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An essay by E. Lynn Linton

Aesthetic Woman

Title:     Aesthetic Woman
Author: E. Lynn Linton [More Titles by Linton]

It is the peculiar triumph of woman in this nineteenth century that she has made the conquest of Art. Our grandmothers lived in the kitchen, and debased their finer faculties to the creation of puddings and pies. They spun, they knitted, they mended, they darned, they kept the accounts of the household, and scolded the maids. From this underground existence of barbaric ages woman has at last come forth into the full sunshine of artistic day; she has mounted from the kitchen to the studio, the sketching-desk has superseded the pudding-board, sonatas have banished the knitting-needle, poetry has exterminated weekly accounts. Woman, in a word, has realized her mission; it is her characteristic, she tells us through a chorus of musical voices, to represent the artistic element of the world, to be pre-eminently the æsthetic creature.

Nature educates her, as Wordsworth sang long ago, into a being of her own, sensitive above all to beauty of thought and color, and sound and form. Delicate perceptions of evanescent shades and tones, lost to the coarser eye and ear of man, exquisite refinements of spiritual appreciation, subtle powers of detecting latent harmonics between the outer and the inner world of nature and the soul, blend themselves like the colors of the prism in the pure white light of woman's organization. And so the host of Woman, as it marches to the conquest of this world, flaunts over its legions the banner of art.

In one of the occasional passages of real poetic power with which Walt Whitman now and then condescends to break the full tide of rhapsody over the eternities and the last patent drill, he describes himself as seeing two armies in succession go forth to the civil war. First passed the legions of Grant and M'Clellan, flushed with patriotic enthusiasm and hope of victory, and cheered onward by the shouts of adoring multitudes. Behind, silent and innumerable, march the army of the dead. Something, we must own, of the same contrast strikes us as we stand humbly aside to watch the æsthetic progress of woman.

It is impossible not to feel a certain glow of enthusiastic sympathy as the vanguard passes by--women earnest in aim and effort, artists, nursing-sisters, poetesses, doctors, wives, musicians, novelists, mathematicians, political economists, in somewhat motley uniform and ill-dressed ranks, but full of resolve, independence, and self-sacrifice. If we were fighting folk we confess we should be half inclined to shout for the rights of woman, and to fall manfully into the rank. As it is, we wait patiently for the army behind, for the main body--woman herself. Woman fronts us as noisy, demonstrative, exacting in her æsthetic claims. Nothing can surpass the adroitness with which she uses her bluer sisters on ahead to clear the way for her gayer legions; nothing, at any rate, but the contempt with which she dismisses them when their work is done. Their office is to level the stubborn incredulity, to set straight the crooked criticisms, of sceptical man, and then to disappear. Woman herself takes their place. Art is everywhere throughout her host--for music, the highest of arts, is the art of all.

The singers go before, the minstrels follow after, in the midst are the damsels playing on the timbrels. The sister Arts have their own representatives within the mass. Sketching boasts its thousands, and poetry its tens of thousands. A demure band of maidens blend piety with art around the standard of Church decoration. Perhaps it is his very regard for the first host--for its earnestness, for its real womanhood--that makes the critic so cynical over the second; perhaps it is his very love for art that turns to quiet bitterness as he sees art dragged at the heels of foolish virgins. For art is dragged at their heels. Woman will have man love her for her own sake; but she loves art for the sake of man. Very truly, if with an almost sublime effrontery, she re-christens for her own special purposes the great studies that fired Raffaelle or Beethoven. She pursues them, she pays for them, not as arts, but as accomplishments. Their cultivation is the last touch added at her finishing school ere she makes her bow to the world. She orders her new duet as she orders her new bonnet, and the two purchases have precisely the same significance. She drops her piano and her paint-brush as she drops her coquetries and flirtations, when the fish is landed and she can throw the bait away. Or, what is worse, she keeps them alive as little social enjoyments, as reliefs to the tedium of domestic life, as something which fills up the weary hours when she is fated to the boredom of rural existence.

A woman of business is counted a strange and remarkable being, we hardly know why. Looking coolly at the matter, it seems to us that all women are women of business; that their life is spent over the counter; that there is nothing in earth or heaven too sacred for their traffic and their barter. Love, youth, beauty, a British mother reckons them up on her fingers, and tells you to a fraction their value in the market. And the pale sentimental being at her side, after flooring one big fellow with a bit of Chopin, and another with a highly unintelligible verse of Robert Browning, poses herself shyly and asks through appealing eyes, "Am I not an æsthetic creature?"

The answer to this question is best read, perhaps, in the musical aspect of woman. Bold as the assumption sounds, it is quietly assumed that every woman is naturally musical. Music is the great accomplishment, and the logic of her schools proves to demonstration that every girl has fingers and an ear. In a wonderful number of cases the same logic proves that girls have a voice. Anyhow, the assumption moulds the very course of female existence. The morning is spent in practicing, and the evening in airing the results of the practice. There are country-houses where one only rushes away from the elaborate Thalberg of midnight to be roused up at dawn by the Battle of Prague on the piano in the school-room over-head. Still we all reconcile ourselves to this perpetual rattle, because we know that a musical being has to be educated into existence, and that a woman is necessarily a musical being. A glance, indeed, at what we may call the life of the piano explains the necessity.

