Darning and Love Letters – March 1901

If the final verdict upon these “letters” has been passed by the English-speaking inhabitants of three continents, why ask the opinion of an obscure Scotch woman who has most emphatically declared that she had neither the equipment, nor faculty for literary criticism.

“An Englishman” complains that I omit to say many things that he thinks ought to be said in praise of the letters No doubt. I did not make any pretence at a complete review or an exhaustive criticism. That has already been done in rapturous terms on three continents. I confine myself to the consideration of them as human documents.

Are these “letters” such as a girl of 22 would be likely to write to a common place youth of 21? And are they admirable as such? The undoubted literary ability which they display is here hardly in point; Although that is the only quality which justifies their publication. An Englishman talks of a “work of genius.” Perhaps a new “Divine Comedy?” That is a matter of personal opinion for one cannot give a categorical definition of genius.

My conception of the faculty of genius does not allow these “love letters” to be included under that head. I am sorry that I should have suggested a comparison between Scotch women and English women. In a paper meant chiefly for Scotch readers it was natural to make reference to our mental attitude towards the expression of affection. But there is really no question of nationality for our mental characteristics.

I do not find much if any difference between English and Scotch and I have lived in England most of my life, been educated in English schools and have got more English than Scotch women among my friends and honour them equally. The heroine of the letters is not typically English. It is more as if she had the fervour of Italian blood in her veins.

To compare the “English woman” with Elizabeth Barret Browning is not sound criticism. The age, character and circumstances of the two pairs of lovers are so utterly different. At the time of his marriage, Robert Browning was 35 years of age. An eminent critic who knows all that is to be known about the Brownings puts the age of Elizabeth Barret at 41.

Therefore, when she wrote her love letters she was no longer a young woman. She was more of a poetess of somewhat subtle style and thought. And she was writing to the most profound, most philosophical, most obscure poet of last century or perhaps any other century. Again the attraction between them was intellectual and spiritual for at the time of the correspondence, as he could not stand upright upon her feet and the poet’s love for her was wholly founded upon admiration for her genius. It was therefore natural that her letters should be subtle, studied, intricate, profound and abounding in art criticism.

Far different is the case of the “Englishwoman.”  She was barely 22 years of age. Her lover 21. Neither of them apparently had any duty or occupation. He was fond of sport and occasionally reading a novel. That is all we know about him. For a young woman to write after the style of Elizabeth Barret to a mere youth of an ordinary mind gives an unreal and artificial character to the letters, however beautifully they may be expressed in themselves.

Pardon me, but a woman must and does vary her literary style — supposing her to be a person of culture — to suit the character of the person to whom she writes. If her lover is a “gallous young hound” she had better beware of over subtlety.

The question of modesty or immodesty depends upon one’s conception of these qualities. Lack of modesty does not necessary imply lack of purity. It simply means going beyond the limits of proper reticence or delicacy. It is entirely a matter of opinion and I think that “an Englishwoman” passes the delicate limit.

An Englishman thinks not but perhaps he will grant that in this matter, a Scotch woman’s opinion is as valuable as an Englishman’s. The intellectual superiority of his sex here counts for nothing. A woman has a right to judge what she may not with modesty say to her lover.

“An Englishman” gallantly yields himself the luxury of a sneer at my allusion to the “darning of stockings and prosy politics.” Also (he refers to) “ the pettifogging details of the routine of a dull life” which are necessarily the subjects which engage my pen in this column.

Sir, I do not invite you to join my fireside, nor ask you to waste your time in reading my triflings. The world of books is wide. There is much love literature in many languages wherein a jaded mind may find refreshment. There is shortly to be published one more volume of love letters in the English tongue called ‘Rosa Amorosai.’ If one may point out, the signs of the times, we shall presently have a deluge of erotic literature till a jaded public calls for a change.

Here are some examples of the many passages (said to have been written by the 22-year-old in the “Love Letters book) to which I take exception “Take me in your arms; Fasten me to your heart. Breathe on me.. I shut my eyes to feel your kisses falling on me like rain or, still more like sunshine, yet most of all like kisses, my dearest and best beloved.”

Too much of this — and there is a very great deal of it — is not to my taste. My soul revolts against this woman crying out for kisses every day of the week. A modest girl may think many tender and passionate things which she must not, without a sacrifice of delicacy, speak or write to her lover.

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