Though such letters answer the purpose for which they are designed, of amusing the public, there can be little doubt that their general effect is cither injurious, or at least not beneficial. They produce no real conviction, but tend only to increase that accumulated mass of floating sentiment upon subjects of importance, which is at once the bane of serious thought upon them, and an obstacle to rational conduct. To the great mass of mankind, an inquiry into the questions whether early marriages are becoming less common than they formerly were, what is the cause of this state of things if it exists, and whether it is or is not to be regarded as an evil, is at least as serious a matter as an inquiry into the effect of remitting the paper duty; nor is there any reason why they should not be discussed, if at all, with as much gravity and completeness. People seem to think that some apology is required for giving an opinion on one of the most interesting and important branches of human affairs; and that, though it would be an impertinence to smirk and simper in a discussion about the state of parties or the analysis of a division list, matters involving the domestic happiness of some of the most important classes of the community cannot be properly discussed, unless a kept mistress is facetiously described as a pretty horse-breaker. It would be tedious to travel through the various phases which the controversy on the comparative advantages of wives and concubines assumed in the columns of The Times. It was plain enough that a good deal of it was levelled at the improprieties of a very few women, whose notorious impudence might, it was supposed, be abashed by Laying their sins on the shoulders of society. It would no doubt be brutal as well as libellous to attack such persons by name; but it is hard on the world to treat a few offenders as average specimens of contemporary morality, because tenderness to their sex makes it impossible to specify their offences. Apart from this, the gist of the correspondence was, that young men in the present day prefer mistresses to wives, partly because women are not sufficiently well educated for the more honourable position, but mostly because marriage is too expensive. The controversy, according to the established course described above, was summed up by The Times, though in a somewhat more serious manner than it usually adopts on such topics, and in a tone which contrasted favourably with most of the letters of its numerous correspondents. The gist of the article is contained in the following passages, which suggested the title of this essay, and which require somewhat more discriminating and qualified examination than such assertions usually receive.
After mooting the question whether, in the higher classes of society, early marriages are less common now than formerly, the writer proceeds: "There is one besetting sin of modern society which must necessarily act in this direction" (i. e. towards the diminution of early marriages). "We allude to the vulgar, but almost universal desire to keep up appearances which makes newly married couples expect to begin where their fathers and mothers ended. If a daughter is to have the comforts to which she has been used, and to start with a house and establishment as costly as her parents are able to keep up with the accumulations of a life, it can be shown mathematically, that marriages must become fewer in each successive generation. . . . We should be slow to believe that the majority of either sex in the world of rank and fashion know so little of true love that they cannot bring themselves to start from small beginnings, to climb the hill together as all who do not inherit wealth and position must, and as all who would experience the full value of the conjugal tie would choose to do."
There is something winning both in the matter and manner of these sentences; but they are unjust towards many of those for whose guidance they are intended. The class to which such considerations can be addressed is a small one, and it is essential to anything like a fair discussion of the subject to have a definite notion of its position and prospects. To the poor such advice has obviously no application whatever, and to many of those who are not poor it has as little. Practically it concerns men who have money enough to live like gentlemen so long as they remain unmarried, but not enough to maintain a family on the same scale. And the reproach addressed to them amounts to this: If you really love a woman, you are guilty of cold-heartedness, cowardice, and vulgarity if you hesitate to marry her simply because your joint means would not enable you to live like gentlefolks. You ought to be willing for the sake of contracting such a marriage to live like persons who are not gentlefolks, trusting to your industry and good fortune to restore you at a later period of life to the condition in which you were born and bred. If you are not willing to do this, you care more for "keeping up appearances "—that is, for what other people think about you—than for the substantial happiness of conjugal affection; and this is mean and cowardly.
