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An essay by Richard Le Gallienne

Modern Aids To Romance

Title:     Modern Aids To Romance
Author: Richard Le Gallienne [More Titles by Le Gallienne]

There have, of course, in all ages been those who made a business of running down the times in which they lived--tiresome people for whom everything had gone to the dogs--or was rapidly going--uncomfortable critics who could never make themselves at home in their own century, and whose weary shibboleth was that of some legendary perfect past.

In Rome this particular kind of bore went by the name of _laudator temporis acti_; and, if we have no such concise Anglo-Saxon phrase for the type, we still have the type no less ubiquitously with us. The bugbear of such is "modern science," or "modern thought," a monster which, we are frequently assured, is fast devouring all the beautiful and good in human life, a Moloch fed on the dreams and ideals and noble faiths of man. Modernity! For such "modernity" has taken the place of "Anti-Christ." These sad, nervous people have no eye for the beautiful patterns and fantasies of change, none of that faith which rejoices to watch "the roaring loom of time" weaving ever new garments for the unchanging eternal gods. In new temples, strangely enough, they see only atheism, instead of the vitality of spiritual evolution; in new affirmations they scent only dangerous denials. With the more grave misgivings of these folk of little faith this is not the place to deal, though actually, if there were any ground for belief in a modern decay of religion, we might seriously begin to believe in the alleged decay of romance.

Yes, romance, we not infrequently hear, is dead. Modern science has killed it. It is essentially a "thing of the past"--an affair presumably of stage-coaches, powdered wigs, and lace ruffles. It cannot breathe in what is spoken of as "this materialistic age."

The dullards who repeat these platitudes of the muddle-headed multitude are surely the only people for whom they are true. It is they alone who are the materialists, confusing as they do the spirit of romance with its worn-out garments of bygone fashions. Such people are so clearly out of court as not to be worth controverting, except for the opportunity they give one of confidently making the joyous affirmation that, far from romance being dead in our day, there never was a more romantic age than ours, and that never since the world began has it offered so many opportunities, so many facilities for romance as at the present time.

In fact, a very little thinking will show that of all those benefited by "the blessings of modern science," it is the lovers of the community who as a body have most to be thankful for. Indeed, so true is this that it might almost seem as though the modern laboratory has been run primarily from romantic motives, to the end that the old reproach should be removed and the course of true love run magically smooth. Valuable as the telephone may be in business affairs, it is simply invaluable in the affairs of love; and mechanicians the world over are absorbed in the problem of aerial flight, whether they know it or not, chiefly to provide Love with wings as swift as his desire.

Distance may lend enchantment to those whom we prefer to appreciate from afar, but nearness is the real enchantment to your true lover, and distance is his natural enemy. Distance and the slow-footedness of Time are his immemorial evils. Both of these modern science has all but annihilated. Consider for a moment the conditions under which love was carried on in those old days which some people find so romantic. Think what a comparatively short distance meant then, with snail-paced precarious mails, and the only means of communication horses by land, and sailing ships by sea. How men and women had the courage to go on long journeys at all away from each other in those days is hard to realize, knowing what an impenetrable curtain of silence and mystery immediately fell between them with the winding of the coach horn, or the last wave of the plumed hat as it disappeared behind the last turning of the road--leaving those at home with nothing for company but the yearning horizon and the aching, uncommunicative hours. Days, weeks, months, even years, must go by in waiting for a word--and when at last it came, brought on lumbering wheels or at best by some courier on his steaming mud-splashed mount, precious as it was, it was already grown old and cold and perhaps long since untrue.

Imagine perhaps being dependent for one's heart news on some chance soldier limping back from the wars, or some pilgrim from the Holy Land with scallop shell and staff!

Distance was indeed a form of death under such conditions--no wonder men made their wills as they set out on a journey--and when actual physical death did not intervene, how much of that slow death-in-life, that fading of the memory and that numbing of the affections which absence too often brings, was even still more to be feared. The loved face might indeed return, looking much the same as when it went away, but what of the heart that went a-journeying, too? What even of the hearts that remained at home?

The chances of death and disaster not even modern science can forestall, though even these it has considerably lessened; but that other death of the heart, which comes of the slow starvation of silence and absence, it may be held to have all but vanquished. Thanks to its weird magicians, you may be seas or continents away from her whom your soul loveth, yet "at her window bid good-morrow" as punctually as if you lived next door; or serenade her by electricity--at all hours of the night. If you sigh in New York, she can hear you and sigh back in San Francisco; and soon her very face will be carried to you at any moment of the day along the magic wires. Nor will you need to wait for the postman, but be able to read her flowerlike words as they write themselves out on the luminous slate before you, at the very moment as she leans her fragrant bosom upon her electric desk three thousand miles away. If this isn't romantic, one may well ask what is!

