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For Better, For Worse: 1906

 Englishwoman versus American Women
 
 
 
In England the idea among married women is to make the best of the worst of things. In this country it seems often to be to make the worst of the worst of things. Among the words of the marriage ceremony used in England one finds the wife taking the husband "for better, for worse," and, in so far as I can discover, this same formula is used in the marriage ceremony or the different denominations in the United States.

Now, no one will deny that a woman in taking to herself a husband is quite as likely to find that she has taken him for worse as for better. Whereas she was happy as a girl, she may spend her wife-hood in tears and tribulations. She may find that every ideal attribute with which she endowed her husband before marriage has flown, or, rather, never existed, except in her imagination. Fondly believing him to be generous, he may turn out to be close-fisted and mean: temperate, he may lean to drunkenness: considerate, he may turn a deaf ear to her entreaties; believing him all that she admired, she may find him full of weaknesses and unlovable traits.

She has married for worse. She remembers that she took him with that contingency in mind. Did she not repeat solemnly after the clergyman. "For better, for worse"? In England she gathers up the bits of her shattered ideals and possibly weeps a little over them, and then she starts out to make the best of the worst of things.

In this country, give the average young wife the same experience of disappointment in the man she loved and the shattered ideals, and the thought that occurs to her is that she can go back to her parents, or that she thanks Heaven she is able to earn her own living. Her whole upbringing has encouraged the growth of this attitude, and her parents have encouraged her, and let it be added that the very diverse divorce laws of the United States encourage her.

I have in previous articles spoken of the delightful inconsistencies one finds in the American character. Here is an inconsistency in the American woman's character rather startling and not at all commendable.

The American woman is without doubt the most diplomatic, tactful, and adaptable woman in the world. Far more than in the Englishwoman we find in the American woman the natural talent for conformity. In England blood and heredity count for much. Despite the old legend, in cannot fancy a one-time beggar maid conducting herself circumspectly as queen. It requires more imagination than I or any other Englishwoman can possess to think calmly of the daughter of a line of costermongers becoming a Duchess, or the heiress of a rich and vulgar tradesman standing gracefully among the peeresses of the realm. The Englishwoman, as a class, has not the characteristic of adaptability. But the American woman! One needs to give no examples of the wonders she has done along this line. History, modern history at least, is full of them. She is the diplomat of all nations. Let her once determine to adapt herself to new surroundings and she becomes a part of them. The fact that her father sold shoestrings on the street corner will not prevent her making a charming and gracious hostess and wearing, as thought to the manner born, a coronet.

Herein lies her inconsistency. In married life, with the ability to adapt, she often will not adapt herself. Pliable at will, she does not will to be plied, when it comes to making the best of a bad matrimonial venture.

"You are not the man I thought you," she says to her husband. "Good-bye!"

"You are not the man I thought you were, but I've got to put up with you!" says the Englishwoman.

In stating the rule one of course admits the exceptions of the American woman who puts up with things and the Englishwoman who runs away, but the general impression one gets of unfortunate marriages in this country is what I have stated, the tendency of the disappointed woman to make no effort toward conformity.

A couple of years ago, in England, I remember a young American, Mrs. Blank, referring to her departure from America in this manner:

"We were married a year, and things were so different from what I expected that we separated and I came to England."

"No, he's not at all a bad man, but his temper was incompatible with mine, so we got divorced," is the way a pretty little woman and a member of a prominent church explained her matrimonial status to me the other day. She is not a member of the church that forbids divorce except for grave cause, to be sure, but she was married according to the ceremony that mentions "For better or for worse."

The glib way in which she disposed of her promise in that respect is the thing that startles and horrifies her English friends.

A week or so ago I was telling to a party of Americans the story of a little American friend of mine in London married to an Englishman. She likes steam heat, even in her bedroom. Her husband contends that open fireplaces are the only healthful heating arrangements and that warm bedrooms are barbarous. On every other subject they agree perfectly, but on this they have preserved the same original opinion still.

"Did they separate?" asked one of the American women artlessly. "No, they've compromised." I answered. "I don't see how they could." answered she. "Would disagreement on the subject of heating be cause for divorce in this country?" I asked jestingly. "Well, anyway, it would be cause for separation," she replied.

I tried to fancy the situation in England. One is making a call and meets a charming married woman. After she has departed one's hostess says: "Ah, too bad, Mary and her husband could not get on together and live-apart."

"Divorced?" one asks in a half whisper. "No, the cause is not sufficient for divorce, so it's only a separation."

"The brute!" one exclaims, sympathetically; "why couldn't he shy the poker at her and just miss, so she could divorce him and marry a better man?" for one jumps to the conclusion that Mary's husband has centered his affections upon another lady while refusing to add unto his offense the stipulated legal "cruelty" that will entitle her to a divorce according to British law.

"They couldn't agree about the heating of the house," says the hostess. "He wanted soft coal fires and she wanted steam radiators," and what one says then in reply depends altogether upon one's sense of humor.

Already sufficient has been written by foreigners upon the American divorce laws which allow a woman to be married in one State while she remains a spinster in another, and legalize a child on one side of the border while making him but a natural son with no legal status just over the way.

It is not of the facility for divorce that I write. The question of how to adjust forty laws in forty different sovereignties in order to make them equal one uniform law is one that requires the brain of a lawyer and lawmaker, and besides, Americans may very readily call our attention to the marriage law of Scotland as compared with that of England and twit us upon the confusion which is the result of the doings of that sadly beset lady, the Deceased Wife's Sister.

