Successward: The Question of Marriage (Chapter 9)

Successward is the 1895 book written by Edward Bok.

Necessarily the question of marriage to a young man is an important one—perhaps the most important that is given him to solve when he reaches a marriageable age. To some young men it is easy of solution. They fall in love with some girl who occupies their every thought, they are married, and, as the story-books generally have it, “they live happily ever afterward.” But to others it takes the form of a problem. They are troubled with sentimental perplexities; and if these do not enter into the matter, then it is either a question of the right girl, the means with which to marry, or the proper age. That the matter takes on one of these phases with the majority of young men there can be no doubt, since few men marry the girl who first strikes their fancy.

The first point to present in this question of marriage is the principle of it: that it is unquestionably for the good of almost every young man that he shall marry. There are no two sides to this for the great majority of young men. Of course there are reasons why a man, in some special instance, should choose to lead a single life; in fact, there are excellent reasons why it is best that some men should. I have known men to have inner conflicts with themselves for years, and then resolutely decide upon celibacy. Such decisions make heroes of some men. There are circumstances which sometimes enter into a man’s life that make celibacy judicious and wise—circumstances not of his own choosing. There are men whose lofty estimate of women will not permit of their asking a woman to share what God in his wisdom has chosen to have them bear. That type of men exists. But to the majority of men it is decreed to marry and that they shall live in marriage.

When a young man deliberately lays out for himself a single life based upon any other than the strongest physical or mental reasons, he makes the mistake of his lifetime. If a young man refuses to marry because of a lack of faith in womanhood, or a distrust of the existence of those qualities generally attributed to woman, he errs, and he errs fatally. And the best evidence of this is found in the incontrovertible fact that the happiest men in the world to-day are the men who have believed in good womanhood, and have shown that belief by taking a good woman into their hearts and homes. There can be no disputing the fact that a man’s life is never complete in its fullest happiness until that life is made whole and complete by the love of a true woman. The simplest reference to the history of men since the creation of the world will demonstrate the truth of this assertion. Man has done nothing without woman; without her counsel he has become as a cipher in the world. Left alone, aside from the question of influence, he is helpless. No man ever lived who knows, for example, how to take care of himself. The absence of a wife from home has demonstrated to many a man how large and important a part she is of it and of him. The right kind of a wife knows better what is essential to her husband’s comfort than he does himself—far better. He waits for illness to come, and then combats it, frequently when too late. But the wife sees the symptoms and uses preventives. Her keen insight tells her that her husband is unwell when sometimes he is not conscious of it himself. Women, we are told, know little of business; yet when business troubles come to a man a good wife is the source of all comfort to him. When he despairs she is hopeful. By her influence, perhaps, more than by what she actually accomplishes, she brings new hope, new courage, and points the way to a new beginning. How often women have been the means of averting business disasters or the multiplying of failures with further implications the world will never know; but there are men who know it, and they are the men of whom to ask, “Is marriage a failure?”

It is an unfortunate fact that some men never get to a point where they understand woman. And yet to know woman, to properly understand her, to correctly interpret her best motives, is the deepest lesson that life can teach a man. Every man with a fair mind who clasps a good woman to his breast and calls her mother, wife, or sister will understand the import of these words. How a man can be a hater of woman I cannot conceive when through her so much can be added to his life. Nothing is such an incentive to a man to make the best of himself as the knowledge that there is some one in the world who believes he is just the cleverest fellow alive; that there are eyes, far lovelier than all the stars in heaven to him, which sparkle at his coming; that there is a loving, womanly heart which beats quicker at the sound of his footsteps; that there is a nature ever ready to sympathize with him in his troubles and gladden at his victories—a dear, sweet, loving woman, who laughs with him, and puts her soft, loving arms around him when he is in trouble, rouses him to his better self, making him feel that, after all, this world is not such a bad place to live in. This, as many a man knows, is not a picture drawn from fancy; it finds its living reflection in thousands of homes all through this land and across the sea, in homes where men are happiest and where women are most content.

