IS FEMININE BOHEMIANISM A FAILURE?

 

BY EMILIE BUCK DE SCHELL

 

From Arena Magazine, Vol. XX, No. 104, July 1898, pp 68-75

 

 

The last decade of the nineteenth century, made memorable by its wars and tempests, its stirring political campaigns and financial crises, will give to posterity at least one memento that shall not soon be forgotten — a wholly emancipated woman. We call her the bachelor girl, the crisp, self-sufficient woman who has put aside the Hebrew tradition of her origin, and has come to be — at least in her own estimation — the backbone of society.

 

In the days of our grandmothers the ultimate desire of a normal woman's heart was to be sought in marriage by some worthy man, to live for and through him. But a generation has arisen that is wiser than its predecessors, and the fallacy of the old saw, “It is not good that man — woman — should be

alone," has been exposed.

 

The sacred institution of marriage has been assailed by both sexes alike. Problem novels have been choked down people's throats. The pulpit has too often forgotten its high calling of saving men's souls, and has turned to the more interesting task of withdrawing the hymeneal curtains and letting the morbid, sensation-seeking world stare in. Shall we wonder then that the educated girl of today, to whom almost every avenue of human activity has been opened, shrinks back appalled at the threshold of that chamber of horrors, and prefers to walk her way alone?

 

If we trace the relative conditions of man and woman from primeval barbarism to the civilization of the present, we cannot fail to observe that man, created in the image of his Maker, has kept practically the same place, while woman, by a series of almost revolutionary changes, has been constantly rising. Chivalry first elevated her to the side of man in the social world. It accomplished this end by thrusting her far above him and then permitting her to settle down to her proper place of unquestioned equality. Intellectual emancipation was the next upward step for woman. Here woman, not man, struck the blow to social prejudice and achieved the greatest victory the sex has as yet won. The bluestocking, homely, severe, devoid of sentiment and tenderness, waged her grim fight against a time-hardened idea, in order that the women who came after her might enjoy an intellectual freedom such as was impossible for those that preceded her. The society woman of today does not have to be entertained with light gossip and bonbons. She has gone through college shoulder to shoulder with the men who seek her companionship. Her ready wit and ingenious philosophy can interest the profoundest among them.

 

The severely intellectual woman, who made it possible for her modern sister to become what she is, was neither loved nor admired. She sacrificed herself for the good of her sex. Perhaps the bachelor girl is following in her footsteps, an unconscious martyr to the cause of female emancipation. The world must admit that she is playing her part, not always well perhaps, in the social drama of today, and when the throes of the birth of a new century are past, though she may be forgotten, her influence will be indelibly stamped on the women of the next generation.

 

Marriage is not so nearly universal as it was a score of years ago. Nor does the term "old maid" retain its erewhile stigma. Our bachelor girl celebrates without a blush her thirtieth birthday. She might have married any one of a dozen men; but she is doing the kind of work they used to do. Her labor brings her a cash return, and she likes her liberty. The simple delights of a home — ministering to the wants of an often ungrateful, always self-centered husband; enduring periodically that experience which Hypatia said is fit only for slaves — possess no charm for her. Yet her sensitive nature cannot yield to boarding-house luck such as is taken quite as a matter of course by the men she strives to emulate. Her fertile genius has devised a way of escape both from the limitations of the home and the barrenness of the boarding-house, and Bohemianism, as we now have it, has come into being.

 

We are not now concerned with the familiar type of Bohemianism that has long existed in the Quartier Latin of Paris, but rather with that phase of it that is affecting our own land — nay, the women of our land.

 

The average man is by nature a Bohemian until his deeper being is awakened by the touch of a woman's hand. The loose, irresponsible life of the college chapter-house or the club-room possesses a fascination for him that is irresistible until he becomes satiated with its shams and its follies. Sometimes it leaves scars that he carries deep in his heart, and memories that he would fain destroy. But the man who has drunk the last dregs of Bohemianism is the man who will select the purest woman for his wife and the most sequestered nook for his home. What is to become of his Bohemian sister when she is "sick unto death" of struggling alone with this awful problem of living? She would scorn the advances of an unsophisticated man, and for the man of the world she has been divested of her charm.

 

The great outside world sees only the jolly, chafing-dish side of female Bohemianism. Girls of refinement and ability, who earn their own living, comprise the majority of the Bohemians of our great cities. Their apartments are tastefully, often elegantly furnished. No chaperon is present to see that the arbitrary laws of social form are strictly observed. The men who frequent these cosy dens find in them a combination of royal entertainment and untrammeled freedom such as they can find nowhere else.

