A SHY SCHEME.
I AM a shy young man, with a limited income. My residence is in the country—my hair is light—my cheeks are rosy—my stature is small—my manners are mild—my name is Koddle.
How it is that professed literary gentlemen contrive to slide as smoothly as they do, out of one topic and into another, without the slightest appearance of any accompanying jerk, is a mystery to me. I want to tack on to the information imparted in my first paragraph, two additional facts: first, that I am anxious to be settled in life; secondly, that I have my eye on a young woman. But there seems, somehow, to be a disrespectful abruptness in mentioning the object of my attachment in that way. It is as if I dragged her into this page by the neck and shoulders, instead of appearing serenely before the public gaze, with my charmer escorted on my arm. Her residence is in the country—her hair is light—her cheeks are rosy—her stature is small—her manners are mild. Except that she has no income at all, and that her name is not Koddle, my young woman is wonderfully like me in everything, extreme shyness included. Under these circumstances, it is perhaps remarkable that I should be so fond of her as I am. I can’t account for that. But I can smooth away another little difficulty; I can explain how it is that I have not yet imparted the state of my affections. I don’t know how.
"Please, Miss, will you marry me?" Too abrupt. "My other self! plunge your hand into my bosom, extract the throbbing principle within, observe whether it adores you or not, and if appearances are satisfactory, keep it for ever." Pretty, but, perhaps, at the same time incomprehensible to a practical young woman of the present day. Ogling? Will ogling alone do it? Possibly; but I have not the right kind of eyes for that exercise. My organs of ogling are too light in colour, too small in size, and too stiff in their action for the purpose. Perpetual sighing? She might mistake my intentions, and fancy that I was only endeavouring to express to her a wretched state of health. A sudden dart at her in her father’s presence, and an affectionate clasping of her round the waist, under her father’s astonished eyes? Could that excellent gentleman be depended on to start from his chair, and say, "Scoundrel, what are your intentions?"—and could I make sure of having presence of mind enough to drop on my knees and reply instantly, "Dear sir, they are strictly honourable"? I fear not; it takes so much to get some parents out of their chairs, and so little to upset a lover, like me. Shall I write to her father? Then there is the dreadful embarrassment of the first meeting with her afterwards. Shall I write to the charmer herself? The same embarrassment still lies in wait for me. I can’t express it in words, or looks, or sighs, or sudden embraces, or epistolary correspondence. What am I to do? Again the humiliating confession escapes me; again I answer—I don’t know.
This is a serious, and, as I am inclined to think, even a sad state of things. Here is my future depending on my doing some thing—and I can’t do it. Even if I could find the courage to make the offer, I should not feel certain of discovering, at the same time, the right words in which to express it. In this matter such awful interests depend upon such shocking trifles. I know a heart-rending case in point. A friend of mine, almost as shy as I am myself, armed himself with the resolution which I do not possess, watched his opportunity, and started with his offer of marriage to the object of his affection. It was in the winter time, and he had a cold. He advanced about six words into the preparatory sentence; the lady was listening with modest, yet encouraging, attention—he got to the seventh word, and felt a sudden titillation in the upper part of his nose—he pronounced the eighth word, and burst irrepressibly into a shrill, raging, screaming Sneeze! The lady (who can blame her?) after a noble effort to preserve her self-control, fell back in the chair in convulsions of laughter. An offer is an essentially serious thing; who could proceed with it under those circumstances? Not my friend, at any rate. He tried to begin again, two or three days afterwards. At his first look of unutterable love, at his first approach to the tender topic, he saw the lady’s face get red, and the lady’s lips desperately compress themselves. The horrid explosion of the sneeze was firing itself off again in her memory—she was shaking all over with suppressed laughter. He tried a third time; the same result followed: and then he gave it up. They have not met since; they never will meet. They were made for each other by nature; they were sweetly and suitably matched in age, fortune, social position, and mutual tastes. And what has rudely torn them asunder for ever?—a Sneeze! I write this with the tears in my eyes, and do not envy the feelings of any man or woman who can laugh at it.
To return to my own case. It is very hard, I think, that no provision is made for bashful men like me, who want to declare the state of their affections, who are not accustomed to female society, and who are habitually startled and confused, even on ordinary occasions, whenever they hear the sound of their own voices. There are people ready to assist us in every other emergency of our lives; but in the greatest difficulty of all, we are inhumanly left to help ourselves. There have been one or two rare occasions, on which one or two unparalleled women have nobly stepped forward and relieved us of our humiliating position as speechless suitors, by taking all the embarrassment of making the offer on their own shoulders. I know an instance of this, and I feel bound to relate it, as a soothing and cheerful contrast to the harrowing anecdote which I have just told. Our curate where I live, has been all his life a martyr to shyness; and, but for the admirably decided conduct of his wife under trying circumstances, I happen to know that he would never have been the father of the ten sweet children who now enliven and adorn his existence. He was just in my miserable position, when he was kindly invited to tea (and muffins) one evening, by his charmer’s agreeable mother. At the head of the table sat this estimable woman, in a new cap. At the foot of the table, sat her accomplished daughter, in a new gown. Between them sat my friend the curate, looking in speechless confusion at a plate of muffins placed exactly opposite to him. No other visitor marred the harmony of the domestic scene. They had a cup of tea all round, and a plate of muffins—and my friend never spoke. They had a second cup of tea, stronger than the first, and a second plate of muffins more richly buttered. Even this encouragement failed to loosen the curate’s tongue. At the third cup, and pending the arrival of the third plate of muffins, the expressive eyes of the daughter rested significantly on the countenance of her maternal parent. "Mamma," she said, with a kind of silvery calmness. "Mamma, shall I have him?" "My dear," replied the indulgent lady, "Have I ever thwarted you in any of your little caprices? Please yourself, love; please yourself." The third plate of muffins came in. It was set down in solemn silence.
