays golf in a secondary sexual sweater, dawdles on a hotel veranda, and tum-tums on a piano, but you never hear of her doing a useful thing or saying a wise one. She reveals a beautiful capacity for avoiding all useful effort.
Gibson gilds the Disagreeable Girl. Shaw paints her as she is. In the "Doll's House" Henrik Ibsen has given us Nora Hebler, a Disagreeable Girl of mature age, who beyond a doubt first set George Bernard Shaw a-thinking. Then looking about, Shaw saw her at every turn in every stage of her moth-and-butterfly existence.
And the Disagreeable Girl being everywhere, Shaw, dealer in human character, can not write a play and leave her out, any more than Turner could paint a picture and leave man out, or Paul Veronese produce a canvas and omit the dog.
The Disagreeable Girl is a female of the genus homo persuasion, built around a digestive apparatus with marked marshmallow proclivities.
She is, moreover, pretty, pug-nosed, poetical, pert and pink; and at first glance to the unwary, she shows signs of gentleness and intelligence. Her age is anywhere from eighteen to twenty-eight. At twenty-eight she begins to evolve into something else, and her capacity for harm is largely curtailed, because by this time spirit has written itself in her form and features, and the grossness and animality which before were veiled are now becoming apparent. Habit writes itself on the face, and the body is an automatic recording-machine.
To have a beautiful old age, you must live a beautiful youth, for we ourselves are posterity and every man is his own ancestor. I am today what I am because I was yesterday what I was.
The Disagreeable Girl is always pretty—at least she has been told she is pretty, and she fully accepts the dictum. She has also been told she is clever, and she thinks she is. The actual fact is she is only "sassy."
The fine flaring-up of youth has set sex rampant, but she is not "immoral," except in her mind. She has caution to the verge of cowardice, and so she is "sans reproche." In public she pretends to be dainty; but alone, or with those for whose good opinion she does not care, she is gross, coarse and sensual in every feature of her life. She eats too much, does not exercise enough, and considers it amusing to let others wait upon her, and do for her the things she should do for herself. Her room is a jumble of disorder, a fantasy of dirty clothes, a sequinarium of unmentionables—that is, if the care of it is left to herself. The one gleam of hope for her lies in the fact that out of shame she will allow no visitor to enter the apartment if she can help it. Concrete selfishness is her chief mark. She avoids responsibility; sidesteps every duty that calls for honest effort; is secretive, untruthful, indolent, evasive and dishonest.
"What are you eating?" asks Nora Hebler's husband as she enters the room, not expecting to see him.
"Nothing," is the answer, and she hides the box of bonbons behind her, and presently backs out of the room.
I think Mr. Hebler had no business to ask her what she was eating: no man should ask any woman such a question—and really it was no difference anyway. But Nora is always on the defensive, and fabricates when it is necessary—and when it isn't, just through habit. She will hide a letter written by her grandmother, as quickly and deftly as if it were a missive from a guilty lover. The habit of her life is one of suspicion; for, being inwardly guilty herself, she suspects everybody, although it is quite likely that crime with her has never broken through thought into deed. Nora rifles her husband's pockets, reads his notebook, examines his letters, and when he goes on a trip she spends the day checking up his desk, for her soul delights in duplicate keys.
At times she lets drop hints of knowledge concerning little nothings that are none of hers, just to mystify folks. She does strange, annoying things, simply to see what others will do.
In degree, Nora's husband fixed the vice of finesse in her nature, for even a "good" woman accused parries by the use of trickery and wins her point by the artistry of the bagnio. Women and men are never really far apart anyway, and women are what men have made them.
We are all just getting rid of our shackles: listen closely anywhere, even among honest and intellectual people, if such there be, and you can detect the rattle of chains.
The Disagreeable Girl's mind and soul have not kept pace with her body. Yesterday she was a slave, sold in Circassian mart, and freedom to her is so new and strange that she does not know what to do with it.
The tragedy she works, according to George Bernard Shaw, is through the fact that very often good men, blinded by the glamour of sex, imagine they love the Disagreeable Girl, when what they love is their own ideal.
Nature is both a trickster and a humorist and sets the will of the species beyond the discernment of the individual. The picador has to blindfold his horse in order to get him into the bull-ring, and likewise Dan Cupid exploits the myopic to a purpose.
For aught we know, the lovely Beatrice of Dante was only a Disagreeable Girl clothed in a poet's fancy. Fortunate, indeed, was Dante that he never knew her well enough to get undeceived, and so walked through life in love with love, sensitive, saintly, sweetly sad and divinely happy in his melancholy.
* * * * *
There be simple folks and many, who think that the tragedy of love lies in its being unrequited.
The fact is, the only genuinely unhappy love—the only tragedy—is when love wears itself out.
Thus tragedy consists in having your illusions shattered.
The love-story of Dante lies in the realm of illusion and represents an eternal type of affection. It is the love of a poet—a Pygmalion who loves his own creation. It is the love that is lost, but the things we lose or give away are the things we keep. That for which we clutch we lose.
Love like that of Dante still exists everywhere, and will until the end of time. One-sided loves are classic and know neither age nor place; and to a degree—let the fact be stated softly and never hereafter be so much as whispered—all good men and women have at some time loved one-sidedly, the beloved being as unaware of the love as a star is of the astronomer who discovers it.
This kind of love, carried on discreetly, is on every hand, warming into life the divine germs of art, poetry and philosophy. Of it the world seldom hears. It creates no scandal, never is mentioned in court proceedings, nor is it featured by the newspapers. Indeed, the love of Dante would have been written in water, were it not for the fact that the poet took the world into his confidence, as all poets do—for literature is only confession.
Many who have written of Dante, like Boccaccio and Rossetti, have shown as rare a creative ability as some claim Dante revealed in creating his Beatrice.
"Paint me with the moles on," said Lincoln to the portrait-man. I'll show Dante with moles, wrinkles and the downward curve of the corners of his mouth, duly recording the fact that the corners of his mouth did not turn down always.
I think, somewhere, I have encouraged the idea of women marrying the second time, and I have also given tangible reasons. Let me now say as much for men.
The father of Dante married and raised a family of seven. On the death of his wife he sought consolation for his sorrow in the love of a lass by the name of Bella—her family-name is to us unknown. They were married, and had one child, and this child was Dante.
Dante, at times, had a way of mourning over the fact that his father and mother ever met, but the world has never especially sympathized in this regret. Dante was born in the year Twelve Hundred Sixty-five, in the city of Florence, which was then the artistic and intellectual capital of the world.
Dante seemed to think that the best in his nature was derived from his mother, who was a most gentle, sensitive and refined spirit. Such a woman married to a man old enough to be her father is not likely to be absurdly happy. This has been said before, but it will bear repeating. Yet disappointment has its compensation, since it drives the mind on to the ideal, and thus is a powerful stimulant for the imagination. Deprive us of our heritage here, and we will conjure forth castles in Spain—you can not place an injunction on that!