I am not here concerned with the American marriage law, but with the attitude of so many American women toward the religious ceremony which makes them wives, and the lightness in which they hold their promise to take their husbands for better or for worse. One may even have an opinion of one's own concerning the advisability of making such a promise, but, if one has, why does one make it?

"Another case of incompatibility of temper" is the way I have heard dozens of separations explained during my stay in New York. (I speak now of separations, not of divorces.) Were there ever in all the world two tempers that were entirely compatible? And, indeed, would it not be rather stupid living always in the same house, eating at the same table with a person whose temper was compatible, which would mean with one whose opinions coincided with your own? Fancy the situation! Never an argument, never a disagreement, never a difference, light or serious, of opinion! Of all persons in the world, the average American woman would despise a man whose temper was compatible with her own, yet she will give this flimsiest of excuses for packing her trunk and leaving her home.

I have learned since my residence here that in general American society the subject of marital separation and divorce is not one to be discussed, because such separations are so common that, ten to one, offense may be taken at a vigorous expression of opinion on the subject. Given a dozen married friends, it is not too surprising to learn that three of them are living apart from their husbands for some rather trivial cause and for a difference that might be adjusted by the use of tact. The growing disinclination to motherhood on the part of many American women makes such separations comparatively easy. A child or children might keep the bond from breaking. A Childless home has a tendency to make a woman almost forget that she has entered into a very binding contract. Release comes readily and quickly. She has married for the worse. Very well, then let her separate for better! So run her thoughts.

One cannot but wonder why women who think so lightly of the duty of wives willingly go through a religious ceremony in which it is necessary to make so many promises. Legal marriage can be secured through the civil ceremony. Yet the church marriage, with a ceremony quite or nearly like that of the Anglican Church, is becoming more rather than less popular in the United States, while separations for trivial causes also increase, and it is much more likely to be the bride who is married in church with her six bridesmaids, two Bishops, and an old family clergyman, who afterward hurriedly packs her trunk and goes home or to work after a trial of marriage than the woman of strong mind and undenominational tendencies who insists upon being married in the simplest and quickest manner by a Justice of the Peace or an Alderman.

"For better or for worse" promise the brides, and they go to see "His House in Order," and wonder why Nina puts up with the worse, which Pinero has certainly typified in his portrayal of the weakling British husband. "I live apart from my husband, but he supports me. He allows me such and such a sum."

You all know the woman who will tell you this. Allowances of this sort for separated wives and alimony for wives who divorce their husbands might almost be said to be an American Institution, so common is it in this country. This is the strangest phase of the whole separation question, a wife receiving money from her husband for her own support and yet refusing to be a wife, to order his household, to act as his hostess, to preside at his table. It is this allowance, this alimony, which vulgarizes the separations one is continually noting between husbands and wives. Except that one deprecates the breaking of a solemn vow, one can admire the woman who, leaving her husband, says:

"I can support myself! I can typewrite, I can teach, I can sell ribbons in a shop! I don't have to live with you to be fed and clothed!" Here, at least, is a species of dignity, here a kind of pride that is not false.

But what of the childless woman who separates herself from her husband, lives in a distant city or a foreign land, dresses at his expense, drives in a carriage hired with his money, goes to the theatre with the tickets his money procures, eats the food he provides? This is done in this country by otherwise charming women. One is continually meeting them. They have no hesitation in proclaiming their husband's liberality and learn to experience no shame about accepting such bounty.

In writing thus of the apparent disinclination of so many American married women to adapt themselves to their husbands, and to make the best of the worse, one is sure to be confronted with the query: "What about the husbands adapting themselves to the whims and idiosyncrasies of their wives? What is sauce for the goose," &c.

My observation of American husbands and wives makes me believe that the average American husband is far more willing to make concessions to the weaknesses of his wife than is the wife to make concessions to those of her husband. The American man has learned to a nicety the art of giving in, and seems rather inclined to make the best of the worst situation. In this regard he is as unlike as possible to the average British husband, who is, in the main, an inadaptable creature and leaves his wife to practice the virtues of conformity. Were not the British wife something of an adept in this art one might have cause to tremble for the stability of the ancient bulwark of British householdry.

Perhaps, after all, it is because of its very ancient state that the British home seems more stable, more built upon a rock, than does the American. You, who are so young in other things, seem also to exhibit your youth in this.

Let us then call it the spirit of youth that makes a wife so hurriedly pack her trunk because of nothing of greater importance than a small breakfast table dispute, as it is, perhaps, the spirit of youth that leads her to tell the officiating clergyman to eliminate the promise to obey from the marriage ceremony, though one cannot be favorably impressed with a sense of humor that leads her to overlook the promise she makes to honor and love her husband, without conditions a far more impossible feat than obeying him.

Mere obedience is doubtless the one promise in the marriage contract most readily kept. One can obey where one ceases to love and honor. One can obey where one despises. And, as for taking for better or worse, why so prevalent an inclination to repudiate the contract when the taking proves to have been for "worse"? Analyzed, word for word, sentence for sentence, promise for promise, the religious marriage contract is so altogether different from any other form of contract into which one may enter that any man or woman might most readily be excused for refusing to make so many unconditional promises for the future. That surely is any individual's privilege, but to make the promises and repudiate them, to take for better or for worse, and then to fly at the approach of the "worse" is not this the weakest sort of weakness?"

MARY MORTIMER MAXWELL

 

 
 
Website: The History Box.com
Article Name: For Better, For Worse: 1906
Researcher/Transcriber: Miriam Medina

Source:

Bibliography:  The New York Times September 16, 1906 p. SM4 (1 page)
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