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An essay by Vernon Lee

In Praise Of Courtship

Title:     In Praise Of Courtship
Author: Vernon Lee [More Titles by Lee]

There is too little courtship in the world. I do not mean there is not enough marrying and giving in marriage, or that the preliminaries thereunto are otherwise than they should be. Quite the reverse. As long as there is love and youth, there is sure in the literal sense to be courtship. But what I ask is that there be courtship besides that literal courtship between the Perditas and Florizels; that there be "being in love" with a great many things, even stocks and stones, besides youth and maiden; which would result, on the whole, in all of us being young in feeling even when we had grown old in years.

For courtship means a wish to stand well in the other person's eyes, and, what is more, a readiness to be pleased with the other's ways; a sense on each side of having had the better of the bargain; an undercurrent of surprise and thankfulness at one's good luck.

There is not enough courtship in the world. This thought has been growing in my mind ever since the silver wedding of two dear friends: that quarter of a century has been but a prolonged courtship.

Why is it not oftener so? One sees among married folk a good deal of affection, of kindliness, even of politeness; a great deal too much mutual dependence, degenerating, of course, into habitual boredom. But none of this can be called courtship. Perhaps this was the meaning, less cynical than supposed, but quite as sad, of La Rochefoucauld when he noted down, "Il y a de bons mariages, mais point de delicieux;" since, in the delicate French sense of the word, implying some analogy of subdued yet penetrating pleasantness, as of fresh, bright weather or fine light wine, courtship is essentially _delicieux_.

This is, of course, initiating a question of manner. Modern psychology is discovering scientific reasons for the fact that if you wag a dog's tail he feels pleased; or, at all events, that the human being would feel pleased if it had a tail and could wag it. Confessors and nurses knew it long ago, curbing bad temper by restraining its outer manifestations; and are not dinners and plays, flags and illuminations, birthdays and jubilees--nay, art itself, devices for suggestions to mankind that it feels pleased?

Married people, as a rule, wish not to be pleased, or at least not to show it. They may be heartbroken at each other's death, and unable to endure a temporary separation; but the outsider may wonder why, seeing how little they seem to care for being together. It is the same, after all, with other relations; and it is only because brothers and sisters, fathers and children have not taken visible steps to select one another that their bored indifference is less conspicuous. You will say it is a question of mere manner. But, as remarked, manner not merely results from feeling, but largely reacts on feeling, and makes it different. People who live together have the appearance, often, of taking each other, if not as a convenience, at all events as a _fait accompli_, and, so far as possible, as if not there at all. Near relations try to realize the paradox of companionable solitude; and intimacy seems to imply the right to behave as if the intimate other one were not there. Now, _being by one's self_ is a fine thing, convenient and salutary (indeed, like courtship, there is not enough of it); but being by one's self is not to be confounded with _not being in company_. I have selected that expression advisedly, in order to give a shock to the reader. _In company?_ Good heavens! is being with one's wife, one's brothers or sisters, one's children, one's bosom friends _being in company_? And why not? Should company necessarily mean the company of strangers? And is the presence of one's nearest and dearest to be accounted as nothing--as nothing demanding some change in ourselves, and worthy of being paid some price for?

This goes against our notion of intimacy; but then our notion is wrong, as is shown daily by the quarrels and recriminations of intimate friends. One can be natural, _with a difference_, which difference means a thought for the other. There is a selection possible in one's words and actions before another--nay, there is a manner of doing and feeling which almost forestalls the necessity of a selection at all. I like the expression employed by a certain sister after nursing her small brother through a difficult illness, "We were always Castilian," she said. Why, as we all try to be honest, and hard-working, and clever, and more or less illustrious, should we not sometimes try to be a little Castilian? Similarly, my friend of the silver wedding once pointed out to me that marriage, with its enforced and often excessive intimacies, was a wonderful school of consideration, of mutual respect, of fine courtesy. This had been no paradox in her case; but then, as I said, her twenty-five years of wedlock had been years of courtship.

Courtship, however, should not be confined to marriage, nor even to such relations as imply close quarters and worries in common; nay, it should exist towards all things, a constant attitude in life--at least, an attitude constantly tended towards.

The line of least resistance seems against it; our laziness, and our wish to think well of ourselves merely because we _are_ ourselves, undoubtedly go against it, as they do against everything in the world worth having. In our own day certain ways of thinking, culminating in development of the _Moi_ and production of the _Uebermensch_, and general self-engrossment and currishness, are peculiarly hostile to courtship. Whereas the old religious training, where it did not degenerate into excessive asceticism, was a school of good manners towards the universe as well as towards one's neighbours. The "Fioretti di San Francisco" is a handbook of polite friendliness to men, women, birds, wolves, and, what must have been most difficult, fellow-monks; and St. Francis' Hymn to the Sun might be given as an example of the wise man's courtship of what we stupidly call inanimates.

For courtship might be our attitude towards everything which is capable of giving pleasure; and would not many more things give us pleasure--let us say, the sun in the heavens, the water on the stones, even the fire in the grate, if, instead of thinking of them as existing merely to make our life bearable, we called them, like the saint of Assisi, My Lord the Sun, and Sister Water, and Brother Fire, and thought of them with joy and gratitude?

Certain it is that everything in the world repays courtship; and that, quite outside all marrying and giving in marriage, in all our dealings with all possible things, the cessation of courtship marks the incipient necessity for divorce.

[The end]
Vernon Lee's essay: In Praise Of Courtship