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Woman In Orders Post by :38750 Category :Essays Author :E. Lynn Linton Date :November 2011 Read :2779

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Woman In Orders

There is, no doubt, something extremely flattering to our insular conceit in the mystery which hangs about the institutions which we prize as specially national. We feel that a Briton is still equal to three Frenchmen, so long as the three Frenchmen confess with a shrug that the Briton is wholly unintelligible. The blunders of Dr. Döllinger, the baffled wonderment with which every foreigner retires from the study of it, only endear to us the more the Church of England. This was perhaps the reason, besides the inherent marvel of the matter, why we passed so lightly over M. Esquiroz and his late ecclesiastical researches. It was humiliating to English pride to have to confess that a Frenchman had unveiled to the world of Paris the hitherto sacred mysteries of the perpetual curate and of the tithe rent-charge.

The enemy was clearly at the gates of the central fortress of British insularism; even an American bishop was tempted to strive to understand Westminster Abbey; and a dismal rumor prevailed that nothing hindered the Ecclesiastical Commissioners from revealing the nature and purpose of their existence but the fact that, after prolonged inquiry, they found it impossible to understand them themselves. It was time, we felt, to abandon these mere outposts of the unintelligible to the aggressions of an impertinent curiosity, and to retire to the citadel. There, happily, we are safe. Even the unhallowed inquisitiveness of M. Esquiroz recoils baffled from the parson's wife. Disdainful of all artificial adjuncts of mystery, to all appearance a woman like other women, packing her little sick-baskets, balancing the coal-club accounts, teaching in her Sunday-school, the centre of religion, of charity, and of tittle-tattle, woman in orders fronts calmly the inquirer, a being fearfully and wonderfully English, unknowable and unknown.

No one who saw for the first time the calm, colorless serenity of the parson's wife would discover in her existence the result of a life-long disappointment. But the parson on whose arm she leans commonly represents to his spouse simply the descent from the ideal to the real, the step from the sublime to the prosaic, if not the ridiculous. There was a moment in her life when the vestry-door closed upon a world of hallowed wonder, when the being who appeared in white robes, "mystic, wonderful," was a being not as other men are, a being whose hours were spent in study, in meditation, in charity, a being of beautiful sermons and spotless neckties. The flirtation with him, so impatiently longed for, was not as other men's flirtations; there was a tinge of sacredness about his very frivolity, and a soft touch of piety in his sentiment. To share such a life, to commune hourly with a spirit so semi-angelic, seemed an almost religious ambition. The spirit of a Crusader, half-heaven, half-earth, fired the gentle breast of the besieger till Jerusalem was won.

Then came the hour of disenchantment. The mysterious object of adoration, seen on his own hearth-rug, melted into the mass of men. The spiritual idealist was cross over an ill-cooked dinner, and as commonplace at breakfast as his Times. The discourses, so lately utterances from heaven, dwindled into copies or compilations from other heavenly utterers. The life of a Lady Bountiful turned out a dull routine of mothers' meetings and Sunday-schools. The ideal poor, grateful and resigned, proved cross and greedy old harridans. The world of peace, of nobleness, of serenity, died into a parish of bustle and scandal and worry. Out of this wreck of hope arises the parson's wife. Disillusionment is her ordination for a clerical position none the less real that it is without parallel in the ecclesiastical history of the world.

She takes her part with all the decision of genius. Her first step is to restore the Temple she has broken down, to set up again the Dagon who lies across the threshold. If not for herself, at any rate for the world and for her children, she re-creates the priest she once dreamt of in the commonplace parson whom she has actually wedded. Conscious as she is of the inner nature of the idling apartment where he lounges through the morning, she impresses on the household the necessity of quiet while its master is in his "study." By the daily addition of skillful but minute touches, she paints him to the world as an ideal of piety and of learning. She takes bills and letters off his hands, that his mind may not be disturbed from more serious subjects. She enforces a sacred silence throughout the house during the solemn hours while the sermon is being compiled. She sews the sacred sheets together, and listens while the discourse is recited for her approval. She listens again with an interest as fresh as ever when it is preached. She marks the text in her Bible, and sees that the children mark it too.

