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An essay by Richard Le Gallienne

The Passing Of Mrs. Grundy

Title:     The Passing Of Mrs. Grundy
Author: Richard Le Gallienne [More Titles by Le Gallienne]

"Death of Mrs. Grundy!" Imagine opening one's newspaper some morning and finding in sensational headlines that welcome news. One recalls the beautiful old legend of the death of Pan, and how--false report though it happily was--there once ran echoing through the world a long heartbroken sigh, and a mysterious voice was heard wailing three times from land to land, "Great Pan is dead!" Similarly, on that happy morning I have imagined, one can imagine, too, another sigh passing from land to land, the sigh of a vast relief, of a great thankfulness for the lifting of an ineffable burden, as though the earth stretched its limbs and drew great draughts of a new freedom. How wildly the birds would sing that morning! And I believe that even the church bells would ring of themselves!

Such definite news is not mine to proclaim, but if it cannot be announced with certitude that Mrs. Grundy is no more, it may, at all events, be affirmed without hesitation that she is on her deathbed, and that surely, if slowly, she is breathing her last. Yes, that poisonous breath, which has so long pervaded like numbing miasma the free air of the world, will soon be out of her foolish, hypocritical old body; and though it may still linger on here and there in provincial backwoods and suburban fastnesses, from the great air centres of civilization it will have passed away forever.

The origin of Mrs. Grundy is shrouded in mystery. In fact, though one thus speaks of her as so potent a personification, she has of course never had any real existence. For that very reason she has been so hard to kill. Nothing is so long-lived as a chimera, nothing so difficult to lay as a ghost. From her first appearance, or rather mention, in literature, Mrs. Grundy has been a mere hearsay, a bugaboo being invented to frighten society, as "black men" and other goblins have been wickedly invented by nurses to frighten children. In the old play itself where we first find her mentioned by name, she herself never comes on the stage. She is only referred to in frightened whispers. "_What will Mrs. Grundy say?_" is the nervous catchword of one of the characters, much in the same way as Mrs. Gamp was wont to defer to the censorious standards of her invisible friend "Mrs. Harris." In the case of the last named chimera, it will be recalled that the awful moment came when Mrs. Gamp's boon companion, Batsey Prig, was sacrilegious enough to declare her belief that no such person as "Mrs. Harris" was, or ever had been, in existence. So the awful atheistic moment has come for Mrs. Grundy, too, and an oppressed world at last takes courage to say that no such being as Mrs. Grundy has ever really existed, or that, even if she has, she shall exist no more. _What will Mrs. Grundy say?_ Who cares nowadays--and so long as nobody cares, the good lady is as dead as need be.

Mrs. Grundy, of course, is man's embodied fear of his neighbour, the creation of timid souls who are afraid of being themselves, and who, instead of living their lives after their own fashion and desires, choose to live them in hypocritical discomfort according to the standards of others, standards which in their turn may be held insincerely enough from fear of someone else, and so on without end--a vicious circle of insincere living being thus created, in which no man is or does anything real, or as he himself would naturally prefer to be and to do. It is evident that such a state of mutual intimidation can exist only in small communities, economically interdependent, and among people with narrow boundaries and no horizons. If you live in a village, for example, and are dependent on the good opinion of your neighbours for your means of existence, your morals and your religious belief must be those of the village, or you are liable to starve. It is only the rich man in a village who can do as he pleases. The only thing for the dependent individualist in a village to do is to go somewhere else, to some place where a man may at the same time hold his job and his opinions, a place too big to keep track of its units, too busy to ask irrelevant questions, and so diverse in its constituents as to have generated tolerance and free operation for all.

