Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of Thomas Wentworth Higginson > Text of Empire Of Manners

An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

The Empire Of Manners

Title:     The Empire Of Manners
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

I was present at a lively discourse, administered by a young lady just from Europe to a veteran politician. "It is of very little consequence," she said, "what kind of men you send out as foreign ministers. The thing of real importance is that they should have the right kind of wives. Any man can sign a treaty, I suppose, if you tell him what kind of treaty it must be. But all his social relations with the nations to which you send him will depend on his wife." There was some truth, certainly, in this audacious conclusion. It reminded me of the saying of a modern thinker, "The only empire freely conceded to women is that of manners,--but it is worth all the rest put together."

Every one instinctively feels that the graces and amenities of life must be largely under the direction of women. The fact that this feeling has been carried too far, and has led to the dwarfing of women's intellect, must not lead to a rejection of this important social sphere. It is too strong a power to be ignored. George Eliot says well that "the commonest man, who has his ounce of sense and feeling, is conscious of the difference between a lovely, delicate woman, and a coarse one. Even a dog feels a difference in their presence." At a summer resort, for instance, one sees women who may be intellectually very ignorant and narrow, yet whose mere manners give them a social power which the highest intellects might envy. To lend joy and grace to all one's little world of friendship; to make one's house a place which every guest enters with eagerness, and leaves with reluctance; to lend encouragement to the timid, and ease to the awkward; to repress violence, restrain egotism, and make even controversy courteous,--these belong to the empire of woman. It is a sphere so important and so beautiful, that even courage and self-devotion seem not quite enough, without the addition of this supremest charm.

This courtesy is so far from implying falsehood, that its very best basis is perfect simplicity. Given a naturally sensitive organization, a loving spirit, and the early influence of a refined home, and the foundation of fine manners is secured. A person so favored may be reared in a log hut, and may pass easily into a palace; the few needful conventionalities are so readily acquired. But I think it is a mistake to tell children, as we sometimes do, that simplicity and a kind heart are absolutely all that are needful in the way of manners. There are persons in whom simplicity and kindness are inborn, and who yet never attain to good manners for want of refined perceptions. And it is astonishing how much refinement alone can do, even if it be not very genuine or very full of heart, to smooth the paths and make social life attractive.

All the acute observers have recognized the difference between the highest standard, which is nature's, and that next to the highest, which is art's. George Eliot speaks of that fine polish which is "the expensive substitute for simplicity," and Tennyson says of manners,--

"Kind nature's are the best: those next to best
That fit us like a nature second-hand;
Which are indeed the manners of the great."

In our own national history we have learned to recognize that the personal demeanor of women may be a social and political force. The slave-power owed much of its prolonged control at Washington, and the larger part of its favor in Europe, to the fact that the manners of Southern women had been more sedulously trained than those of Northern women. Even at this moment, one may see at any watering-place that the relative social influence of different cities does not depend upon the intellectual training of their women, so much as on the manners. And, even if this is very unreasonable, the remedy would seem to be, not to go about lecturing on the intrinsic superiority of the Muses to the Graces, but to pay due homage at all the shrines.

It is a great deal to ask of reformers, especially, that they should be ornamental as well as useful; and I would by no means indorse the views of a lady who once told me that she was ready to adopt the most radical views of the women-reformers if she could see one well-dressed woman who accepted them. The place where we should draw the line between independence and deference, between essentials and non-essentials, between great ideas and little courtesies, will probably never be determined--except by actual examples. Yet it is safe to fall back on Miss Edgeworth's maxim in "Helen," that "Every one who makes goodness disagreeable commits high treason against virtue." And it is not a pleasant result of our good deeds, that others should be immediately driven into bad deeds by the burning desire to be unlike us.

[The end]
Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: The Empire Of Manners