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An essay by George William Curtis

The American Girl

Title:     The American Girl
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

A PLEASING and constant topic of English writers is the American girl. One of the later commentators says of her, "American girls have shown they can receive, travel, and live without chaperons, escorts, or husbands, and are fast developing a bright, clear, intelligent, self-reliant, courageous, and refreshing variety of the human race." And again, "Even if in future years the slender Yankee belle is hidden behind the ampler beauty of the English matron, we may still hear from her lips the wit and shrewdness, the acute accent, the intelligent question, and the rapid repartee that proclaim her original nationality." The "society" pictures in the papers and magazines represent the dismay of the British matron with marriageable daughters as she surveys the avatar of the American divinity and rival. The essential differences of society in the two countries are at once suggested, and the alarm of the watchful parent is justified.

The charm of Miss Austen's novels is their acknowledged fidelity of portraiture of the society with which they deal. They are miniatures, but the likeness is wrought with exquisite skill of detail, and as the American reader reflects he perceives that the great object of the game which they describe is eligible marriage. Indeed the motive of the novel in general is love and marriage. We open the book, we are at once introduced to Paul, and presently to Virginia, and we proceed over the pages until we hear the approaching beat of the Wedding March, which in fact we have heard from the first page, and we know that the end is at hand. But in the English novel of society, although the theme be marriage, it is not necessarily love. If that were essential, a host of rival fair ones with golden locks would bring no pang to the maternal bosom, because she would know that love will find out the one among the thousand.

The passages that we have quoted apparently describe by contrast, which is a fact which does not seem to have occurred to the writer. Doubtless at heart he is loyal to the English girl, and does not admit even in debate that her supremacy of maidenhood can be disputed. When he says that American girls have shown that they can receive, travel, and live without chaperons, escorts, or husbands, he seems to mean that they have shown this distinctively as compared with other girls. When he adds that they are fast developing a bright, clear, intelligent, self-reliant, courageous, and refreshing variety of the human race, can he mean that those words describe a new variety of girl, and that it is not perfectly familiar in England? So in the other passage, when, supposing the American girl transformed into the British matron, he remarks, with evident admiration, "we may still hear from her lips the wit and shrewdness, the acute accent, the intelligent question, and the rapid repartee that proclaim her original nationality," would he have us understand that these are not the characteristics of the British matron of to-day? Or does he intimate only that the coming of the Americans will but enlarge the number of these delightful ladies?

The writer certainly seems to describe by contrast, but he has wisely left a little cloud in which to envelop his retreat in case of emergency. Certainly we need not press him. Whatever he may think or say of the English girl, he has spoken well and truly of her American sister. His description applies to the girl who grows up amid the average conditions of American life, the girl who is portrayed in her more jejune condition in Henry James's Daisy Miller. The two chief qualities of that young woman, as represented by the shrewd and subtle artist, are self-respect and self-reliance. The perplexity of the phenomenon to the foreign reader lies in the fact that she does what the European girl without self-respect does.

A distinguished writer in New York, no longer living, once said to the Easy Chair, with an air of consternation: "Do you know that the best girls in New York go without escort to the matinées at the Academy? Goodness knows what will be the end of it!" The good man was seriously troubled. He seemed to apprehend that the young woman who could go to a matinée without an escort would probably run off with a circus troupe, and presently ride--in a very short skirt--bare-backed horses in the ring. He evidently felt that the young women whom he had seen were in grave danger of losing maidenly reserve, and that their conduct betrayed a want of refinement of feeling. The secret of his alarm lay in the fact that the social conventions of foreign society had acquired in his mind the force of rules of morality. He shared the feelings of the delightful lady who remarked that in her opinion it was immodest to go abroad without gloves. Nothing is more common than this confusion of mind, and one of the advantages of genuinely American society is that it dissipates such illusions. The Lady Mavourneen, who was familiar with the finest society both in France and England, said that the respect shown to women in this country was so sincere and universal that she should not hesitate to cross the continent alone. Why, then, should the Easy Chair's friend have been troubled that young women went unattended to the concert at the Academy? Every man there would have been their instant defender against insult. But they went, and they were allowed to go, because the insult was more improbable than fire, while the defence was sure.

In what is called distinctively society in large cities there is a great deal of the feeling evinced by the observer at the Academy. There is abundant regard for misplaced conventions. Young women in Vienna and Paris who go unattended are generally working-women or another class, and as working-women are not respected by Lovelace and Lothario, they are exposed to insult. To avoid the chance of insult, therefore, a young woman must have an escort in a partially civilized city like Paris or Vienna. But no presumption lies against any woman in America. Her self-respect and self-reliance are unquestioned, and American women, old and young, are perpetually passing in railway trains by day and night from one part of the country to another, unsuspected and unsuspecting.

In a country where social classes are not permanent or rigidly defined, as hitherto in America they have not been, the daughter as well as the son of the house contemplates the possibility of self-support. In such a country the harem view of the sphere and occupation of woman, however modified, wholly disappears. The word "obey" gradually vanishes from the marriage service, or is smoothed away by interpretation. The ideal of woman changes, and, as we think in America, improves. All the excellent qualities which the London writer attributes to the American girl spring from this change, from social conditions which foster self-respect and self-reliance. The demand of the suffrage, the rise of the woman's college, the challenge to the great universities to lift up their gates that woman may come in, show no decline of the feminine ideal of woman, but its transformation from the fancy of a goddess or a toy into the old Scriptural conception of the helpmeet.

The British matron, as she scrutinizes what she may hold to be an invader of her realm, will not find that in any feminine quality or grace, even to the most exquisite taste in dress, or delicate charm of manner, or essential refinement of mind, Pocahontas defers to Boadicea. Where the American imitates the English or any other, as when the English girl affects the French, she must suffer from the inevitable inferiority of all imitation. When her self-reliance is boisterous, or without tact and fine perception, Daisy Miller will be as crude and distasteful as Lady Clara Vere de Vere is heartless and cruel. But Rosalind and Viola and Beatrice, and Tennyson's Eleanore and Adeline and Margaret, meet in the American a sister of the same lineage as their own, bred in an atmosphere most fortunate and fair.

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George William Curtis's essay: American Girl