Music is pre-eminently the social art; no art draws people so conveniently together, no art so lends itself to conversation, no art is in a maidenly sense at once so agreeable, so easy to acquire, and so eminently useful. A flirtation is never conducted under greater advantages than amid the deafening thunders of a grand finale; the victim doomed to the bondage of turning over is chained to the fascination of fine arms and delicate hands. Talk, too, may be conducted without much trouble over music on the small principles of female criticism. "Pretty" and "exquisite" go a great way with the Italian and the Romantic schools; "sublime" does pretty universally for the German. The opera is, of course, the crown and sum of things, the most charming and social of lounges, the readiest of conversational topics. It must be a very happy Guardsman indeed who cannot kindle over the Flower-song or the Jewel-scene. And it is at the opera that woman is supreme. The strange mingling of eye and ear, the confused appeal to every sensuous faculty, the littleness as well as the greatness of it all, echo the conclusion within woman herself.

Moreover there is no boredom--no absolute appeal to thought or deeper feeling. It is in good taste to drop in after the first act, and to leave before the last. It is true that an opera is supposed to be the great creation of a great artist, and an artist's work is presumed to have a certain order and unity of its own; but woman is the Queen of Art, and it is hard if she may not display her royalty by docking the Fidelio of its head and its tail. But, if woman is obliged to content herself with mutilating art in the opera or the concert-room, she is able to create art itself over her piano. A host of Claribels and Rosalies exist simply because woman is a musical creature. We turn over the heap of rubbish on the piano with a sense of wonder, and ask, without hope of an answer, why nine-tenths of our modern songs are written at all, or why, being written, they can find a publisher.

But the answer is a simple one, after all; it is merely that æsthetic creatures, that queens of art and of song, cannot play good music and can play bad.

There is not a publisher in London who would not tell us that the patronage of musical women is simply a patronage of trash. The fact is that woman is a very practical being, and she has learned by experience that trash pays better than good music for her own special purposes; and when these purposes are attained she throws good music and bad music aside with a perfect impartiality. It is with a certain feeling of equity, as well as of content, that the betrothed one resigns her sway over the keys. She has played and won, and now she holds it hardly fair that she should interfere with other people's game. So she lounges into a corner, and leaves her Broadwood to those who have practical work to do. Her rôle in life has no need of accomplishments, and as for the serious study of music as an art, as to any real love of it or loyalty to it, that is the business of "professional people," and not of British mothers. Only she would have her girls remember that nothing is in better taste than for young people to show themselves artistic.

Music only displays on the grand scale the laws which in less obtrusive form govern the whole æsthetic life of woman. Painting, for instance, dwindles in her hands into the "sketch;" the brown sands in the foreground, the blue wash of the sea, and the dab of rock behind. Not a very lofty or amusing thing, one would say at first sight; but, if one thinks of it, an eminently practical thing, rapid and easy of execution, not mewing the artist up in solitary studio, but lending itself gracefully to picnics and groups of a picturesque sort on cliff and boulder, and whispered criticism from faces peeping over one's shoulder. Serious painting woman can leave comfortably to Academicians and rough-bearded creatures of the Philip Firmin type, though even here she feels, as she glances round the walls of the Academy, that she is creating art as she is creating music. She dwells complacently on the home tendencies of modern painting, on the wonderful succession of squares of domestic canvas, on the nursemaid carrying children up stairs in one picture, on the nursemaid carrying children down stairs in the next. She has her little crow of triumph over the great artist who started with a lofty ideal, and has come down to painting the red stockings of little girls in green-baize pews, or the wonderful counterpanes and marvellous bed-curtains of sleeping innocents. She knows that the men who are forced to paint these things growl contempt over their own creations, but the very growl is a tribute to woman's supremacy. It is a great thing when woman can wring from an artist a hundred "pot-boilers," while man can only give him an order for a single "Light of the World."

One field of art, indeed, woman claims for her own. Man may build churches as long as he leaves woman to decorate them. A crowning demonstration of her æsthetic faculties meet us on every festival in wreath and text and monogram, in exquisitely moulded pillars turned into grotesque corkscrews, in tracery broken by strips of greenery, in paper flowers and every variety of gilt gingerbread. But it may be questioned whether art is the sole aim of the ecclesiastical picnic out of which decorations spring. The chatty groups dotted over the aisle, the constant appeals to the curate, the dainty little screams and giggles as the ladder shakes beneath those artistic feet, the criticism of cousins who have looked in quite accidentally for a peep, the half-consecrated flirtations in the vestry, ally art even here to those practical purposes which æsthetic woman never forgets. Were she, indeed, once to forget them, she might become a Dr. Mary Walker; she might even become a George Sand. In other words, she might find herself an artist, loving and studying art for its own sake, solitary, despised, eccentric, and blue. From such a destiny æsthetic woman turns scornfully away.

[The end]
E. Lynn Linton's essay: Aesthetic Woman