The first question which these charges raise is, whether a man placed in the circumstances suggested would in fact forfeit the social rank of a gentleman by living in an extremely frugal manner, and what would be the extent of the evil incurred by doing so. The exact amount of self-denial which would be required in order to enable a married couple to live on the income which would be sufficient or even ample for a single man during the early years of professional life, cannot be exactly ascertained. If they had no children, it would not be great; but if they had several, it would not be less than this: that, in order to enable the husband to meet the inevitable expenses of almost any liberal profession, it would be necessary that they should live almost entirely without servants, without change of air or scene, without the society of their equals, without any, or at least any adequate, provision for such emergencies as illness; and with the most minute and rigorous economy in every detail of domestic expenditure. Unless, as years went on, their income increased both largely and quickly, they would not have the means of educating their children to fill the same station in life as that in which their own youth was passed. It is no doubt true that persons living in this manner might retain the respect of their acquaintances, and might be recognized as people of education and refinement; for, whatever may be said to the contrary, there is little disposition in the world to be unjust and contemptuous towards poverty as such, especially if it is poverty combined with good manners and a liberal education. But though they might not be despised or insulted, such a couple would be very likely to be forgotten and dropped out of sight by all except their most intimate friends and relations. Nor is this a consequence of which any one could complain; for it is absurd to suppose that the mere fact that one person is thrown to some extent in the way of another, and occasionally meets him at a dinner-table or a club, imposes on either the obligation of diligently seeking out the other and cultivating his intimacy for the rest of his life, under whatever circumstances he may be placed. Almost all society depends upon opportunity. The fact that a man removes from one street to another a couple of miles off, has nothing to do with his personal titles to regard and intimacy; but it constantly makes the difference between intimate friendship and casual acquaintance. In just the same manner, if people born in easy circumstances choose to live upon terms which involve either great poverty, or at least close economy, they fall out of the way of their old acquaintances and connections, and must expect, without any loss of good-will or any intentional unkindness, to be forgotten by them. To this extent a marriage involving what must be described in reference to the parties concerned as comparative poverty, may be said to imply loss of social position; but there is another and a more important sense in which the same thing is true. Not only do the less intimate friends of the persons contracting such a marriage lose sight of them, but they lose the opportunity of making many other connections, which, if they had remained single, they probably would have made. A young man entering a liberal profession upon independent terms is held in very different estimation, and has much greater opportunities of advancing in his profession and otherwise, though he has fewer motives for doing so, whilst he remains single, than after he is married. It is far from being a mere question of personal luxury and enjoyment. A single man can entertain schemes and run risks which in a married man would be unjustifiable. People risk less by helping him, and commit themselves to less by associating with him. In these and other ways, which will readily suggest themselves, an early and poor marriage involves a great loss of personal social consideration.
This is, generally speaking, not questioned, but it is not uncommon to ask whether this is a loss which a man of spirit would regard? whether it is not an act of social injustice, and whether it is not a duty to feel, and to show by one's conduct, a contempt for it, which it is asserted to deserve? For many obvious reasons the insinuation which such questions convey is highly popular. There is nothing which people are so fond of despising and reviling as the abstraction called "the world" and "society;" and perhaps there are no more flagrant cases of social injustice than those of which society itself is the object. Closer examination will, however, show that such opinions are not as true as they are popular. If the abstraction called "society" has any duties at all (which is a curious and by no means a simple question), it can hardly be contended that it is under the obligation of assessing the claims which each of its members may possess to the respect and good offices of all the others, and of enforcing the concession of that respect, and the discharge of those good offices, by all the penalties which it can inflict. No one is bound to have an opinion on a question in which he has no evidence; and if people take steps which naturally and inevitably withdraw them from the notice of their neighbours, they cannot complain if their neighbours forget them.
It follows from these considerations that there is nothing in the view taken by society of the class of marriages in question which can fairly be resented as an injustice; and much might be said in favour of even a stronger view upon the subject. The diminution of a man's social consideration by his contracting a poor marriage may be justified on the grounds that such matters must be regulated by general rules; that social consideration is awarded in respect of the possession of the qualities which make a man's society pleasant, particularly good manners, and the tastes and habits which go with refinement; and that these things are, as a general rule, hardly reconcileable, especially in women, with the sort of life which such marriages render necessary. No doubt, the most important of the qualities which entitle a man to be considered a gentleman are personal, and may almost be described as moral; but their retention depends to a great extent upon the external conditions under which people live. Here and there men and women may be found possessed of sufficient energy and elasticity of mind to be capable of passing from pursuits which exercise and develop their understandings to almost menial offices, without ceasing to profit by the first or to discharge the second properly; but these are rare exceptions. Not one man in a thousand can do so, and not one woman in a hundred thousand.