Now, in spite of its bigness, the world was till quite recently little more than a village, curiously held in subjection by village superstitions and village ethics, narrow conceptions of life and conduct; but the last twenty years have seen a remarkable enlargement of the human spirit, a reassertion of the natural rights of man as against the figments of prurient and emasculate conventions, to which there is no parallel since the Renaissance. Voices have been heard and truths told, and multitudes have listened gladly that aforetime must take shelter either in overawed silence or in utterance so private that they exerted no influence; and the literature of the day alone, literature of wide and greedy acceptance, is sufficient warrant for the obituary announcement which, if not yet, as I said, officially made, is already writing in the hearts, and even in the actions, of society. The popularity of such writers as Meredith and Hardy, Ibsen and Nietzsche, Maeterlinck and Walt Whitman, constitutes a writing on the wall the significance of which cannot be gainsaid. The vogue alone of Mr. Bernard Shaw, apostle to the Philistines, is a portent sufficiently conclusive. To regard Mr. Shaw either as a great dramatist or an original philosopher is, of course, absurd. He, of all men, must surely be the last to imagine such a vain thing about himself; but even should he be so self-deluded, his immense coarse usefulness to his day and generation remains, and the value of it can hardly be overestimated. What others have said for years as in a glass darkly, with noble seriousness of utterance, he proclaims again through his brazen megaphone, with all the imperturbable _aplomb_ of an impudent showman, having as little self-respect as he has respect for his public; and, as a consequence, that vast herd of middle-class minds to whom finer spirits appeal in vain hear for the first time truths as old as philosophy, and answer to them with assenting instincts as old as humanity. Truth, like many another excellent commodity, needs a vulgar advertisement, if it is to become operative in the masses. Mr. Shaw is truth's vulgar advertisement. He is a brilliant, carrying noise on behalf of freedom of thought; and his special equipment for his peculiar revivalist mission comes of his gift for revealing to the common mind not merely the untruth of hypocrisy, but the laughableness of hypocrisy, first of all. He takes some popular convention, that of medicine or marriage or what you will, and shows you not merely how false it is but how ludicrously false. He purges the soul, not with the terror and pity of tragedy, but with the irresistible laughter of rough-and-tumble farce. To think wrongly is, first of all, so absurd. He proves it by putting wrong thinking on the stage, where you see it for yourself in action, and laugh immoderately. Perhaps you had never thought how droll wrong thinking or no thinking was before; and while you laugh with Shaw at your side-splitting discovery, the serious message glides in unostentatiously--wrong thinking is not merely laughable; it is also dangerous, and very uncomfortable. And so the showman has done his work, the advertiser has sold his goods, and there is so much more truth in circulation in unfamiliar areas of society.

That word "society" naturally claims some attention at the hands of one who would speak of Mrs. Grundy, particularly as she has owed her long existence to a general misconception as to what constitutes "society," and to a superstitious terror as to its powers over the individual. Society--using the word in its broad sense--has heretofore been regarded as a vague tremendous entity imposing a uniformity of opinion and action on the individual, under penalty of a like vague tremendous disapproval for insubordination. Independent minds, however, have from time to time, and in ever increasing numbers, ventured to do their own will and pleasure in disregard of this vague tremendous disapproval, and have, strange to say, found no sign of the terrible consequences threatened them, with the result that they, and the onlookers, have come to the conclusion that this fear of society is just one more bugaboo of timorous minds, with no power over the courageous spirit. From a multitude of such observations men and women have come more and more to draw the conclusion that the solidarity of society is nothing but a myth, and that so-called society is merely a loosely connected series of independent societies, formed by natural selection among their members, each with its own codes and satisfactions; and that a man not welcome in one society may readily find a home for himself in another, or indeed, if necessary, and if he be strong enough, rest content with his own society of one.

There was a time when a doubt as to the credibility of the book of Genesis or a belief in the book of Darwin made the heretic a lonely man, but nowadays he is hardly likely to go without friends. Besides, men and women of strong personal character are not usually indiscriminately gregarious. On the contrary, they are apt to welcome any disparity between them and their neighbours which tends to safeguard their leisure and protect them against the social inroads of irrelevant persons. I recall the case of a famous novelist, who, himself jealous of his own proper seclusion, permitted the amenities of his neighbours to pleasure his wife who was more sociably inclined, and smilingly allowed himself to be sacrificed once a week on the altar of a domestic "at home" day. It was amusing to see him in his drawing-room on Fridays, surrounded by every possible form of human irrelevancy--men and women well enough in their way, of course, but absolutely unrelated, if not antipathetic to him and all he stood for--heroically doing his best to seem really "at home." But there came a time when he published a book of decidedly "dangerous" tendencies, if not worse, and then it was a delight to see how those various nobodies fled his contact as they would the plague. His drawing-room suddenly became a desert, and when you dropped in on Fridays you found there--only the people he wanted. "Is not this," he would laughingly say, "a triumph of natural selection? See how simply, by one honest action, I have cut off the bores!"

To cut off the bores! Yes, that is the desperate attempt that any man or woman who would live their own lives rather than the lives of others is constantly engaged in making; and more and more all men and women are realizing that there is only one society that really counts, the society of people we want, rather than the people who want us or don't want us or whom we don't want. And nowadays the man or woman must be uncomfortable or undesirable, indeed, who cannot find all the society he or she can profitably or conveniently handle, be their opinions and actions never so anti-Grundy. Thus the one great fear that more than any other has kept Mrs. Grundy alive, the fear of being alone in the world, cut off from such intercourse with our fellows as most of us feel the need of at times, has been put an end to by the ever increasing subdivision of "society" into friendly seclusions and self-dependent communities of men and women with like ways and points of view, however disapproved in alien circles. What "shocks" one circle will seem perfectly natural in another; and one great truth should always be held firmly in mind--that the approval of one's neighbours has never yet paid a man's bills. So long as he can go on paying those, and retain the regard of the only society he values--that of himself and a few friends--he can tell Mrs. Grundy to go--where she belongs. And this happily is--almost--as true nowadays for woman as for man; which is the main consideration, for, it need hardly be said, that it has been on her own sex that the tyranny of Mrs. Grundy has weighed peculiarly hard.

