This morning, I am proofreading my past-life work, written as Mathew Franklin Whittier at age 18 for the New York "Constellation." Mathew is known as a satirist (and one historian pegs him as a nihilist); but in reality he was an idealist and a reformer. The piece I just proofread is an elegant defense of old maids. I had written, one or two (or three?) Updates back, that far from being unreadable due to period references (as I believe another historian suggested), much of his humor, and his writing in general, is timeless. No-doubt this was written in response to someone's cruel remarks; we will never know who prompted it, but I think that the old maids of New York City stepped a little lighter on May 8, 1831...
OLD MAIDS AS THEY ARE.
It has become so much the fashion to abuse this unprotected but respectable class of females, that we feel ourselves imperiously called upon to take up the gauntlet in their behalf. We are impelled to this, both by our good nature and sense of justice, to say nothing of our duty as an editor, or of our gallantry as a man--in either of which characters, we could scarcely put in our claim to general respectability, or indulge in any hopes of favor with the injured class, were we to listen tamely to the opprobriotus epithets with which they are daily and most unjustly characterized--such as "sour," "crabbed," "envious," "starched," "stuff," "meddlesome," "censorious," "vituperative," "mischief-making," and twenty others equally odious and repulsive.
Now it requires but a very little knowledge of human nature, and especially of that portion of it which we have undertaken to defend, to perceive that these charges are altogether uncharitable, ungenerous, and unjust. Charges so general and so sweeping, against any class of people, are for the most part false and groundless; and we hazard nothing in declaring that the respectable class before us who have advanced in single life beyond their thirtieth year, and are called, by way of reproachful distinction, old maids, are not in the least deserving [of] the epithets so liberally bestowed uopn them. On the contrary, they are, generally speaking, remarkable for the opposite qualities--for cheerfulness, good temper, and sweetness of disposition. So far from being envious, they are the first to rejoice in the happiness of those around them; so far from being censorious, they are rather the patterns of mild and charitable judging; so far from being starched and unbending in their demeanor, they are the most affable and courteous beings in the world; and so far from being meddlesome, they take no thought for the concerns of others, any farther than is necessary to promote their welfare. They are distinguished for their benevolence--for devoting their abilities, both of time and money and influence, to ameliorate the condition of humanity. They are among the foremost in visiting the sick, comforting the afflicted, instructing the ignorant, correcting the vicious, restraining the imprudent, and restoring the wanderer.
We are at a loss then to conceive the motives for the often-repeated attacks upon old maids. What is the object? Is it to show the courage of the assailants? Alas, what courage is there in attacking an unprotected woman? Is it to display their wit? It would be an abuse of the term to pretend it; for wit has no affinity whatever with the use of a set of back-nerved expressions of abuse. Is it to exhibit their good sense? If they were endowed with the most ordinary share of this quality, they would perceive that they could not apply it to a worse purpose than the one we are reprehending. Is it to show their knowledge? They indeed take a most unlucky method of doing it, for an acquaintance with the character of the assaulted class, should rther lead to encomiums on their good qualities, than to strictures on those of the opposite description. Have they ever heard of Elizabeth Carter, Hannah Moore, Maria Edgeworth, and a host of others, whose mild and gentle virtues, whose benevolence and cheerfulness, whose active exercise of their talents in improving the moral and intellectual condition of mankind, have given them a name as much to be envied as that of the detractors of the class to which they belong, is to be despised and [conterified?]?
Do you see that comely and interesting female, entering the abode of sickness and want, with a countenance to cheer, a hand to supply, and a heart to console? That is an old maid. Do [you] see that female with a wan cheek, a tear in her eye, and affection in all her movements--watching, from month to month, and from year to year, beside the couch of a suffering and aged parent--yielding to all his wishes, enduring all the fretfulness of a protracted disease, and kindly softening as much as possible the afflictions of pain--never tiring in her watchfulness, never relaxing in her assiduities, and never failing in her sweetness of temper--regardless of her own comforts, and thinking only of alleviating the distresses of the parent? That is an old maid. Do you observe that being with a benignant countenance, gently leading from the paths of error, the headlong steps of a younger and wayward brother--consoling and healing the wounded affections of a beloved sister--guiding and directing the steps of a giddy and thoughtless young friend? that is an old maid. Finally, do you see that female, ready to do good on all occasions--meeting opportunities when present, and seeking them when absent--actuated by no motive of selfishness, and allured by no prospect of gain--alway the same cheerful, benevolent, and excellent creature: that is one of the despised and reproached class of old maids.
Prythee, sir, who are so forward in abusing those women, who have seen their thirtieth year without entering the blessed state of matrimony, did you ever have a sister, a cousin, or aunt, who was an old maid? And if so, did you love or esteem her the less for it? On the contrary have you not sometimes had reason to approve her good sense, taste or prudence, in refusing offers which were unsuitable, and preferring single life with all the reproach attached to it, to marrying a tyrant, a niggard, a blockhead, or a spendthrift? And after all this, will you continue the stale, silly, ungenerous and unjust practice of ridiculing what you cannot but admire and approve?
Many persons, not only male but female, seem to entertain the belief, that because a woman is not married, her temper must necessarily be soured. As though the acciental circumstances of single or double life, could effect so entire a change in the condition of the mind. They must have been but slight observers of human nature, who do not know, that an ill-tempered Miss will most certainly make an ill-tempered Mrs.; and that a sweet-tempered girl in her teens, will make a sweet-tempered woman in middle life and old age, even without the blessing of a husband. And they must be equally destitute of observation, who do not know, that in selecting a wife, the best of the family is not always taken, whether good sense, good temper, or amiable disposition be regarded. The best may not always be taken, because she does not approve the suitor; or, as is frequently the case, the suitor may not have taste or discernment enough to select the best--in either of which cases, the fairest fruit remains on the tree without any disparagement to its loveliness.
But if bitter disappointment have been mingled, with the other evils single flesh is heir to, in the cup of old maids, it is most ungenerous to reproach them with the misfortune. If single life be so enormous an evil as it is commonly supposed, then surely do those women, who endure it for a long series of years, with unabated cheerfulness and serenity, deserve all praise for their extraordinary sweetness of temper and gentleness of disposition. If, as one of the ancients said, "a good man struggling with adversity is a sight worthy of the gods"--then surely a feeble woman, travelling the path of life alone--struggling with the briars and thorns that beset her way--and above all enduring the unmanly scoffs and reproaches of those who should be her defenders--and yet maintaining that cheerfulness and serenity of mind which mark the character of old maids, is, to say the least, a sight that should make their revilers hide their heads on confusion and remorse.
Stephen Sakellarios, M.S.
Music opening this page, "One By One," by The Free Design, from the album, "One By One"