The bachelor is ofttimes happy in his single state—that is, for a bachelor. He may console himself with the reflection that he accounts only to himself, that he is his own master, can go where he will and do as he chooses so long as he obeys the laws of society and of the land; but in his heart he knows he is but half of a complete thing. He knows that there is something lacking in his life which, if supplied, would make the complete whole. Business success may come to him, wealth may be his; but one way or another he feels the absence of some one to enjoy his successes with him. He wonders why it is that he does not always put forth his best efforts. He marvels whether, after all, a man does not need something outside of himself to draw him on and incite him to his utmost exertions. He may be courted for his money, he may have friendships innumerable, every comfort may be in his rooms; yet moments come to him when persistent thought points to something lacking in his life to round it out. Travel as he will, live on the best the world can provide, he feels, as I have heard it said of the millionaire owner of one of the greatest newspapers in the land, roaming from one land to another, that few men are ofttimes more miserable in their daily lives than is he. He has everything the heart can wish for; more wealth than he can spend; costly residences on this side of the ocean and on the other; swift yachts are his, and swifter horses. Yet, while driving one day, and seeing in a passing carriage a man of his acquaintance sitting beside a devoted wife and two children, he said to a friend, “That man’s whole fortune is not one half of my yearly income, and yet his life is a far happier one.” And when his friend asked him in what the other’s happiness exceeded his, James Gordon Bennett replied, “In having a good wife, and a lovely child for each knee.”

Of the wisdom of marriage itself there can be no question. The knotty little problems which enter into it are another matter. Some of them find expression in the choice of the right girl. And here, naturally, is a question which no one can decide for another. It is a man’s heart which directs him to the woman whom he wants for his wife, never the finger of the adviser. “Love pointeth surely” is an old proverb, and it is as true to-day as upon the day it was written. Many a young man, however, stands undecided on this question of marriage. He believes that the only holy marriage, the only marriage from which can spring happiness, is that born of love. The girl with whom such a marriage is possible is perhaps within his eye. He loves her, he feels, and yet he hesitates. Why he hesitates he cannot sometimes explain. Sometimes there is another girl in the case, whom he acknowledges to himself he does not love quite so well, and yet he feels that she would bring to him something that the other girl does not: a certain social advancement, perhaps, a furtherance of his business interests, or an advantage of one kind or another. Again, there are young men who feel drawn toward accepting the girl of their own heart and choice, but are withheld by parental opposition, or, if not exactly opposition, that parental indifference or coldness which is even more chilling and killing than open antagonism. They want the girl, and yet they do not want to offend their parents; or perhaps, as in some cases, it is friends that are considered. And so hesitancy and perplexity come in. The heart leads one way, some other interest or consideration draws another.

It is to the mind of such a young man that a girl awakens divers feelings, many of which are mistaken for love. It is love which draws him one way; it is an inherent sense of mere possession that draws him the other. And I am very free in saying that some young men are actuated in marrying simply because of this sense of mere possession. Nor do I mean the word “possession” here as applying to property. To marry a girl for her money is the most contemptuous act of which a man can be capable. It dwarfs him and it dwarfs the woman upon whom he inflicts the wrong. But it is the notion which gets into the heads of so many young men to marry a girl because of the possession of some trait, some art, some grace, which they have not themselves, and the girl’s possession of it attracts them. Sometimes it is the girl’s talent; at other times her education, or her traveled knowledge; again it is her beauty, her social graces, her ability to appear well, to dress well, to entertain well. The young man associates such a girl in his mind as a part of an establishment which is the dream of his young manhood. She would look well; she would always be able to entertain his friends, to help him in achieving a certain position; and he feels that he would be proud of her. And he would. But the satisfaction of a mere pride is not the satisfaction of the heart. Pride is very easily satisfied; and when it is satisfied it generally departs. In a few years he will want something more than an ornament to his home, and then he will find it wanting. For only in rare cases do we find the useful and the ornamental combined in a single woman. To marry a girl because of some possession; because he simply likes her better, perhaps, than he does other girls; because, maybe, he respects, fancies, or admires her; because she seems to sympathize with him, is to establish a wrong basis for a happy marriage. Not one of these emotions can form the foundation for any truly happy marriage. They are things which appeal to us in any dear friend, man or woman. The girl who is to be a young man’s companion for life, to be with him and of him as long as she or he may live, and to be the sharer of his joys or sorrows, to be a daughter to his mother and a mother to his children, must awaken other emotions in a young man’s heart. She must awaken that true, affectionate love out of which all of the things of which I have spoken spring, but none of which alone or combined constitutes love itself.

The girl that a young man should marry, and the only girl he is safe to marry, is she who fills all his life, his every thought, who guides him in his every act, whose face comes before him in everything that he does—the girl, in short, without whom he feels life would be a blank, without whom he could not live. That is the girl whom he loves, and it makes little difference whether such a girl be rich or poor, talented or not, traveled or untraveled. Enough is it for him if she is affectionate in her nature, sympathetic with his work, responsive to his thoughts, appreciative of his best qualities. These are the traits in a woman which last the longest, and remain with a man throughout his life. They are the traits in women which make good wives and better mothers. Knowledge is a good thing in a woman, but affection is infinitely better. Far wiser is the young man who marries the stupidest girl in the world, if she be affectionate, than he who marries the brightest girl in the universe, if she be cold, clammy, and unresponsive in her disposition. We laugh at sentiment, we men, when we are young; when we have lived a lifetime we reverence it, and the jest becomes the tribute.