To take the telephone alone, surely the romance of Pyramus and Thisbe, with their primitive hole in the wall, was a tame affair compared with the possibilities of this magic toy, by means of which you can talk with your love not merely through a wall but through the Rocky Mountains. You can whisper sweet nothings to her across the sounding sea, and bid her "sleep well" over leagues of primeval forest, and through the stoniest-hearted city her soft voice will find its way. Even in mid-ocean the "wireless" will bring you news of her _mal-de-mer_. And more than that; should you wish to carry her voice with you from place to place, science is once more at your service with another magic toy--the phonograph--by which indeed she can still go on speaking to you, if you have the courage to listen, from beyond the grave.

The telegraph, the telephone, the "wireless," the phonograph, the electric letter writer--such are the modern "conveniences" of romance; and, should an elopement be on foot, what are the fastest post-chaise or the fleetest horses compared with a high-powered automobile? And when the airship really comes, what romance that has ever been will compare for excitement with an elopement through the sky?

Apart from the practical conveniences of these various new devices, there is a poetic quality about the mere devices themselves which is full of fascination and charm. Whether we call up our sweetheart or our stockbroker, what a thing of enchantment the telephone is merely in itself! Such devices turn the veriest prose of life into poetry; and, indeed, the more prosaic the uses to which we put them, the more marvellous by contrast their marvel seems. Even our businesses are carried on by agencies more mysterious and truly magical than anything in the _Arabian Nights_, and all day long we are playing with mysterious natural laws and exquisite natural forces as, in a small way, when boys we used to delight in our experiments with oxygen and hydrogen and Leyden jars. Science has thus brought an element of romantic "fun," so to speak, even into our stores and our counting-houses. I wonder if "Central" realizes what a truly romantic employment is hers?

But, pressed into the high service of love, one sees at once what a poetic fitness there is in their employ, and how our much-abused modern science has found at last for that fastidious god an appropriately dignified and beautiful ministrant. Coarse and vulgar indeed seem the ancient servitors and the uncouth machinery by which the divine business of the god was carried on of old. Today, through the skill of science, the august lightning has become his messenger, and the hidden gnomes of air and sea hasten to do his bidding.

Modern science, then, so far from being an enemy of romance, is seen on every hand to be its sympathetic and resourceful friend, its swift and irresistible helper in its serious need, and an indulgent minister to its lighter fancies. Be it whim or emergency, the modern laboratory is equally at the service of romance, equally ready to gratify mankind with a torpedo or a toy.

Not only, however, has modern science thus put itself at the service of romance, by supplying it with its various magic machinery of communication, but modern thought--that much maligned bugbear of timorous minds--has generated an atmosphere increasingly favourable to and sympathetic with the romantic expression of human nature in all its forms.

The world has unmistakably grown younger again during the last twenty years, as though--which, indeed, is the fact--it had thrown off an accumulation of mopishness, shaken itself free from imaginary middle-aged restrictions and preoccupations. All over the world there is a wind of youth blowing such as has not freshened the air of time since the days of Elizabeth. Once more the spring of a new Renaissance of Human Nature is upon us. It is the fashion to be young, and the age of romance both for men and women has been indefinitely extended. No one gives up the game, or is expected to, till he is genuinely tired of playing it. Mopish conventions are less and less allowed to restrict that free and joyous play of vitality dear to the modern heart, which is the essence of all romance. More and more the world is growing to love a lover, and one has only to read the newspapers to see how sympathetic are the times to any generous and adventurous display of the passions.

This more humane temper is the result of many causes. The disintegration of religious superstition, and the substitution in its stead of spiritual ideals closer to the facts of life, is one of these. All that was good in Puritanism has been retained by the modern spirit, while its narrowing and numbing features, its anti-human, self-mortifying, provincial side have passed or are passing in the regenerating sunlight of what one might call a spiritual paganism, which conceives of natural forces and natural laws as inherently pure and mysteriously sacred. Thus the way of a man with a maid is no longer a shamefaced affair, but it is more and more realized that in its romance and its multifarious refinements of development are the "law and the prophets," the "eternal meanings" of natural religion and social spirituality.

Then, too, the spread of democracy, resulting in the breaking down of caste barriers, is all to the good of romance. Swiftly and surely Guelph and Ghibelline and break-neck orchard walls are passing away. If Romeo and Juliet make a tragedy of it nowadays, they have only to blame their own mismanagement, for the world is with them as it has never been before, and all sensible fathers and mothers know it.

