[This is a long post, I warn you. It is a faithful reproduction of an essay by J.B. Priestley. I am posting it here despite being fully aware that it is open to controversial interpretations. My own reading of it is very different from what I expect a cursory reader to gather from it. Before you hasten to label me a male chauvinist, I request you to consider the crux of the author's argument. I will concede though that generalizations are inherently weak, and this essay is no exception.]
A large number of men, for the most part elderly men, are secretly terrified by the new type of woman, the emancipated woman, who has put down her fancy-work, left home, received a man’s education, taken a man’s position in the world, and partly adopted masculine habits. The protests, the sneers and growls of such men are fed by this secret terror. The very sight of one of these young women, so determined, business-like, efficient, makes them shake in their shoes; for they know that the game is up, that no longer will they be able to swagger and boast of their professional capacity before an admiring female chorus; the women have penetrated behind the scenes in the theatre of man’s business and have noted the fraility of the players. Now, like these fellows, I have protested, have even ventured a little sneer at times, but I flatter myself that it has been for a very different reason. To speak frankly and without boastfulness, this new type of woman does not terrify me in the least. On the contrary, she puts me at my ease; she is so like myself. The only difference is, she does not do it so well as I do. Moreover, she has lost something very valuable, to wit, feminine reserve, dignity, grace, without which she will never be able to check my raging conceit, my swelling vanity, never be able to put me in my place as her gentler sisters can with only a faint smile or a slight gesture. That is why I protest against her, for if her kind multiply, we shall live in an entirely man-made world, and we men will strut and swagger unchecked, to the peril of our souls.
It is the other and older type of woman, who with her fancy-work and fancy puddings, her slight knowledge of Italian and painting in water-colours, that terrifies me. It is the frail silvery old ladies with fine manner and much knowledge of the world, who can put me in my place. And, like all men, I ought to be put in my place every now and again, or I should become insufferable. That is why the intellectual young men who figure as heroes in our novels of Chelsea life are so insufferable; they spend all their time among advanced women (who have gone into the world in pursuit of a career — as the phrase goes) and so are suffered to go their ways unchecked; whereas any ordinary woman would quickly send such fellows very briskly about their business, for all their talk would not hide from her quick feminine glance their hundred-and-one little meannesses. For in addition to some qualities already mentioned, the ordinary woman usually possesses something that her more ‘advanced’ sister plainly lacks, and that is commonsense; and a measure of feminine commonsense is fatal to pretentious and designing males. It usually seeks expression in a curious sort of cool yet sparkling irony, essentially feminine, which will prick the inflated balloons of masculine conceit in a trice. Nothing could be better for the purpose. Every man, if he will but speak the truth, will admit that his grand egoistical self has suffered more discomfort from this very feminine verbal weapon than from all the other more boisterous devices of his fellow men put together. As for the free-and-easy banter of the mannish women, their pontifical airs, their pedantry, their shrill sarcasms, they are simply ineffectual, a mere play of shadows, compared with this older method of feminine attack and defence, the method of polite smiling irony.
Jane Austen, of course, used it to our admiration, and, if we are men, occasionally to our discomfort. There is a fine squib in G.K. Chesterton’s brilliant firework display, The Victorian Age in Literature, which can be aptly exploded here. ‘Jane Austen,’ he says, ‘was born before those bonds which (we are told) protected woman from truth were burst by the Brontës or elaborately untied by George Eliot. Yet the fact remains that Jane Austen knew much more about men than either of them. Jane Austen may been protected from truth: but it was precious little of truth that was protected from her. When Darcy, in finally confessing his faults, says, “I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice though not in theory,” he gets nearer to a complete confession of the intelligent male than ever was hinted by Byronic lapses of the Brontës’ heroes or the elaborate exclupations of George Eliot’s. Any man wishing to preserve his own unbounded conceit of himself would rather face ten women like George Eliot or George Sand than one like Jane Austen, a delicate and fastidious little spinster who spent her life in a secluded village. But for company and for the good of my sould give me Jane Austen and all such cool feminine intelligences that know too much to flatter my sex by imitating it.
The woman who lives a normal life is able to check the swelling conceit and egotism of her menfolk simply because her outlook is so different. It is more personal and yet more impersonal. Her interests are at once narrower and wider than those of men. She is primarly concerned with very little things, the minutiae of talk and behaviour for example, on the one hand, and with very big ones, the colossal elementary facts of life, such as birth, mating, and death on the other. The first are personal and particular; whereas the second, those enormous facts about life which woman is never allowed to lose sight of, are, of course, universal, meaning just as much in the Fiji Islands as they do here. And both ranges of interest make her what only fools deny her to be, namely, essentially practical; her eye is steadily fixed on the concrete thing, and she mistrusts that chasing of the wild goose which is one of the chief pastimes and delights of man, She is concerned with persons, solid unmistakable individuals, and judges ideas according to their capacity for making persons happy. Her peculiar and intense devotion and loyalty are meant for persons, for the family and not for the world, and when, by some accident, there is a temporary dislocation, a change in the objects of this devotion of hers, the result is rather pathetic and, I think, not entirely harmless. Thus, at the present time, there is more than one woman who goes out to business and gives to the trade, say, of money-lending that intense devotion and loyalty of hers which Nature meant her to give to human beings, a man and helpless little children — a very unfortunate displacement.
Now somewhere between these two extremes, the minutiae and the colossal universal facts, come man’s interests, all the philosophies, arts, sciences, political systems, dreams, fantasies, abstractions, and what Stevenson called ‘logical Aunt Sallies’. These are the things that men take seriously, and these are the things that woman (I do not mean Miss So-and-So or Mrs. What’s-her-Name, but Woman) does not take seriously — not, that is, in the last resort. From this comes, what Stevenson again called, woman’s ‘motherly, superior tenderness to man’s vanity and self-importance’. But the fact that is ‘superior’ tends in any healthy man o check that vanity and self-importance. He takes his interests for once into an atmosphere in which they are regarded as the ingenious play of a great child; his values are for once not merely questioned but quietly set aside and a new scale erected in their place; his monstrous egoism receives a shrewd blow and, if he is not a megalomaniac, he finds himself swallowing an unfamiliar dose of humility. If a man is hurt he can run to his womenfolk for comfort and sympathy and he will not ask in vain, but he is only doing what his child who burnt itself playing about the hearth did a few minutes before, and what comfort he receives he has to accept on the same terms. If he is not a Sir Willoughby Patterne, the experience will do him good. Many a time when I have been brimming over with self-importance because some little affair of mine, which I imagined was as significant to all the world as it was to me, has prospered, I have encountered some quiet-spoken, almost timid lady, whose faint but perceptible contempt for the whole world of ideas I was living in suddenly brought me down to the ground again and gave me a right sense of proportion once more. Most men (with the exception of the Patternes) who are whole-heartedly devoted to this art of that science, who are ambitious in their profession or their politics, must have remarked this queenly indifference, this unspoken but obvious contempt for their great concerns, and benefited by it. This tolerant and tender smile keeps us in order when al the shouts and groans and menacing gestures of our fellow men are of no avail. It puts us in our place, among the largest and noisiest of children. Once all women have left their citadel and descended, with shrill cries, into the battlefield, as some are doing now, then man’s conceit will flourish unchecked for ever. He will become the Superman; a sight for the gods, rolling in inextinguishable laughter.
[If you want to flame someone, it has to be Mr. Priestley. But since he is in deep sleep now, I can step in for him!]
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