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XXXV. the secret of the birthday.

In a late treatise on American literature, while the year of birth is carefully given for each male author, the same fact is systematically omitted in the case of women. If any class of women might be supposed free from the affectation of more youth than belongs to them, it is the sisterhood of the pen, inasmuch as to them the increase of years usually implies a more assured position and a better income. Yet on inquiring of a friend who makes books of reference professionally, I am assured that literary women do occasionally show this sensitiveness as to their ages; and it is also sometimes the case, he adds, with literary men. In fact, he tells me very frankly that he does not quite enjoy giving the exact figures as to his own age, or seeing them in print.

Reticence as to years is not, then, a monopoly of either sex; but it belongs, no doubt, more especially to women, among whom the graces, and especially the earlier graces, of life are not only more lavishly distributed, but bring a more delicious adulation. [177] There is probably no period in the life of any man, no matter how successful or powerful, which is so intoxicating, and so sums up all that is fascinating in the way of homage, as the few years' reign of an acknowledged belle. When we consider that the man of iron, William Lloyd Garrison, used, in his devout Calvinistic youth, to attend a certain church in Boston simply to catch a glimpse of the beautiful Miss Emily Marshall as she went in or out, we have a condensed example of the extraordinary power placed by nature in the hands of beauty and grace and youth. The sternest moralists, the soberest philosophers, are compelled to own its sway, and to place the radiance of blossoming womanhood at the head of all nature's visible loveliness:

What stars do spangle heaven with such beauty
As those two eyes become that heavenly face?

And as a part of this unequalled charm resides in the clement of youthfulness, so youth alone suffices for beauty, in a degree, and throws enchantment around homely features. It is not strange, then, that women should cling to youth and shrink from recognizing the fact of age, even to the suppression of the record in the family Bible.

But it would be wronging womanhood to admit this to be the whole or even the chief part of the story. Often in a family of sisters, she who had [178] her reign of beauty at eighteen gives place, after a time, to another who passed for years unnoticed, but replaces her lovelier sister at thirty or forty, and thence holds her own into old age. Shakespeare, who saw all things, did not neglect this more prolonged sway or Indian summer of womanhood:

Beauty doth varnish age, as if new-born,
And give the crutch the cradle's infancy.

Taking the world as a whole, the remarkable proofs of the ascendancy of woman are the trophies of age, not of youth. The utmost beauty leaves the Oriental woman but a petted toy in youth; yet when a mother she has a life-long slave in her son, and an Eastern emperor will declare war or make peace at her bidding. So close was among the Greeks the tie between the mother and her sons — the father, as Plato implies in his “Protagoras,” very rarely interfering with them — that it held its strength even into advanced years. Such opinions as have been brought forward by Diderot in French, and by Godwin in English, impairing the feeling of filial reverence after the son grows to maturity, would have been abhorrent to the feelings of an ancient Greek. Those emotions took form in their reverence for the Graiae --nymphs who were born gray-headed — as did those of the Romans in the honor paid to the Sibyls, some of whom at least were old. Among our American [179] Indians, Mr. Lucien Carr finds that supremacy accorded to women in age which is denied them in youth. Goethe, exhausting all mythology and allegory in the second part of “Faust,” gives mysterious reverence to “the Mothers,” makes the Fates the conservators of social order; while he, with keen satire, modernizes the Furies into beautiful and treacherous girls, “each of them young and fair, a wheedling kitten.”

It seems to me clear that neither our literary women nor any others of their sex have any need to be ashamed of their birthdays, or to forego the dignity which is their rightful honor in age. In nature the period of blossom seems a time so beautiful that we think nothing can ever equal it, until we reach the period of fruitage; and so it should be with human life. Madame de Gentlis, after a brilliant and stormy youth, reread, when seventy years old, all the classics of Louis XIV.'s time, in order to preserve her literary style; she died at eighty-four, and the edition of her works published just before her death comprised just eighty-four volumes-one for every year. It is half a century since her death, and it is said that at least twenty of her books are still popular in France. This is to make the fruitage of a life better than the flower, and so is such a beautiful old age as that of Lucretia Mott or Lydia Maria Child. It is the fashion to [180] sneer at old women; the novelists neglect — them: Howells hardly recognizes their existence; Thackeray makes them worldly and wicked, like old Lady Kew, or a little oversentimental, like Madame de Florae; Aliss Edgeworth's Lady Davenant in “Helen” is perhaps the best example of the class. In pictorial art I know of no more impressive representation of feminine old age, of the more commanding sort, than an etching in Mrs. Jameson's “Commonplace book” from a German artist, Steinle. Eve, in her banishment, prematurely old with care, sits leaning with stately poise against a tree and stretches one strong right arm to uphold Cain, a lovely naked child, upon a low branch. He carelessly drops an apple into her lap, thus unconsciously recalling the sin that forfeited Paradise. Her drooping locks are white, but her noble eyes are undimmed, and seem to look beyond his sin, or hers, into some world where all isolated transgressions are merged in eternal life and disappear. In her other hand she holds a spindle, as if ready to weave the destinies of that world unseen. It is a group that William Blake might have drawn-and one in whose presence it seems a glory to be old.

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