Again, the freer intercourse between the sexes tends incalculably to smooth that course of true love once so proverbially rough, but now indeed in danger of being made too unexcitingly smooth. Yet if, as a result, certain old combinations of romance are becoming obsolete, new ones, no less picturesque, and even more vital in their drama, are being evolved every day by the new conditions. Those very inroads being so rapidly and successfully made by woman into the immemorial business of man, which are superficially regarded by some as dangerous to the tenderer sentiments between men and women, are, on the contrary, merely widening the area of romance, and will eventually develop, as they can be seen already developing, a new chivalry and a new poetry of the sexes no less deep and far more many-sided than the old. The robuster comradeship between the two already resulting from the more active sharing of common interests cannot but tend to a deeper and more exhilarating union of man and woman, a completer, intenser marriage literally of true minds as well as bodies than was possible in the old regime, when the masculine and feminine "spheres" were kept so jealously distinct and only allowed to touch at the elementary points of relationship. There has always been a thrill of adventure when either has been admitted a little farther into the other's world than was customary. How thrilling, therefore, will it be when men and women entirely share in each other's lives, without fictitious reserves and mysteries, and face the whole adventure of life squarely and completely together, all the more husband and wife for being comrades as well--as many men and women of the new era are already joyously doing.

And, merely on the surface, what a new romantic element woman has introduced into the daily drudgery of men's lives by her mere presence in their offices! She cannot always be beautiful, poor dear, and she is not invariably gracious, it is true; yet, on the whole, how much the atmosphere of office life has gained in amenity by the coming of the stenographer, the typewriter, and the telephone girl, not to speak of her frequent decorative value in a world that has hitherto been uncompromisingly harsh and unadorned! Men may affect to ignore this, and cannot afford indeed to be too sensitive to these flowery presences that have so considerably supplanted those misbegotten young miscreants known as office-boys, a vanishing race of human terror; yet there she is, all the same, in spite of her businesslike airs and her prosaic tasks, silently diffusing about her that eternal mystery which she can never lose, be her occupations never so masculine.

There she is with her subtly wreathed hair and her absurd little lace handkerchiefs and her furtive powder puff and her bits of immemorial ornaments and the soft sound of her skirts and all the rest of it. Never mind how grimly and even brusquely you may be dictating to her specifications for steel rails or the like, little wafts of perfume cannot help floating across to your rolltop desk, and you are a man and she is a woman, for all that; and, instead of having her with you at fag ends of your days, you have her with you all day long now--and your sisters and your sweethearts are so much the nearer to you all day for her presence, and, whether you know it or not, you are so much the less a brute because she is there.

Where the loss to romance comes in in these admirable new arrangements of modern commerce it is hard to see. Of course a new element of danger is thus introduced into the routine of our daily lives, but when was danger an enemy to romance? The "bright face" of this particular "danger" who would be without? The beloved essayist from whom that last phrase is, of course, adapted, declared, as we all know, that to marry is "to domesticate the recording angel." One might say that the modern business man has officialized the ministering angel--perhaps some other forms of angel as well.

In their work, then, as in their play, men and women are more and more coming to share with each other as comrades, and really the fun of life seems in no wise diminished as a consequence. Rather the contrary, it would seem, if one is to judge from the "Decameron" of the newspapers. Yet it is not very long ago that man looked askance at woman's wistful plea to take part even in his play. He had the old boyish fear that she would spoil the game. However, it didn't take him long to find out his mistake and to know woman for the true "sport" that she can be. And in that discovery it was another invention of that wicked modern science that was the chief, if humble seeming, factor, no less than that eclipsed but inexpressibly useful instrument (of flirtation) in the hands of a kind providence, the bicycle.

The service of the bicycle to the "emancipation of woman" movements has perhaps never been acknowledged by the philosopher; but a little thought will make evident how far-reaching that service has been. When that near day arrives on which woman shall call herself absolutely "free," should she feel inclined to celebrate her freedom by some monument of her gratitude, let the monument be neither to man nor woman, however valiant in the fight, but simply let it take the form of an enthroned and laurelled bicycle--for the moment woman mounted that apparently innocent machine, it carried her on the high-road to freedom. On that she could go not only where she pleased, but--what is even more to the point--with whom she pleased. The free companionship of man and woman had begun. Then and forever ended the old system of courtship, which seems so laughable and even incredible today. One was no longer expected to pay court to one's beloved, sitting stiffly on straight-backed chairs in a chill drawing-room in the non-conducting, or non-conducive, presence of still chillier maiden aunts. The doom of the _duenna_ was sounded; the chill drawing-room was exchanged for "the open road" and the whispering woodland; and soon it is to come about that a man shall propose to his wife high up in the blue heavens, in an airship softly swaying at anchor in the wake of the evening star.

[The end]
Richard Le Gallienne's essay: Modern Aids To Romance