Whatever may be said to the contrary, it does cost a great deal of money to be a gentleman, and a great deal more to be a lady. Where the mistress of the house has to be a nurse and domestic servant as well as a wife, she will be almost sure to sink the last character in the first. Unless a woman has extraordinary health and vigour, her husband will enjoy very little of her society if she is always looking after the children or the dinner; and if both he and she are forced to spend a great deal of time and thought in contriving ways to make their income cover their expenses, their minds will be very apt to assume a petty cast, and to be fixed for the most part on small and somewhat sordid though important objects. The obscure difficulties and struggles of such a mode of life are, in plain truth, great enemies both to refinement and to high aims in life. A couple to whom every sixpence is an object have to think and talk a great deal about sixpences. Although it is perfectly right that they should do so, it would be better for them both to be free from the obligation.
It follows from all this, that the desire to keep up appearances is neither an empty nor a vulgar one, for the appearances so kept up cover substantial realities. It is quite true that the first, and perhaps the most obvious result of the sort of marriage which is so warmly advocated, is a loss of social station; but the reason why that loss is incurred is, that such marriages almost always render possessions of great importance extremely precarious. They endanger the independence and the refinement of those who contract them, and they make it probable that they will become the parents of children who will hold a position in life altogether different from their own. This simple account of the matter will continue to be the true one so long as the average energy and self-restraint of mankind continue substantially unchanged. Whether or no such a risk is worth running, and such a price worth paying for the gratification of affection, is a separate question; but it is of great importance to understand rightly what the price really is.
Almost every one who has the ear of the public, and who writes upon the subject, falls into the error of arguing as if the sacrifice required for the sake of such marriages was no more than a sacrifice of personal luxury and enjoyment. The extracts quoted from The Times proceed on the assumption that it is a question of carriages, fine clothes, and expensive amusements. If this were true, that conclusion would be irresistible: a man must indeed be a paltry fellow who cared more for horses and good dinners than for love and marriage. But every one who has a practical knowledge of the subject is aware of the great injustice of charging the bulk of the prosperous part of the classes referred to with useless ostentation. The vanities which it is usual to deride as the rivals of marriage—champagne, stalls at the opera, and expensive dinners—are not the real difficulties. For £100 a judicious man may get a great amount of that sort of enjoyment; but if he wants to keep a roomy house, and to provide clothes, food, washing, attendance, change of air, doctors, repairs, and furniture for a wife and several young children, his £100 will go much faster than it would in any prudent and reasonable kind of personal indulgence. A married man must be prepared either to meet these expenses on a constantly increasing scale, or to cut them down at the expense of converting his wife into a drudge, and allowing his children to grow up in unwholesome and dirty habits.
With our present notions of the amount of provision required for health and comfort, the most puritanical avoidance of the very shadow of ostentation or extravagance would not affect very materially the average expenses of the great majority of the families of gentlefolks. The real reason why marriage is so expensive is, that the educated part of the community consider a reasonable certainty of solid comfort as indispensable to a prudent marriage, and solid comfort is the most expensive thing in the world. It is most unjust to deny that both men and women are perfectly ready to dress plainly, to live quietly, to renounce expensive parties, to consider even an omnibus as a luxury, and to do altogether without amusements; but they are not ready to turn a lady into a nursemaid, to content themselves with a single maid-of-all-work of low habits and manners, to let the children go dirty for want of clean linen, and to be without any resources in the case of illness or misfortune: no sacrifices short of these will enable people to marry on the income which would support a single man as a gentleman.