Another point, as I hinted above, which sometimes enters into a young man’s thoughts of marriage is what is called by the world the “social station” of the girl he loves. Now what is termed “social station” is a very difficult thing to define. The habit of social distinction which so many families endeavor to engender and develop in contemplated marriage is, I think, one of the most unfortunate tendencies of the times. A social aristocracy has always been impossible in America, and it is never more impossible than at the present time. We need not be extremists in our beliefs, and refuse to admit that there exist grades and classes in American society. Our social lines are sufficiently drawn for individual protection, as they rightly should be, and must be in any great nation. But for any grade of society to refuse a humane and proper recognition to a girl foreign, perhaps, to our special modes of living, is a piece of snobbery unworthy of any American family which thrives and prospers under American privileges and resources. We have in this country a class of people whose social standards are beneath contempt, and who consider it almost infectious to brush their mantles against the plainer cloaks of what they choose to call “the lower classes.” We can, if we so choose, amuse ourselves in this country by believing that there is such a thing as American lineage. But when we permit this harmless amusement to become a settled belief and seriously discuss it, as I have heard it in some drawing-rooms, the matter passes out of the amusing and assumes the ridiculous. The great social strength of this country, the real substantial strength, hope, and life of this nation, lies with what is designated as the great average middle class; and from this class springs not only the mental, physical, and moral bone and sinew of this republic, but the best type of womanhood which ornaments the American home to-day. The man or woman who to-day sneers at or casts a discreditable innuendo upon that class stamps himself or herself unworthy of being classed among intelligent people.

The truest, best, and sweetest type of the American girl of to-day does not come from the home of wealth; she steps out from a home where exists comfort rather than luxuries. She belongs to the great middle class—that class which has given us the best American wifehood; which has given help-mates to the foremost American men of our time; which teaches its daughters the true meaning of love; which teaches the manners of the drawing-room, but the practical life of the kitchen as well; which teaches its girls the responsibilities of wifehood and the greatness of motherhood. These girls may not ride in their carriages, they may not wear the most expensive gowns, they may even help a little to enlarge the family income; but these girls are to-day the great bulwark of American society, not only present, but of the future. They represent the American home and what is best and truest in sweet domestic life, and they make the best wives for our American men. I have no patience with those theories that would seek to place the average American girl in any other position than that which she occupies, ornaments, and rightfully holds: the foremost place in our respect, our admiration, and our love. She is not the society girl of the day, and she is better for it. She knows no superficial life; she knows only the life in a home where husband, wife, and children are one in love, one in thoughts, and one in every action. She believes no woman to be so sweet as her mother; no man so good as her father. She believes that there are good women and true men in the world, and her belief is right. And that young man will ever be happiest who takes such a girl for his wife.

I seek not to disparage the home life of the wealthy of our land. Some of my best friends live in homes of luxury, are deemed by the world wealthy and fortunate, and the atmosphere of their homes is as pure and elevating as is their family life representative of every element that makes good women and men. Nor have I one word to say against honest ancestral pride. On the contrary, I believe in it. I think if we had more of it in this country it would be better. It is one of the greatest stimulants to a young man to know that he comes of a good family and that he is expected to so carry himself as to add respect and pride to the name of his family. A good family name is one of the strongest safeguards to a young man’s respectability. We cannot underestimate the value of heredity. We should be proud of an honorable ancestry. But we should not boast of it, or use it to a detrimental comparison of the ancestry of others. That spirit is vulgar; certainly it is un-American.

