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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

A Model Household

Title:     A Model Household
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

There is an African bird called the hornbill, whose habits are in some respects a model. The female builds her nest in a hollow tree, lays her eggs, and broods on them. So far, so good. Then the male feels that he must also contribute some service; so he walls up the hole closely, giving only room for the point of the female's bill to protrude. Until the eggs are hatched, she is thenceforth confined to her nest, and is in the mean time fed assiduously by her mate, who devotes himself entirely to this object. Dr. Livingstone has seen these nests in Africa, Layard and others in Asia, and Wallace in Sumatra.

Personally I have never seen a hornbill's nest. The nearest approach I ever made to it was when in Fayal I used to pass near a gloomy mansion, of which the front windows were walled up, and only one high window was visible in the rear, beyond the reach of eyes from any neighboring house. In this cheerful abode, I was assured, a Portuguese lady had been for many years confined by her jealous husband. It was long since any neighbor had caught a glimpse of her, but it was supposed that she was alive. There is no reason to doubt that her husband fed her well. It was simply a case of human hornbill, with the imprisonment made perpetual.

I have more than once asked lawyers whether, in communities where the old common law prevailed, there was anything to prevent such an imprisonment of a married woman; and they have always answered, "Nothing but public opinion." Where the husband has the legal custody of the wife's person, no _habeas corpus_ can avail against him. The hornbill household is based on a strict application of the old common law. A Hindoo household was a hornbill household: "a woman, of whatsoever age, should never be mistress of her own actions," said the code of Menu. An Athenian household was a hornbill's nest, and great was the outcry when some Aspasia broke out of it. When the remonstrant petitions legislatures against the emancipation of woman, we seem to hear the twittering of the hornbill mother, imploring to be left inside.

Under some forms, the hornbill theory becomes respectable. There are many peaceful families, innocent though torpid, where the only dream of existence is to have plenty of quiet, plenty of food, and plenty of well-fed children. For them this African household is a sufficient model. The wife is "a home body." The husband is "a good provider." These are honest people, and have a right to speak. The hornbill theory is only dishonest when it comes--as it often comes--from women who lead the life, not of good stay-at-home fowls, but of paroquets and hummingbirds,--who sorrowfully bemoan the active habits of enlightened women, while they themselves

"Bear about the mockery of woe
To midnight dances and the public show."

It is from these women, in Washington, New York, and elsewhere, that the loudest appeal for the hornbill standard of domesticity proceeds. Put them to the test, and give them their chicken-salad and champagne through a hole in the wall only, and see how they like it.

But even the most honest and peaceful conservatives will one day admit that the hornbill is not the highest model. Plato thought that "the soul of our grandame might haply inhabit the body of a bird;" but Nature has kindly provided various types of bird-households to suit all varieties of taste. The bright orioles, filling the summer boughs with color and with song, are as truly domestic in the freedom of their airy nest as the poor hornbills who ignorantly make home into a dungeon. And certainly each new generation of orioles, spreading free wings from that pendent cradle, affords a happier illustration of judicious nurture than is to be found in the uncouth little offspring of the hornbills, which Wallace describes as "so flabby and semi-transparent as to resemble a bladder of jelly, furnished with head, legs, and rudimentary wings, but with not a sign of a feather, except a few lines of points indicating where they would come."

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: A Model Household