As I Was Saying/Essay XXII

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Essay XXI As I Was Saying
Essay XXII
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Essay XXIII



Essay XXII: About Widows

WIDOWS have always been regarded as an alarming and avenging tribe. In the background of history, back to the time of barbarism, they stand like rigid statues with uplifted arms, calling down the vengeance of heaven upon slayers and spoilers; it was especially their wrongs that the knight was pledged to vindicate when he received the accolade; it is still to the righting of their grievances that the King is bound by the Coronation Oath. They have been nobly treated in ancient tragedy and even in more recent romance; as in that story of the Highland Widow, which is always classed with Scott's worst works, apparently because it is one of his best. The atmosphere changed from tragedy to comedy, with the coming of the more comfortable sentimentality of the nineteenth century. The conception of the comic widow, as distinct from the tragic widow, a conception started long before by the arresting originality of Chaucer, touching that recurrent widow, the Wife of Bath, underwent another broadening and flattening in passing from the comedy of Chaucer to the comedy of Dickens. Tony Weller became the voice of mankind, uttering its ancient fear of widows. And now the widow has entered on a third phase in relation to literature: after the tragedy of Sophocles and Scott, the comedy of Chaucer and Dickens. The widow has become literary herself; and reminded us that we might have had the memoirs of Mrs. Chaucer or the autobiography of Mrs. Dickens. Hitherto, the method has been simple enough. As next to nothing is known about Philippa Chaucer, and there is nothing very much to be said about her, there has been a mysterious assumption that there was nothing to be said for her. It has been oddly assumed that any Chaucerian jokes about wives must be jokes against his own wife; in defiance of the obvious fact that most of the same sort of jokes against wives were made by mediaeval clerics who had no wives at all. On the other hand, as the wife of Charles Dickens wrote nothing to speak of about the story of her life, a modern critic has been so obliging as to write it for her, entirely out of his own head.

But the third and most formidable phase of the widow in literature requires special and rather grave consideration. At least two, if not three or four, of the wives of distinguished men of letters recently dead have almost simultaneously published their impressions of their own and their husbands' private lives. It is not my primary purpose here to discuss the propriety of this new domestic habit beyond saying that nothing would ever induce me personally to have anything to do with it. But the deeper causes of this difference of opinion are here rather more interesting than the difference itself. For the causes seem to me to go rather deep into a new and even unnatural view of life and art. The question might be put for debate in many forms; but perhaps the simplest form of all, to which it ultimately works back, can be found in the old debating-club query of Is Life Worth Living? For there seem to be more and more people who put it to themselves, consciously or unconsciously, in the form of Is Life Worth Writing About?

In other words, it is supposed that all this publicity of self-revelation represents an interest in private life. Sometimes, it may be admitted perhaps, an excessive interest in private life. But it seems to me to indicate a lack of interest in private life. That is, it is a lack of intensity of interest in life as a thing to be lived, and a limitation of the interest to a biography as a thing to be written. If we happen to object to "the sale of Keats's love-letters by auction," as did Oscar Wilde; or to the clown and knave who would not let the bones of Shakespeare rest, as did Alfred Tennyson; or to those who would cut a man's house in two to watch him in his parlour or bedroom, as did Robert Browning . . . if you happen to express some of the regrets felt by these eminent Victorians, you will now always find yourself confronted with one general idea. It is the idea that the love-letters were _wasted_ if they were not sold to an illiterate millionaire from Nebraska; or that the poet's private emotions and meditations are _wasted_ if somebody does not spy upon him walking in his garden; or that life inside the house is _wasted_ if people outside the house know nothing about it. And this seems to me to mean a lack of appreciation, not only of private life, but of life itself. Literary expression is a very valuable part of human experience; but this is making human experience merely a part of literary expression. And though it is done by the most refined persons, and often from really fine motives, it seems to me to drift unconsciously with the whole of that modern tide of mere sale and exchange that has been the curse of all our recent history. I do not mean, of course, that there is any need to denounce every woman who happens to be a widow who may happen to write something about some man who happens to be an artist, even if he also happens to be her husband. It is a question of the way in which the thing is done; and above all of the way in which the thing is defended. And where it is defended on the ground that anything left private is merely buried and lost, that defence is utterly indefensible. It does really imply that nobody has any inner life; that human happiness is not the need of human beings; that man is not an end in himself, subject only to the glory of God; or, in short, that biography was not made for man but man for biography.

What amuses me about this fallacy of the intellectual and the superior persons is how very near it is to the fallacy of the hucksters and the go-getters and the most vulgar sort of capitalist exploiters. For they hold as their chief heresy, in a coarser form, the fundamental falsehood that things are not made to be used but made to be sold. All the collapse of their commercial system in our own time has been due to that fallacy of forcing things on a market where there was no market; of continually increasing the power of supply without increasing the power of demand; or briefly, of always considering the man who sells the potato and never considering the man who eats it. And just as we need much more of the subsistence farm, or the worker who simply produces for his own consumption, so we need much more of what may be called in moral matters the subsistence family; that is, the private family that can be really excited about its own private life; the household that is interested in itself. It is all nonsense to say that such a thing is impossible. Even by the test of literature, there is a whole mass of literature which witnesses both to its actuality and to its attractiveness. But life is much more real than literature. What Stevenson called the great theorem of the livableness of life can be solved without incessant distractions either of publicity or dissipation. It cannot be conducted without reasonable holidays and changes of scene or occupation; nor can anything else. But it can certainly be conducted; and it can certainly be interesting and even exciting. Now, to suggest that a love-letter or a family joke or a secret language among children is never really important until it is edited and published, is to imply only too much of the suggestion of so many memoirs: that a man is only interesting when he is dead. For the whole world of mere stunts and scoops and trading and self-advertisement is spiritually a world utterly dead; although it is very noisy. It is, in the precise and literal meaning of the phrase, a howling wilderness.