Flirting is the product of a highly civilized state of society. People in savage, or even illiterate life have no conception of its delicate and indefinable diplomacy. A savage sees a woman “that pleases him well,” pays the necessary price for her, and is done with the affair. Jane in the kitchen and John in the field look and love, tell each other the reason why, and get married. “Keeping company,” which is their nearest approach to flirtation, has a definite and well-understood end in view, the approaches to which are unequivocal and admit of no other translation.
Flirts are of many kinds. There is the quiet, “still-water” flirt, who leads her captives by tender little sighs and pretty, humble, beseeching ways; who hangs on every word a man says, asks his advice, his advice only, because it is so much better than any one else’s. That is her form of the art, and a very effective one it is.
Again, the flirt is demonstrative and daring. She tempts, dazzles, tantalizes her victims by the very boldness with which she approaches that narrow but deep Rubicon dividing flirting from indiscretion. But she seldom crosses it; up to a certain point she advances without hesitation, but at once there is a dead halt, and the flirtee finds that he has been taken a fool’s journey.
There are sentimental flirts, sly little pusses, full of sweet confidences and small secrets, and who delight in asking the most suggestive and seductive questions. “Does Willy really believe in love marriages?” or, “Is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?” etc.
Intellectual flirts hover about young poets and writers, or haunt studios and libraries, and doubtless are delightfully distracting to the young ideas shooting in those places.
Everybody knows a variety of the religious flirt,—those demure lilies of the ecclesiastical garden, that grow in the pleasant paths where pious young rectors and eligible saints walk. Perhaps, as their form of flirting takes the shape of votive offerings, district visiting, and choir singing, their perpetual gush of sentiment and hero-worship is advantageous, on the principle that it is an ill wind that blows nobody good.
All of these female varieties have their counterparts among male flirts, and besides, there are some masculine types flagrantly and universally common. Such is the bold, handsome bird of prey, who advances just far enough to raise expectation and then suddenly retires. Or the men who are always insinuating, but who never make an honest declaration; who raise vague hopes with admirable skill and poetic backgrounds, and keep women madly and hopefully in love with them by looks and gestures they never give an interpretation to. When they are tired they retire slowly, without quarrel, without explanation; they simply allow their implied promises to die of neglect.
Then there is the prudent flirt, who trifles only with married women; dangles after those subtle, handsome creatures who affect blighted lives and uncomfortable husbands, and who, having married for convenience, are flirting for love. Such women are safe entertainment for the cowardly male flirt, who fears a flirtation that leads perchance to matrimony, but who has no fears about his liability to commit bigamy. There are “fatherly” male flirts, and “brotherly” and “friendly” flirts, but the title is nothing but an agreed-upon centre of operations.
Yet it is difficult to imagine how, in a polished state of society, flirting could be done without. Some sort of preliminary examination into tastes, disposition, and acquirements is necessary before matrimony, and a woman cannot carry a list of her desirable qualities, nor a man advertise his temper and his income. The trouble is that no definite line can be drawn, no scale of moral values can decide where flirting ends and serious attentions begin; and society never agrees as to what is innocent and what reprehensible.
There are ill-natured people who call every bright, merry girl that is a favorite with gentlemen, that talks, sings, and dances well, a “terrible flirt;” who admit nothing as propriety but what is conventionally correct and insipid. The media of flirting are indeed endless; a clever woman can find in simply listening a method of conveying the most delicate flattery and covert admiration. Indeed, flirting in its highest quality is an art requiring the greatest amount of tact and skill, and women who would flirt and be blameless, no matter how vast their materials, must follow Opie’s plan and “mix them with brains.”
It used to be a maxim that no gentleman could be refused by a lady, because he would never presume beyond the line of her encouragement; therefore it is to be presumed, on this rule, no lady advances further than she is willing to ratify. But such a state of society would be very stupid and formal, and we should miss a very piquant flavor in life, which even very good and great people have not been able to resist.
Upon this rule we must convict Queen Elizabeth as an arrant flirt, and “no lady;” we should be compelled to shake our heads at the fair Thrale and the great Dr. Johnson, at naughty Horace Walpole and Mrs. Hannah More, and to even look with suspicion on George Whitefield and “good Lady Huntingdon.”
No, in polished society flirting in a moderate form is an amusement, and an investigation so eminently suited to the present condition of the sexes that a much better one could be better spared. In one case only does it admit of no extenuating circumstances,—that of the married flirt of both sexes.
A flirt may not indeed be an altogether lovely character, even with all her alluring faults; but she is something a great deal nicer than a prude. All men prefer a woman who trusts them, or gayly challenges them to a combat, in which she proposes their capture, to her who affects horror at masculine tastes and ways, and is always expecting them to do some improper, or say some dreadful, thing. Depend upon it, if all the flirts were turned into prudes, society would have gone further to fare worse.
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