Dante was not born in a castle, nor yet in a house with portcullis and battlements.
Time was when towers and battlements on buildings were something more than mere architectural appendenda. They had a positive use. Towers and courtyards were only for the nobility, and signified that the owner was beyond the reach of law; he could lock himself in and fight off the world, the flesh and the devil, if he wished.
Dante's father lived in a house that had neither tower nor court that closed with iron gate. He was a lawyer, a hard-headed man who looked after estates, collected rents and gave advice to aristocratic nobodies for a consideration. He did not take snuff, for obvious reasons, but he was becomingly stout, carried a gold-headed cane or staff with a tassel on it, and struck this cane on the ground, coughing slightly, when about to give advice, as most really great lawyers do.
When little Durante—or Dante, as we call him—was nine years old, his father took him to a lawn fete held at the suburban home of Folco de Portinari, one of the lawyer's rich clients.
Now Signor Portinari in social station was beyond Alighieri the lawyer, and of course nobody for a moment suspected that the dark-skinned, half-scared little boy, clutching his father's forefinger as they walked, was going to write "The Divine Comedy." No one paid any particular attention to the father and child, as they strolled beneath the trees, rested on the benches, and were served chocolate and cheese-straws by the servants.
But on this occasion the boy caught a passing glimpse of Beatrice Portinari, the daughter of the host. The girl was just nine years old: the boy must have been told this by his father as he pointed out the fair one. The boy did not speak to her nor did she speak to him: this was quite out of the question, for they were on a totally different social plane.
Amid the dim lights of the flaming torches he saw her—just for an instant! The whole surroundings were strangely unreal, but well calculated to impress the youthful imagination, and out of it all the boy carried with him this vision of loveliness.
In his "New Life"—what an appropriate title for a love-story!—Dante tells of this first sight of the beloved somewhat thus: "Nine times already since my birth had the heaven of light returned to the selfsame point almost, as concerns its own revolution, when first the glorious lady of my mind was made manifest to my eyes, even she who was called Beatrice by many who knew not wherefore. She had already been in this life so long as that, within her time the starry heaven had moved toward the Eastern quarter one of the twelve parts of the degree; so that she appeared to me at the beginning of her ninth year, and I saw her almost at the end of my ninth year. Her dress on that day was of the most noble color, a subdued and goodly crimson, girdled and adorned in such sort as best suited her very tender age. At that moment, I say most truly that the spirit of life, which has its dwelling in the secretest chamber of my heart, began to tremble so violently that the least pulses of my body shook therewith; and in trembling it said these words: Here is a deity stronger than I who coming shall rule over me."
* * * * *
Nine was a sacred number with Dante. He was nine years old when he first saw his lady-love, and she too was nine, having not yet reached the age of indiscretion.
Nine years were to elapse before he was to speak to her. It is quite possible that he had caught glimpses of her in the interval, at church.
Churches have their uses as trysting-places for the unquenched spirit: vows are repeated there that have no witnesses and do not go into the register. There lovers meet in soul, and feed upon a glance, when heads are bowed in prayer. Love lends a deep religious air to the being, and when we are in love we love God. At other times we only fear Him.
I am told that there be young men and maidens fair who walk on air and live in paradise until Sunday comes again, all on account of a loving look into eyes that look love again, in the dim religious light while the music plays soft and low.
The lover watched his graceful maid As mid the virgin train she strayed, Nor knew her beauty's best attire Was woven still in the snow-white choir.
And where is the gray-bearded prophet who has yet been wise enough to tell us where love ends and religion begins! But in all these nine years Beatrice and Dante had never met. She had not heard his voice, nor he hers—only glances, or a hand lifted in a way that spoke tomes. He had developed into a dark, dashing youth, given to falconry, painting and music. He had worked with Cimabue, the father of Italian art, and had been chum of Giotto, to whom all cherubim and seraphim trace.
At that time people with money who wanted to educate their sons sent them out, at what seems to us a very tender age, to travel and tramp the earth alone. They were remittance-men who shifted from university to university, and took lessons in depravity, being educated by the boys.
Dean Pluntre says that there were universities in the Middle Ages at Padua, Bologna, Paris and Oxford carried on in a very desultory way by pious monks, where the boys were divided by nationalities, so as to afford a kind of police system—Italian, Spanish, French and English.
They caroused, occasionally fought, studied when they felt like it, and made love to married women—all girls being under lock and key for safe-keeping.
So there you get the evolution of the modern university: a mendicant monastery where boys were sent, in the hope that they might absorb a little of the religious spirit and a desire to know.
Finally, there were enough students so that they organized cliques, clubs and secret societies, and by a process of natural selection governed themselves, as well as visited punishment upon offenders.
Next, on account of a laxity of morals and an indifference to books, a military system of discipline was enforced: lights had to be out at ten o'clock, and a student caught off the grounds without leave was punished. The teacher was a vicarious soldier. At that time each school had a prison attached, of which the "carcer" at Heidelberg is the surviving type. Up to the Sixteenth Century, every university was a kind of castle or fort, and the students might at any time be compelled to do military duty. The college had its towers for fighting-men, its high walls, its fortressed fronts and iron gates. These gates and walls still survive in rudimentary form, and the sixteen-foot spiked steel fence at Harvard is the type of a condition that once was an actual necessity: the place was a law unto itself, paid no taxes, and at any time might be raided. Colleges yet pay no taxes and are also quasi-mendicant institutions.
It was not until well into the Sixteenth Century that requirements, examinations, system and discipline began to dawn upon the world. Before that, a student was a kind of troubadour, a cross between a monk and a crusader, a knight-errant of love and letters, and the moral code for him did not apply. An argument can be made for his chivalric tendencies, and his pretense for learning had its place, for affectation is better than indifference. The roistering student is not wholly bad.
Poetry and love-making were to the velvet-breeched youth the real business of life. Like knights in armor, he often wore the colors of a lady who merely smiled at him from a latticed window. If she dropped for him her glove or handkerchief, he was in the seventh heaven. As his intents were not honorable nor his purpose marriage, it made no difference whether the lady was married or single, young or old. Whether the love remained upon a Platonic and purely poetic basis depended, of course, entirely upon the lady and her watchful relatives. If the family were poor and the lover rich, these things might have a bearing. We hear of alliances in those days, not dishonorable, where the husband was complacent and looked upon it as a distinction to have worthy scions of greatness pay court to his wife. Such men were referred to as "fribblers" or "tame-cats." The woman was often much older than the alleged student, and this seems to have been no disadvantage, for charms o'erripe are oft alluring to a certain type of youth.
Such things now would lead to headlines in the daily papers and snapshots of all parties concerned, followed by divorce-court proceedings. Then, even among honorable husbands, the only move was to hire an extra Pinkerton duenna to attend the fair one, and to smile in satisfaction over the possession of a wife so much coveted—the joy of all ownership being largely the ability to excite envy.
