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Worldly Ways and Byways (chapter 5)

2006-07-09 18:01

  CHAPTER  5- On Some GildedMisalliances

  A DEAR old American lady, who lived the greater part of her life in Rome, and received every body worth knowing in her spacious drawing-rooms, far up in the dim vastnesses of a Roman palace, used to say that she had only known one really happy marriage made by an American girl abroad.

  In those days, being young and innocent, I considered that remark cynical, and in my heart thought nothing could be more romantic and charming than for a fair compatriot to assume an historic title and retire to her husband's estates, and rule smilingly over him and a devoted tenantry, as in the last act of a comic opera, when a rose- colored light is burning and the orchestra plays the last brilliant chords of a wedding march.

  There seemed to my perverted sense a certain poetic justice about the fact that money, gained honestly but prosaically, in groceries or gas, should go to regild an ancient blazon or prop up the crumbling walls of some stately palace abroad.

  Many thoughtful years and many cruel realities have taught me that my gracious hostess of the “seventies” was right, and that marriage under these conditions is apt to be much more like the comic opera after the curtain has been rung down, when the lights are out, the applauding public gone home, and the weary actors brought slowly back to the present and the positive, are wondering how they are to pay their rent or dodge the warrant in ambush around the corner.

  International marriages usually come about from a deficient knowledge of the world. The father becomes rich, the family travel abroad, some mutual friend (often from purely interested motives) produces a suitor for the hand of the daughter, in the shape of a “prince” with a title that makes the whole simple American family quiver with delight.

  After a few visits the suitor declares himself; the girl is flattered, the father loses his head, seeing visions of his loved daughter hob-nobbing with royalty, and (intoxicating thought!) snubbing the “swells” at home

  who had shown reluctance to recognize him and his family.

  It is next to impossible for him to get any reliable information about his future son-in-law in a country where, as an American, he has few social relations, belongs to no club, and whose idiom is a sealed book to him. Every circumstance conspires to keep the flaws on the article for sale out of sight and place the suitor in an advantageous light. Several weeks' “courting” follows, paterfamilias agrees to part with a handsome share of his earnings, and a marriage is “arranged.”

  In the case where the girl has retained some of her self-respect the suitor is made to come to her country for the ceremony. And, that the contrast between European ways and our simple habits may not be too striking, an establishment is hastily got together, with hired liveries and new-bought carriages, as in a recent case in this state. The sensational papers write up this “international union,” and publish “faked” portraits of the bride and her noble spouse. The sovereign of the groom's country (enchanted that some more American money is to be imported into his land) sends an economical present and an autograph letter. The act ends. Limelight and slow music!

  In a few years rumors of dissent and trouble float vaguely back to the girl's family. Finally, either a great scandal occurs, and there is one dishonored home the more in the world, or an expatriated woman, thousands of miles from the friends and relatives who might be of some comfort to her, makes up her mind to accept “anything” for the sake of her children, and attempts to build up some sort of an existence out of the remains of her lost illusions, and the father wakes up from his dream to realize that his wealth has only served to ruin what he loved best in all the world.

  Sometimes the conditions are delightfully comic, as in a well-known case, where the daughter, who married into an indolent, happy-go- lucky Italian family, had inherited her father's business push and energy along with his fortune, and immediately set about “running” her husband's estate as she had seen her father do his bank. She tried to revive a half-forgotten industry in the district, scraped and whitewashed their picturesque old villa, proposed her husband's entering business, and in short dashed head

  down against all his inherited traditions and national prejudices, until her new family loathed the sight of the brisk American face, and the poor she had tried to help, sulked in their newly drained houses and refused to be comforted. Her ways were not Italian ways, and she seemed to the nun-like Italian ladies, almost unsexed, as she tramped about the fields, talking artificial manure and subsoil drainage with the men. Yet neither she nor her husband was to blame. The young Italian had but followed the teachings of his family, which decreed that the only honorable way for an aristocrat to acquire wealth was to marry it. The American wife honestly tried to do her duty in this new position, naively thinking she could engraft transatlantic “go” upon the indolent Italian character. Her work was in vain; she made herself and her husband so unpopular that they are now living in this country, regretting too late the error of their ways.

  Another case but little less laughable, is that of a Boston girl with a neat little fortune of her own, who, when married to the young Viennese of her choice, found that he expected her to live with his family on the third floor of their “palace” (the two lower floors being rented to foreigners), and as there was hardly enough money for a box at the opera, she was not expected to go, whereas his position made it necessary for him to have a stall and appear there nightly among the men of his rank, the astonished and disillusioned Bostonian remaining at home EN TETE-A-TETE with the women of his family, who seemed to think this the most natural arrangement in the world.

  It certainly is astonishing that we, the most patriotic of nations, with such high opinion of ourselves and our institutions, should be so ready to hand over our daughters and our ducats to the first foreigner who asks for them, often requiring less information about him than we should consider necessary before buying a horse or a dog.

  Women of no other nation have this mania for espousing aliens. Nowhere else would a girl with a large fortune dream of marrying out of her country. Her highest ideal of a husband would be a man of her own kin. It is the rarest thing in the world to find a well-born French, Spanish, or Italian woman married to a foreigner and living away from her country. How can a woman expect to be happy separated from all the ties and

  traditions of her youth? If she is taken abroad young, she may still hope to replace her friends as is often done. But the real reason of unhappiness (greater and deeper than this) lies in the fundamental difference of the whole social structure between our country and that of her adoption, and the radically different way of looking at every side of life.

  Surely a girl must feel that a man who allows a marriage to be arranged for him (and only signs the contact because its pecuniary clauses are to his satisfaction, and who would withdraw in a moment if these were suppressed), must have an entirely different point of view from her own on all the vital issues of life.

  Foreigners undoubtedly make excellent husbands for their own women. But they are, except in rare cases, unsatisfactory helpmeets for American girls. It is impossible to touch on more than a side or two of this subject. But as an illustration the following contrasted stories may be cited:

  Two sisters of an aristocratic American family, each with an income of over forty thousand dollars a year, recently married French noblemen. They naturally expected to continue abroad the life they had led at home, in which opera boxes, saddle horses, and constant entertaining were matters of course. In both cases, our compatriots discovered that their husbands (neither of them penniless) had entirely different views. In the first place, they were told that it was considered “bad form” in France for young married women to entertain; besides, the money was needed for improvements, and in many other ways, and as every well-to-do French family puts aside at least a third of its income as DOTS for the children (boys as well as girls), these brides found themselves cramped for money for the first time in their lives, and obliged, during their one month a year in Paris, to put up with hired traps, and depend on their friends for evenings at the opera.

  This story is a telling set-off to the case of an American wife, who one day received a windfall in the form of a check for a tidy amount. She immediately proposed a trip abroad to her husband, but found that he preferred to remain at home in the society of his horses and dogs. So our fair compatriot starts off (with his full consent), has her outing, spends her little “pile,” and returns after three or four months to the home of her

  delighted spouse.

  Do these two stories need any comment? Let our sisters and their friends think twice before they make themselves irrevocably wheels in a machine whose working is unknown to them, lest they be torn to pieces as it moves. Having the good luck to be born in the “paradise of women,” let them beware how they leave it, charm the serpent never so wisely, for they may find themselves, like the Peri, outside the gate.

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