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An essay by E. Lynn Linton

Ambitious Wives

Title:     Ambitious Wives
Author: E. Lynn Linton [More Titles by Linton]

The recent death of Mrs. Proudie, who was so well known and so little loved by the readers of Mr. Trollope's novels, is one of those occasions which ought not to be allowed to pass away without being improved. To many men it will suggest many things. She was a type. As a type ought to be, she was perfect and full-blown. But her characteristics enter into other women in varying degrees, and with all sorts of minor colors. The Proudie element in wives and women is one of those unrecognised yet potent conditions of life which master us all, and yet are admitted and taken into calculation and account by none. It is in the nature of things that such an element should exist, and should be powerful in this peculiar and oblique way. We deny women the direct exercise of their capacities, and the immediate gratification of an overt ambition. The natural result is that they run to artifice, and that a good-natured husband is made the conductor between an ambitious wife and the outer world where the prizes of ambition are scrambled for. He is the wretched buffer through which the impetuous forces of his wife impinge upon his neighbors. That is to say, he leads an uneasy life between two ever colliding bodies, being equally misunderstood and equally reviled by either.

This is the evil result of a state of things in which natural distinctions and conventional distinctions are a very long way from coinciding. The theory is that women are peaceful domestic beings, with no object beyond household cares, no wish nor will outside the objects of the man and his children, no active opinion or concern in the larger affairs of the State. Every man, on the other hand, is supposed to have views and principles about public topics, and to be anxious to make more or less of a figure in the enforcement of his views, to exercise in some shape an influence among his fellows, and to win renown of one sort or another. Of course if this division of the male and female natures covered the whole ground, society would be in a very well-balanced state, and things would go on very smoothly in consequence of the perfect equilibrium established by the exceeding contentedness of women and the constant activity and ambition of men.

But a very small observation of life is quite enough to disclose how ill the facts correspond with the accepted hypothesis about them. We are constantly being told of some aspiring man that he is, in truth, no more than the representative of an aspiring wife. He would fain live his life in dignified or undignified serenity, and cares not a jot for a seat in the House of Commons, or for being made a bishop, or for any of those other objects which allure men out of a tranquil and independent existence. But he has a wife who does care for these things. She cannot be a member of Parliament or a bishop in her own person, but it is something to be the wife of somebody who can be these things.

A part of the glory of the man is reflected upon the head of the woman. She receives her reward in a second-hand way, but still it is glory of its own sort. She becomes a leading lady in a provincial town, and during the season in town she is asked out to houses which she is very eager to get into, and of which she can talk with easily assumed familiarity when she returns to the provinces again. She is presented at Court too, and this makes her descend to the provincial plain with an aroma of Celestial dignity like that of Venus when she descended from Olympus. A bishop's wife is still more amply rewarded. Without being so imperious as the late Mrs. Proudie was, she has still a thousand of those opportunities for displaying power which are so dear to people who are fictitiously supposed to be too weak to care for power. Minor canons, incumbents, curates, and all their wives, pay her profound deference; or, if they do not, she can "put the screw on" in a gushing manner which is exceedingly effective.

There are women, it is true, with souls above these light social matters. They do not particularly value the privilege of figuring as lady-patroness of a ball or bazaar, or the delights of trampling on a curate, or of being distantly adored by the wife of a minor canon. But they really have an interest in politics, or in some one or two special departments of that comprehensive subject. They would like to pass an Act of Parliament making it a capital offence for any guardian of the poor or relieving-officer to refuse to give the paupers as much as they should choose to ask for. Drainage is the strong point of some women. Sewage with them is the key to civilization.

Perhaps most political women are actively interested in public affairs simply because they perceive that this is the most openly recognised sphere of influence and power; and what they yearn after is to be influential, and to stand on something higher than the ordinary level in the world, for no other reason than that it is higher than the ordinary level. Nobody has any right to find fault with this temper, provided the ladies who are possessed by it do not mistake mere domineering for the extraordinary elevation after which they aspire. It is through this temper, whether in one sex or the other, that the world is made better. If a certain number of men and women were not ambitious, what would become of the rest of us who possess our souls in patience and moderation?

The only question is whether what we may call vicarious ambition, or aspirations by proxy, are particularly desirable forms of a confessedly useful and desirable sentiment. For the peace of mind of the man who is not ambitious, but is only pretending to be so, we may be pretty sure that the domestic stimulus has some drawbacks. We do not mean drawbacks after the manner of Mrs. Caudle. These show a coarse and vulgar conception of the goads which a man may have applied to him in his inner circle. There are moral and unheard reproofs. There is a consciousness in the mind of a man that his wife thinks him (with all possible affection and tenderness) rather a poor creature for not taking his position in the world. And if he happens to be a man of anything like fine sensibility, this will make him exceedingly uneasy.

