The Nature of Woman

Elizabeth Eastlake, from "Lady Travellers" (1845)

Elizabeth Rigby Eastlake (1809–1893) was an artist, art historian and critic, and writer on diverse topics. Lady Eastlake and her husband Sir Charles Eastlake, a well-known painter and art scholar, formed the center of the social group known as the "Eastlake Circle," which included a number of prominent artists and intellectuals. Eastlake was a regular contributor to the Quarterly Review; in this article she reviews a dozen travel narratives written by women.

 

That there are peculiar powers inherent in ladies' eyes, this number of the Quarterly Review was not required to establish; but one in particular, of which we reap all the benefit without paying the penalty, we must in common gratitude be allowed to point out. We mean that power of observation which, so long as it remains at home counting canvass stitches by the fireside, we are apt to consider no shrewder than our own, but which once removed from the familiar scene; and returned to us in the shape of letters or books, seldom fails to prove its superiority. * * *

But, in truth, every country with any pretensions to civilization has a twofold aspect, addressed to two different modes of perception, and seldom visible simultaneously to both. Every country has a home life as well as a public life, and the first quite necessary to interpret the last. Every country therefore, to be fairly understood requires reporters from both sexes. Not that it is precisely recommended that all travelers should hunt the world in couples, and give forth their impressions in the double columns of holy wedlock; but that that kind of partnership should be tacitly formed between books of travel which, properly understood, we should have imagined to have been the chief aim of matrimony — namely, to supply each other's deficiencies, and correct each other's errors, purely for the good of the public. * * *

To revert, therefore to the object of our search — while regarding these unstudied and unpretending works as some of the truest channels for the study of the Englishwoman, they cannot be strictly taken as a test of comparison between her and the lady of other countries. Whether as traveler, or writer of travels, the foreign lady can in no way be measured against her. The only just point of comparison is why the one does travel, and the other does not. And, upon the first view of the matter, the impediments would seem to be all on the side of our own country woman. Her home is proverbially the most domestic — her manners the most reserved — her comforts the most indispensable. Nevertheless, it is precisely because home, manners, and comforts are what they are, that the Englishwoman excels all others in the art of traveling. It is those very habits of order and regularity which make her domestic, — it is that very exclusiveness of family life which makes her reserved, — it is the very nature of the comforts, to her so indispensable, — it is all that best fits her to live in her own country, that also best fits her to visit others. Where is the foreign lady who combines the four cardinal virtues of travelling — activity, punctuality, courage, and independence — like the Englishwoman? — where is she whose habits fit her for that most exclusive of all companionships, the travelling tête-à-tête with a husband for months together? * * *

The truth is that no foreign nation possesses that same class of women from which the great body of our female tourists are drafted. They have not the same well-read, solid thinking, — early rising — sketch-loving — light-footed — trim-waisted — strawed-hatted specimen of women; educated with the refinement of the highest classes, and with the usefulness of the lowest; all-sufficient companion to her husband, and all-sufficient lady's maid to herself — they have her not. Of course in the numbers that flit annually from our coasts, from one motive or other, every shade and grade is to be found, from the highest blasée fashionable, with every faculty of intelligent interest fast closed, to the lowest Biddy Fudge, with every pore of vulgar wonder wide open; the absurdities committed by our countrymen and women under the name of travel are highly significant of the national folly, extravagance, and eccentricity; but the taste for travel from which these abuses spring — the art of it in which the English so excel — we are inclined to attribute to a something still more conspicuous and honourable in the national life — to nothing less than the domesticity of the English character. Who can witness the innumerable family parties which annually take their excursions abroad — the husbands and wives — brothers and sisters — parents and children, — all enjoying them together? Who can see the joint delight with which these expeditions are planned, the kindly feelings and habits they develop, the joint pleasure with which they are remembered — without recognising a proof of exclusive domestic cohesion which no other people display? What, too, is the secret of that facility with which the Englishman adapts himself to a residence in any remote corner of the world? — why do we so often find him settled happily among scenes and people utterly uncongenial in climate and habit? Simply because he takes his home with him; and has more within it and wants less beyond it than any other man in the world. * * *


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