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Theory and Practice of Proposals

There is no subject in the whole range of human affairs so interesting to a working majority of the race as the theory and practice of proposals of marriage. Men perhaps cease to be very much concerned about the ordeal when they have been through it. But the topic never loses its charm for the fair, though they are presumed only to wait and to listen, and never to speak for themselves. That this theory has its exceptions appears to be the conviction of many novelists. They not only make their young ladies "lead up to it," but heroines occasionally go much further than that, and do more than prompt an inexperienced wooer. But all these things are only known to the world through the confessions of novelists, who, perhaps, themselves receive confessions. M. Goncourt not long ago requested all his fair readers to send him notes of their own private experience. How did you feel when you were confirmed? How did Alphonse whisper his passion? These and other questions, quite as intimate, were set by M. Goncourt. He meant to use the answers, with all discreet reserve, in his next novel. Do English novelists receive any private information, and if they do not, how are we to reconcile their knowledge--they are all love-adepts--with the morality of their lives? "We live like other people, only more purely," says the author of "Some Private Views," which is all very well. No man is bound to incriminate himself. But as in the course of his career a successful novelist describes many hundreds of proposals, all different, are we to believe that he is so prompted merely by imagination? Are there no "documents," as M. Zola says, for all this prodigious deal of love-making? These are questions which await a reply in the interests of ethics and of art. Meanwhile an editor of enterprise has selected five-and-thirty separate examples of "popping the question," as he calls it, from the tomes of British fiction. To begin with an early case--when Tom Jones returned to his tolerant Sophia, he called her "Madam," and she called him "Mr. Jones," not Tom. She asked Thomas how she could rely on his constancy, when the lover of Miss Segrim drew a mirror from his pocket (like Strephon in "Iolanthe"), and cried, "Behold that lovely figure, that shape, those eyes," with other compliments; "can the man who shall be in possession of these be inconstant?" Sophia was charmed by the "man in possession," but forced her features into a frown. Presently Thomas "caught her in his arms," and the rest was in accordance with what Mr. Trollope and the best authorities recommend. How differently did Arthur Pendennis carry himself when he proposed to Laura, and did not want to be accepted! Lord Farintosh--his affecting adventure is published here--proposed nicely enough, but did not behave at all well when he was rejected. By the way, when young men in novels are not accepted, they invariably ask the lady whether she loves another. Only young ladies, and young men whom they have rejected, know whether this is common in real life. It does not seem quite right.

Kneeling has probably gone out, though Mr. Jingle knelt before the maiden aunt, and remained in that attitude for no less than five minutes. In Mr. Howell's "Modern Instance," kneeling was not necessary, and the heroine kept thrusting her face into her lover's necktie; so the author tells us. M. Theophile Gautier says that ladies invariably lay their heads on the shoulder of the man who proposes (if he is the right man), and for this piece of "business" (as we regret to say he considers it) he assigns various motives. But he was a Frenchman, and the cynicism of that nation (to parody a speech of Tom Jones's) cannot understand the delicacy of ours. Mr. Blackmore (in "Lorna Doone") lets his lover make quite a neat and appropriate speech, but that was in the seventeenth century. When Artemus Ward began a harangue of this sort, Betsy Jane knocked him off the fence on which he was sitting, and first criticising his eloquence in a trenchant style, added, "If you mean being hitched, I'm in it." In other respects the lover of Lorna Doone behaved as the best authorities recommend.

Mr. Whyte Melville ventured to describe Chastelard's proposal to Mary Stuart, but it was not exactly in Mr. Swinburne's manner, and, where historical opinions disagree, no reliance can be placed on speeches which were not taken down by the intelligent reporters. Mr. Slope had his ears boxed when he proposed to Mrs. Bold, but such Amazonian conduct is probably rare, and neither party is apt to boast of it. He also, being accepted, behaved in the manner to which the highest authorities have lent their sanction, or, at least, he meant to do so, when the lady "fled like a roe to her chamber." For all widows are not like widow Malone (ochone!) renowned in song. When Arbaces, the magician, proposed to Ione, he did so in the most necromantic and hierophantic manner in which it could be done; his "properties" including a statue of Isis, an altar, "and a quick, blue, darting, irregular flame." But his flame, quick, blue, darting, and irregular as it was, lighted no answering blaze in the ice-cold breast of the lovely lone. When rejected (in spite of a splendid arrangement of magic lanterns, then a novelty, got up regardless of expense) Arbaces swore like an intoxicated mariner, rather than a necromaunt accustomed to move in the highest circles and pentacles. Nancy, Miss Broughton's heroine, tells her middle-aged wooer, among other things, that she accepts him, because "I did think it would be nice for the boys; but I like you myself, besides." After this ardent confession, he "kissed her with a sort of diffidence." Many men would have preferred to go out and kick "the boys."

Mr. Rochester's proposal to Jane Eyre should be read in the works both of Bret Harte and of Miss Bronte. We own that we prefer Bret Harte's Mr. Rawjester, who wearily ran the poker through his hair, and wiped his boots on the dress of his beloved. Even in the original authority, Mr. Rochester conducted himself rather like a wild beast. He "ground his teeth," "he seemed to devour" Miss Eyre "with his flaming glance." Miss Eyre behaved with sense. "I retired to the door." Proposals of this desperate and homicidal character are probably rare in real life, or, at least, out of lunatic asylums. To be sure, Mr. Rochester's house was a kind of lunatic asylum.

Adam Bede's proposal to Dinah was a very thoughtful, earnest proposal. John Inglesant himself could not have been less like that victorious rascal, Tom Jones. Colonel Jack, on the other hand, "used no great ceremony." But Colonel Jack, like the woman of Samaria in the Scotch minister's sermon, "had enjoyed a large and rich matrimonial experience," and went straight to the point, being married the very day of his successful wooing. Some one in a story of Mr. Wilkie Collins's asks the fatal question at a croquet party. At lawn-tennis, as Nimrod said long ago, "the pace is too good to inquire" into matters of the affections. In Sir Walter's golden prime, or rather in the Forty-five as Sir Walter understood it, ladies were in no hurry, and could select elegant expressions. Thus did Flora reply to Waverley, "I can but explain to you with candour the feelings which I now entertain; how they might be altered by a train of circumstances too favourable, perhaps, to be hoped for, it were in vain even to conjecture; only be assured, Mr. Waverley, that after my brother's honour and happiness, there is none which I shall more sincerely pray for than yours." This love is indeed what Sidney Smith heard the Scotch lady call "love in the abstract." Mr. Kingsley's Tom Thurnall somehow proposed, was accepted, and was "converted" all at once--a more complex erototheological performance was never heard of before.

Many of Mr. Abell's thirty-five cases are selected from novelists of no great mark; it would have been more instructive to examine only the treatment of the great masters of romance. But, after all, this is of little consequence. All day long and every day novelists are teaching the "Art of Love," and playing Ovid to the time. But what are novels without love? Mere waste paper, only fit to be reduced to pulp, and restored to a whiteness and firmness on which more love lessons may be written. {135}

{135} These remarks were made before the great discovery of some modern authors, that the best novels are those in which there is never a petticoat.


Andrew Lang