When it is once clearly understood that this is the nature of the sacrifice which such a marriage requires, the question whether it is worth while to make it becomes in practice considerably simplified; but these are not the only sacrifices which are required. It must be remembered that the question relates mainly to the marriage of the members of liberal professions, though somewhat similar questions may be raised in reference to other pursuits. A man's prospect of success in any calling whatever, in any high sense of the word success, depends almost entirely on the general spirit in which he pursues it. The proverb that it is hard for an empty sack to stand upright, goes far towards exhausting what is to be said as to the bearing upon professional success of marriages in which appearances and the realities which they cover are set aside. Whatever a man's business may be, his chance of prosecuting it honourably or usefully depends upon his being proud of it, attached to it, and pursuing it not only for the sake of making a living by it, but from a genuine interest in it. This becomes first difficult, and then practically impossible, in proportion to the degree of money pressure to which a man is subjected. A single man who is independent of his profession can afford to observe its rules, to enter into its spirit, and to study its principles with genuine zeal and interest; but if he marries and has a family, his independence is gone. He must live by his profession, and that at once. The motive to exertion thus supplied is the most powerful in the world, but it is a motive to exertion merely. It is not a motive to reflection. Here and there, no doubt, it may spur a man at once able and sluggish (which is not an uncommon combination) into activity; but it does not act in this manner on men in general. It constantly drives them into petty devices and unprofitable byways by which they eke out their income at the expense of higher objects which they might otherwise have attained. In many a neglected parish the clergyman takes pupils, and many a man who might have written books worth reading shreds his mind into magazines and newspapers. Many a lawyer or doctor who might otherwise have distinguished himself has to put up with a half acquaintance with his profession, and an obscure country practice, because he determined, as he thought magnanimously, in early life to do a brave thing, and marry as he pleased, setting appearances at defiance.
No doubt there are cases the other way. Such a career as Lord Eldon's is an excellent illustration; but these cases occur only to people of extraordinary energy. A heavy load may pique a very powerful man. into exertions which he would not otherwise have made; but no man goes the better for being overweighted; and the weight imposed by poverty, and the pressing necessity for an immediate income, is too great for the spirit of most men, and even for the honesty of many. Lord Eldon himself was so much pressed by the difficulties in which his marriage involved him, that he endeavoured at one point in his career to reach a very humble shelf on which he would have considered himself fortunate to be able to rest.
The consequence of this is, that the considerations by which men are held back from entering into marriages by which they would forfeit that degree of independence which belongs to a single man possessed of property just sufficient for his own comfortable maintenance during the early part of professional life, are not fairly represented by phrases about keeping up appearances; that the sacrifices which such a marriage renders necessary are matters not of appearance merely, but of substance; and that the view which people in general take of them as expressed by the common sentiment of society upon the subject cannot be considered as too serious. It appears to follow that in most cases the adoption of a liberal profession is inconsistent with early marriage, unless the joint income of the parties concerned is considerable; and this is a matter which every one who proposes to enter upon a liberal profession ought to take very seriously into consideration before he forms the resolution to do so; but when the resolution is formed and the step actually taken, it will often happen that a man will have to choose between sacrificing his feelings, entering on a long engagement, or giving up the prospect of professional success. It is not uncommon to speak and write as if the last of these three courses were the one which a high-minded man ought in such a case instantly to adopt; and indeed much, if not most, of the language which is generally used upon the subject is traceable to a low estimate of the claim which a man's profession has over him. It is common to sneer at success, and to blame ambition when they come into competition with love; and it is insinuated in a thousand ways that the one passion is noble and exalted, whilst the other is altogether worldly and contemptible. The discussion of the objects for which people ought to live has been almost entirely abandoned by serious inquirers to novelists and sentimental writers; and in our own time and country they hold up to admiration with one consent domestic happiness as the ideal towards which men's efforts should be directed. "Live," is the practical advice offered from many quarters in the present day to every one entering life—"live to be a happy husband and father. If you succeed in this, the objects of life are attained, and you should regulate your course of life mainly with a view towards this result." This advice is nowhere given in so many words, but it is the net result of a vast amount of exhortation, direct and indirect, addressed to mankind through a variety of channels. Almost all the light literature of the day, an immense proportion of the popular theology, and the current sentiment of society, expressed in various other channels, all point in this direction. It would be easy to show how closely it is connected with many of the most characteristic features of modern speculation; for instance, with the current theories about education, and with all the language which we are in the habit of using about progress and civilization.
