Saturday, January 25, 2003

Woman's Characteristics -- Folk-lore of Women -- by T.F. Thistelton-Dyer

It is only a woman that can make a man become the parody of himself.--French Proverb.

PROVERBIAL philosophy has long agreed that woman is a complex creature, little understood, and, according to Michelet, "she is a miracle of Divine contradictions;" an opinion endorsed by Pope, who in his "Moral Essays," writes, "Woman's at best a contradiction still;" and, further, by Richter, who says, "A woman is the most inconsistent compound of obstinacy and self-sacrifice that I am acquainted with." The wisest sages from the earliest period have been forced to admit that he would be a truly clever man who could understand, and account for, the many and varied characteristics of womankind, for, as Lord Byron wrote:--

"What a strange thing is man! And what a stranger
Is woman! What a whirlwind is her head!
And what a whirlpool, full of depth and danger,
Is all the rest about her! Whether wed
Or widow, maid or mother, she can change her
Mind like the wind; whatever she has said
Or done, is light to what she shall say or do--
The oldest thing on record, and yet new."
And yet it is universally acknowledged that woman is indispensable to man's happiness and well-being, for, as it is said in Germany, "Man without woman is head without body, woman without man is body without head," which corresponds with the French adage, "Without woman the two extremes of life would be without help, and the middle of it without pleasure;" and, long ago, the Egyptians were wont to represent a man without a woman by a single millstone, which cannot grind alone. The Burmese, too, of to-day maintain that "of all beings woman is most excellent; she is the chief of supporters;" and, according to another of their proverbial maxims, "her intelligence is four times that of man, her assiduity six times, and her desires eight times." Eastern proverbs are highly complimentary to women; for whereas, says a Sanskrit adage, "they are instructed by nature, the learning of men is taught by books;" or, as another piece of Oriental wisdom reminds us, "Nature is woman's teacher, and she learns more sense than

man, the pedant, gleams from books." And, in short, the power and influence of woman have been admirably described by Thomas Otway in his "Venice Preserved" (act i. sc. I):--

"O woman! lovely woman! Nature made thee
To temper man; we had been brutes without you.
Angels are painted fair to look like you"--
which is somewhat at variance with a popular Russian proverb to the effect that "the man is head of the woman, but she rules him by her temper;" and with the Spanish maxim, "A woman's counsel is not much, but he that despises it is a fool;" and again, with the Hindustani proverb, "Woman is wise when too late." But it would appear that, in summing up the characteristics of woman, proverbial lore, taken as a whole, is far more favourably disposed to her good points than the reverse, as is clearly the case with that of our French neighbours, who, long ago, have freely admitted the power of her influence in the world. Thus we are told that "women can do everything, because they rule those who command everything;" and "Women are the extreme, they are either better or worse than men;" and, again, it is said, "The world is the book of women"--Kashmiri proverb truly maintaining that "One woman is wealth to you, another ruination."

Woman has often been said to be equal to any emergency, a German saying expressing this idea thus: "Though an elephant and a tiger come she will leap over them;" and Hindustani lore waxes eloquent on this point--"What cannot a woman do? What cannot the ocean contain? What cannot the fire burn? What cannot death destroy?"

Most Oriental proverbs are much to the same effect, and it is said that "None know the wily tricks of a woman; they will kill their husbands, and then burn themselves," in order to prove their innocence; and again we are told, "Women's wills and thieves' tricks cannot be fathomed." And an old Welsh proverb warns us against the artifices of womankind, for--

"Nothing earthly hath a way
Like a woman to betray;"
and Hindustani lore tells us that "Womankind is perfidious;" and much to the same purport is the Assamese saying--

Of women, Miris, the parrot, and the crow,
The minds of these four you cannot know;"
for the Assamese never trust women; and not very complimentary is the Hindu saying, "My lady drops a spark in the chaff, and stands off to see the fun." Another common notion, underlying the proverbial lore relating to women, is their meanness--an amusing illustration of which may be quoted from Hindustani maxims, one of which runs thus: "Three cakes of a pennyweight each, and all her friends to eat them." But the reason for this frequent trait of character has been assigned to a woman's proverbial love of money, for--

"Nothing agreeth worse
Than a lady's heart and a beggar's purse."
But, it must be remembered, another proverb tells us that--

"Weal and women cannot pan
But woe and women can"--
"pan" being equivalent to harmonise.