College rowdyism, cane-rushes, duels, bloody Monday, the fag system and hazings are all surviving traditions of these so-called universities where people who had the price sent their sons into the pedagogic bull-pen.
As, for centuries, youths who were destined for the priesthood were the only ones educated, so the monks were the first teachers, and the monastery was the college.
In the Twelfth Century a college was merely a monkery that took in boarders, and learning was acquired by absorption.
No records were kept of the students—they simply paid a small fee, were given a badge and attended lectures when they got ready.
Some students stayed and studied for years, thinking the business of life was to cram with facts. Such bachelor grubbers with fixed incomes, like pensioners in a soldiers' home, old and gray, are now to be seen occasionally in European universities, sticklers for technicalities, hot after declensions, and happy when they close in on a new exception to a Greek verb, giving it no quarter. When they come to die, they leave earth with but a single regret: they have never been able fully to compass the ablative. But the rough-and-tumble student was the rule, with nose deep into stein, exaggerating little things into great, making woful ballad to his mistress' eyebrow.
Such was Milord Hamlet, to whom young Dante bears a strange resemblance.
A university like this, where the students governed themselves, and the duties of the faculty consisted largely in protecting the property, had its advantages. We will come back to self-government yet, but higher up in the scale. It was like a big country school, in a country town, where lessons in self-reliance are handed out with the bark on. The survival of the fittest prevails, and out of the mass emerges now and then a strong man who makes his mark upon the times.
Dante was back home in Florence from his sojourn abroad, a bit of a dandy no doubt, with a becoming dash and a touch of sophomoric boldness. He had not forgotten Beatrice Portinari: often had he thought of her, the princess of his dreams, and all the dames he had met had been measured with her as a standard.
She had been married about a year before to a rich banker, Simone de Bardi. This did not trouble Dante: she was too far removed from him to be an actual reality, and so he just waived her husband and dismissed him with a shrug. Beside that, young married women have a charm all their own; they are wiser than maidens, more companionable; innocence is not wholly commendable—at least, not to a university student.
And now face to face Dante and Beatrice meet. It is the first, the last, the only time they are to meet on earth. They meet. She is walking with two women friends, one on each side.
She is clothed in pure white—her friends in darker raiment. She looks like an angel of light. Dante and Beatrice are not expected to meet—there is no time for embarrassment. How did she know that young Dante Alighieri had returned—she must have been dreaming of him—thinking of him! There she stands right before him—tall, graceful, intellectual, smiling. Eyes look into eyes and flash recognition. The earth seems to swirl under Dante's feet. He uncovers his head and is about to sink to his knees, but she sustains him with a word of welcome and holds out the tips of her fingers for him to touch.
She is older now than he: she is married, and a married woman of eighteen may surely reassure a boy who is only eighteen! "We have missed you from the church and from our streets—you look well, Gentle Sir! Welcome back to our Florence! Good evening!"
The three women move on: Dante tries to, but stands rooted like one of those human trees he was afterward to see in Purgatory. He follows her with his eyes, and just once she looks back and smiles as the three women are lost in the throng.
But that chance, unexpected meeting, the salutation and the smile were to write themselves into the "Vita Nuova." Dante had indeed begun a New Life.
* * * * *
The City of Florence at this time was prosperous. The churches had their pagan holidays, fetes and festivals, and gaiety was the rule.
Out at Vallambrosa and Fiesole, where the leaves fall, there were Courts of Love where poets chanted their lays and singers sang. In all this life Dante took a prominent part, for while he was not of noble birth he was of noble bearing.
There were rival political parties then in Florence, and instead of settling their difficulties at the polls they had recourse to the cobblestone and club.
When the Guelfs routed the Ghibellines from the city, Dante served as a soldier, or was sworn in as a deputy sheriff, and did some valiant fighting for the Guelfs, for which privilege he was to pay when the Ghibellines came back.
Just what his every-day occupation was we are not sure, but as he was admitted a member of the Guild of Apothecaries we assume that he clerked in a drugstore, and often expressed himself thus: "Lady, I am all out of liverwort today, but I have something just as good!"—and he read her a few stanzas from the "Vita Nuova," which he had just written behind the screen at the prescription-counter.
In the year Twelve Hundred Eighty-five, Charles of Anjou, brother of Saint Louis, came to Florence, and Dante was appointed one of the committee to look after his entertainment.
Charles was a man of intelligence and discrimination, a lover of letters and art. He and Dante became fast friends, and it seems Dante became a kind of honorary member of his court.
Dante could paint a little, he played on the harp, and he also recited his own poems. His love of Beatrice de Bardi was an open secret—all Florence knew of it. He had sung her beauty, her art, her intelligence in a way that made both locally famous.
He had written a poem on the sixty chief belles of Florence, and in this list he had not placed Beatrice first, but ninth. Just why he did this, unless to emphasize his favorite number, we do not know. In any event it made more talk than if he had placed her first.
And once at church where he had followed Beatrice, he made eyes openly at another lady, to distract the attention of the observing public. The plan worked so well that Beatrice, seeing the flirtation, shortly afterward met Dante and cut him dead, or, to use his own phrase, "withheld her salutation."
This caused the young man such bitter pain that he wrote a veiled poem, explaining the actual facts. These facts were that out of his great love for Beatrice, in order to protect her good name, he had openly made love to another.
I said that the fact that Beatrice had declined to speak to Dante as they passed by had caused him bitter pain. This is true; but after a few days the matter took on a new light. If Beatrice was indifferent to him, why should she be displeased when he had made eyes at another? She evidently was jealous, and Dante was in a paradise of delight, or in purgatory, or both, according to the way the wind sat.
There is no reason to suppose that Dante and Beatrice ever met and talked things over. She was closely guarded, and evidently ran no risk of smirching her good name by associating with a troubadour student. He could sing songs about her—this she could not help—but beyond this there was nothing doing.
Only once after this did they come near meeting. It was at a wedding-party where Dante had gone evidently without an invitation. He inwardly debated whether he should remain to the feast or not, and the ayes had it. He was about to be seated at the table, when a sudden sense of first heat and then cold came over him and he grasped his chair for support. The light seemed blinding. He closed his eyes, and then opened them; and looking up, on the opposite side of the room he saw his Beatrice!
A friend seeing his agitation and thinking him ill, led him forth into the open air and there chafed his icy fingers asking, "What can it be—what is the matter?"
And Dante answered, "Of a surety I have set my feet on a point of life beyond which he must not pass who would return!"
Immediately thereafter—probably the next day—Dante began a poem, very carefully thought out, in celebration of the beauty and virtue of Beatrice. He had written but one stanza when he tells us that, "The Lord God of Justice called my most gracious Lady to Himself." And Beatrice was dead, aged twenty-five years.
Through her death Dante was indeed wedded to her memory. He calls her the bride of his soul.
* * * * *
We can not resign from life gracefully. Work has to be performed, even when calamity comes, and we stand by an open grave and ask old Job's question, "If a man die shall he live again?"