Had that tyranny been based on a genuine moral ideal, one would have some respect for it, but, as the world has always known, it has been nothing of the sort. On the contrary, it has all along been an organized hypocrisy which condoned all it professed to censure on condition that it was done in unhealthy secrecy, behind the closed doors of a lying "respectability." All manner of uncleanness had been sanctioned so long as it wore a mask of "propriety," whereas essentially clean and wholesome expressions of human nature, undisguised manifestations of the joy and romance of life, have been suppressed and confounded with their base counterfeits merely because they have sought the sunlight of sincerity rather than the shade where evil does well to hide. Man's proper delight in the senses, the natural joy of men and women in each other, the love of beauty, naked and unashamed, the romantic emotions, and all that passionate vitality that dreams and builds and glorifies the human story: all this, forsooth, it has been deemed wrong even to speak of, save in colourless euphemisms, and their various drama has had to be carried on by evasion and subterfuge pitiably silly indeed in this robustly procreative world. Silly, but how preposterous, too, and no longer to be endured.

It was a gain indeed to drag these vital human interests into the arena of undaunted discussion, but things are clearly seen to have already passed beyond that stage. Discussion has already set free in the world braver and truer ideals, ideals no longer afraid of life, but, in the courage of their joyousness, feasibly close to all its breathing facts. Men and women refuse any longer to allow their most vital instincts to be branded with obloquy, and the fulness of their lives to be thwarted at the bidding of an impure and irrational fiction of propriety. On every hand we find the right to happiness asserted in deeds as well as words. The essential purity of actions and relations to which a merely technical or superstitious irregularity attaches is being more and more acknowledged, and the fanciful barriers to human happiness are everywhere giving way before the daylight of common sense. Love and youth and pleasure are asserting their sacred natural rights, rights as elemental as those forces of the universe by which the stars are preserved from wrong, and the merely legal and ecclesiastical fictions which have so long overawed them are fleeing like phantoms at cockcrow. It is no longer sinful to be happy--even in one's own way; and the extravagances of passion, the ebullitions of youth, and the vagaries of pleasure are no longer frowned down by a sour-visaged public opinion, but encouraged, or, if necessary, condoned, as the dramatic play of natural forces, and as welcome additions to the gaiety of nations. The true sins against humanity are, on the other hand, being exposed and pilloried with a scientific eye for their essential qualities.

... The cold heart, and the murderous tongue,
The wintry soul that hates to hear a song,
The close-shut fist, the mean and measuring eye,
And all the little poisoned ways of wrong.

Man's virtues and vices are being subjected to a re-classification, in the course of which they are entertainingly seen, in no few instances, to be changing places. The standards of punishment applied by Dante to his inferno of lost souls is being, every year, more closely approximated; warm-blooded sins of instinct and impulse, as having usually some "relish of salvation" in them, are being judged lightly, when they are accounted sins at all, and the cold-hearted sins of essential selfishness, the sins of cruelty and calculation and cowardice, are being nailed up as the real crimes against God and man. The individual is being allowed more and more to be the judge of his own actions, and all actions are being estimated more in regard to their special relation and environment, as the relativity of right and wrong, that most just of modern conceptions, is becoming understood. The hidden sins of the pious and respectable are coming disastrously into the light, and it no longer avails for a man to be a pillar of orthodoxy on Sundays if he be a pillar of oppression all the rest of the week; while the negative virtues of abstinence from the common human pleasures go for less than nothing in a world that no longer regards the theatre, the race course, and the card table, or even a beautiful woman, as under the especial wrath of God. No, the Grundy "virtues" are fast disappearing, and piano legs are once more being worn in their natural nudity. The general trend is unmistakable and irresistible, and such apparent contradictions of it as occasionally get into the newspapers are of no general significance; as when, for example, some exquisitely refined Irish police officer suppresses a play of genius, or blushingly covers up the nakedness of a beautiful statue, or comes out strong on the question of woman's bathing dress when some sensible girl has the courage to go into the water with somewhat less than her entire walking costume; or, again, when some crank invokes the blue laws against Sunday golf or tennis; or some spinster association puts itself on record against woman's smoking: all these are merely provincial or parochial exceptions to the onward movement of morals and manners, mere spasmodic twitchings, so to say, of the poor old lady on her deathbed. We know well enough that she who would so sternly set her face against the feminine cigarette would have no objection to one of her votaries carrying on an affair with another woman's husband--not the least in the world, so long as she was careful to keep it out of the courts. And such is a sample of her morality in all her dealings. Humanity will lose no real sanctity or safeguard by her demise; only false shame and false morality will go--but true modesty, "the modesty of nature," true propriety, true religion--and incidentally true love and true marriage--will all be immeasurably the gainers by the death of this hypocritical, nasty-minded old lady.

[The end]
Richard Le Gallienne's essay: Passing Of Mrs. Grundy