As the first subject of his theological realm, she sets an example which other subjects are to follow. They, like her, mingle their contempt for the parson's business abilities and voluble talk with a hushed reverence for his esoteric knowledge of subjects inaccessible to common men. They, like her, manage to combine a perfect readiness to snub him and his opinions on all earthly topics, with an equal readiness to listen to him, as to a divine oracle, on the topics of grace and free-will. Insensibly the subtle distinction tells on the parson himself. He is conscious, perhaps pleasantly conscious, that he is seen through the glass of his wife, and seen therefore darkly. He retires within the domestic veil. He learns to avoid common subjects--subjects, that is, where the world holds itself at liberty to criticise him. He retires to fields where he is above criticism. He believes at last in the vamped-up sermons in which his wife persists in believing. He accepts the position of an oracle on sacred topics which his wife has made for him. In a word, the parson's wife has created the British parson.

It is hard to say how far the creator believes in her own creation. In persuading others, she probably succeeds to a great extent in persuading herself. At any rate she accepts willingly enough the consequences of a position which leaves her the master of the parish. In the bulk of cases the parson is simply the Mikado, the nominal ruler, lapped in soft ease, and exempt from the worry of the world about him. Woman is the parochial Tycoon, the constitutional premier who does not rule, but governs. She is the hidden centre and force of the whole parochial machinery--the organist, the chief tract distributor, the president of the Dorcas society, the despot of the penny bank and the coal-club, the head of the sewing-class, the supervisor of district-visitors, the universal referee as to the character of mendicant Joneses and Browns. In other words, the parson's wife has revived an Apostolic Order which but for her would have died away; she has restored the primitive Diaconate.

Woman is the true parochial deacon, and not the bashful young gentleman fresh from Oxford, who wears his stole over one shoulder rather than over two. It is the parson's wife who "serves tables" nowadays; and the results on parochial activity are in some ways remarkable enough. In the first place, men are fairly driven from the field. If a layman wishes to help in a parish he finds himself lost in a world of women. It is only those semi-clerical beings who seem to unite with a singular grace all the weaknesses of both the sexes who persist in the attempt. Then, too, all the ideas of the parochial world become feminine; the parish buzzes with woman's hatred of the Poor-laws, and contempt for economic principles and hard-hearted statisticians.

Mendicancy flies from the workhouse and the stone-yard to entrench itself against Guardians and relieving-officers among the soup-kitchens and the coal-tickets of feminine almsgiving. The parson, after a faint protest of common sense, surrenders at discretion, and flings all experience to the winds. One wife turns her husband into a fount of begging letters. Another forces him to set up manufactories for all the lucifer-match girls of the parish. Woman's imaginativeness, woman's fancy, woman's indifference to fact exhausts itself in "sensational cases," and revels in starvation and death. But we must turn to a brighter side of her activity. Ritualism is the great modern result of the parson's wife, though, with a base ingratitude to the rock from which they were hewn, Ritualists hoist the standard of clerical celibacy. Woman has long since made her parson; now (as of old with her doll) her pleasure is to dress him. A new religious atmosphere surrounds her life when the very work of her hands becomes hallowed in its purpose. The old crotchet and insertion--we use words to us more mysterious than intelligible--become flat, stale, and unprofitable by the side of the book-marker and the colored stole; and a flutter of excitement stirs even the stillness of a life which is sometimes offensively still at the sight of the new chasuble with "aunt's real lace, you know, dear," sewn about it.

