Dora B. Montefiore, New Age July 1903

Women’s Interests

Some women seen by some men in literature.


Source: New Age, p. 476, 23 July 1903;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.


I have just been reading Mr. George Bernard Shaw’s “Author’s Apology,” which forms the preface to the edition of Mrs. Warren’s Profession, recently published by the Stage Society; and closed the book with the heart-felt grace-after-meals formula: “For what we have received may the gods make us truly thankful. Amen.” We women should indeed be thankful that a man lives and writes who has the artist power and the forceful will to portray social evils as they are, and not as the conventions of the heaven and hell theorists demand that they should be portrayed. The man who can write: “He who cannot see that starvation, overwork, dirt, and disease are as immoral as prostitution – that they are the vices and crimes of a nation, and not merely its misfortunes – is (to put it as politely as possible) a hopelessly Private Person,” is the man whose books all women working in the cause of humanity should put on their shelves, and renew their spiritual ideals by reading, whatever Imperial vagaries, sane or insane, may be his. It is not, however, of the “vices and crimes of our nation,” nor of Mrs. Warren’s Profession, that I want to write to-day, but of a remark of Mr. Chesterton’s in his recently-published and very brilliantly-written life of Robert Browning. Mr. Chesterton writes propos of the child Pippa’s unconscious influence on the various “mature and tragic human groups” whom her songs affected. It was an even more precise instinct which made Browning make the errant benefactor a woman. “A man’s good work is affected by doing what he does, a woman’s by being what she is.” It is the last sentence, the contrasting of the man’s good work and the woman’s, and making them depend on states of doing or being, which has puzzled me, and led me to think out the question as to whether the effects of men’s and women’s work can be thus fairly contrasted. If the sentence means anything, it seems to me to mean that no matter what excellent work a woman may do (and most work, be it remembered, has no quality of sex attaching to it, for it can matter very little to Mr. Chesterton whether the buttons on his coat are sewn on by a tailor or a tailoress) it is never to count to her for righteousness if she does not comply with the conventional, man and church-made standard of morality. And that, on the other hand, the good and excellent work of man is in no way effected in its quality by any conventional standard, to which passive woman has to toe the line. His teaching seems to be the old and convenient rabbinical and ecclesiastical teaching, as regards the for-all-time position of the sexes, and I can almost imagine him smiling thoughtfully after rounding off this inflated moral period, and adding fervently below his breath the grateful rabbinical whisper to Jehovah, who had not willed he, Mr, Gilbert Chesterton, should be born a woman. It would no doubt, according to the biographer of Robert Browning, be altering human nature to affirm that women’s good and excellent contribution towards the work of the world is in no way more affected by what she is, than a man’s good work is affected by what he is; when the “is” refers to the different standards of morality set up between men and women, by “force majeure,” and by ecclesiasticism. As Mrs. Stetson wrote:-

It was a clinching argument
To the neolithic mind –

this idea that we must alter human nature, if we intend to judge the work of men and women on the same lines, as human work; eliminating from our judgment all worn-out prejudice. Old George Herbert was nearer the truth when he wrote: “Who sweeps a room as in God’s sight, makes that and the action fine.” It was the seventeenth century formula for expressing the idea that any work done conscientiously and faithfully was good work, and was to be judged only on its merits, and not on the state of grace of the doer. In modern times, the movement which recognises this truth of work being human, and not sex differentiated, and which makes use of such work to the fullest extent is the Salvation Army, whose organisers place men and women’s spiritual and social work on the same line; and who thrive in influence and in effective work in consequence. No organisation with an ecclesiastical bias could act in this respect as does the Salvation Army; for the dead hand of the Early Fathers in the Church lies loathsome and putrid on all traditional ecclesiasticism, denying nature’s ground plan, marking out women as unclean, and consequently unworthy “to teach or to preach.” Woman has become in too many cases what the thoughts of millions of priests and their followers have made her. Let men cleanse their thoughts, and the social conditions they have forced on women; and woman will be the first to purify herself and profit by such cleansed conditions. “Every material change,” says Anatole France, “produces a moral change; for morals depend *upon surroundings.... Morality is a mutual consent to keep what we already possess in the way of land, houses, furniture, wives, and our life. The possession of a moral sense does not imply any particular effort of intelligence or of character. It is instinctive and ferocious. The written law follows it fairly closely, and agrees with it on the whole in spirit .... and it may be safely said, that the man who has not been condemned at least to prison, has scarcely deserved well of his country.”

Work of women down the ages.

To refute most positively this implication of Mr. Chesterton’s that women’s work is to be judged from a different standpoint from that from which a man’s work is judged, comes the barely acknowledged, but triumphantly effective work of such women as Margaret Van Eyck, of whom we know nothing but that she collaborated with the Van Eyck brothers in a masterpiece such as “The Adoration of the Lamb”; and of Cornelia Cnoup, the painter also of masterpieces, and of whom all we know is, that she was the wife of Gerard David. Not to mention many others in literature, art, and learning, whose fame rests merely on what they did, not on what they were. Whilst if we take an example of “being” which cannot be measured in the Sunday-school pint pot measure, we can point to Elizabeth of England, whose effective, and at times glorious, doings were in no wise impaired by her lack of conventionality. There is no more reason why Mr. Chesterton should bestow his sententious “certificat de moeurs” on little singing Pippa, than on the Prima Donna, whose supplicating chant of the “Agnus Dei” spiritualises for a moment the kneeling crowd at Hatton Garden church. Neither Pippa, nor Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, stand in need of ethical epitaphs, which smack too much of what Mr. Shaw calls “The moral commonplaces of the pulpit, the platform, or the library.”

Dora B. Montefiore.