The Fashionable Woman

Jessica Craig-Martin, Air Kiss (Southampton 2009).

Among the many odd products of a mature civilization, the fashionable woman is one of the oddest. From first to last she is an amazing spectacle; and if we take human life in any earnestness at all, whether individually, as the passage to an eternal existence the condition of which depends on what we are here, or collectively, as the highest thing we know, we can only look in blank astonishment at the fashionable woman and her career. She is the one sole capable member of the human family without duties and without useful occupation; the one sole being who might be swept out of existence altogether, without deranging the nice arrangement of things, or upsetting the balance of inter-dependent forces. We know of no other organic creation of which this could be said; but the fashionable woman is not as other creatures, being, fortunately, sui generis, and of a type not existing elsewhere. If we take the mere ordering of her days and the employment of her time as the sign of her mental state, we may perhaps measure to a certain extent, but not fully, the depth of inanity into which she has fallen and the immensity of her folly. Considering her as a being with the potentiality of reason, of usefulness, of thought, the actual result is surely the saddest and the strangest thing under heaven!

She goes to bed at dawn and does not attempt to rise till noon. For the most part she breakfasts in bed, and then amuses herself with a cursory glance at the morning paper, if she have sufficient energy for so great a mental exertion; if she have not, she lies for another hour or two in that half-slumberous state which is so destructive to mind and body, weakening as it does both fibre and resolution, both muscle and good principle. At last she languidly rises, to be dressed in time for luncheon and her favoured intimates — the men who have the entrée at sacred hours when the world in general is forbidden. Some time later she dresses again for her drive—for the first part of the day’s serious business; for paying visits and leaving cards; for buying jewelry and dresses, and ordering all sorts of unnecessary things at her milliner’s; for this grand lady’s ordinary ‘day,’ and that grand lady’s extraordinary At Home; for her final slow parade in the Park, where she sees her friends as in an open air drawing-room, makes private appointments, carries on flirtations, and hears and retails gossip and scandal of a full flavour. Then she goes home to dress for tea in a ‘lovely gown’ of suggestive piquancy; to be followed by dinner, the opera or a concert, a soirée, or perhaps a ball or two; whence she returns towards morning, flushed with excitement or worn out with fatigue, feverish or nervous, as she has had pleasure and success or disappointment and annoyance.

This is her outside life; and this is no fancy picture and no exaggeration. After a certain time of such an existence, can we wonder if her complexion fades and her eyes grow dim? if that inexpressible air of haggard weariness creeps over her, which ages even a young girl and makes a mature woman substantially an old one? It is then that she has recourse to those foul and fatal expedients of which we have heard more than enough in these latter days. She will not try simplicity of living, natural hours, wholesome occupation, unselfish endeavour, but rushes off for help to paints and cosmetics, to stimulants and drugs, and attempts to restore the tarnished freshness of her beauty by the very means which further corrode it. Every now and then, for very weariness when not for idleness, she feigns herself sick and has her favourite physician to attend her. In fact the funniest thing about her is the ease with which she takes to her bed on the slightest provocation, and the strange pleasure she seems to find in what is a penance to most women.

You meet her in a heated, crowded, noisy room, looking just as she always looks, whatever her normal state of health may be; and in answer to your inquiries she tells you she has only two hours ago left her bed to come here, having been confined to her room for a week, with Dr. Blank in close attendance. If you are an intimate female friend she will whisper you the name of her malady, which is sure to be something terrific, and which, if true, would have kept her a real invalid for months instead of days; but if you are only a man she will make herself out to have been very ill indeed in a more mysterious way, and leave you to wonder at the extraordinary physique of fashionable women, which enables them to live on the most friendly touch-and-go terms with death, and to overcome mortal maladies by an effort of the will and the delights of a ducal ball. The favourite physician has a hard time of it with these ladies; and the more popular he is the harder his work. It is well for his generation when he is a man of honour and integrity, and knows how to add self-respect and moral power to the qualities which have made him the general favourite. For his influence over women is almost unlimited — like nothing so much as that of the handsome Abbé of the Regency or the fascinating Monsignore of Rome; and if he chooses to abuse it and turn it to evil issues, he can. And, however great the merit in him that he does not, it does not lessen the demerit of the woman that he could.

Sometimes the fashionable woman takes up with the clergyman instead of the physician, and coquets with religious exercises rather than with drugs; but neither clergyman nor physician can change her mode of life nor give her truth nor common-sense. Sometimes there is a fluttering show of art-patronage, and the fashionable woman has a handsome painter or well-bred musician in her train, whom she pets publicly and patronizes graciously. Sometimes it is a young poet or a rising novelist, considerably honoured by the association, who dedicates his next novel to her, or writes verses in her praise, with such fervency of gratitude as sets the base Philistines on the scent of the secret—perhaps guessing not far amiss. For the fashionable woman has always some love-affair on hand, more or less platonic according to her own temperament or the boldness of the man—a love-affair in which the smallest ingredient is love; a love-affair which is vanity, idleness, a dissolute imagination and contempt of such prosaic things as morals; a love-affair not even to be excused by the tragic frenzy of earnest passion, and which may be guilty and yet not true.

The physical effects of such a life as this are as bad as the mental, and both are as bad as the worst can make them. A feverish, overstrained condition of health either prevents the fashionable woman from being a mother at all, or makes her the mother of nervous, sickly children. Many a woman of high rank is at this moment paying bitterly for the disappointment of which she herself, in her illimitable folly, has been the sole and only cause. And, whether women like to hear it or not, it is none the less a truth that part of the reason for their being born at all is that they may in their turn bear children. The unnatural feeling against maternity existing among fashionable women is one of the worst mental signs of their state, as their frequent inability to be mothers is one of the worst physical results. This is a condition of things which no false modesty nor timid reserve should keep in the background, for it is a question of national importance, and will soon become one of national disaster unless checked by a healthier current and more natural circumstances.