Nor should any of us, who have been a little more favored with this world’s goods, refuse to recognize good in those not possessed of equal possessions. I care not how tenderly the favored son of a wealthy home may have been reared; with what care and precision his mental and moral development may have been guarded and watched; what hopes may be centered in him: I will match his worth any hour of the day with a girl from a plainer home and of lesser advantages. “But her social position?” the proud mother asks. Social station? What is social station? So long as a girl is respectable, so long as she is good, so long as she is a loving, tender, and true woman, by what social standard can she be measured? What right have we to apply superficial standards to worth and character? What comparison can a social standard bear to the highest standard of morality, to good womanhood, to the best wifehood, to the truest conception of motherhood? Is the girl in an office less of a woman than the girl who rides in her carriage? Is she less capable of making a good wife? Why do we marry? To please society? To uphold social standards as false as they are mythical? False pride has made enough trouble in this world without letting it bring grief into our homes. Let the young men of this country be sufficiently broad-minded not to measure a girl by her surroundings, but to judge her for herself. True worth lasts longer and wears to the end. The loving heart of a good girl is better than all the wealth and social accomplishments which she can bring to a man. It is something that comes back to a man three hundred and sixty-five times in a year. We can get along with a little money in this world if we will; but love is a quality of which we can scarce have too much.

And when the conditions are reversed, and the young man’s income or financial possessions are taken into account, the same general principle is true. There is not a more cruel standard by which to measure a young man than the position he is able to offer the girl of his choice. I am not an advocate of the “love-in-a-cottage” theory by any means; but I do believe in the good old-fashioned theory of a young couple starting out in the world with a moderate income, and then climbing upward together. I know this sounds visionary, and like the sort of reading we find in stories; but the truth is there just the same. I give it as my earnest conviction that a young girl will be far safer in the hands of a young man born of parents in moderate circumstances, honest in his principles, energetic and industrious, than she would with a young man who has known only the luxuries of life, and to whom work is an incidental matter rather than the aim and purpose of life. I do not care how poor a young man may be; if he has good health, sound principles, is respectful of sacred things, is temperate in his habits, and is not afraid to work, and work hard, and face the world with a determination to succeed, that young man can be trusted with the best and sweetest girl ever reared in an American home.

At the same time I believe that no young man has a right to ask a girl to be his wife until he has reached a certain point in his life. And I would apply this both to his age and to his prospects. As to age, I think a young man should wait until he is at least twenty-five before he marries. Before that time his impressions and his fancies are apt to be fleeting. He drifts and flounders in almost everything he does—wife-choosing included—before he is twenty-five. He himself rarely knows what he wants in anything. He does not know the world nor its people. He may think he does—a young man between eighteen and twenty-five generally does—but he does not all the same. It requires him to reach and pass the twenty-five-year period to find out how little he knew before. After he passes twenty-five he begins to learn, and from that time things come to have a meaning to him. The difference before and after this twenty-five-year period is that before he is twenty-five he wonders that he is so much more mature than others and knows so much; while after he passes twenty-five he wonders that he is so immature and knows so little. And when a young man reaches that point where he is convinced that he knows very little, then his time of learning commences. Young men generally think they know “a great deal about girls” when they are twenty-one, and can easily choose a wife. But the wisdom of twenty-one on that point is a little slippery, and I would advise no young man to test it.

Then, too, a young man has no conception of his capabilities before he reaches twenty-five. He has no fixed purpose in mind; he has no idea what he is capable of doing; he does not know the business world nor its chances. He has had no opportunity of showing his employers his capacity to fill a more important position. He has, therefore, no practical idea of his prospects, and he can form none. The period between the ages of twenty and twenty-five is the formative period in his life, and during that time it is better that he has no additional responsibilities upon him other than his own struggles will demand. But when he reaches twenty-five he generally begins to develop. His opinions on matters begin to be listened to—casually, it is true, at first, but they command attention, nevertheless, where formerly they were ignored, and justly so. From this time his career begins, and he can, with a greater degree of accuracy, decide for himself whether he can ask the girl of his choice to share his life with him. Between twenty-five and thirty a young man should, if he hopes to amount to anything, choose his path in life and test his capabilities. And then it is that the love of a good wife and her counsel will mean everything to him. If we look at current statistics we find at once that the greater majority—I think it is something like seventy per cent.—of our young men are marrying between twenty-five and thirty, with a leaning toward the latter age. Years ago it was different, and the marrying age for young men was between twenty-two and twenty-five.

But, likewise, a young man cannot afford to wait too long in this question of marriage; and when I say too long I mean beyond the age of thirty. After a man passes thirty years his habits are very likely to become fixed, and from that time it will be harder for him each year to tear away from his bachelor habits. For marriage demands a few sacrifices from a man, and he must be prepared to meet them, just as the girl gives up many of her girlish pleasures. Marriage is not a lark, as some young people are apt to suppose, and it should not be entered into just for the fun of the thing, nor for the sake of being married. Better is it for a young man never to marry than to marry simply for the sake of marrying, or because he feels that he is getting along in years.