Dante felt sure that Beatrice must live again in all her loveliness. "Heaven had need of her," he cries in his grief. And then again, "She belonged not here, and so God took her to Himself." At first he was dumb with sorrow, and then tears came to his relief, and a little later he eased his soul through expression: he indited an open letter, a kind of poetic proclamation to the citizens of Florence, in which he rehearsed their loss and offered them consolation in the thought that they now had a guardian angel in Heaven.
The lover, like an artist or skilled workman, always exaggerates the importance of his passion, and links his love with the universal welfare of mankind.
And stay! after all he may be right—who knows! So a year passed away in sadness, with a few bad turnings into sensuality, followed by repenting in verse. It was the anniversary of her death, and Dante was outlining angels to illustrate his sonnets wherein he apotheosized Beatrice. And behold! as he day-dreamed of his Beatrice sweet consolation came in double form. First he saw a gentle lady who looked very much like the lady he lost. Lovers are always looking for resemblances—on the street, in churches, at the theater or the concert, in travel—looking always, ever looking for the face and form of the beloved. Strange resemblances are observed—persons are followed—the gait, height, attire, carriage of the head are noted, and hearts beat fast!
So Dante saw a lady who seemed to have the same dignity of carriage, a like nobility of feature, a look as luminous and a glance as telling as those of Beatrice. Evidently he paid court to her with so much success that he turned from her and recriminated himself for having his passion aroused by a counterfeit. She looked the part, but her feet were clay and so were heart and head, and Dante turned again to his ideal, Beatrice in Heaven.
And with the turning came the thought of Paradise! He would visit Beatrice in Heaven, and she would meet him at the gates and guide the way. The visit was to be one personally conducted.
Every great and beautiful thing was once an unuttered thought; and we know the time and almost the place where Dante conceived the idea of "The Divine Comedy."
The new Beatrice he had found was only a plaster-of-Paris cast of the original: Dante's mind recoiled from her to the genuine—that is, to the intangible—which proves that even commonplace women have their uses. At this time, while he was revolving the nebulous "Commedia" in his mind, he read Cicero's "Essay on Friendship," and dived deep into the philosophy of Epictetus and Plato. Then he printed a card in big letters and placed it on his table where he could see it continually: "Philosophy is the cure for love!"
But it wasn't—except for a few days when he wrote some stanzas directed to the world, declaring that his former poems referring to Beatrice pictured her merely as "Philosophy, the beautiful woman, daughter of the Great Emperor of the Universe." He declared that all of his odes to his gentle lady were odes to Philosophy, to which all wise men turn for consolation in time of trouble.
Nothing matters much—pish! It was the struggle of the poet and the good man, trying to convince himself that he travels fastest who travels alone.
Dante must have held the stern and placid pose of Plato, the confirmed bachelor, for a full week, then tears came and melted his artificial granite.
And as for Plato, the confirmed bachelor, legend has it that he was confirmed by a woman.
* * * * *
In the train of Boccaccio traveled a nephew of Dante who had his illustrious uncle's interesting history at his tongue's end. By this nephew we are told that the marriage of Dante and Gemma Donati, in Twelve Hundred and Ninety-two, when Dante was twenty-seven, was a little matter arranged by the friends of both parties. Dante was dreamy, melancholy and unreliable: marriage would sober his poetic debauch and cause him to settle down!
Ruskin, it will be remembered, was also looked after by the matchmakers in much the same way.
So Dante was married. Some say that his wife was the gentle lady who looked like Beatrice, but this is pure conjecture. Four children were born to them in seven years. One of these was named Beatrice, which seems to prove that the wife of Dante was aware of his great passion. One of the sons became a college professor, and wrote a commentary on "The Commedia," and also an unneeded defense of his father's character and motives in making love to a married lady.
Dante was a man of influence in the affairs of the city. He occupied civic offices of distinction, wrote addresses and occasionally poems, in which he glorified his friends and referred scathingly to his political adversaries.
Gemma must have been a woman of more than average brain and intelligence, for when her husband was banished from Florence by the successful Ghibellines, she kept her little family together, worked hard, educated her children, and it is said by Boccaccio lived honorably and indulged in no repining.
So far as we know, Dante sent no remittances home. He moved from one university to another, and accepted invitations from nobility to tarry at their castles. He dressed in melancholy black and read his poems to polite assemblies. Now and then he gave lectures. He was followed by spies, or thought he was, and now and then quarreled with his associates or host, and made due note of the fact, leaving the matter to be adjusted when he had time and wanted raw stock for his writings.
And all the time he mourned not for the loss of Gemma and his children, but for Beatrice. She it was who met him and Vergil at the gates of Paradise and guided them about the place, explaining its art, ethics and economics, and pointing out the notables.
Dante placed in Paradise all those who had befriended him most and praised his poems. People he did not like he deposited in Hell, for Dante was human. That is what Hell is for—a place to put people who disagree with us.
Milton was profoundly influenced by Dante, and in fact was very much like him, save that, though he had the felicity to be legally married three times, yet there is no sign of passionate love in his life. Henley says that without Dante we should have had no Milton, and how much Dante and Milton have influenced the popular conception of the Christian religion, no man can say. Even as conservative a man as Archdeacon Farrar, in one of his Clark lectures, said, "Our orthodox faith seems to trace a genesis to the genius of Dante, with Saint Paul and Jesus as secondary or contributing influences."
After five years' wandering, Dante was notified that he could return to Florence on making due apology to the reigning powers and walking in the procession of humble transgressors.
The letter he wrote in reply is still in existence. He scorned pardon, since he had been guilty of no offense, and he would return with honor or not at all.
This letter secured him a second indictment, wherein it was provided that he should be burned alive if he set foot inside the republic.
This sentence was not revoked until Fourteen Hundred Ninety-four, and as Dante had then been dead more than a hundred years, it was of small avail on earth. The plan, however, of pardoning dead men was so that their souls could be gotten out of Purgatory legally, the idea being that man's law and justice were closely woven with the Law of God, and that God punished offenses against the State, just as He would offenses against the Church. Hence it was necessary for the State and Church to quash their indictment before God could do the same.
People who think that governments and religious denominations are divine institutions will see the consistency and necessity of Lorenzo de Medici and Pope Alexander the Fourth combining and issuing a pardon in Dante's favor one hundred seventy years after his death. He surely had been in Purgatory long enough.
Dante died at Ravenna in Thirteen Hundred Twenty-one, aged fifty-six years. It seems that he had gone there to see his daughter, Beatrice, who was in a nunnery just outside the city walls. There his dust rests.
If it be true that much of modern Christianity traces to Dante, it is no less true that he is the father of modern literature. He is the first writer of worth to emerge out of that night of darkness called the Middle Ages.
His language is tender and full of sweet, gentle imagery. He knew the value of symbols, and his words often cast a purple shadow. His style is pliable, flexible, fluid, and he shows rare skill in suggesting a thing that it would be absurd to describe.
