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Desmond MacCarthy’s Review

[Virginia Woolf replied to this review. See “Weininger’s wake and Woolf’s ire” for context.]

OCTOBER 2, 1920

Current Literature

SAMUEL BUTLER used to say when asked what he thought about women, “I think what every sensible man thinks”; and when pressed further he would add, “Sensible men never tell.” This was ominous and also characteristic; the crusty bachelor was a strong strain in him. Mr. Arnold Bennett has written a book about women (Our Women. Cassell. 7s. 6d.)—not my women, you observe, which is a title that would suit most other books written on this subject. For though such books often profess to be results of detached observation and to be about women in general, they usually contain only notes about certain types familiar to the author. There seems an irresistible tendency to generalise on this topic. It seems difficult to make an observation about two or three women without at once turning it into a proposition about all women. I own I have done this myself, and said many things which seemed to me clever and penetrating at the time, but certainly were not scientific. One such aphorism I recall because the first half of it would meet, I think, with Mr. Bennett’s assent, since he quotes with approval Lady Mary Montague’s remark, “I have never in all my various travels seen but two sorts of people, and those very like one another; I mean, men and women.” My aphorism ran thus: “Men and women are really more alike than they can believe each other to be; but they ought not to behave to each other as though this were true.”

* * *

Mr. Bennett’s book, unlike most books about women, is not an essay on love. It is a book about economics. The influence of the economic factor on feminine characteristics and on the relations between men and women is the main theme of his discourse. It is a sensible book, and like many books which strike one immediately as sensible and straightforward, superficial. It is readable but not at all brilliant.

* * *

He lets one cat out of the bag oddly enough, rather nervously. The cat in question I should have thought had been scampering about people’s minds too long to make apologies necessary, but Mr. Bennett is perhaps extra reluctant to let it loose because he is a convinced feminist. He finds it difficult to say, yet say it he does, that women are inferior to men in intellectual power, especially in that kind of power which is described as creative. Certainly, that fact stares one in the face; and he admits that “no amount of education and liberty of action will sensibly alter it.” “The literature of the world can show at least fifty male poets greater than any woman poet . . .” (Yes; unless you believe with Samuel Butler that a woman wrote the Odyssey.) “With the possible exception of Emily Brontë, no woman novelist has yet produced a novel to equal the great novels of men.” (On the whole that is true: assent is in this case a little more doubtful.) “No woman at all has achieved either painting or sculpture that is better than second rate, or music that is better than second rate.” (True; remember the standard is the masterpieces of the world.) “Nor has any woman come anywhere near the top in criticism.” (True.) “Can anybody name a celebrated woman philosopher; or a woman who has made a first rate scientific discovery; or a woman who has arrived at a first rate generalisation of any sort?” (No: I remember the standard again.) I cannot conceive anybody who considers facts impartially coming to any other conclusions. Though it is true that a small percentage of women are as clever as clever men, on the whole intellect is a masculine speciality. Some women undoubtedly have genius, but genius in a lesser degree than Shakespeare, Newton, Michael Angelo, Beethoven, Tolstoi. The average intellectual power of women also seems a good deal lower. If you transferred the intellect of a clever but not remarkably clever man to a woman, you would make her at once into a remarkably clever woman, and I expect the same is true of general organising capacity: a feminine Ford would be one of the world’s wonders.

* * *

And what then? Well, intellect means in the long run, and on the whole, domination.

* * *

It is indubitable that if women were a nation instead of a sex, their country would not be considered to have contributed much to the world’s art or discoveries. Is this a very depressing conclusion for women? I do not see why it should be; we most of us have got used to the idea that we are not going to be Aristotles or Rembrandts, and are quite satisfied to be in the running for the sixth or seventh places let alone the second or third which women have reached.

* * *

There is a passage worth drawing attention to on p.105: “I shall continue to assert,” says Mr. Bennett, “not only that even in this very advanced year women as a sex love to be dominated, but that for some thousands of years, if not for ever, they always will love to be dominated. This desire to be dominated is in itself a proof of intellectual inferiority. It is instinctive and survives, despite a general impression in certain quarters that recent progressive events have in some mysterious way put an end to it.” Well, men of inferior intellect do not wish to be dominated, and it is often very unfortunate that they do not. Therefore this desire which Mr. Bennett attributes to women has nothing to do with intellectual inferiority. He says it is “instinctive,” but he leaves it at that. This is an example of his superficial treatment of his subject.

* * *

At the end of the book he gives an example of “the sex-discord,” that is to say the sort of way men and women misunderstand each other. The quarrel in this instance is over a gardener and some chrysanthemums. Jack and Jill fall out over this little matter, and as long as the quarrel lasts they think very badly of each other’s character. Mr. Bennett gets inside the head of each with great skill; but there is something queer about his version of matrimonial quarrels. I think that what is wrong with it (I felt the same thing in Those Twain) is that his couples do not strike one as people who are really intimate. It may be true that most married people are not intimate. Intimacy is a gift, and implies a power of being expressive and, above all, caring for intimacy. Anyhow, the lack of it between Jack and Jill make them uninteresting, and his little sketch does not get down deep.

* * *

About twelve years ago a book called Sex and Character, by Otto Weininger, was published, which created some stir. (Translation published by Heinemann.) It was written by a young Jew who committed suicide, and it is said that it had such a depressing effect on feminine readers that at least two of them followed his example. It was an honest, wild book, full of ingenious, highly questionable reasoning, insight and unfairness. It began with a general characterisation of Woman, “W,” which was then divided into two main types, the Courtesan and the Mother, differentiated by their preoccupation with lovers or with children. It ended with discourse upon abnormal types of women and a definition of hysteria as “the organic mendacity of women.” In every human being there were mixed the two elements, “M.” (Man) and “W.” (Woman), just as these characteristics appear physiologically in each sex. To “M.” Weininger attributed all the admirable moral and intellectual qualities and to “W.” all the bad ones. Women therefore came out badly, for there was by hypothesis more “W.” in them than in the great majority of men.

* * *

Another book on women has just appeared, The Good Englishwoman, by Mr. Orlo Williams (Grant Richards, 7s. 6d.). This is a collection of light, neatly written essays, of a friendly and soothing character. The author confines himself to the Englishwoman, and his book is more a study of manners and social habits than of sex. His address contains a good deal of flattery, but it is really more condescending. Mr. Bennett is not condescending.


Posted by vmunoz in Woolf (Friday September 22, 2006 at 12:48 pm)

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