The mother took a bit encouragingly; the curate took a bit confusedly; the daughter took a bit meditatively. "I think," she said after a moment of charming reverie, " I think, Mamma, I will have him." She turned and looked critically at the curate; waited till he had, with great difficulty, disposed of a mouthful of muffin; and then held out her hand, with fascinating frankness. "There!" she said, "don’t let us make a fuss about it. There is my hand!" Six weeks afterwards he was married, and has been the happiest man in existence ever since.
Such a case as this is, unfortunately, an exceptional one. It has been most hastily and most unwarrantably established as a social principle, that all men are audacious and enterprising in their love affairs, because they are men; and on these manifestly false grounds, the conclusion has been adopted that it is invariably the business of the man to make the offer. Dear, dear me! are we all Don Juans? Is there no such being in existence as a bashful man? On the other hand, are all young women naturally struck speechless with confusion at the mention of marriage? Do they all fall into such convulsions of modesty at the first prospect of assuming bridal responsibilities, as really to lose the admirable self-possession which is one of the most charming attributes of the sex in every other circumstance of life? My own observation of the appearance and behaviour of brides and bridegrooms, under the trying ordeal of the wedding-day, inclines me to believe that the loss of self-possession is almost invariably on the man’s side. It is my firm opinion (supposing my mind to be robust enough to support a firm opinion about anything) that, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, the offer of marriage would be much more quickly, sensibly, and irresistibly made if it came from the lady instead of the gentleman; and I would respectfully invite any man who disagrees with me to compare the behaviour of the bride with the behaviour of the bridegroom the next time he goes to a wedding. The wisdom of the ancients seems to have sanctioned some such salutary change of custom as that which I propose, at the period of Leap-year. But the practice has fallen into disuse; and the modest men of the community have suffered unspeakably in consequence.
If I only had the courage, I would suggest to some of those public-spirited ladies who are so nobly trying to take away from the men everything they have got, and to give it all to the women, that they might make out a very strong case against the male population, if they accused my grasping sex of monopolising the right of making offers. The first offer in the world was made, in that matter of the apple, by Eve, who was not bashful, to Adam, who was. Why have Eve’s daughters (I would ask, if I were one of the public-spirited ladies) allowed the privilege exercised by their first mother to slip through their fingers in this disgraceful manner? What is the use of talking of the equality of the sexes as long as one sex perpetually exercises the right of putting the question, and leaves to the other sex only the inferior and secondary privilege of giving the answer? Let it be understood, for the future, that the men are to take their turn of waiting until they are spoken to. Let every other year be considered, for matrimonial purposes, a Leap Year, and give the unhappy bashful bachelor a good twelvemonth’s chance of getting an offer. It may be objected, I know, that, even in the event of this wholesome reform in our manners being carried out, I could scarcely hope to be personally a gainer by it, seeing that my young woman is, according to my own confession, as retiring in her habits as I am myself. I can only answer to this, that I have noticed, on the few occasions when I have had opportunities of exercising my observation, a great difference to exist between the shyness of a woman and the shyness of a man. To refer to my own case, I have remarked that my charmer’s shyness differs from mine in being manageable, graceful, and, more than that, in being capable of suppressing itself and of assuming a disguise of the most amazing coolness and self-possession on certain trying occasions. I have heard the object of my affections condemned by ignorant strangers as a young woman of unpleasantly audacious manners, at the very time when my intimate familiarity with her character assured me that she was secretly suffering all the miseries of extreme confusion and self-distrust. Whenever I see her make up a bold face, by drawing her hair off her forehead, and showing the lovely roots all round; whenever I hear her talking with extraordinary perseverance, and laughing with extraordinary readiness; whenever I. see her gown particularly large in pattern, and her ribbands dazzlingly bright in colour—then, I feel certain that she is privately quaking with all the most indescribable and most unreasonable terrors of shyness. Knowing this, I should not be at all apprehensive of a long period of silence elapsing, if a reform in our social laws authorised my charmer to help me out by making my offer for me. She would do it, I know, with an appearance of extraordinary indifference and gaiety—with her utmost fluency of utterance, with her most mellifluously easy laughter—in her gown of the largest pattern, in her ribbands of the fiercest brightness with her poor heart thumping the whole time as if it would burst, and with every nerve in her body trembling all over from head to foot. My experience has not been a large one—but that is my humble idea of the real nature of a woman’s shyness.
