|Edmund Gosse by John Singer Sargent (1886).|
The Whole Duty of a Woman is an essay by Edmund Gosse first published in The Realm in 1895. The title reflects an old Protestant work, The Whole Duty of Man, published in 1658 (and mentioned in The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy), which itself comes from Ecclesiastes 12:13 - "Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man".
It is universally conceded that our great-grandmothers were women of the most precise life and austere manners. The girls nowadays display a shocking freedom; but they were partly led into it by the relative laxity of their mothers, who, in their turn, gave great anxiety to a still earlier generation. To hear all the "Ahs" and the "Well, I nevers" of the middle-aged, one would fancy that propriety of conduct was a thing of the past, and that never had there been a "gaggle of girls" (the phrase belongs to Dame Juliana Berners) so wanton and rebellious as the race of 1895. Still, there must be a fallacy somewhere. If each generation is decidedly wilder, more independent, more revolting, and more insolent than the one before, how exceedingly good people must have been four or five generations ago!
Gosse goes on to consider women from earlier ages, referring to The Ladies Calling, a play by the same author as The Whole Duty of Man, and wonders "How did the great-grandmothers of our great-grandmothers behave? When we come to think of it, how little we know about them!" He then refers to other plays, such as The Provok'd Wife (Vanbrugh, 1697), and suggests that perhaps these 1895 "revolting girls" aren't quite in such a revolt as one might have thought in the grand scheme of things. He continues,
The revolting daughters of to-day do not curse and swear; at all events, they do not swear in print, where only we have met the shrews. On the other hand, they smoke, a contingency which does not seem to have occurred to the author of The Ladies' Calling, who nowhere warns the sisterhood against tobacco. The gravity of his indictment of excess in wine, not less than the evidence of such observers as Pepys, proves to us that drunkenness was by no means rare even among women of quality.
A common thread in all of this, Gosse wryly notes, is men's perception of women, and their eternal fear that women simply are not behaving properly. He concludes,
On the whole, it is amusing to find that the same faults and the same dangers which occupy our satirists to-day were pronounced imminent for women two hundred years ago. The ladies of Charles II's reign were a little coarser, a little primmer, a good deal more ignorant than those of our age. Their manners were on great occasions much better, and on small occasions much worse, than those of their descendants of 1895; but the same human nature prevailed. The author of The Ladies' Calling considered that the greatest danger of his congregation lay in the fact that "the female Sex is eminent for its pungency in the sensible passion of love"; and, although we take other modes of saying it, that is true now.
It's a great little essay and very interesting, if not at times amusing, to consider men's constant concern with the behaviour, the manners, and indeed the duty of womankind. It's also very interesting to see men of the late Victorian age wonder about the role of women in previous years. I'm glad to have read this. It's very short (an excellent diversion) and can be found in full here.
And that was my 15th title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week - On Facial Treatments for the Ladies by Ovid.