previous next
[54]

XI. “but strong of will.”

In one of Whittier's finest ballads he gives a touch of feminine character worth considering in a world where so many of the young or foolish still hold it to be the perfection of womanhood to be characterless. The phrase is to be found in “Amy Wentworth,” one of the few of his ballads which have no direct historical foundation, but simply paint a period. The scene is ]aid in the proud little colonial town of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, with its high-bred ways and its stately ante-Revolutionary traditions — such traditions as became an Episcopalian and loyal colony, although nothing now remains to commemorate their sway except a few fine old houses, some family portraits, and this ballad of Whittier's. His heroine, gently nurtured, has given her heart to the captain of a fishing-smack, and the poet thus describes the situation:
Her home is brave in Jaffrey Street,
With stately stairways, worn
By feet of old colonial knights
And ladies gentle born; [55]

And on her, from the wainscot old,
Ancestral faces frown,
And this has worn the soldier's sword,
And that the judge's gown.

But strong of will and proud as they,
She walks the gallery floor
As if she trod her sailor's deck
In stormy Labrador.

What a fascinating thing, after all, is strength in a woman! With what delight all readers turned from the weak or wicked heroine of Thackeray's earlier novels to his superb young Ethel Newcome, “strong of will and proud as they” who would have domineered over her. Scott, with his love of chivalry, always flung some attribute of courage about the women whom he meant to win our hearts-or he failed if he did not. Even his graceful Ellen Douglas is incapable of actual cowardice.

I think with anguish, or, if e'er
A Douglas knew the word, with fear.

So, in the Scottish ballads, it takes something more than a weakling to spring up behind young Lochinvar in the saddle, or to be “owre the Border and awaa” with Jock oa Hazeldean. Shakespeare does not love to paint characterless heroines: [56]
I grant I am a woman; but, withal,
A woman that Lord Brutus took to wife;
I grant I am a woman; but, withal,
A woman well reputed-Cato's daughter.

Even the child Juliet at fourteen is able to resist her whole proud household, and there is more peril in her eyes than in twenty of their swords.

The very disproportion between bodily and mental strength makes personal character more conspicuous in women, as it was often noticed in our army that some boy-officer, if a hero in heart, had a peculiar power over rough men who could have felled him with a blow. We all enjoy records of womanly heroism — of the Countess of Nithisdale's rescue of her husband from prison, of the Baroness de la Rochejaquelein's adventures in La Vendee, and of Catherine Douglas, who barred the door by thrusting her delicate arm through the staples in defence of her royal mistress. Our own civil war furnished many similar instances of courage; yet none surpassing, or perhaps equalling, the narrative given by the daughter of General Stone1 of the manner in which her mother protected her whole household of girls and young children in Cairo (Egypt) in time of insurrection, without money and almost without friends, by mere strength of will. No wonder one [57] of the Arab officers said, “If all American women are like you, I should not like to go to war against the men.” Once she said — in a voice which the daughter elsewhere describes as soft and low-“Girls, if an Arab lays hands upon you, I expect you to save yourselves by putting a bullet through your hearts. Don't leave it for me to do.” There is many a general who could composedly give an order that would cost ten thousand lives, and yet who would not have the nerve to say to his daughters those last seven words, and mean them.

We talk about women's not needing strength of will, because they will be “protected.” Who is protected, who can be protected, against more than the ills of the passing day? Men heap up wealth for their daughters, and that very wealth may buy them husbands who will break their hearts, and who would never have sought them had they been poor. Or the money itself disappears. One of the heirs of one of the largest estates bequeathed in Boston in the last generation — an estate equally and justly distributed-told me that there were already descendants of the testator who were in poverty and needed assistance. Yet how few of them probably were prepared for this! Madame de Genlis, the only intellectual woman in France who for a time rivalled Madame de Stael in fame, said that of all her attainments the one which she most prized was [58] that, in case of hardship, she knew twenty different ways of making a living. Then, apart from poverty, think of other risks of life! The most petted girl may marry some frontier army officer, and find herself some day with her husband shot down at her side by Indian arrows, she being left alone with her children among savages far worse than the Arabs whom Mrs. Stone dreaded. Who has ever gone by night into the suffocating steerage, or on board the stifling emigrant train, without a thrill of admiration for the obscure and nameless women who pilot their crying children through that prolonged ordeal of misery, while the easier lot of the husband is to sit and smoke with his mates? Look at the lives of these women after they have reached their Western destination, their enormous, unrelieved labors, their unknown and often thankless toils! Again, who can protect the most favored woman against disease? We daily see that the physicians cannot.

It seems to me that if we recognized more distinctly in our training that girls as well as boys need strength of will, we should be more sure of developing that quality, and it would also be more harmonious when it came. Neither a tree nor a character can show much grace if it has to fight its way by inches against cold and storm. It is not necessary to choose between the gnarled oak and the clinging vine; there is something intermediate. [59] Grant all that may be claimed of the gracefulness of dependence, the charm of submission, the truth remains that actual life makes little account of these soft adornments. Of all things on earth, after love, that which a human being most needs is strength; and as the ancients accounted a lioness with her young more dangerous than a lion, so the very fact that woman is the mother of the human race makes it essential that she should have some vigor of will. It is desirable, doubtless, that a man should be strong, but we may almost say that a woman must be strong.

1 Century for June, 1884.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Places (automatically extracted)

View a map of the most frequently mentioned places in this document.

Sort places alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a place to search for it in this document.
Portsmouth (New Hampshire, United States) (1)
Labrador (Canada) (1)
France (France) (1)
Cairo (Egypt) (1)

Visualize the most frequently mentioned Pleiades ancient places in this text.

Download Pleiades ancient places geospacial dataset for this text.

hide People (automatically extracted)
Sort people alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a person to search for him/her in this document.
J. G. Whittier (2)
C. P. Stone (2)
Amy Wentworth (1)
W. M. Thackeray (1)
De Stael (1)
William Shakespeare (1)
Walter Scott (1)
Nithisdale (1)
Ethel Newcome (1)
Grant (1)
De Genlis (1)
Ellen Douglas (1)
Catherine Douglas (1)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
June, 1884 AD (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: