Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of George William Curtis > Text of Proper And Improper

An essay by George William Curtis

Proper And Improper

Title:     Proper And Improper
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

LONGFELLOW has commemorated in a beautiful sonnet the delightful evenings of Mrs. Kemble's readings; and certainly it was a singular pleasure to see and to hear her. Her historic name associated her with her uncle John and her aunt Mrs. Siddons, and she had always the port of one conscious of a famous lineage. She used to say, with a half-humorous, half-proud emphasis, that she belonged to her majesty's players, and in her presence it was easy to believe that her majesty's players were an important body in the state. Her power of identification with the various characters in the plays, and the skill with which she maintained the individuality throughout, were always remarkable, and the symmetry and completeness of the whole performance left nothing to be criticised. The only observation that suggested itself might be that the stage traditions were evident in her rendering. But that, in turn, only suggested the further question whether the traditions were not worthy of respect. Dramatic and histrionic forms of art, like all others, are but representations of nature under certain conditions and limitations. They are not an imitation, a fac-simile, and every man will be at odds with any work of art in any kind who does not bear this in mind.

The spectator complains of unnaturalness upon the stage; the substance of his feeling is that people do not talk and act so in ordinary life. That is true; but if the theatre should show us men and women doing upon the stage what they do in ordinary life, the theatre would be no more attractive than the street or the parlor. It is not the spectacle of ordinary life that we expect to see in the theatre. It is a view of human life and nature under ideal conditions, and it is as irrelevant to require that the player shall seem to us like the man with whom we have been transacting business as that he should speak plain prose instead of blank verse. If Mrs. Kemble had read the words of Rosalind or of Portia, of Shylock or Mercutio, as if they were neighbors of hers and people whom we were in the habit of meeting, the effect would have been ludicrous. When she came in--the Fanny Kemble of Talfourd and of the wild enthusiasm of the grandfathers of to-day, ripened into the comely and queenly woman--and seated herself at the little table on which the great volume lay open, she was the magician who was to open to us the realm of faery, the world of imagination, not to take us back into the familiar scenes of the world of New York or Chicago. The spell was resistless. The deep, rich, melodious voice flowed out like an enchanted singing river, along which we glided seeing visions and dreaming dreams. To sit and listen to her was like sitting and watching Titian laying on the canvas the gorgeous tints which before our eyes took on the forms of men and angels. A rarer, a more refined delight, which of us has known? Did it ever occur to us that Mrs. Kemble was doing anything improper, anything unwomanly? In the wonderful picture of Portia that "her voice's music" drew, was there anything a little repulsive, a little unfeminine?

This question was suggested to the Easy Chair by the remark of one of the most devoted and delighted of all the listeners at those readings, that he was very sorry to see that the University of London had decided to admit women to all its degrees upon precisely equal terms with men. The secret reason of the regret, of course, is the feeling that there would be something unwomanly in the act of competing for a degree which would open the pursuit of professions--especially the medical profession--which are usually and often exclusively cultivated by men.

Yet, when pressed, the Easy Chair's interlocutor admitted that there was nothing more essentially unfeminine in the practice of medicine by a woman than in the recitation of Shakespeare for the entertainment of a miscellaneous crowd. It is a question of habit, not of instinct, nor of principle, nor of reason. When the old Greek and Oriental idea of absolute seclusion and subordination is abandoned, a woman's reading from Shakespeare for the pleasure of the public is an action not different in kind from her practising medicine or serving on a school committee. This generation, however, is more used to the one than to the other. It is a habit, nothing more.

Charles Lamb regrets in one of his later essays that "we have no rationale of sauces, or theory of mixed flavors; as to show why cabbage is reprehensible with roast beef, laudable with bacon; why the haunch of mutton seeks the alliance of currant jelly, the shoulder civilly declineth it; why loin of veal (a pretty problem), being itself unctuous, seeketh the adventitious lubricity of melted butter; and why the same part in pork, not more oleaginous, abhorreth from it; ... why oysters in death rise up against the contamination of brown sugar, while they are posthumously amorous of vinegar; why the sour mango and the sweet jam by turns court and are accepted by the compilable mutton hash--she not yet decidedly declaring for either. We are as yet but in the empirical stage of cookery."

It is not in cookery alone that this mystery is still unsolved. Why, for instance, should it seem a womanly use of Heaven's gift that Jenny Lind should sing for the pleasure of a thousand men, and something strange and unfeminine that Portia should plead with eloquence in a court to save a hapless woman from prison or the cord? Why is it fitting that Mrs. Kemble should professionally read Shakespeare, and "queer" that she should professionally attend women in peril and sickness? Do we not naturally and logically glide into the part of the citation from Lamb that we just now omitted?--"why salmon (a strong sapor per se) fortifieth its condition with the mighty lobster sauce, whose embraces are fatal to the delicater relish of the turbot." Must we not say that we are as yet but in the rudimentary knowledge of what is and is not feminine?

When the example of the London University is not singular, but when all opportunities are opened equally to all talent and vocation, when it is not forbidden a woman to do any honorable work for which she is by nature and by study and training properly equipped, unless the laws of nature fail, will any greater catastrophe befall, will there be any more signal reversion of the order of things, than if cabbage should come at last to be eaten with roast beef, and currant jelly cement an alliance with the mutton's shoulder?

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Proper And Improper