Dante was an artist in words, and in imagination a master. The history of literature can never be written and the name of Dante left out. And he, of all writers, both ancient and modern, most vividly portrays the truth that without human love, there would be no such thing as poetry.
JOHN STUART MILL AND HARRIET TAYLOR
To the beloved and deplored memory of her who was the inspirer, and in part the author, of all that is best in my writings—the friend and wife whose exalted sense of truth and right was my strongest incitement, and whose approbation was my chief reward—I dedicate this volume. Like all that I have written for many years, it belongs as much to her as to me; but the work as it stands has had, in a very insufficient degree, the inestimable advantage of her revision; some of the most important portions having been reserved for a more careful examination, which they are now destined never to receive. Were I but capable of interpreting to the world one-half the great thoughts and noble feelings which are buried in her grave, I should be the medium of a greater benefit to it, than is ever likely to arise from anything that I can write, unprompted and unassisted by her all but unrivaled wisdom.
—Dedication to "On Liberty," by John Stuart Mill
So this then is the love-story of John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor, who first met in the year Eighteen Hundred Thirty. He was twenty-five and a clerk in the East India House. She was twenty-three, and happily married to a man with a double chin.
They saw each other for the first time at Mrs. Taylor's house at a function given in honor of a Right Honorable Nobody from Essex. The Right Honorable has gone down into the dust of forgetfulness, his very name lost to us, like unto that of the man who fired the Alexandrian Library.
All we know is that he served as a pivotal point in the lives of two great people, and then passed on, unwittingly, into the obscurity from whence he came.
On this occasion the Right Honorable read an original paper on an Important Subject. Mrs. Taylor often gave receptions to eminent and learned personages, because her heart was a-hungered to know and to become, and she vainly thought that the society of learned people would satisfy her soul.
She was young. She was also impulsive, vivacious, ambitious. John Stuart Mill says she was rarely beautiful, but she wasn't. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. All things are comparative, and John Stuart Mill regarded Mrs. Taylor from the first night he saw her as the standard of feminine perfection. All women scaled down as they varied from her. As an actual fact, her features were rather plain, mouth and nose large, cheek-bones in evidence, and one eye was much more open than the other, and this gave people who did not especially like her, excuse for saying that her eyes were not mates. As for John Stuart Mill he used, at times, to refer to the wide-open orb as her "critical eye."
Yet these eyes were lustrous, direct and honest, and tokened the rare quality of mental concentration. Her head was square and long, and had corners. She carried the crown of her head high, and her chin in.
We need not dally with old Mr. Taylor here—for us he was only Mrs. Taylor's husband, a kind of useful marital appendendum. He was a merchant on 'Change, with interests in argosies that plied to Tripoli—successful, busy, absorbed, with a twinge of gout, and a habit of taking naps after dinner with a newspaper over his face. Moreover, he was an Oxford man, and this was his chief recommendation to the eighteen-year-old girl, when she married him four years before. But education to him was now only a reminiscence. He had sloughed the old Greek spirit as a bird molts its feathers, with this difference: that a bird molts its feathers because it is growing a better crop, while Mr. Taylor wasn't growing anything but a lust after "L. s. d."
Once in two years there was an excursion to Oxford to attend a reunion of a Greek-letter society, and perhaps twice in the winter certain ancient cronies came, drank musty ale, and smoked long clay pipes, and sang college songs in cracked falsetto.
Mrs. Taylor was ashamed of them—disappointed. Was this the college spirit of which she had read so much? The old cronies leered at her as she came in to light the candles—they leered at her; and the one seated next to her husband poked that fortunate gentleman in the ribs and congratulated him on his matrimonial estate.
Yet Mr. and Mrs. Taylor were happy, or reasonably so. He took much pride in her intellect, indulged her in all material things she wanted, and never thwarted her little ambitions to give functions to great men who came up from the provinces.
She organized a Literary Coterie, to meet every Saturday and study Mary Wollstonecraft's book on the "Rights of Woman."
Occasionally, she sat in the visitors' gallery at Parliament, but always behind the screen. And constantly she wrote out her thoughts on the themes of the time. Her husband never regarded these things as proof that she was inwardly miserable, unsatisfied, and in spirit was roaming the universe seeking a panacea for soul-nostalgia; not he! Nor she.
And so she gave the function to the Right Honorable Nobody from Essex. And among thirty or forty other people was one John Stuart Mill, son of the eminent James Mill, historian and philosopher, also Head Examiner of the East India House. Mr. and Mrs. Taylor had made out the list of people between them, choosing those whom they thought had sufficient phosphorus so they would enjoy meeting a great theological meteoric personality from Essex.
Mr. Taylor had seen young Mr. Mill in the East India House, where young Mr. Mill made out invoices with big seals on them. Mr. Taylor had said to Mr. Mill that it was a fine day, to which proposition Mr. Mill agreed.
The Honorable James Mill was invited, too, but could not come, as he was President of the Land Tenure League, and a meeting was on for the same night.
Mr. Taylor introduced to the company the eminent visitor from Essex—they had been chums together at Oxford—and then Mr. Taylor withdrew into a quiet corner and enjoyed a nap as the manuscript was being read in sonorous orotund.
The subject was, "The Proper Sphere of Woman in the Social Cosmogony." By chance Mrs. Taylor and John Stuart Mill sat next to each other.
The speaker moved with stately tread through his firstly to his seventhly, and then proceeded to sum up. The argument was that of Saint Paul amplified, "Let woman learn in subjection"—"For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is also the head of the Church"—"God made woman for a helpmeet to man," etc.
Mrs. Taylor looked at young Mr. Mill, and Mr. Mill looked at Mrs. Taylor. They were both thinking hard, and without a word spoken they agreed with each other on this, that the speaker had no message.
Young Mr. Mill noted that one of Mrs. Taylor's eyes was much wider open than the other, and that her head had corners. She seemed much beyond him in years and experience, although actually she was two years younger—a fact he did not then know.
"Does not a woman need a helpmeet, too?" she wrote on the fly-leaf of a book she held in her lap. And young Mr. Mill took the book and wrote beneath in a copper-plate East India hand, "I do not know what a woman needs; but I think the speaker needs a helpmeet."
And then Mrs. Taylor wrote: "All help must be mutual. No man can help a woman unless she helps him—the benefit of help lies as much in the giving as in the receiving."
After the function Mrs. Taylor asked Mr. Mill to call. It is quite likely that on this occasion she asked a good many of the other guests to call.
Mr. Mill called the next evening.
* * * * *
John Stuart Mill was not a university man. He was an intellectual cosset, and educated in a way that made the English pedagogues stand aghast. So, probably thousands of parents said, "Go to! we will educate our own children," and went at their boys in the same way that James Mill treated his son, but the world has produced only one John Stuart Mill.
Axtell, the trotter, in his day held both the two-year-old and the three-year-old record. He was driven in harness from the time he was weaned, and was given work that would have cocked most ankles and sent old horses over on their knees. But Axtell stood the test and grew strong.
