As with the home, so with the family. It would be strange indeed if a stained shell were to hold a sound nut. All the events of the last century–the development of the factory system, the Married Women’s Property Act, the birth of Mr. Bernard Shaw, the entry of woman into professions, the discovery of co-education and of education itself, eugenics, Christian Science, new music halls and halfpenny papers, the Russian ballet, cheap travel, woman suffrage, apartment houses–all this change and stress has lowered the status of one whom Pliny admired–the father of a family. The family itself tends to disappear, and it is many years since letters appeared in The Times over the signature, “Mother of Six.” The family is smaller, and, strangely enough, it is sweeter tempered: would it be fair to conclude, as might an Irishman, that it would agree perfectly if it disappeared?
I do not think that the family will completely disappear any more than scarlet fever or the tax collector. But certainly it will change in character, and its evolution already points toward its new form. The old-fashioned family sickened because it was a compulsory grouping. The wife cleaved unto her husband because he paid the bills; the children cleaved unto their parents because they must cleave unto something. There was no chance of getting out, for there was nothing to get out to. For the girl, especially, some fifty years ago, to escape from the family into the world was much the same thing as burgling a penitentiary; so she stayed, compulsorily grouped. Personally, I think all kinds of compulsory groupings bad. If one is compelled to do a thing, one hates it; possibly the dead warriors in the Elysian Fields have by this time taken a violent dislike to compulsory chariot races, and absolutely detest their endless rest on moss-grown banks and their diet of honey. I do not want to stress the idea too far, but I doubt whether the denizens of the Elysian Fields, after so many centuries, can tolerate one another any more, for they are compelled to live all together in this Paradise, and nothing conceivable will ever get them out.
Some groupings are worse than others, and I incline to think that difference of age has most to do with the chafe of family life. For man is a sociable animal; he loves his fellows, and so one wonders why he should so generally detest his relations. There are minor reasons. Relationship amounts to a license to be rude, to the right to exact respect from the young and service from the old; there is the fact that, however high you may rise in the world, your aunt will never see it. There is also the fact that if your aunt does see it, she brags of it behind your back and insults you about it to your face. There is all that, but still I believe that one could to a certain extent agree with one’s relations if one met only those who are of one’s own age, for compulsory groupings of people of the same age are not always unpleasant; boys are happiest at school, and there is fine fellowship and much merriment in armies. On the other hand, there often reigns a peculiar dislike in offices. I do not want to conclude too rashly, but I cannot help being struck by the fact that in a school or in an army the differences of age are very small, while in an office or a family they are considerable. Add on to the difference of age compulsory intercourse, and you have the seeds of hatred.
This applies particularly where the units of a family are adult. The child loves the grown-ups because he admires them; a little later he finds them out; still a little later, he lets them see that he has found them out, and then family life begins. In many cases it is a quite terrible life, and the more united the family is the more it resembles the union between the shirt of Nessus and Hercules’s back. But it must be endured because we have no alternative. I think of cases: of such a one as that of a father and mother, respectively sixty-five and sixty, who have two sons, one of whom ran away to Australia with a barmaid, while the other lived on his sisters’ patrimony and regrettably stayed at home; they have four daughters, two of whom have revolted to the extent of earning their living, but spend the whole of their holidays with the old people; the other two are unmarried because the father, imbued with the view that his daughters were too good for any man, refused to have any man in the house. There is another couple in my mind, who have five children, four of whom live at home. I think I will describe this family by quoting one of the father’s pronouncements: “There’s only one opinion in this house, and that’s mine!” I think of other cases, of three sisters who have each an income of two hundred dollars a year on which they would, of course, find it very difficult to live separately. The total income of six hundred dollars a year enables them to live–but together. The eldest loves cats; the next hates cats, but loves dogs; this zooelogical quarrel is the chief occupation of the household; the third sister’s duty is to keep the cats and dogs apart. Here we have the compulsory grouping; I believe that this lies at the root of disunion in that united family.