However, it is useless to speculate on what might happen if the oppressive laws of courtship were relaxed—for no such welcome event is likely to take place. It will be more to the purpose, perhaps, if I venture on introducing a little practical suggestion of my own, which struck me while I was meditating on my unhappy position, which involves no sweeping change in the manners and customs of the age, and which, so far as I know, has never made its appearance in print before.
I am informed, by persons of experience in the world of letters (about which I myself know nothing), that the ladies of the present century have burst into every department of literature, have carried off the accumulated raw material from under the men’s noses, and have manufactured it to an enormous and unheard-of extent for the public benefit. I am told that out of every twelve poems or novels that are written, nine at least are by ladies; that they write histories, in six or eight volumes, with great ease and satisfaction to themselves, while the men can only compass the same achievements with extreme difficulty, in one or two volumes; and that they are perpetually producing books of Travel, which are all about themselves and their own sensations, without the slavish fear of that possible imputation of self-conceit, which so often lurks in the more timid bosom of man. I am particularly rejoiced to hear of this, because my suggestion involves nothing less than the writing of one gigantic book by all the ladies of Great Britain put together. What I propose is a Hand Book of Courtship, written by all British Wives, and edited, with notes, by all British Daughters.
The magnitude of my own idea absolutely takes away my breath—and yet, the execution of it is so unimaginably easy that the Hand Book might be ready for publication in six months’ time. I propose that every Married Lady in the country shall write down the exact words (for surely her affectionate heart must remember them?) which her husband used when he made his offer to her; and that she shall then add to the interesting report of the offer, illustrative particulars of the circumstances under which it was made, and of the accompanying actions (if any) by which the speaker emphasised the all-important words as they fell from his lips. I would have the Returns, thus prepared, collected as the Income Tax Papers are, with the most extreme care and the most honourable secresy. They should be afterwards shuffled together in baskets, and distributed, one by one, just as they happened to turn up, among the Unmarried Ladies of the country, with the following brief formula of two questions attached; First. Would the form of offer presented herewith, have proved to be a satisfactory one, in your case? And, if not, will you state in what particulars you think it might be improved? Second. Would the accompanying actions by which the offer was pressed on the kind attention of the individual addressed, have specially inclined you to favour it with a suitable reply? And, if not, what improvements, in the way of addition or suppression, would you be disposed, in the strictest confidence, to suggest? When the necessary answers to these questions had been given, I would have the Papers again collected, on the same Income Tax principle; and would immediately set the printers at work. The Married Ladies’ Returns should form the text, and the Unmarried Ladies’ Returns should be added in the form of notes. No names or addresses should appear anywhere. The book should be bound in virgin white, with orange-flower decorations on the back. It should be printed in rose-coloured ink, and it should be issued to the world from a publishing-house established for the purpose in Doctors’ Commons.
What an inestimable bachelor’s Manual this would be! What a circulation it would have among all classes! What a delightful sense of confidence it would awaken in the mind of the diffident male reader! How could any man go wrong, with the Hand Book to refer to, before he committed him self to a positive course of action? If I had such a book within my reach at this moment, I might look out, and learn, the form of offer which I felt to be most suitable in my own case; might discover and correct its little human imperfections, by reference to the critical notes appended to it; and might become a happy accepted man (if I could depend upon my memory) by to-morrow at latest. How many other men might enjoy the same benefit, if the practical results of the experience of others were thus placed at their disposal—how many extra marriages might be solemnised in the course of the first year after the publication of the Hand Book—I cannot presume to say. I can only point to the serious necessity that there is for bringing out the great work that I have proposed—I can only implore the ladies to undertake it, in consideration of the literary honour and glory which it would confer upon the whole sex.
In the meantime, here I am, shyly hovering round my fate, and helplessly ignorant how to rush in and close with it, at once and for ever. If I could feel sure that the Bachelor’s Manual was likely to be soon produced, I might, perhaps, manage to wait for it. But, in the absence of any positive information on this subject, I feel that I must make up my mind to do something desperate immediately. A spoken explanation of my feelings—unless I could manage to catch my young woman in the dark—being, in my case, manifestly out of the question, I suppose I must bashfully resign myself, after all, to the alternative of writing. In the event of my mustering courage enough to compose the letter, and to send it off when done, the question is, How had I better behave myself, when the inevitable embarrassment of the first meeting with her comes afterwards? Shall I begin with words, or begin with actions? Or, to be plainer still, which shall I address first, her waist or her mind? Will any charitable married lady kindly consider my especial weakness of disposition, and send me privately one word of advice as to which of these two delicate alternatives it will be safest for me to adopt?
Taken from Household Words 20 March 1858 XVII 313-316.
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