The uneasiness may then become sufficiently decided to make him willing to undergo any amount of labor and outlay, rather than endure the presence of this æthereal skeleton in the family closet. He is quite right. He could barely preserve his self-respect otherwise. But he is mistaken if he fancies that a single step or a single series of steps will demolish the skeleton entirely. One compliance with the ambition of his wife will speedily beget the necessity for another. It is notorious that a thoroughly aspiring man is never content without the prospect of scaling new heights. No more is an aspiring woman. Whether you are directly ambitious, as a man is, and for yourself, or indirectly and for somebody else, as a woman is, in either case the law is the same. New summits ever glitter in the distance. You have got your husband into the House of Commons. That glory suffices for a month.

At the end of two months it seems a very dim glory indeed, and having long been at an end, it by this time sinks into the second place of a means. The sacrificial calf must next be made to speak. He must acquire a reputation. Here in a good many cases, we suspect, the process finally stops. A man may be got into the House, but the coveted exaltation of that atmosphere does not convert a quiet, peaceable, dull man into an orator. It does not give him ideas and the faculty of articulate speech. At this point, if he be wise, he draws the line. He endures the skeleton as best he may, or else his wife, quenching her ambition, resigns herself to incurable destiny, and learns to be content with the limits set by the fates to her lord's capacities. There are still certain fields open to her own powers, irrespective of what he is able to do.

For example, she may open a salon, and there may exert unspeakable influence over all kinds of important people. This is not at present particularly congenial to English ground. As yet, the most vigorous intellectual people seem to have felt an active social life as something beneath them, and the highly social people have not been conspicuous for the activity of their intellectual life. The people who go so greatly to parties do not care for what they sum up, with an admirably comprehensive vagueness, as "intellect;" while, on the other hand, scholars and thinkers are wont to look on time given to society as something very like time absolutely wasted. In such a state of feeling, it is difficult for a clever woman to exercise much power.

But, as other things improve, this unsocial feeling will dissolve. Clever men will see that a couple of hours spent with other clever men are not wasted just because a lady is of the party. Nobody would seriously maintain that this is so even now, but people are very often strongly under the influence of vague notions which they would never dream of seriously maintaining. When women get their rights, the salon will become an institution. It will create a very fine field for the cultivation of their talents. And in proportion as it allows a woman to make a career for herself, it will bring relief to many excellent husbands who will then no longer have to make careers for them at the expense of overstraining their own too slender powers.

It is possible, however, that even then the husband of an ambitious wife may not be fully contented. For people with any degree of weakness or incapacity in them are always more prone than their neighbors to littlenesses and meannesses, and a man who is not able to win much renown on his own account may possibly not be too well pleased to see his Wife surrounded by his intellectual betters. Indeed, he may even, if he is of a very mean nature indeed, resent the spectacle of her own predominance. It is some comfort to think that in such case the man's own temper will be his severest punishment.

As a rule, however, it is pleasant to think that with ambition in women, which is not their peculiarity, is yoked tact, which is their peculiarity emphatically. Hence, therefore, wives who are ambitious for their lords have often the discretion to conceal their mood. They may rule with a hand of iron, but the hand is sagely concealed in a glove of velvet. A man may be the creature of his wife's lofty projects, and yet dream all the time that he is altogether chalking out his own course.

George II. used to be humored in this way by Queen Caroline. Bishop Proudie, on the other hand, was ruled by his wife, and knew that he was a mere weapon in her hands; and, what was even worse than all, knew that the rest of mankind knew this. This must be uncommonly unpleasant, we should suppose. The middle position of the husband who only now and then suspects in a dreamy way that he is being prompted and urged on and directed by an ambitious wife, and has sense enough not to inflame himself with chimerical notions about the superiority and grandeur of the male sex--this perhaps is not so bad. If the tide of ambition runs rather sluggish in yourself, it is a plain advantage to have somebody at your side with enthusiasm enough to atone for the deficiency.

It is impossible to tell how much good the world gets, which otherwise it would miss, simply out of the fact that women are discontented with their position. Now and then, it is understood, the husband who is thus made a mere conductor for the mental electricity of a wife who is too clever for him may feel a little bored, and almost wish that he had married a girl instead. But enthusiasm spreads, and in a general way the fervor of the wife who aspires to distinction proves catching to the husband. Some ladies are found to prefer this position to any other. They are full of power, and have abundance of room for energy, and yet they have no responsibility. They get their ample share of the spoil, and yet they do not bear the public heat and burden of the day. It is only the more martial souls among them for whom this is not enough.

[The end]
E. Lynn Linton's essay: Ambitious Wives