However gray an existence may be, and the tones of a life like this are naturally subdued, it still cherishes within a warmth and poetry of its own; and the poetry of the parson's wife breaks out in vestments and decorations. Nothing brings out more vividly the fact that Mrs. Proudie is the Church of England than that her reaction against the prose of existence is shaking--so the Protestant Alliance tells us--the Church of England to its foundations. The real disturber of the Church peace, the real assertor of Catholic principles, or (for those who prefer a middle phrase to either of these contending statements) the real defendant in the Court of Arches, is not Mr. Mackonochie, but the parson's wife.

Mrs. Proudie, we repeat, is the Church of England; but if it is difficult to estimate the results of her position upon the spouse of her bosom and the parish which she rules, it is still harder to estimate its results upon herself. Her outer manner seems, indeed, to reflect what we have ventured to call the gray tones of her life, and a certain weariness of routine breaks out even in the mechanical precision of her existence. Power, in the parochial as in the domestic circle, is bought by her at the cost of a perpetual self-abnegation, and it is a little hard to be always hiding the hand that pulls the strings. We may excuse a little forgetfulness in a wife when her daily sacrifice is wholly forgotten in the silver teapot and the emblazoned memorial which proclaim the borrowed glories of her spouse.

Sometimes there may be a little justification for the complaint of the British priestess that the priest alone should be crowned with laurel. But, if she is ecclesiastically forgotten, it must be remembered that her position receives a shy and timid recognition from society. She is credited with a quasi-clerical character, and regarded as having received a sort of semi-ordination. The Church, indeed, assigns her no parochial precedence; but public opinion, if it sets her beneath her husband, places her above all other ecclesiastical agencies. Tacitly she is allowed to have the right to speak of "our curates." Then, again, society assigns her a sort of mediatorial position between the Church and the world; she is the point of transition between the clergy and their flocks. It is through her that the incense of congregational flattery is suffered to mount up to the idol who may not personally inhale it; and it is through her that the parson can intimate his opinion, and scatter his hints on a number of social subjects too trivial for his personal intervention.

It is impossible, indeed, to express in words the delicate shades of her social position, or, what is yet more remarkable, the relation to her sister-world of woman. There can be no doubt that, taken all in all, women are a little proud of the parson's wife. She is, as it were, the tithe of their sex, taken and consecrated for the rest. The dignity of her position in close proximity to the very priesthood itself extends, by the subtle gradation of sisters of mercy, district-visitors, and tract-distributors, to women in the mass. Her influence is a quiet protest against the injustice of the present religions of the world in excluding woman from those ministerial functions with which Paganism invested her. It is an odd transition from the quiet parson's wife to the priestess of Delphi; but while the parson's wife exists there is at any rate a persistence in the claim of woman's right to resume her tripod again.

It is the quiet consciousness of this, of her spiritual headship of her sex, of her mystic and unexpressed but real ecclesiastical position, quite as much as the weariness of her daily routine, which displays itself in the bearing of the parson's wife. She is not quite as other women are, any more than he is as other men. Her dress is--at any rate, in theory it ought to be--a shade quieter, her bonnets a little less modern, her manner a trifle more reserved, her mirth hardly as unrestrained as those of the rest of her sex. Her talk, without being clerical, takes a quiet clerical tinge. She has her little scandal about the archdeacon and her womanly abhorrence of that horrid Colenso. She knows Early English from Middle Pointed, and interprets Ritualistic phrases into intelligible vocables. Like the curate, she dances only in family circles, and then dances after a discreet and ecclesiastical sort. She has no objection to cards, but she plays only for love. She sings solos from the Messiah and St. Paul.

An existence simple, kindly enough in its way, penetrating society no doubt with a thousand good influences, but yet, we must own, hardly very interesting to the priestess who lives it. Altogether, when we get beyond the purple and gold of our rulers, we congratulate ourselves on being free from the tedium and weariness and perpetual self-restraint of their lofty position. And even the curate who has lately raised his faint protest against what he calls "feminine domination" may remember in charity that while croquet and flirtation remain to him, his existence, slavery though he deem it, is a slavery far freer, blither, and more lively than that of the curate's wife.

(The end)
E. Lynn Linton's essay: Woman In Orders

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