Thursday, April 21, 2005

Another Sort of Woman

by G.K. Chesterton, in a letter to his wife Frances

There are two broad classes of women a man comes across. The first are the "outdoor" women, people . . . who whould remain outdoor if they were locked in the Black Hole of Calcutta. They are made physically as sisters of the Sun and Wind, they develop all the virtues that are the children of Fresh Air: humour, courage, self-reliance, Faith, Hope and Charity. They are very jolly people; for their virtues are easy to them.

The second class are the "delicate" women, who cannot bear loud voices and live behind drawn blinds. They are mostly concerned with their own souls and the people who have not called on them. They are either church people and live in South Kensington or Theosophists and live in West Kensington. They are sometimes very silly people, particularly if they have a little money: their very affections, though deep and pathetic, have a tendency to stagnate into bitterness and poison. But a man who should be rude or cold or satiric about them would be a brute. They have much to bear, pains borne in silence and loneliness, when every day is like the last, pains which, real or unreal, organic or nervous, are equally painful. They have physical troubles which I have not, therefore I should be a cur not to respect them. And to their dusty old failures and disappointments, to their fantastic illnesses and needless aversions,--yes, even their microscopic vanities and grievances, I for one would always take off my hat. Lord, as the ancient writer said, count unto them their tears.

And lastly, outside both of these classes a man may happen to come upon another sort of woman--if he does he will probably be a higher and humbler man for ever.

A woman who, fated physically to have the virtues of the weaker woman, has rebelled and taken the virtues of the stronger--a woman whom Nature, making war, has been unable to defeat, whose body may be in the sickroom but whose soul is in the playground, who has a heart so great that she can hate the privileges of her calamity and the excuses of her depression: who spurns the philosophy that would justify and smooth her down and elects the philosophy that can only knock her about: who would rather conceal her disadvantages and be third in the free race for life, than first in a paradise of poetic egoism: a woman who, to add one last supreme tocuh, shall have even the faults of a tougher physical type, and while she suffers inwardly from the collapses and clouding pains that make other women pessimists, shall be challenged and rebuked outwardly for her too dogmatic cheerfulness, her too cloudless philosophy, her too arrogant faith.

If one had ever met it in a hotel that would have been a valiant and splendid figure. To me it is simply you. Even you will, I fancy, admit it is something like your ideal for yourself: isn't it, dearest?

And now you want to spoil it all by having a lot of beastly, fat, physical health. And the worst of it is that I am quite inconsistent and want it for you too, for I can't bear you to have three minutes discomfort--which is a medieval superstition and a jolly fine thing. But it is perfectly true, as I say, that you could never have been the influence you are, never have given the object lesson you do of the great soul that conceals its wounds that it may serve in the battle, if those wounds did not exist. Oh you dear, dear, discontented saint--don't you see that we do want something to love and adore and go on our knees to, something that really shows that courage is not a bundle of nerves--nor optimism a good breakfast. Won't you be patient on the chilly pedestal, for a little while? We are selfish--but you are not. No, by the sun and moon and all the stars--

--You are not--

All of which, I am afraid, doesn't alter the fact that if by taking up the carving-knife now lying beside me and cutting off my right hand with my left, I could guarantee you perfect health for lilfe, I would do it and whistle all the time. But then, you see, that is a man talking about his dear, true-hearted and beautiful girl whose face gets into his dreams: as a philosopher, speaking of the social influence of a good woman, I am sure the world has reason to bless your bad health.

I do not think, brave heart, that I could praise you better than by writing this odd letter. There are not many women in whose case, when a man has to comfort them in sickness, it would occur to him to point out the good they were doing to the world, as any comfort at all. But to you I know it is a comfort . . .

* * *

I didn't mean to put this whole thing up--but when I started to type, I simply couldn't bear cutting any out. Chesterton is just so clear and so brightly coloured, if you know what I mean. If there is one author who speaks straight to my heart, it's him.

The "other sort of woman" is my ideal for myself too. When I'm not feeling well I start getting small-minded, like the indoor woman. But Frances, he says, could keep her large heart even in a small room. I wish I could be like that.

But there's no better encouragement than this letter. I want to be a "brave heart," a "great soul that conceals its wounds that it may fight in the battle." Why should I let a momentary indisposition keep me from the "free race for life"? I become pessimistic with a little pain: but I could stay optimistic through everything. What is optimism worth if it's only when things are going well?

If Frances could be that kind of woman, I have no excuse not to.


Charlemagne said...

Beautiful, and a little sad. It reminds me to some degree of my mother.

Sheila said...

I think all women have the capacity to be that way, a little bit. Many women go through a lot of physical suffering, and the holy ones deal with it the way Frances did.