Certain horsemen, seeing the success of Axtell, tried his driver's plan, and one millionaire I know ruined a thousand colts and never produced a single racehorse by following the plan upon which Axtell thrived.
The father of John Stuart Mill would now be considered one of England's great thinkers, had he not been so unfortunate as to be thrown completely into the shadow by his son. As it is, James Mill lives in history as the man who insisted that his baby three years old should be taught the Greek alphabet. When five years old, this baby spoke with an Attic accent, and corrected his elders who dropped the aspirate. With unconscious irony John Stuart Mill wrote in his "Autobiography," "I learned no Latin until my eighth year, at which time, however, I was familiar with 'AEsop's Fables,' most of the 'Anabasis,' the 'Memorabilia' of Xenophon, and the 'Lives of the Philosophers' by Diogenes Laertius, part of Lucian, and the 'Ad Demonicum' and 'Ad Nicoclem' of Isocrates." Besides these he had also read all of Plato, Plutarch, Gibbon, Hume and Rollin, and was formulating in his mind a philosophy of history.
Whether these things "educated" the boy or not will always remain an unsettled question for debating-societies.
But that he learned and grew through constant association with his father there is no doubt. Wherever the father went, the boy trotted along, a pad in one hand and a pencil in the other, always making notes, always asking questions, and always answering propositions.
The long out-of-door walks doubtless saved him from death. He never had a childhood, and if he ever had a mother, the books are silent concerning her. He must have been an incubator baby, or else been found under a cabbage-leaf. James Mill treated his wife as if her office and opinions were too insignificant to consider seriously—she was only an unimportant incident in his life. James Mill was the typical beef-eating Englishman described by Taine.
According to Doctor Bain's most interesting little book on John Stuart Mill, the youth at nine was appointed to supervise the education of the rest of the family, "a position more pleasing to his vanity than helpful to his manners." That he was a beautiful prig at this time goes without saying.
The scaffolding of learning he mistook for the edifice, a fallacy borrowed from his father. At the age of fourteen he knew as much as his father, and acknowledged it. He was then sent to France to study the science of government under Sir Samuel Bentham.
His father's intent was that he should study law, and in his own mind was the strong conviction that he was set apart, and that his life was sacred to the service of humanity. A year at the study of law, and a more or less intimate association with barristers, relieved him of the hallucination that a lawyer's life is consecrated to justice and the rights of man—quips, quirks and quillets were not to his taste.
James Mill held the office of Chief Examiner in the East India House, at a salary equal to seven thousand five hundred dollars a year. The gifted son was now nineteen, and at work as a junior clerk under his father at twenty pounds a year. Before the year was up he was promoted, and when he was twenty-one his salary was one hundred pounds a year.
There are people who will say, "Of course his father pushed him along." But the fact that after his father's death he was promoted by the Directors to Head of the Office disposes of all suspicion of favoritism. The management of the East India Company was really a matter of statesmanship, and the direct, methodical and practical mind of Mill fitted him for the place.
Thomas Carlyle, writing to his wife in Scotland in the year Eighteen Hundred Thirty-one, said: "This young Mill, I fancy and hope, is a being one can love. A slender, rather tallish and elegant youth, with Roman-nosed face, earnestly smiling blue eyes, modest, remarkably gifted, great precision of utterance, calm—a distinctly able and amiable youth."
So now behold him at twenty-five, a student and scholarly recluse, delving all day in accounts and dispatches, grubbing in books at night, and walking an hour before sunrise in the park every morning. It was about then that he accepted the invitation of Mrs. Taylor to call.
I do not find that James Mill ever disputed the proposition that women have souls: he evidently considered the matter quite beyond argument—they hadn't. His son, at this time, was of a like opinion.
John Stuart Mill had not gone into society, and women to him were simply undeveloped men, to be treated kindly and indulgently. As mental companions, the idea was unthinkable. And love was entirely out of his orbit—all of his energies had been worked up into great thoughts. Doctor Bain says that at twenty-five John Stuart Mill was as ignorant of sex as a girl of ten.
He called on Mrs. Taylor because she had pleased him when she said, "The person who helps another gets as much out of the transaction as the one who is helped." This was a thought worth while. Perhaps Mrs. Taylor had borrowed the idea. But anyway it was something to repeat it. He revolved it over in his mind all day, off and on. "To help another is to help yourself. A helpmeet must grow by the exercise of being useful. Therefore, a woman grows as her husband grows—she can not stand if she puts forth intelligent effort. All help is mutual."
"One eye was wider than the other—her head had corners—she carried her chin in!"
John Stuart Mill wished the day would not drag so; after supper he would go and call on Mrs. Taylor, and ask her to explain what she meant by all help being mutual—it was a trifle paradoxical!
The Taylors were just finishing tea when young Mr. Mill called. They were surprised and delighted to see him. He was a bit abashed, and could not quite remember what it was he wanted to ask Mrs. Taylor, but he finally got around to something else just as good. Mrs. Taylor had written an article on the "Subjugation of Women"—would Mr. Mill take it home with him and read it, or would he like to hear her read a little of it now?
Mr. Mill's fine face revealed his delight at the prospect of being read to. So Mrs. Taylor read a little aloud to Mr. Mill, while Mr. Taylor took a much-needed nap in the corner.
In a few days Mr. Mill called to return Mrs. Taylor's manuscript and leave a little essay he himself had written on a similar theme. Mr. Taylor was greatly pleased at this fine friendship that had sprung up between his gifted wife and young Mr. Mill—Mrs. Taylor was so much improved in health, so much more buoyant! Thursday night soon became sacred at the Taylors' to Mr. Mill, and Sunday he always took dinner with them.
Goldwin Smith, a trifle grumpy, with a fine forgetfulness as to the saltness of time, says that young Mr. Mill had been kept such a recluse that when he met Mrs. Taylor he considered that he was the first man to discover the potency of sex, and that he thought his experience was unique in the history of mankind.
Perhaps love does make a fool of a man—I really can not say. If so, then John Stuart Mill never recovered his sanity. Suppose we let John speak for himself—I quote from his "Autobiography":
It was at the period of my mental progress which I have now reached that I formed the friendship which has been the honor and chief blessing of my existence, as well as the source of a great part of all that I have attempted to do, or hope to effect hereafter, for human improvement.
My first introduction to the lady who, after a friendship of twenty years, consented to become my wife, was in Eighteen Hundred Thirty, when I was in my twenty-fifth and she in her twenty-third year.
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I very soon felt her to be the most admirable person I had ever known.
It is not to be supposed that she was, or that any one, at the age at which I first saw her, could be, all that she became afterwards. Least of all could this be true of her, with whom self-improvement, progress in the highest and in all senses, was a law of her nature; a necessity equally from the ardor with which she sought it, and from the spontaneous tendency of faculties which could not receive an impression or an experience without making it the source or occasion of an accession of wisdom.
