Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Wife, by Washington Irving.

Country Cottage, by Joshua Fisher

(Keep in mind the expressions and customs of the era, when you are reading this. Sometimes moderns misunderstand the intentions of such literature, and draw all kinds of wrong conclusions because of words that are rarely used today, which had different connotations in the 18th century! Indeed, sweeping judgements about the relationships of men and women of the past, have been formed because of literary expressions which were never intended to mean what people think today)

Irving, Washington (1783-1859) - An American historian, biographer, and essayist who also served as ambassador to Spain (1842-46). He was the first American author to achieve international literary renown.

The Wife (1819-20) - Part of "The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.," Irving's popular collection of short stories, folklore, travelogues, and essays. The author tells the story of his friend's financial misfortunes and the torturing thoughts he has of sharing his disgrace with his wife.



by Washington Irving

The treasures of the deep are not so precious
As are the conceal'd comforts of a man
Locked up in woman's love. I scent the air
Of blessings, when I come but near the house.
What a delicious breath marriage sends forth . .
The violet bed's not sweeter.

I HAVE often had occasion to remark the fortitude with which women sustain the most overwhelming reverses of fortune. Those disasters which break down the spirit of a man, and prostrate him in the dust,seem to call forth all the energies of the softer sex, and give such intrepidity and elevation to their character, that at times it approaches to sublimity.

Nothing can be more touching than to behold a soft and tender female, who had been all weakness and dependence,and alive to every trivial roughness, while treading the prosperous paths of life, suddenly rising in mental force to be the comforter and support of her husband under misfortune, and abiding, with unshrinking firmness, the bitterest blasts of adversity.

As the vine, which has long twined its graceful foliage about the oak, and been lifted by it into sunshine, will, when the hardy plant is rifted by the thunderbolt, cling round it with its caressing tendrils, and bind up its shattered boughs; so is it beautifully ordered by Providence, that woman, who is the mere dependent and ornament of man in his happier hours, should be his stay and solace when smitten with sudden calamity; winding herself into the rugged recesses of his nature, tenderly supporting the drooping head, and binding up the broken heart.

I was once congratulating a friend, who had around him a blooming family, knit together in the strongest affection. "I can wish you no better lot," said he, with enthusiasm, "than to have a wife and children. If you are prosperous, there they are to share your prosperity; if otherwise, there they are to comfort you."

And, indeed,I have observed that a married man falling into misfortune is more apt to retrieve his situation in the world than a single one; partly because he is more stimulated to exertion by the necessities of the helpless and beloved beings who depend upon him for subsistence; but chiefly because his spirits are soothed and relieved by domestic endearments, and his self-respect kept alive by finding, that though all abroad is darkness and humiliation, yet there is still a little world of love at home, of which he is the monarch. Whereas a single man is apt to run to waste and self-neglect; to fancy himself lonely and abandoned, and his heart to fall to ruin like some deserted mansion, for want of an inhabitant.

These observations call to mind a little domestic story, of whichI was once a witness. My intimate friend, Leslie, had married a beautiful and accomplished girl, who had been brought up in the midst of fashionable life. She had, it is true, no fortune, but that of my friend was ample; and he delighted in the anticipation of indulging her in every elegant pursuit, and administering to those delicate tastes and fancies that spread a kind of witchery about the sex.- "Her life," said he, "shall be like a fairy tale."

The very difference in their characters produced an harmonious combination: he was of a romantic and somewhat serious cast; she was all life and gladness. I have often noticed the mute rapture with which he would gaze upon her in company, of which her sprightly powers made her the delight; and how, in the midst of applause, her eye would still turn to him, as if there alone she sought favor and acceptance. When leaning on his arm, her slender form contrasted finely with his tall manly person. The fond confiding air with which she looked up to him seemed to call forth a flush of triumphant pride and cherishing tenderness, as if he doted on his lovely burden for its very helplessness.

Never did a couple set forward on the flowery path of early and well-suited marriage with a fairer prospect of felicity. It was the misfortune of my friend, however, to have embarked his property in large speculations; and he had not been married many months, when, by a succession of sudden disasters, it was swept from him, and he found himself reduced almost to penury. For a time he kept this situation to himself, and went about with a haggard countenance, and a breaking heart.

His life was but a protracted agony; and what rendered it more insupportable was the necessity of keeping up a smile in the presence of his wife; for he could not bring himself to overwhelm her with the news. She saw, however, with the quick eyes of affection, that all was not well with him. She marked his altered looks and stifled sighs, and was not to be deceived by his sickly and vapid attempts at cheerfulness.