No one, of course, would, for a moment, deprecate the vast importance of such objects. It is useless to dwell on the self-evident proposition that nothing else could afford any compensation for the habitual undervaluing of domestic happiness and the domestic relations; but it ought never to be forgotten that they, like everything else that is beautiful and valuable, may be turned into idols, and that there is considerable danger that this may occur when pleasure and duty are so ingeniously combined. The course of peace, prosperity, and scientific discovery through which we have so long been passing seems likely to produce a strange result. We have produced an unexampled number of comfortable people; we seem likely to increase their number to an extent almost unlimited; and attention will probably begin to be directed before long with considerable earnestness to the question why these people exist, and whether any reasonable account of their existence can be given or ought to be required? Is the mere fact that a man is born, grows up, and, by dint of persistent though not unreasonable efforts, succeeds in leading a happy life, and in leaving representatives behind him to repeat the process, a sufficient explanation of his existence; or is something further required, and, if so, what is it? There are times in the history of mankind when such questions hardly can be asked, not, at least, without exciting a sense of absurdity; and many passages in the history of the last few years supply illustrations of them. No one, for example, who was in India during the Mutiny would have thought of asking such a question. The salvation of the empire was a broad intelligible object to which most of those who were on the spot had the power of contributing in one way or another, and which so far exceeded in importance individual questions of feeling or success that no one would have ventured to justify himself openly in setting them in competition. In the quiet routine of ordinary life the case is, at least apparently, different. Many persons may reasonably enough ask the question whether, after all, there is anything better or higher for them to do than to choose that path of life in which they may most readily succeed in making a happy marriage and bringing up a well-behaved family of children, taking in the meantime such opportunities as present themselves of helping their neighbours to do the same. The answer to this question is, that this is so far from being a high view of life, that it is one which, if it prevailed generally, would dwarf the national character, and render domestic happiness in any of its higher forms impossible. A touching old song says, with great truth,—
"I could not love thee, dear, so well,Love is not a mere sense of value for a possession. It cannot exist for any good purpose unless it is fed by admiration and respect for qualities fitted to rouse those emotions; and if the whole of a man's thoughts centre in his family, if he views his occupations as nothing more than means for promoting their enjoyments in life, how is he to cultivate the qualities by which love is justified? A man cannot, with any self-respect, take a woman's place. He must live for something more than his wife and children, and in quiet times that for which, generally speaking, he ought to live is his occupation—the position in life, whatever it may be, which circumstances have assigned to him. There is probably no form of duty of which the recognition is either so rare or so important as that which consists in looking upon the common occupations of life as matters in which the public, as well as private persons, have an interest; yet the extent to which this sentiment prevails is perhaps the most searching of all tests of national greatness. To a superficial eye the question whether a particular man enjoys more or less prosperity, and attains to a greater or less distinction in his own walk of life, appears a matter so entirely relative to himself, that it looks like affectation to say that he ought to consider that society at large is interested in his individual success in life, and that he ought not to take his own individual desire to advance himself as the measure of his efforts to do so. These assertions, however, are indisputably true. A nation is nothing more than an aggregate of individuals, and it will be vigorous, independent, energetic and successful, in exact proportion to the number of individuals contained in it to whom such epithets can be properly applied. In the very lowest rank of life the interest which society at large has in the ambition of individuals is so plain, that its assertion has almost become a commonplace. No person of ordinary acquaintance with the commonest principles of political economy would give a day labourer or mechanic the sort of advice which is so often given to young men of the higher classes. After much debate and investigation it has come at last to be pretty generally admitted that people have no business to gratify their affections at the expense of breeding paupers. It is hardly matter of serious dispute that it is one of the most important of all political and social objects to lead labourers and artisans to adopt a standard of comfort high enough to deter them from marriage until they have a reasonable prospect of being able to maintain and to educate their families up to that standard. A young carpenter who makes his 5s. a day is in a condition closely analogous to that of a young barrister with £200 a year of his own. Any reasonable adviser would earnestly dissuade the carpenter from marrying until he had saved money enough to buy clothes and furniture, to provide for illness, and to furnish his wife with the extra comforts which the birth of children would render acceptable, perhaps indispensable, to her health and to the preservation of anything like youthfulness of mind or body. If, besides this, he wished to make sure of a cottage and a piece of land of his own, or if he put off his marriage till he could take a shop and rise from being a journeyman to being a master in a small way, every one would applaud his frugality and self-restraint.
Loved I not honour more."