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In her, complete emancipation from every kind of superstition (including that which attributes a pretended perfection to the order of Nature and the universe) and an earnest protest against many things which are still part of the established constitution of society, resulted not from the intellect, but from strength, a noble and elevated feeling, and co-existent with a highly reverential nature. In general spiritual characteristics, as well as in temperament and organization, I have often compared her, as she was at that time, to Shelley: but in thought and intellect, Shelley, so far as his powers were developed in his short life, was but a child compared with what she ultimately became.
Alike in the highest regions of speculation and in the smaller practical concerns of daily life, her mind was the same perfect instrument, piercing to the heart and marrow of the matter, always seizing the essential idea or principle.
The same exactness and rapidity of operation, pervading as it did her sensitive as well as her mental qualities, would, with her gifts of feeling and imagination, have fitted her for a consummate artist, as her fiery and tender soul and her vigorous eloquence would certainly have made her a great orator. And her profound knowledge of human nature, and discernment and sagacity in practical life, would, in the times when such a career was open to women, have made her eminent among the rulers of mankind.
Her intellectual gifts did but minister to a moral character at once the noblest and the best balanced which I have ever met with in my life. Her unselfishness was not that of a taught system of duties, but of a heart which thoroughly identified itself with the feelings of others, and often went to excess in consideration for them by imaginatively investing their feelings with the intensity of her own.
The passion of justice might have been thought to be her strongest feeling, but for her boundless generosity, and a lovingness ever ready to pour itself forth upon any or all human beings who were capable of giving the smallest feelings in return. The rest of her moral characteristics were such as naturally accompany these qualities of mind and heart: the most genuine modesty combined with the loftiest pride; a simplicity and sincerity which were absolute towards all who were fit to receive them; the utmost scorn for whatever was mean and cowardly, and a burning indignation at everything brutal or tyrannical, faithless or dishonorable in conduct and character, while making the broadest distinction between "mala in se" and mere "mala prohibita"—between acts giving evidence of intrinsic badness in feeling and character, and those which are only violations of conventions either good or bad, violations which whether in themselves right or wrong are capable of being committed by persons in every other respect lovable and admirable.
To be admitted into any degree of mental intercourse with a being of these qualities could not but have a most beneficial influence on my development; though the effect was only gradual, and several years elapsed before her mental progress and mine went forward in the complete companionship they at last attained. The benefit I received was far greater than any which I could hope to give; though to her, who had at first reached her opinions by the moral intuition of a character of strong feeling, there was doubtless help as well as encouragement to be derived from one who had arrived at many of the same results by study and reasoning: and in the rapidity of her intellectual growth, her mental activity, which converted everything into knowledge, doubtless drew from me, as it did from other sources, many of its materials. What I owe, even intellectually, to her is, in its detail, almost infinite; of its general character a few words will give some, though a very imperfect, idea.
With those who, like the best and wisest of mankind, are dissatisfied with human life as it is, and whose feelings are wholly identified with its radical amendment, there are two main regions of thought. One is the region of ultimate aims—the constituent elements of the highest realizable ideal of human life.
The other is that of the immediately useful and practically attainable. In both these departments, I have acquired more from her teaching than from all other sources taken together. And, to say truth, it is in these two extremes principally, that real certainty lies. My own strength lay wholly in the uncertain and slippery intermediate region, that of theory, or moral and political science; respecting the conclusions of which, in any of the forms in which I have received or originated them, whether as political economy, analytic psychology, logic, philosophy or history, or anything else, it is not the least of my intellectual obligations to her that I have derived from her a wise skepticism, which, while it has not hindered me from following out the honest exercise of my thinking faculties to whatever conclusions might result from it, has put me on my guard against holding or announcing these conclusions with a degree of confidence which the nature of such speculations does not warrant, and has kept my mind not only open to admit, but prompt to welcome and eager to seek, even on the questions on which I have most meditated, any prospect of clearer perceptions and better evidence. I have often received praise, which in my own right I only partially deserve, for the greater practicality that is supposed to be found in my writings, compared with those of most thinkers who have been equally addicted to large generalizations. The writings in which this quality has been observed, were not the work of one mind, but of the fusion of two: one as eminently practical in its judgments and perceptions of things present, as it was high and bold in its anticipations for futurity.
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The social functions at the Taylor home now became less frequent, and finally ceased. Women looked upon the friendship of John Stuart Mill and Mrs. Taylor with some resentment and a slight tinge of jealousy. Men lifted an eyebrow and called it "equivocal"—to use the phrase of Clement Shorter.
"The plan of having a husband and also a lover is not entirely without precedent," said Disraeli in mock apology, and took snuff solemnly. Meantime manuscripts were traveling back and forth between the East India House and the Taylors'.
John Stuart Mill was contributing essays to the magazines that made the thinkers think. He took a position opposed to his father, and maintained the vast importance of the sentiments and feelings in making up the sum of human lives. When Mill was mentioned, people asked which one.
The Carlyles, who at first were very proud of the acquaintanceship of Mill, dropped him. Then he dropped them. Years after, the genial Tammas, writing to his brother John, confirmed his opinion of Mill, "after Mill took up with that Taylor woman." Says Tammas: "You have lost nothing by missing the 'Autobiography' of Mill. I never read a more uninteresting book, nor should I say a sillier."
James Mill protested vehemently against his son visiting at the Taylors', and even threatened the young man with the loss of his position, but John Stuart made no answer. The days John did not see Harriet he wrote her a letter and she wrote him one.
To protect himself in his position, John now ceased to do any literary work or to write any personal letters at the office. While there he attended to business and nothing else. In the early morning he wrote or walked. Evenings he devoted to Mrs. Taylor; either writing to her or for her, or else seeing her. On Saturday afternoons they would usually go botanizing, for botany is purely a lovers' invention.
Old acquaintances who wanted to see Mill had to go to the East India House, and there they got just five minutes of his dignified presence. Doctor Bain complains, "I could no longer get him to walk with me in the park—he had reduced life to a system, and the old friends were shelved and pigeonholed."
When Mill was thirty his salary was raised to five hundred pounds a year. His father died the same year, and his brothers and sisters discarded him. His literary fame had grown, and he was editor of the London "Review." The pedantry of youth had disappeared—practical business had sobered him, and love had relieved him of his idolatry for books. Heart now meant more to him than art. His plea was for liberty, national and individual. The modesty, gentleness and dignity of the man made his presence felt wherever he went. A contemporary said: "His features were refined and regular—the nose straight and finely shaped, his lips thin and compressed—the face and body seemed to represent the inflexibility of the inner man. His whole aspect was one of high and noble achievement—invincible purpose, iron will, unflinching self-oblivion—a world's umpire!"
Mill felt that life was such a precious heritage that we should be jealous of every moment, so he shut himself in from every disturbing feature. All that he wrote he submitted to Mrs. Taylor—she corrected, amended, revised. She read for him, and spent long hours at the British Museum in research work, while he did the business of the East India Company.
