Change of Passion in Women's Ages.
, ftjmfc) N fiction the vogue of the @)Jp(? ver^ y° un £ §' ir^ is over ' " Sweet seventeen " used y/"Ci^ to be the ideal of novelist •'v_lP an d poet. But the actual w^—wft sweet seventeen of to-day Pr is an undeveloped schooigirl with short skirts and long' hair, whom no one fk takes seriously. She has indeed more liberty than lier grandmother of the same age. Prom thirteen or fourteen till twenty, the modern young girl leads a happy, irresponsible existence, doing pretty much as she pleases. iShe has nearly all the privileges of her grown-up sisters ; but is spared their responsibilities. Morally she is perfectly satisfied with heroes and the world in general. But if she be of a romantic turn of mind, she may feel it a grievance that she is not thevhe-roine she would have been sixty years ago, when she would have worn a long dress, and been decorous and lady-like in every movement. She may now be hoydenish, careless about domestic duties, untrammelled in speech and action. Every one treats her with indulgence ; she is "only a child," a " little girl/ though she may be five feet ten, and may go to dances which differ only in name from those for really grown-up people. Sixty years ago, a girl of fifteen or sixteen was " a young woman/ and was expected to behave as such. She was far more in subjection to her parents than the modern girl in her teens, and her activities in general were more restricted. But she was a heroine of romance. She mip'ht be asked in marriage, probably she had admirers ; and her parents would be planning for her early settlement.
Now, a girl in the middle classes rarely thinks of marriage before five and twenty ; no one thinks it strange if she defers it till five aricT thirty. Then thirty was the dreaded turning point, after which an unmarried woman was indefinitely an " old maid." One hardly hears of old maids now ; a woman may be a " girl " at forty if she so pleases. The heroines of Scott, Miss Austen, Dickens, and other writers of the early nineteenth century, are seldom over twenty. Lately the age for heroines has crept steadily higher. Some of the most interesting heroines of recent novels are no longer young. The change of feeling with regard to feminine years is amusingly illustrated in a recent criticism on Miss Austen's novels. The author — a very superior person evidently — finds fault with the small canvas and petty detail of Miss Austen's pictures of life. "We are asked to consider seriously," says he, " the doings of children of sixteen who have never been out of their native village." This criticism is rather a silly one, particularly if we consider that many of the most famed heroines of poetry and romance — Miranda, Perdita, and Juliet, for example — were sixteen or less. But it illustrates the modern assumption that a girl of sixteen is a mere bread and butter Miss, for whom the world of passion and of thought is as yet a mystery. 'What is the cause, or rather what are the causes that have brought about this retardation of feminine maturity and decline ? The retardation is genuine ; girls of seventeen with all their liberty are more of children than in the days of Miss Austen ; and the woman of forty is
practically a young woman, instead of being on the shelf. In " Sense and Sensibility/ some mercenary persons, discussing- the mother of the youthful heroines — a woman barely over forty — remark : " She is very stout and healthy ; she may live many years yet." Some people in those days did. we know, live to eighty or ninety. But such observations illustrate that such a person over forty was looked on as advanced in life ; verging at least on old age. Now no one hints of old age for either man or woman before the seventies are reached. One cause operating to change the estimated limits of old age may be the fact that, owing to improved hygiene, more people do obtain length of years than formerly. Another more potent cause appears to be the changes in social conditions, owing to which entrance on the serious business of life, and the achievement of a career are deferred till later in life than used to be the case. Consider the career of a statesman or a soldier. Now-a-days a politician scarcely expects to make a name for himself before he is fifty. Pitt died at forty-seven already an old man. Mr. Chamberlain appears young at sixty-seven. Lord Kitchener, at fifty-three, appears very young for his achievements. Young men find all the higher posts filled by older ones, who, under the, improved conditions of modern life, continue in the field so long that the younger cannot supply their places till they are themselves far on in years. The same rule appears to hold good in most callings. Meanwhile, the standard of comfort has been generally raised ; and from economic motives men defer marriage. When they do. marry, they usually choose older women than if they had married at the outset of their careers. Thus for women the age of marriage tends progressively to rise. The number. of careers now open to women makes them consider marriage less. Thus it is an accepted fact that large
numbers of women shall be unmarried at thirty. And these, finding their condition is the rule, do not feel they have failed in life. Some still anticipate marriage, others are satisfied as they are. Their lives are interesting ; and no one looks down on them as old maids. The freedom and varied interest of their lives, and their contentment with their condition, keep them youthful in spirit, and hence in body. But the fact that women marry so much later now keeps young girlsin the background. Mothers are willing to keep their children longer, and to let them have " a good time "as long as possible. Young girls, too, find a crowd of elders in possession of the social field. These, with their superior knowledge of the world, and ease of conversation, make their youthful sisters seem childish. But I think the main cause why immaturity in women is no longer fashionable, is the change in opinion as to woman's position and powers. Where women are valued mainly for beauty and power of pleasing, youth will be highly esteemed. In the East, where woman is a slave and a toy, she is valued little after the first bloom of youth has worn off. Marriage in early p.irlhood is the rule. But where her intellect and character are considered, she may charm after physical beauty has faded. All factors raising the status of woman, make youth less essential to her sway, and indeed render the mature woman more fascinating than the unformed girl. And not only does high estimation of woman make beauty less essential ; it also renders the natural attractiveness of women more varied and more permanent. Mental inertness and a dull, empty life soon destroy youth and charm. A rich, full life preserves youth ; and thought and feeling lend attractiveness to the plainest features. Some of the beauties of girlhood must vanish with advancing years ; the soft, rounded outlines and the delicate brilliance of colouring cannot last
indeiinitely. The pretty woman has more to lose with her youth than the plain one ; the pretty, but empty-headed one has the most of all to lose. Added dignity and expressiveness' may make amends for lost roundness of contour and brilliance of colouring, and it sometimes happens that one who was plain, heavy and awkward at twenty, makes an attractive woman at forty.
Though the idea as to what constitutes youth has changed, it is still considered desirable, but less so than formerly. Even now, women like to be told they look younger than they are. Many a woman of eight and twenty would be flattered at being taken — really or professedly — for eighteen. A man would feel insulted at being taken for a boy ten years his junior. But it is chiefly the more frivolous women who wish to remain very young, and even they are pleased at being taken for young rnrls rather
because this seems to remove the period of declining charms to an indefinite distance, than because the young girl is more attractive than the woman. They know the reverse to be the rule. Most women now would consider the early thirties the best period of life at which to remain stationary, for at this age, under favourable conditions, the charms of girlhood have scarcely waned, Avhile the mental powers are at their height, and experience is added. A study of the heroines of our best novelists— Meredith, Hardy, Zangwill, Merriman, Gissing, Mrs. Humphrey Ward and others, will show well why the young girl is no longer queen either in romance or in real life. These heroines are of rich mental endowment, complex and subtle in character. They may sometimes be introduced as girls, and be charming then, but one feels that they will grow more interesting as they advance in life.
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Chanqe of Passion in Women's Ages., New Zealand Illustrated Magazine, 1 March 1904
Chanqe of Passion in Women's Ages. New Zealand Illustrated Magazine, 1 March 1904
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