 

Painters, poets with more soul than business ability, musicians whose reputation is yet to be made, take to the Bohemian life. When genius has been put into harness and compelled to drag the plow through productive soil, the taste for this unconventional life will doubtless be lost. Financial success usually sounds the death-knell to sentiment and independence. But female Bohemianism has not lived long enough to reveal what will be its effect on the women who really succeed. As yet it is only an experiment.

 

We have spoken of the free, delightful side of Bohemianism. The man who has participated in the creating of a Welsh rarebit and has tossed his cigarette-stumps into the grate while he told ludicrous stories, sometimes with a bit of ginger in them, needs no exposition of this side of the question. He perhaps never dreams that those same girls who know how to entertain so royally and laugh so merrily, know, too, how to conceal an aching heart beneath a mask of smiles. A single day from my own experience will illustrate this point.

 

My companion in tribulation is an artist whose genius is inversely commensurate with the appalling parvity of her purse. I had been doing space work for a daily newspaper at four dollars a column and getting my novel ready for publication. We discovered one morning that we were approaching the line where the two sides of the bank account balance, and, in a frenzy of apprehension, I staked everything on a political paper that I thought decidedly clever. An Eastern journal that was using a variety of political stuff seemed to be the proper place for my little satire.

 

"Agnes, if this doesn't go," I remarked grimly as I folded the typewritten sheets, "and if Mr. Brown doesn't pay you for that portrait, we are going to starve.”

 

Three days passed and that never-to-be-forgotten day dawned. The postman's ring awakened us. Three letters he thrust under the door, two for Agnes and one for me. As she tore open the first she remarked:

 

"I hope the old chump is satisfied with his wife's portrait and has sent me a check."

 

In a moment she lay back on her pillow with a groan of disgust.

 

"Something wrong with the left eye; must have another sitting," she remarked dismally.

 

The other envelope contained a bill for her art lessons.

 

At the sight of my own letter my heart had sunk so low that I had not yet summoned sufficient courage to tear open the envelope. I had grown accustomed to welcoming home the adventurous children of my fancy — the "reader" somehow knows why two red stamps are enclosed — but this time I had hoped my manuscript would not be returned. There was a polite little note from the editor informing me that my article was good, but that his last political issue had just gone to press. He was sure I could place my manuscript elsewhere.

 

Something desperate had to be done. We could not go to our relatives and appeal for help. That would have been treason against Bohemianism!

 

An influential friend had promised to go with me that morning to the editor of one of the evening papers, with a view to obtaining for me a position on his staff. I called at the gentleman's office at the appointed time. He was out — had probably forgotten the engagement, the stenographer told me. Choking down my disappointment, I went to the office of the paper to which I had been a contributor. The Sunday editor informed me that there would be no room in the next Sunday's issue for my customary love story. I was too proud to tell him that I needed the five dollars that story ought to bring me: but he saw the distress in my eyes. After a moment'8 reflection he said:

 

"Here, you take this out to my friend Smith. He sometimes uses stories in his paper."

 

I left the office with my two pieces of manuscript, and as I walked out into the street a mute appeal for help and courage went up from my heart

 

The editor glared at me out of a pair of whiskey-bleared eyes as I meekly told him the purpose of my visit.

 

"Got no time for literary work. Can't use anything but political stuff now. Come in after the election and I may find time to talk to you," he growled.

 

There was a great lump in my throat, and my lips quivered; but the case was too desperate to permit my feelings to be taken into consideration.

 

"I have some political stuff that I believe you will like," I ventured to say.

 

"Oh, you women are a nuisance! I can't bother with your stuff!" And he bolted from the room.

 

"Don't mind him," the city editor said sympathetically. "He is worried with this campaign and is unusually gruff. I believe you can sell your political article to our morning paper. But I would advise you not to go to the editor-in-chief. He will treat you worse than our man did."

 

"I have had some experience with the man Eugene Field made the hero of one of his brightest poems," I said, "and I would rather face a lion in his den than face him."

 

As I was leaving the office I remembered that the editor of the leading monthly magazine had asked me to do some translating for him. I called at his office, but he was busy. "Come in after the election,” he said rather brusquely.

 

I summoned all my courage for the next call. As I entered the office of the associate editor on our wealthiest newspaper, I found, sitting at his desk, my bκte noire, the editor-in-chief. I will not relate my experience with him. Poor wretch! He found life unbearable and ended it with the dying year. Suffice it to say, I left his presence crushed and humiliated.

 

Still I did not give up. There was a spicy little magazine in town that sometimes used political stuff, and I called upon its editor.