She tasked all her sprightly powers and tender blandishments to win him back to happiness; but she only drove the arrow deeper into his soul. The more he saw cause to love her, the more torturing was the thought that he was soon to make her wretched. A little while, thought he, and the smile will vanish from that cheek- the song will die away from those lips- the lustre of those eyes will be quenched with sorrow; and the happy heart, which now beats lightly in that bosom, will be weighed down like mine, by the cares and miseries of the world.

At length he came to me one day, and related his whole situationin a tone of the deepest despair. When I heard him through I inquired,"Does your wife know all this?"- At the question he burst into an agony of tears. "For God's sake!" cried he, "if you have any pity on me, don't mention my wife; it is the thought of her that drives me almost to madness!"

"And why not?" said I. "She must know it sooner or later: you cannot keep it long from her, and the intelligence may break upon her in a more startling manner, than if imparted by yourself; for the accents of those we love soften the harshest tidings. Besides, you are depriving yourself of the comforts of her sympathy; and not merely that, but also endangering the only bond that can keep hearts together- an unreserved community of thought and feeling. She will soon perceive that something is secretly preying upon your mind; and true love will not brook reserve; it feels undervalued and outraged,when even the sorrows of those it loves are concealed from it."

"Oh, but, my friend! to think what a blow I am to give to all her future prospects- how I am to strike her very soul to the earth, by telling her that her husband is a beggar! that she is to forego all the elegancies of life- all the pleasures of society- to shrink with me into indigence and obscurity! To tell her that I have dragged her down from the sphere in which she might have continued to move in constant brightness- the light of every eye- the admiration of every heart!- How can she bear poverty? she has been brought up in all the refinements of opulence. How can she bear neglect? she has been the idol of society. Oh! it will break her heart- it will break her heart!-"

I saw his grief was eloquent, and I let it have its flow; for sorrow relieves itself by words. When his paroxysm had subsided, and he had relapsed into moody silence, I resumed the subject gently, and urged him to break his situation at once to his wife. He shook his head mournfully, but positively. "But how are you to keep it from her? It is necessary she should know it, that you may take the steps proper to the alteration of your circumstances. You must change your style of living- nay,"observing a pang to pass across his countenance, "don't let that afflict you. I am sure you have never placed your happiness in outward show- you have yet friends, warm friends, who will not think the worse of you for being less splendidly lodged: and surely it does not require a palace to be happy with Mary-"

"I could be happy with her," cried he, convulsively, "in a hovel!- I could go down with her into poverty and the dust!- I could- I could-God bless her!- God bless her!" cried he, bursting into a transport of grief and tenderness. "And believe me, my friend," said I, stepping up, and grasping him warmly by the hand, "believe me she can be the same with you. Ay, more: it will be a source of pride and triumph to her- it will call forth all the latent energies and fervent sympathies of her nature; for she will rejoice to prove that she loves you for yourself.

There is in every true woman's heart a spark of heavenly fire, which lies dormant in the broad daylight of prosperity; but which kindles up, and beams and blazes in the dark hour of adversity. No man knows what the wife of his bosom is- no man knows what a ministering angel she is- until he has gone with her through the fiery trials of this world."

There was something in the earnestness of my manner, and the figurative style of my language, that caught the excited imagination of Leslie. I knew the auditor I had to deal with; and following up the impression I had made, I finished by persuading him to go home and unburden his sad heart to his wife.

I must confess, notwithstanding all I had said, I felt some little solicitude for the result. Who can calculate on the fortitude of one whose life has been a round of pleasures? Her gay spirits might revolt at the dark downward path of low humility suddenly pointed out before her, and might cling to the sunny regions in which they had hither to revelled.

Besides, ruin in fashionable life is accompanied by so many galling mortifications, to which in other ranks it is a stranger.- In short, I could not meet Leslie the next morning without trepidation. He had made the disclosure.

"And how did she bear it?" "

"Like an angel! It seemed rather to be a relief to her mind, for she threw her arms round my neck, and asked if this was all that had lately made me unhappy.- But, poor girl," added he, "she canno trealize the change we must undergo. She has no idea of poverty but in the abstract; she has only read of it in poetry, where it is allied to love. She feels as yet no privation; she suffers no loss of accustomed conveniences nor elegancies. "

When we come practically to experience its sordid cares, its paltry wants, its petty humiliations-then will be the real trial." "But," said I, "now that you have got over the severest task, that of breaking it to her, the sooner you let the world into the secret the better. The disclosure may be mortifying; but then it is a single misery, and soon over: whereas you otherwise suffer it, in anticipation, every hour in the day.