There is only one safe rule for a young man to follow in this whole question of marriage, and it solves the problem of the girl and the age: wait until the right girl comes along and then marry her. But, if possible, don’t marry her this side of twenty years, and don’t you marry this side of twenty-five.

Regarding the question of engagements, I believe thoroughly in their short duration. This whole question of matrimonial engagements might be changed somewhat by young people themselves, and to their own benefit. In many cases the young become engaged too soon, and then they are restless because they cannot marry; whereas, if the period of acquaintanceship were made longer, and the engagement time shorter, things would be much improved. Long engagements are never advisable; in fact, they are bad from every point of view; long periods of acquaintance previous to an engagement are far better. So far as actually knowing each other is concerned—well, for that matter, what woman has ever known a man until after she is married to him, or what man has ever known a woman?

Touching the question of a young man’s income when he marries, no rule can be laid down. There are thousands of married people who are living the happiest of lives on six hundred dollars per year, while there are thousands, on the other hand, who struggle to keep out of debt on six thousand a year. And so it goes. Everything depends upon the people. Hundreds of men constantly ask the question, “Can I marry on six hundred, eight hundred, or a thousand dollars per year?” No one can determine this question but the young fellow himself, and particularly the girl whom he loves. As I wrote to a young fellow who asked me if I believed it would be safe for him to marry on a thousand dollars per year, so do I say to all young men who are asking the question, irrespective of the amount involved: no one can tell you. You and the girl in question must settle that. But, on general principles, I think the sooner we look at this question of marriage from some other than this strictly mercenary standpoint the better. I do not believe, as I said a few paragraphs back, in the theory of love in a cottage, with nothing else. But I do believe in young people starting at the lowest rung in the ladder and then climbing up. Nothing else in the world knits the interests of two people so closely together, or insures such absolute happiness in the future as their lives progress. I cannot advise any young fellow what to do, but I know if I were earning six hundred, eight hundred, or a thousand dollars a year, and I really loved a girl—felt, in other words, as if I could not live without her—and the girl was of the right kind—that is, sensible in her ideas, frugal in her tastes, and of a marriageable age—I would let her settle my doubt for me. Girls have a very interesting way of settling doubts of this kind—when they are fond of the fellow in doubt. One thing is certain: the greatest safety in this world for a man is to place his interests in the keeping of the woman who loves him.

These are the only points which I or any other writer can possibly advance regarding this question of marriage. Every young man must necessarily settle it for himself; all that a writer can do is to lay down the best and what he considers to be the safest general principles, and each reader must apply those principles to his own individual needs and condition.

But there is one thing which a writer can safely do, and that is to counsel in every young man a firm belief in womanhood and an honest faith in marriage. He must not paint the marriage relation all of a rose-colored hue. Necessarily it has its purple lights; sometimes its black shadows. No condition of life is without its little trials, its vexations, or its anxieties, and marriage is not an exception to this rule. But it is through the marriage state, through the love of woman, as I have said before, that man has reached his present status. Married to a woman, he may wonder now and then a little whether she is not rather expensive. Her ways may not always be his ways. Occasionally he may frown a little, and perhaps scold a bit. He may leave home in the morning and go to his office without the customary farewell kiss. He may sometimes get provoked because she is “so slow in getting ready” when he goes out with her. He may want to stay at home when she wants to go out. He may be led to say once in a great while, “Women are queer, and you are one of the queerest!” He may fly into a passion, only to feel sorry for it afterward. He may feel piqued at times because she is not home when he comes from the office; that dinner is not ready just at the precise moment when he wants it; that she wants to retire about three hours earlier than he does. But, “after all,” he says to himself, “I tell you what, my wife is an angel. She always seems to know what is best for me, and what is not. She looks at nothing in the light of a sacrifice. When I have been tired for three hours she keeps going. Well, she is my daily joy; sick, my comfort, and the best of nurses; in trouble, my star of hope. When I want to be rash she is cautious. I could stake my life on the honesty of a man; she, at a glance, has read his innermost thoughts and knows his character. And take her year in and year out she is the most patient, most loving, and dearest of women. Faults? Of course she has, but so have I—lots of them, too. I notice all she has, but some way or other she never seems to see mine, and talks only of my best side. And, after all, is she not right?” And then, as a pair of arms are twined around him from behind, as he sits in a comfortable chair, a soft, fluffy sleeve just rubs gently against his face, a pair of eyes look into his eyes as he raises them, a pair of lips lovingly press his, a gentle, loving voice says, “Do you know, dear, you look very comfortable and happy,” everything that is good swells up in him and finds its expression in the typical Americanism: “You bet I am!”

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