The reproaches of cowardice and worldliness which are so often addressed to persons of higher social rank for refusing to marry on the terms of forfeiting their security of independence, and rendering their retention of the social position in which they were born and bred contingent on their professional success, proceed upon principles altogether opposed to the advice which is admitted to be sound in the other case. To say to the young professional man, "Don't be such a coward as to care about appearances; marry the woman you love, and take your chance about living like a gentleman," is in principle identical with advising the mechanic to take his chance of breeding a family of paupers, and to rely, like a brave fellow, on the permanence of his health, skill, and high wages. The only difference between the two cases is, that the harm done by the self-indulgence of the professional man is more extensive and less tangible than that which is done by the folly of the mechanic. A man who has received a careful and elaborate education owes a debt to those who gave it him. A costly and elaborate machine may be worth thousands of pounds, and repay many times over the cost of its production; but it cannot be applied to any useful purpose without a great deal of preliminary arrangement and contrivance. It would be the worst form of penny wise and pound foolish economy to let it out for paltry purposes because some difficulty is found in employing it in those for which it was intended. The proper course in such a case is to submit to the temporary loss and inconvenience of leaving the machine unemployed rather than sacrifice the advantages to be ultimately derived from it.
In precisely the same way a man who has received a careful education owes it to himself and to others to do something worthy of it, and has no right to place himself in a position in which it will be hardly possible that he should use in any worthy manner and in any becoming spirit the powers which he has acquired. No one can have observed the careers of members of professions without seeing instances of the disastrous results of a neglect of this duty—results disastrous not merely to individuals but to the public at large. The clergy afford the most frequent illustrations of it. There are few commoner subjects of complaint than the poverty of a large proportion of the clergy, and the all but universal cause of this is to be found in imprudent marriages. The harm that a clergyman does by allowing himself to become very poor is hardly to be told. In the first place, he sets one of the worst and also one of the most conspicuous of bad examples. A man may preach self-restraint and self-denial as long as he pleases, but if, by reason of his own self-indulgence, he owes money to the butcher, the baker, and the tailor, he will preach in vain; nor will this be all, for he will exhibit to every labourer and mechanic in the parish a practical violation of all those rules the observance of which is the indispensable condition of their own respectability and independence. Besides this, he forfeits the opportunity of discharging some of the most important of the social duties of his office. If a clergyman with a small fixed income chooses to subject himself to an expenditure liable to indefinite increase, he makes the obtaining of preferment a matter of all but absolute necessity. This being so, he must conciliate those who have preferment to give, and this is almost sure to involve a dereliction of some of his most sacred functions. He will be able neither to think, nor to speak, nor to advise with freedom. He will not be able to stand up for an unpopular opinion, or to countenance an unpopular man. Some persons, no doubt, might be found sufficiently heroic to do so at whatever risk to their own prospects and those of their families; but no one has a right to count on his own heroism beforehand. Hardly any one is really able to resist the pressure of debt or the claims of a family. The whole nature of the man is changed under such pressure, and nothing but the gradual depravation of conscience saves him from being unconscientious.
Perhaps there is no other walk of life in which the absolute necessity of reasonable comfort in money matters is proved so clearly and by so many different though concurrent forms of experience; but illustrations of the same principle are to be found in every walk of life. Lawyers ought not to tremble before their clients, nor ought doctors to be afraid of their patients; but if their livelihood and that of their families entirely depends upon them, it is not in human nature to do otherwise, and the whole nature of the relationship is injured in consequence.
It is to be observed that such considerations as these apply rather to men than to women. A woman's horizon is limited by her family. She has nothing corresponding to a man's profession and position in life. Marriage is almost the only profession open to her; and if she marries, all her energies and all her feelings are sure to be absorbed in the duties which marriage entails. A woman, moreover, has none of the freedom of choice in respect of marriage which belongs to a man. She cannot, without indelicacy, take direct steps to get a husband; and the range of her choice depends upon the attractions which she presents to others, not upon the attractions which others have for her. This being so, women certainly are right in regarding the subject as a matter rather of feeling than of prudence; for though a man may cripple himself and desert his duty by making a poor marriage, it is pretty sure to exercise to the utmost the resources of his wife; and if the marriage were a rich one, she could do no more than her duty to her husband and children. Ease, or even wealth, really is to a woman what it is falsely assumed to be to a man—a matter of taste rather than an instrument indispensable to the attainment of objects which it is essential to attain. Hence the two questions, whether A ought to make an offer to B, and whether B ought to accept A's offer, depend upon different principles.