It is not poverty so much as pretence, that harasses a ruined man- the struggle between a proud mind and an empty purse- the keeping up a hollow show that must soon come to an end. Have the courage to appear poor and you disarm poverty of its sharpest sting." On this point I found Leslie perfectly prepared. He had no false pride himself, and as to his wife, she was only anxious to conform to their altered fortunes.

Some days afterwards he called upon me in the evening. He had disposed of his dwelling house, and taken a small cottage in the country, a few miles from town.

He had been busied all day in sending out furniture. The new establishment required few articles, and those of the simplest kind. All the splendid furniture of his late residence had been sold, excepting his wife's harp. That, he said, was too closely associated with the idea of herself; it belonged to the little story of their loves; for some of the sweetest moments of their courtship were those when he had leaned over that instrument, and listened to the melting tones of her voice. I could not but smile at this instance of romantic gallantry in a doting husband.

He was now going out to the cottage, where his wife had been all day superintending its arrangement. My feelings had become strongly interested in the progress of this family story, and, as it was a fine evening, I offered to accompany him. He was wearied with the fatigues of the day, and, as he walked out, fell into a fit of gloomy musing. "Poor Mary!" at length broke, with a heavy sigh, from his lips. "And what of her?" asked I: "has anything happened to her?"

"What," said he, darting an impatient glance, "is it nothing to be reduced to this paltry situation- to be caged in a miserable cottage- to be obliged to toil almost in the menial concerns of her wretched habitation?"

"Has she then repined at the change?"

"Repined! she has been nothing but sweetness and good humor. Indeed, she seems in better spirits than I have ever known her; she has been to me all love, and tenderness, and comfort!"

"Admirable girl!" exclaimed I. "You call yourself poor, my friend; you never were so rich- you never knew the boundless treasures of excellence you possess in that woman."

"Oh! but, my friend, if this first meeting at the cottage were over,I think I could then be comfortable. But this is her first day of real experience; she has been introduced into a humble dwelling- she has been employed all day in arranging its miserable equipments- she has, for the first time, known the fatigues of domestic employment-she has, for the first time, looked round her on a home destitute of every thing elegant,- almost of every thing convenient; and may now be sitting down, exhausted and spiritless, brooding over a prospect of future poverty."

There was a degree of probability in this picture that I could not gainsay, so we walked on in silence. After turning from the main road up a narrow lane, so thickly shaded with forest trees as to give it a complete air of seclusion, we came in sight of the cottage. It was humble enough in its appearance for the most pastoral poet; and yet it had a pleasing rural look.

A wild vine had overrun one end with a profusion of foliage; a few trees threw their branches gracefully over it; and I observed several pots of flowers tastefully disposed about the door, and on the grass-plot in front. A small wicket gate opened upon a footpath that wound through some shrubbery to the door. Just as we approached, we heard the sound of music- Leslie grasped my arm; we paused and listened.It was Mary's voice singing, in a style of the most touching simplicity, a little air of which her husband was peculiarly fond.

I felt Leslie's hand tremble on my arm. He stepped forward to hear more distinctly. His step made a noise on the gravel walk. A bright beautiful face glanced out at the window and vanished- a light footstep was heard and Mary came tripping forth to meet us: she was in a pretty rural dress of white; a few wild flowers were twisted in her fine hair; a fresh bloom was on her cheek; her whole countenance beamed with smiles- I had never seen her look so lovely.

"My dear George," cried she, "I am so glad you are come! I have been watching and watching for you; and running down the lane, and looking out for you. I've set out a table under a beautiful tree behind the cottage; and I've been gathering some of the most delicious strawberries, for I know you are fond of them- and we have such excellent cream- and every thing is so sweet and still here- Oh!" said she, putting her arm within his, and looking up brightly in his face, "Oh, we shall be so happy!"

Poor Leslie was overcome. He caught her to his bosom- he folded his arms round her- he kissed her again and again- he could not speak, but the tears gushed into his eyes; and he has often assured me, that though the world has since gone prosperously with him, and his life has, indeed, been a happy one, yet never has he experienced a moment of more exquisite felicity.


The following is a list of other works by Washington Irving. He was best known for his story, "Rip Van Winkle."