Dress, dissipation and flirting make up the questionable lines which enclose the life of the fashionable woman, and which enclose nothing useful, nothing good, nothing deep nor true nor holy. Her piety is a pastime; her art the poorest pretence; her pleasure consists only in hurry and excitement alternating with debasing sloth, in heartless coquetry or in lawless indulgence, as nature made her more vain or more sensual. As a wife she fulfils no wifely duty in any grand or loving sense, for the most part regarding her husband only as a banker or an adjunct, according to the terms of her marriage settlement; as a mother she is a stranger to her children, to whom nurse and governess supply her place and give such poor makeshift for maternal love as they are enabled or inclined. In no domestic relation is she of the smallest value, and of none in any social circumstance beside the adorning of a room—if she be pretty—and the help she gives to trade through her expenditure. She lives only in the gaslight, and her nature at last becomes as artificial as her habits.

As years go on, and she changes from the acknowledged belle to la femme passée, she goes through a period of frantic endeavour to retain her youth; and even when time has clutched her with too firm a hand to be shaken off, and she begins to feel the infirmities which she still puts out all her strength to conceal, even then she grasps at the departing shadow and fresh daubs the crumbling ruin, in the belief that the world’s eyes are dim and that stucco may pass for marble for another year or two longer. Or she becomes a Belgravian mother, with daughters to sell to the highest bidder; and then the aim of her life is to secure the purchaser. Her daughters are never objects of real love with the fashionable woman. They are essentially her rivals, and the idea of carrying on her life in theirs, of forgetting herself in them, occurs to her only as a forecast of death. She shrinks even from her sons, as living evidences of the lapse of time which she cannot deny, and awkward memoria technica for fixing dates; and there is not a home presided over by a fashionable woman where the family is more than a mere name, a mere social convention loosely held together by circumstances, not by love.

Closing such a life as this comes the unhonoured end, when the miserable made-up old creature totters down into the grave where paint and padding, and glossy plaits cut from some fresh young head, are of no more avail; and where death, which makes all things real, reduces her life of lies to the nothingness it has been from the beginning. What does she leave behind her? A memory by which her children may order their own lives in proud assurance that so they will order them best for virtue and for honour? Or a memory which speaks to them of time misused, of duties unfulfilled, of love discarded for pleasure, and of a life-long sacrifice of all things good and pure for selfishness?

We all know examples of the worldly old woman clinging batlike to the last to the old roofs and rafters; and we all know how heartily we despise her, and how we ridicule her in our hearts, if not by our words. If the reigning queens of fashion, at present young and beautiful, would but remember that they are only that worldly old woman in embryo, and that in a very few years they will be her exact likeness, unhappily repeated for the scorn of the world once more to follow! The traditional skeleton at the feast had a wonderfully wise meaning, crude and gross as it was in form. For though its memento mori, too constantly before us, would either sadden or brutalize, as we were thoughtful or licentious, yet it is good to see the end of ourselves, and to study the meaning and lesson of our lives in those of our prototypes and elder likenesses.

The pleasures of the world are, as we all know, very potent and very alluring, but nothing can be more unsatisfying if taken as the main purpose of life. While we are young, the mere stirring of the blood stands instead of anything more real; but as we go on, and the pulse flags and pleasurable occasions get rare and more rare, we find that we have been like the Prodigal Son, and that our food and his have been out of much the same trough, and come in the main to much the same thing.

This is an age of extraordinary wealth and of corresponding extraordinary luxury; of unparalleled restlessness, which is not the same thing as activity or energy, but which is the kind of restlessness that disdains all quiet and repose, as unendurable stagnation. Hence the fashionable woman of the day is one of extremes in her own line also; and the idleness, the heartlessness, the self-indulgence, the want of high morality, and the insolent luxury at all times characteristic of her were never displayed with more cynical effrontery than at present, and never called for more severe condemnation.

The fashionable women of Greece and Rome, of Italy and France, have left behind them names which the world has made typical of the vices naturally engendered by idleness and luxury. But do we wish that our women should become subjects for an English Juvenal? that fashion should create a race of Laïses and Messalinas, of Lucrezia Borgias and Madame du Barrys, out of the stock which once gave us Lucy Hutchinson and Elizabeth Fry? Once the name of Englishwoman carried with it a grave and noble echo as the name of women known for their gentle bearing and their blameless honour—of women who loved their husbands, and brought up about their own knees the children they were not reluctant to bear and not ashamed to love. Now, it too often means a girl of the period, a frisky matron, a fashionable woman—a thing of paints and pads, consorting with dealers of no doubtful calling for the purchase of what she grimly calls ‘beauty,’ making pleasure her only good and the world her highest god. It too often means a woman who is not ashamed to supplement her husband with a lover, but who is unwilling to become the honest mother of that husband’s children. It too often means a hybrid creature, perverted out of the natural way altogether, affecting the license but ignorant of the strength of a man; as girl or woman alike valueless so far as her highest natural duties are concerned; and talking largely of liberty while showing at every turn how much she fails in that co-essential of liberty — knowledge how to use it.

Eliza Lynn Linton (1822-1898) was a novelist and the first salaried female journalist in the United Kingdom, and also a staunch critic of early feminism. ‘The Fashionable Woman’ is an essay taken from her book The Girl of the Period and Other Essays, first published in 1868.