 

"Sorry, but we have just slipped into the Irish Sea and have suspended publication," he said politely.

 

On the street I met a friend. "I saw the directory man last night and he said he had a piece of work for you," he told me.

 

At last help had come! With a heart full of gratitude I hurried to the directory building. The work was simple enough. Eight thousand envelopes to be addressed. The work must be done at the office and done with a pen. The price to be paid was seventy-five cents a thousand. I figured out the cost of car fare and luncheon and found that I could earn thirty cents a day by working ten hours. I had not yet come down to sweating-shop labor, so I thanked the clerk and went my way.

 

It was not yet five o'clock, but the atmosphere seemed thick and black around me, and a great cloud of despair settled down over my spirit.

 

When I reached home, Agnes had not yet returned from her painting lesson. I was alone and I thought I should go mad. Out into the street in the twilight I fled, not caring whither my steps led me. The first person I met was an artist who had spent many a jolly evening in our den. He had seen the sketches Agnes had made of me, and he needed a model.

 

"You have exactly the figure I need, and I will pay you three dollars a day to pose for me," he said.

 

"But not in the nude?" I said, doubtfully.

 

"Why, of course,” he laughed. "You pose for Agnes, why not for me?"

 

This proposition, from a friend whose respect I thought I had never forfeited, humiliated me, and there was just a shade of indignation in my voice as I declined.

 

This last incident in my "dark day" leads me to speak of another pitfall for the Bohemian girl. City-bred girls are comparatively safe in the hands of even the most unprincipled men, for they have been trained in the ways of the world and know how to take care of themselves. But the girls who fall into Bohemian ways are too often gifted girls whose country or village homes have denied them scope for the exercise of their talents. The glowing cheeks and fresh, unsophisticated manners of these daughters of a purer atmosphere cannot but be attractive to the blasι man of the world. A little delicate flattery begins the game. Next comes a stolen caress in the dark hall. Then she smokes a cigarette with him, or sips a glass of wine — he has noticed that she is looking pale of late and needs a harmless stimulant. So one by one the barriers are broken down.

 

If she stands on a foundation of firm principle, he will be cautious and reverential, awaiting his opportunity. She fondly imagines that he loves her, and she is weary of the endless struggle and the bitter disillusions of her Bohemian existence, and longs for the sweet repose of a home. She is ready to fling the dream of glory back into the night from whence it sprang and live only for him. When he has brought her to this point he invites her to accompany him to the theatre. He has done this so often before. Then there is the usual elegant supper, finished off with a glass of champagne. On the way to the car he remembers a bit of pressing business that ought to be attended to at once, and begs her to stop with him just for a moment.

 

"The man is busy, but will be called. Just step into the reception-room," the porter says; and without a shadow of suspicion she walks into the trap that has been set for her. The door is shut, and she is told that she is in a private assignation-house. To resist were folly; to cry out, worse than vain, for there is no one to hear.

 

If she is sensitive and high-souled she flings her polluted body into the river next day, and nobody charges that man with her murder. If she is "of the earth, earthy," she becomes his mistress, and, in time, joins the great army of lost women, and nobody charges that man with the murder of her soul.

 

O mothers, do you realize the anguish, the hopelessness, into which you are sending your defenseless children? The girl who is physically and morally strong may go through Bohemia unscathed, but woe unto the sensitive and the frail!

 

Did God, after all, know what He was about when He ordained that man and woman should become one flesh; that woman should ever be the tender, clinging companion, and that man should be her protector?

 

We are prone to cry out that our civilization is all wrong, and that we must revert to barbarism in order to get a right start. Yet what seems a fatal mistake may really be a part of a wise plan for the ultimate good of humanity. How many precious lives have been sacrificed for every victory the world has won!

 

The girl who has had a glimpse of this seamy side of human nature can never become a simple, trusting wife; but she may be a more enlightened companion and a wiser helpmeet because of her own experience. Surely she will be a wiser mother than her own mother was. Her children will be few, for she will marry when her prolific period is past; but they will be all the world to her. She has quaffed the foaming glass of life, and, alas! she knows that there are bitter dregs at the bottom.

 

Her daughters will find in her a sympathetic companion. Her sons will look upon her, not as an innocent little mother who can be duped by all sorts of ingenious tales, but as a wise counselor who can guide them through the perilous path of their adolescence.

 

We are living in an age not only of history-making, but of problem-solving. The maids of today will be the mothers of tomorrow, — the mothers of our statesmen and philosophers. Then shall we not place in their hands the torch of knowledge ere they pass the perilous boundary of Bohemia?




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