AlhambraAnglerArt of Book-MakingAuthor's Account of HimselfBoar's Head Tavern EastcheapBroken HeartChristmasChristmas DayChristmas DinnerChristmas EveCountry ChurchEnglish Writers on AmericaInn KitchenJohn BullL'EnvoyLegend of Sleepy HollowLittle BritainLondon AntiquesMutability of LiteraturePhilip of PokanoketPride of the VillageRip Van WinkleRoscoeRoyal PoetRural FuneralsRural Life in EnglandSpectre BridegroomStage CoachStratford-on-AvonSunday in LondonTraits of Indian CharactersVoyageWestminster AbbeyWidow and Her SonWife

These stories can be read here :http://www.19.5degs.com/author/ebooks/washington-irving/28/0#list

Tea Cup Cottage by Thomas Kinkade -- print available to purchase online


Cherish the Home said...

LOVED this story! It is so inspiring and sweet and refreshing! We don't need 'things' to make our house a HOME....we just need love and sweet femininity. Like Paul said in Phil 4:11&12a ...'for I have LEARNED, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound:.....'(emphasis mine)

Thanks for the reminder and for posting such inspiring stories!

Anonymous said...

Nowadays if the family has financial trouble the first thought will probably be for the wife to get a job in order to ease the burden.

I know of two families where the wife went to work, having a friend as a babysitter. They ended up divorced, with their husbands marrying the babysitters.

Anonymous said...

Thanks once again for a lovely reminder of what it means to be a wife! I read this and the preceeding post last night after some time of feeling down about our housing situation. Both reminded me that it is not the building or the posessions that make a house a home. Thanks again for posting this!
In many of your posts you focus on homemaking and femininity...these are two areas that I truly want to excel in. However, I grew up in a family where I worked for part of the time alongside my brothers and they expected me to be able to do what they could do. I wasn't often very femininly attired and wasn't really groomed to be a feminine lady (I blame no one for this, I had no real interest in much other than being able to keep up with my brothers when it came to work, it was a matter of pride for me to be able to do what they could do) Now though, I can see the rightness of and really desire to be a lady, as a wife and mother. After growing up as a tomboy, how is one to learn to be a lady? Can you help me please?
As to the homemaking, I never took much notice of how my mother did things around the house. Having been doing just the basics for several years, some of your other articles have prompted me to desire and strive for more. No I haven't fully succeeded, it is an ever progressing battle! Thanks though for all the encouragement and challenging you give and do through your posts!

Lydia said...

Ladies, I have kept this story to myself for many years, because it was so sweet, but due to this story, I will share it with you.

A similar incident occurred in my life, but at the time I did not relate it to this story. It still remains a milestone in my personal history. I now recognize it as my husband's attempt to keep us all home.

My husband always wanted to take care of us in a beautiful way. It was a great source of pride to him to show his parents and my parents, and others, that he could look after us and not send his wife to work or his children to daycare.

He had bought a beautiful house that was three stories, with a swimming pool, in a nice neighborhood. We really thought we had made it, but as time went by and his job situation changed, we found there was no longer money to pay taxes and other expenses on this beautiful house. It was in a neighborhood also, not in the country, yet the expense of it was as though we were living on a great estate in the country.

The time finally came when we could no longer afford that house. Most people in the neighborhood who had similar houses, had wives working, to help make these expenses. I was the only one staying home, and indeed it was a lonely neighborhood.

I remember going for walks with my children and there wasn't a tricycle or a child in any front yard, nor mothers talking over the fence, as I remember happening when I was a child. The women had to go to work to afford those beautiful houses, and their children had to be shipped off to some school or other institution during the day.

We tried to sell the house but the market for that kind of house was not doing very well, and we ended up returning it to the original owner who had sold it to us, and getting nothing for it.

A farmer and his wife who had been friends of ours, told us that they had a little shack they would rent to us for $250.00 a month. It wasn't much, they said, but his mother and father had lived in it in the 1930's and raised a family in it. We accepted the offer without seeing the house.

When we arrived at this lonely outpost, our hearts sank upon viewing the poor, unpainted house sitting there on the unmown grass, in the middle of a huge piece of land miles from town.

Inside, was a terrible looking carpet and worse looking facilities. The appliances and plumbing was what I would call antique. Our children, however, were gleeful. They ran outside and explored their new countryside. They thought it was an adventure.

While they were outside, while I was standing up viewing this dismal situation, with the cracked paint on the inside of the living room, my husband came up behind me, wrapped his arms around me and said into my ear, "I can't tell you how sorry I am that I have brought us down to this."