When his "Logic" was published, in Eighteen Hundred Forty, he had known Mrs. Taylor nine years. That she had a considerable hand in this comprehensive work there is no doubt. The book placed Mill upon the very pinnacle of fame. John Morley declared him "England's foremost thinker," a title to which Gladstone added the weight of his endorsement, a thing we would hardly expect from an ardent churchman, since Mill was always an avowed freethinker, and once declared in Gladstone's presence, "I am one of the few men in England who have not abandoned their religious beliefs, because I never had any."
Justin McCarthy says in his reminiscences: "A wiser and more virtuous man than Mill I never knew nor expect to know; and yet I have had the good fortune to know many wise and virtuous men. I never knew any man of really great intellect, who carried less of the ways of ordinary greatness about him. There was an added charm to the very shyness of his manner when one remembers how fearless he was, if the occasion called for fortitude or courage."
After the publication of the "Logic," Mill was too big a man for the public to lose sight of.
He went his simple way, but to escape being pointed out, he kept from all crowds, and public functions were to him tabu.
When Mrs. Taylor gave birth to a baby girl, an obscure London newspaper printed, "A Malthusian Warning to the East India Company," which no doubt reflected a certain phase of public interest, but Mill continued his serene way undisturbed.
To this baby girl, Helen Taylor, Mill was always most devotedly attached. As she grew into childhood he taught her botany, and people who wanted a glimpse of Mill were advised to "look for him with a flaxen-haired little sprite of a girl any Saturday afternoon on Hampton Heath."
Mr. Taylor died in July, Eighteen Hundred Forty-nine, and in April, Eighteen Hundred Fifty-one, Mrs. Taylor and Mill were quietly married. The announcement of the marriage sent a spasm over literary England, and set the garrulous tongues a-wagging.
George Mill, a brother of John Stuart, with unconscious humor placed himself on record thus, "Mrs. Taylor was never to anybody else what she was to John." Bishop Spalding once wrote out this strange, solemn, emasculate proposition, "Mill's 'Autobiography' contains proof that a soul, with an infinite craving for God, not finding Him, will worship anything—a woman, a memory!"
This almost makes one think that the good Bishop was paraphrasing and reversing Voltaire's remark, "When a woman no longer finds herself acceptable to man she turns to God."
What the world thought of Mill's wife is not vital—what he thought of her, certainly was. I quote from the "Autobiography," which Edward Everett Hale calls "two lives in one—written by one of them":
Between the time of which I have now spoken, and the present, took place the most important events of my life.
The first of these was my marriage to the lady whose incomparable worth had made her friendship the greatest source to me both of happiness and of improvement. For seven and a half years that blessing was mine; for seven and a half only! I can say nothing which could describe, even in the faintest manner, what that loss was, and is. But because I know that she would have wished it, I endeavor to make the best of what life I have left, and to work on for her purposes with such diminished strength as can be derived from the thoughts of her, and communion with her memory.
When two persons have thoughts and speculations completely in common; when all subjects of intellectual and moral interests are discussed between them in daily life, and probed to much greater depths than are usually or conveniently sounded in writings intended for general readers; when they set out from the same principles, and arrive at their conclusions by processes pursued jointly, it is of little consequence, in respect to the question of originality, which of them holds the pen; the one who contributes the least to the composition may contribute most of the thought; the writings which result are the joint product of both, and it must often be impossible to disentangle their respective parts, and affirm that this belongs to one and that to the other. In this wide sense, not only during the years of our married life, but during many of the years of confidential friendship which preceded, all my published writings were as much her work as mine, her share in them constantly increasing as years advanced. But in certain cases, what belongs to her can be distinguished and specially identified. Over and above the general influence which her mind had over mine, the most valuable ideas and features in these joint productions (those which have been most fruitful of important results, and which have contributed most to the success and reputation of the works themselves) originated with her, were emanations from her mind, my part of them being no greater than in any of the thoughts which I found in previous writings, and made my own only by incorporating them with my own system of Thought. During the greater part of my literary life I have performed the office in relation to her, which from a rather early period I had considered as the most useful part that I was qualified to take in the domain of thought: that of an interpreter of original thinkers, and mediator between them and the public.
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Thus prepared, it will easily be believed that when I came into close intellectual communion with a person of the most eminent faculties, whose genius, as it grew and unfolded itself in thought, continually struck out truths far in advance of me, but in which I could not, as I had done in those others, detect any mixture of error, the greatest part of my mental growth consisted in the assimilation of those truths, and the most valuable part of my intellectual work was in building the bridges and clearing the paths which connected them with my general system of thought.
The steps in my mental growth for which I was indebted to her were far from being those which a person wholly uninformed on the subject would probably suspect. It might be supposed, for instance, that my strong convictions on the complete equality in all legal, political social and domestic relations, which ought to exist between men and women, may have been adopted or learned from her. This was so far from being the fact that those convictions were among the earliest results of the application of my mind to political subjects, and the strength with which I held them was, as I believe, more than anything else, the originating cause of the interest she felt in me. What is true is, that, until I knew her, the opinion was in my mind, little more than an abstract principle. I saw no more reason why women should be held in legal subjection to other people, than why men should. I was certain that their interests required fully as much protection as those of men, and were quite as little likely to obtain it without an equal voice in making the laws by which they were to be bound. But that perception of the vast practical bearings of women's disabilities which found expression in the book on the "Subjection of Women" was acquired mainly through her teaching. But for her rare knowledge of human nature and comprehension of moral and social influences, though I doubtless should have held my present opinions, I should surely have had a very insufficient perception of the mode in which the consequences of the inferior position of women intertwine themselves with all the evils of existing society and with all the difficulties of human improvement. I am indeed painfully conscious of how much of her best thoughts on the subject I have failed to reproduce, and how greatly that little treatise falls short of what would have been if she had put on paper her entire mind on the question, or had lived to devise and improve, as she certainly would have done, my imperfect statement of the case.
The first of my books in which her share was conspicuous was the "Principles of Political Economy." The "System of Logic" owed little to her except in the minute matters of composition, in which respect my writings both great and small have largely benefited by her accurate and clear-sighted criticism. The chapter of the "Political Economy" which has had a greater influence on opinion than all the rest, that on "The Probable Future of the Laboring Classes," is entirely due to her: in the first draft of the book, that chapter did not exist.
She pointed out the need of a chapter, and the extreme imperfection of the book without it: she was the cause of my writing it; and the more general part of the chapter—the statement and discussion of the two opposite theories respecting the proper condition of the laboring classes—was wholly an exposition of her thoughts, often in words taken from her own lips.
The purely scientific part of the "Political Economy" I did not learn from her; but it was chiefly her influence that gave to the book that general tone by which it is distinguished from all previous expositions of "Political Economy" that had any pretension to being scientific, and which has made it so useful to conciliating minds which those previous expositions had repelled.