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PAGE 2

Shrews
by [?]

But I am not minded to deal with the special instances of shrewism which have been pronounced enough to claim attention from powerful masters of fiction and history; I am rather interested in the swarms of totally commonplace shrews who live around us, and who do their very best–or worst–to make the earth a miserable place. I can laugh as heartily as anybody at Dickens’s “scolds” and female bullies; none the less however am I ready in all seriousness to reckon the shrew as an evil influence, as bad as some of the most subtle and malevolent scourges inflicted by physical nature. All of us have but a little span on earth, and we should be able to economise every minute, so as to extract the maximum of joy from existence; yet how many frail lives are embittered by the shrew! How many men, women, and children has she not forced to wish almost for death as a relief from morbid pain and keen humiliation! Our social conditions tend to foster shrewish temperament, for we are gradually changing the subjection of woman to the enslavement of man; gentle chivalry is developing into maudlin self-advertising self-abnegation on the part of the males who favour the new movement. The sweet and equable lady remains the same in all ages; Imogen and Desdemona and Rosalind and the Roaring Girl have their modern counterparts. The lady never takes advantage of the just homage bestowed on her; she never asserts herself; her good breeding is so absolute that she would not be uncontrolledly familiar with her nearest and dearest, and her thoughts are all for others. But the shrew must always be thrusting herself forward; her cankered nature turns kindness into poison; she resents a benefit conferred as though it were an insult; and yet, if she is not constantly noticed and made, at the least, the recipient of kindly offers, she contrives to cause every one within reach of her to feel the sting of her enraged vanity. When I think of some women who are to be met with in various quarters, from the “slum” to the drawing-room, I am driven to wonder–shocking as it may seem–that crimes of violence are not more frequent than they are. It is most melancholy to notice how well the shrew fares compared with some poor creatures of gentler nature. In the lower classes a meek, toil-worn, obliging woman is most foully ill-used by a vagabond of a husband in only too many cases; while a screaming selfish wretch who, in trying to madden her miserable husband, succeeds in maddening all within earshot, escapes unhurt, and continues to lead her odious life, setting a bad example to impressionable young girls, and perhaps corrupting a neighbourhood. England is the happy hunting-ground for the shrew at present; for in America the average social relation between the sexes has come to be so frank and even that a shrew would be as severely treated as a discourteous man. In England a sham sentiment reigns which gives license to the vilest of women without protecting the martyrs, who, in all conscience, need protection. The scoundrel who maltreats a woman receives far less punishment than is inflicted on a teacher who gives a young Clerkenwell ruffian a stripe with a switch; while the howling shrew who spends a man’s money in drink, empties his house, screeches at him by the hour together, is not censured at all–nay, the ordinary “gusher” would say that “the agonised woman vents the feelings of her overcharged heart.”

Now let us glance at the various sorts of these awful scourges who dwell in our midst. It may be well to classify them at once, because, unless I mistake many symptoms, the stubborn English may shortly snuff out the sentimentalists who have raised up a plague among us. I may say as a preliminary that in my opinion a shrew may be fairly defined as “a female who takes advantage of the noblest impulses of men and the kindliest laws of nations in order that she may claim the social privileges of both sexes and vent her most wicked temper with freedom.” First, consider the doleful shrew. This is a person not usually found among the classes which lack leisure; she is an exasperating and most entirely selfish woman, and she cannot very well invent her refinements of whining cruelty unless she has a little time on hand; her speciality is to moan incessantly over the ingratitude of people for whom she has done some trivial service; and, as she always moans by choice in presence of the person whom she has afflicted by her generosity, the result is merely distracting. If the victim says, “I allow that you have been very kind, and I am grateful,” he commits an error in tactics, for the torturer is upon him at once. “Oh, you do own it then, and yet see how you behave!”–and then the torrent flows on with swift persistence. If, on the contrary, the sufferer cries, “Why on earth do you go on repeating what you have done? I owned your kindness once, and I do not intend to talk any more about it!” he is still more clearly delivered into the enemy’s hands. He lays himself open to a charge of ingratitude, and the charge is pressed home with relentless fluency. Then, as to the doleful one’s influence on children–the general modern tendency is towards making children happy, but the doleful one is a survival from some bad type, and takes a secret malign delight in wantonly inflicting pain on the minds or bodies of the young. Some dense people perhaps imagine that children cannot suffer mental agony; yet the merest mite may carry a whole tragedy in its innocent soul. We all know the wheedling ways of children; we know how they will coax little luxuries and privileges out of “papa” and “mamma,” and most of us rather like to submit with simulated reluctance to the harmless extortion. If I had heard a certain tiny youth say, “Papa, when I’m a big man, and you’re a little boy, I shall ask you to have some jam,” I should have failed entirely to smother my laughter. Do you think the doleful one would have seen the fun of the remark if she had any power over the body or soul of that devoted child? Nay. She would have whined about slyness, and cunning hints, and greediness, and the probabilities of utter ruin and disgrace overtaking underhand schemers, until that child would have been stunned, puzzled, deprived of self-respect, and rendered entirely wretched. Long ago I heard of a doleful one who turned suddenly on a merry boy who was playing on the floor. “You’re going straight to perdition!” observed the dolorous one; and the light went out of that boy’s life for a time. A gladsome party of young folk may be instantly wrecked by the doleful shrew’s entrance; and, if she cannot attract attention to herself amid a gathering even of sensible, cheerful adults, she will probably break up the evening by dint of a well-timed fit of spasms or something similar. Dickens made Mrs. Gummidge very funny; but the Gummidge of real life is not merely a limp, “lorn” creature–she is a woman who began by being unhealthily vain, and ends by being venomously malignant. I do not think that many people have passed through life very far without meeting with a specimen of the dolorous shrew, and I hope in all charity that the creature is not in the immediate circle of any one who reads this. In impassioned moments, when I have reckoned up all the misery caused by this species, I have been inclined to wish that every peculiarly malign specimen could be secured at the public expense in a safe asylum.