I still remember those exact words, and how I was opened to the fact that he was also sufferring. Up until that time, I thought that I was the one who would have to do the adjusting, and be the most inconvenienced. This phrase sounded so foreign to his personality which was always optimisic, always encouraging.

I think it took a lot for him to apologize to me and I was rather embarrassed about it. I didn't think he owed it to me, but it was the springboard for me to do something with the situation.

I don't know how to explain this, but that confession of my husbands really inspired me. I was then lifted out of my own concern about dealing with this unkempt dwelling, and felt the courage to make the best of things, for his sake--to reassure him that all would be well.

He had to go somewhere the following day but while he was gone, the children and I unpacked and arranged our furniture. When our circumstances had to be reduced, we had sold everything and bought a set of wicker furniture.

This wicker turned out to be the most versatile furniture we ever had. The children could lift the chairs, couches, tables and shelves and place them anywhere.

By the time my husband returned home, there was a plesant grouping in the living room and good smells from the kitchen. During our time there, we never once complained to him about wanting a better house. We were even more isolated than in the neiborhood from which we had come, but we were much more active and happy.

When we woke up the next day, we first noticed the incredible sound of silence out there in the vast country. It was a little unnerving at first, but as weeks went by, and we made the house our home, improving the lawn and the area around it, birds moved in and a few cats wandered over to sit at a safe distance and lick their paws.

We learned that farms and ranches come with the cats, and when people move away, the cats just stay in the barn. Our children named every single animal they found, and although we never fed them or let them in the house, they survived.

Other things that fascinated us were the pear trees and berry bushes that yielded delicious fruit, and the amazing displays in the sky when storms presented their awe-ful presence. We could all stand just under the porch roof and view interesting flashes of light and listen to what the children called "God's Orchestra."

The front porch on this ranch became another living room. We often took books or art materials out there and set up a type of studio to spend the day with.

Over time, we invited visitors to come and share high tea with us. Every time someone came out there, they would comment on how inspired they were that we had made this place a home.

In five years, we had to move away because my husband's parents became too old to look after themselves, but that five years changed our values tremendously. We were different people when we left than when we had first arrived.

If it had not been for this experience of reducing our expectations and living the simple life, we may not have chosen to come where we now live, unless the house and the income was just right. We live in a much similar setting and situation. It is the same distance to the nearest town (about three miles) and few people in sight, but we are content, due to that experience.

One thing I noticed about the time we spent away from the neighborhoods was how much there was for the children to do. In a neighborhood, kids tend to get involved in video games and television, but out in the country they went on endless walks where they explored old trails and picked up arrowheads and fossils. They planted vegetables. They got involved in music and drama, putting on their own plays. I have a collection of paintings they made of the surroundig countryside.

It has been over 20 years since this incident. Through vexations and trials, I always think of the moment of my husband's sadness at "bringing us this low" and know that he actually raised us up a level or two. ;-)

DonnaB said...

Lady Lydia, Thank you for sharing your personal story. I truly believe a wife sets the tone in the home. She can rightly decide to set a tone of thankfulness, industriousness, and contentment. Or she can wrongly decide to set the opposite tone and ensure everyone is miserable.

Cherish the Home said...

Oh Lady Lydia.....what a wonderfully-sweet story. Thank you for sharing it and you're right it sure does fit the post.

Lydia said...

I'm really not that bad a speller but was in a hurry when I wrote this.

Lydia said...

I just remembered something else about this incident. I was rather distracted at the time that my husband was so intense with his confession, that I wasn't really at that time, paying much attention to his agony. If you can imagine, as he was speaking, my eyes were travelling to the corners and the walls. His words, "brought you to a place like this" triggered off my imagination and I was thinking how good the family portrait would look on the east wall, and the painting "Enchantment" by Harrison Fisher next to the old piano. I was planning the furniture arrangement in my mind and thinking how I wanted to preserve the view out the window and didn't want to put anything in front of it ;-) He probably would have laughed if he had known I wasn't paying much attention to his sorrowful apology ;-) I did repent of it later though.

Anonymous said...

What a lovely story! Thank you Lady Lydia for posting it, as well as your own life example. =) I only hope that, should the Lord bless me with marriage, I would be able to stand strong as "The Wife".

Pammie said...

I stumbled upon your blog and this was the post I found first. I wish every woman that I know would read this story you have shared. It is so sweet and it packs a whopping of a lesson in it. Thank you for writing and sharing your own real life example. It will always have a place in my life.