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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Sacred Obscurity

Title:     Sacred Obscurity
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

In the preface to that ill-named but delightful book, the "Remains of the late Mrs. Richard Trench," there is a singular remark by the editor, her son. He says that "the adage is certainly true in regard to the British matron, _Bene vixit quae bene latuit,_" the meaning of this phrase being, "She has lived well who has kept herself well out of sight." Applying this to his beloved mother, he further expresses a regret at disturbing her "sacred obscurity." Then he goes on to disturb it pretty effectually by printing a thick octavo volume of her most private letters.

It is a great source of strength and advantage to reformers, that there are always men preserved to be living examples of this good old Oriental doctrine of "sacred obscurity." Just as Mr. Darwin needs for the demonstration of his theory that the lower orders of creation should still be present in visible form for purposes of comparison, so every reformer needs to fortify his position by showing examples of the original attitude from which society has been gradually emerging. If there had been no Oriental seclusion, many things in the present position of woman would be inexplicable. But when we point to that; when we show that even in the more enlightened Eastern countries it is still held indecorous to allude to the feminine members of a man's family; when we see among the Christian nations of Southern Europe many lingering traits of this same habit of seclusion; and when we find an archdeacon of the English Church still clinging to the theory, even while exhibiting his mother's family letters to the whole world,--we more easily understand the course of development.

These reassertions of the Oriental theory are simply reversions, as a naturalist would say, to the original type. They are instances of "atavism," like the occasional appearance of six fingers on one hand in a family where the great-great-grandfather happened to possess that ornament. Such instances can always be found, when one takes the pains to look for them. Thus a critic, discussing in the "Atlantic Monthly" Mr. Mahaffy's book on "Social Life in Greece," is surprised that this writer should quote, in proof of the degradation of woman in Athens, the remark attributed to Pericles, "That woman is best who is least spoken of among men, whether for good or for evil." "In our opinion," adds the reviewer, "that remark was wise then, and is wise now." The Oriental theory is not then, it seems, extinct; and we are spared the pains of proving that it ever existed.

If this theory be true, how falsely has the admiration of mankind been given! If the most obscure woman is best, the most conspicuous must undoubtedly be worst. Tried by this standard, how unworthy must have been Elizabeth Barrett Browning, how reprehensible must be Dorothea Dix, what a model of all that is discreditable is Rosa Bonheur, what a crowning instance of human depravity is Florence Nightingale! Yet how consoling the thought, that, while these disreputable persons were thus wasting their substance in the riotous performance of what the world weakly styled good deeds, there were always women who saw the folly of such efforts; women who by steady devotion to eating, drinking, and sleeping continued to keep themselves in sacred obscurity, and to prove themselves the ornaments of their sex, inasmuch as no human being ever had occasion to mention their names!

But alas for human inconsistency! As for this inverse-ratio theory,--this theory of virtue so exalted that it has never been known or felt or mentioned among men,--it is to be observed that those who hold it are the first to desert it when stirred by an immediate occasion. Just as a slaveholder, in the old times, after demonstrating to you that freedom was a curse to the negro, would instantly turn round, and inflict this greatest of all curses on some slave who had saved his life; so, I fear, would one of these philosophers, if he were profoundly impressed with any great action done by a woman, give the lie to all his theories, and celebrate her fame. In spite of all his fine principles, if he happened to be rescued from drowning by Grace Darling, he would put her name in the newspaper; if he were tended in hospital by Clara Barton, he would sound her praise; and if his mother wrote as good letters as did Mrs. Trench, he would probably print them to the extent of five hundred pages, as the archdeacon did, and all his gospel of silence would exhale itself in a single sigh of regret in the preface.

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: Sacred Obscurity