The fact that they do so gives rise, no doubt, to many of the sharpest trials to which people are exposed in such a society as ours. A man may feel, as many men no doubt do, that he cannot, consistently with his duty, make a single step towards marrying a woman who on her side may wish for nothing better than to share with him any amount of poverty or difficulty. Hence arises bitter disappointment to the woman, and a necessity for the most arduous self-denial in the man. This is frequently regarded as a reductio ad absurdum of the principles on which our social arrangements depend. Is it possible, it is said, to justify ways of living and habits of thought which condemn a considerable number of amiable and affectionate people to find their sharpest trials in the legitimate exercise of their best feelings? The answer is, that it is as justifiable as many other parts of the constitution of society which are admitted to be necessary. In some points of view, no doubt, it is difficult to say why there should be such things in the world as pain and sorrow; but, the world being what it is, we could ill afford to spare them. If it were accepted as a general fundamental social principle that, whenever two persons become attached to each other, they were both immediately to act upon the principle that thenceforth marriage was to be the great object of their lives, and that the man in particular was bound to choose his profession with an exclusive eye to his marrying as soon and as comfortably as possible, love would contract a sordid character. The woman would become the head of the man, and every other object would be subordinated to domestic happiness. As yet this is not the case. It is impossible for any one to tell how much of that great unrecognized mass of power, by which the most important affairs of life are transacted, might have been diverted into other channels, if the indulgence of the inclinations which tend to domestic happiness had not been resolutely deferred till, in some cases, the inclinations themselves died out; or till, in others, the opportunity of indulging them passed by. In every rank of life men, as Mr. Kingsley says, must work, and women must weep; and it happens, perhaps not unfrequently, that the necessity of sacrificing the deepest and tenderest of human feelings gives the character that element of self-sacrifice and nobleness, without which we are but grovelling creatures, and from which so many persons are debarred by our elaborate contrivances for providing comforts of the most solid and reasonable kind for every part of life.
The extent to which such feelings as these act below the calm and unruffled surface of private life can never be known. It must always be matter of conjecture, and different people will, of course, estimate their importance at different rates; but it may be observed that, for obvious reasons, the importance of prudence, in regard of marriage, to success in any of the higher callings in life, is likely to be underrated. The cases which come before the world are, of course, all the other way. If, by dint of great energy, great talent, or great good fortune, a man attains eminence in his profession, though he may have married rashly, he is naturally and even justifiably proud of it; but the fact that a man has sacrificed in early life honourable affection to honourable ambition, or to a sense of duty, is known to himself alone, and is not one of which he is likely to boast; and the corresponding fact, that, by reason of contracting a happy marriage, a man has condemned himself to a life of obscure drudgery, and has given up for daily bread, or suffered to lie altogether idle, talents that might have done great and permanent service to mankind, is one on which it would be invidious to insist.
It does not, however, require any very wide experience of life to have met with such cases. It would be as easy as it would be brutal to mention many of them. Many an enterprise of great pith and moment has been gently smothered by a happy marriage, and a large family of fine children. Many a vigorous career, both in action and in speculation, has been cut short by baby fingers. There are things which many men for their children's sake dare not do, and there are subjects of the deepest importance on which they dare not think, because they cannot take the responsibility of teaching their children the results of their thoughts. Almost every influence of our day tends to discourage such enterprises, and to make individual happiness the one object for which men should live. The higher and purer the ideal of such happiness becomes, the larger is the number and the greater the calibre of the minds which it enslaves. If mere sensual enjoyment were put forward as the object of life, no one but a sot would be misled by it. If mere intellectual greatness were chosen, it would not affect one man in a hundred thousand; but domestic happiness is so beautiful an idol that it will never want worshipers, and there is great fear that they may become so numerous and so zealous that all other shrines may be deserted. It thus becomes highly important to insist upon the fact, that whatever may be the case with a few persons of rare energy and flexibility of mind and body, the great mass of educated men must accept, as one of the trials incidental to their position, the chance of a conflict between their feelings and one of their most important duties—the duty of producing some permanent good effects proportionate to the labour and the self-denial which have procured for them the advantages by which they are distinguished from the rest of the world. It is surely unwise to weight the scale of feeling and inclination, and to stigmatize the discharge of one of the most painful of all duties as an act of cowardly deference to a vulgar admiration of wealth.
Cornhill Magazine, September 1861.