Proverbial philosophy is full of warning against forming hastily an estimate of women's character, for, as the German adage runs, "He must have keen eyes that would know a maid at sight." We are further told that a woman should be seen at home, when engaged in her household duties, to form a clear estimate of her character; and the Danish proverb inculcates this rule: "You must judge a maiden at the kneading trough, and not at the dance."

That two women seldom keep friends for long without quarrelling has long been proverbial, and a Tamil adage remarks that "A thousand men may live together in harmony, whereas two women are unable to do so though they be sisters." And the many ailments to which, under one form or another, women are supposed to be susceptible, have been incorporated into many a proverb like the following: "A mill, a clock, and a woman, always want mending."

It has long been said that there is no accounting for a woman's tastes, and, according to an old English proverb, "A black man is a jewel in a fair woman's eyes;" and, vice versa, we are told that "A black woman hath turpentine in her," a belief which has been told in various ways, an old proverbial phrase quoted by Hazlitt giving this advice--

"To a red man read thy read;
With a brown man break thy bread;
At a pale man draw thy knife,
From a black man keep thy wife"--
in illustration of which he gives the subjoined note from Tofte's translation of Varchi's "Blazon of Jealousie" (1615, P. 21):--"The Persians were wont to be so jealous of their wives, as they never suffered them to go abroad but in waggons close shut, but at this day the Italian is counted the man that is most subject to this vice, the sallow-complexioned fellow with a black beard, being he that is most prone, as well to suspect, as to be suspected about women's matters, according to the old saying."

It would seem that, in early times, the fair sex were supposed to have the greater charms, and accordingly they were styled, "Children of the Gods" by the Greeks. In "As You Like it" (act iii. sc. 5), the Shepherdess Phoebe complains of being scorned on account of her being dark--

"I have more cause to hate him than to love him:
For what had he to do to chide at me?
He said mine eyes were black and my hair black:
And, now I am remember'd, scorned at me."
Indeed, as a writer has observed in the Saturday Review, the time was when the black-haired, black-eyed girl of fiction was as dark of soul as of tresses, while the blue-eyed maiden's character was of "Heaven's own colour." But Thackeray changed this tradition by invariably making his dark heroines nice, his fair heroines "treacherous sirens." Another item of folk-lore tells us that--

"A brown wench in face
Shows that nature gives her grace,"
and many of our country peasantry still affirm that "a too brown lass is gay and cleanly;" whilst, in accordance with an old proverbial rhyme--

"The red is wise, the brown trusty,
The pale envious, the dark lusty."
Dr. Paul Topinard, in his "Anthropology," has made an interesting summary of the variation of the colour of the skin, from the fairest Englishwoman to the darkest African, furnishing us with numerous examples of the many hues which form the distinguishing marks of different nationalities. These are interesting if only as showing how widely one country differs from another in its notion as to what constitutes beauty in the complexion. And, turning to uncultured tribes, Dr. Letourneau has given some curious illustrations in his "Sociology" on this point, which show how vastly different are their conceptions of beauty of complexion, some races even disfiguring themselves with pigments of the most glaring colours.

French proverbial wisdom in further enumerating the main features of a woman's character, says that her heart is a real mirror, which "reflects every object without attaching itself to any;" and in Germany, whilst due praise is bestowed on the fair sex, women's varied traits of character have not escaped criticism--one very common maxim affirming that "she is at the mercy of circumstances just as the sand is at the mercy of the wind;" whilst we are further told that, although "woman reads and studies endlessly, her thought is always an afterthought." The Russian is of the same opinion, for, according to him, "a woman's hair is long, but her sense short," and "a dog is wiser than a woman, he does not bark at his master." Tamil proverbial wisdom declares that "the skill of a woman only goes so far as the fireplace"--in other words, cleverness is no use to a woman outside domestic affairs; and the not very complimentary old English adage says, "When an ass climbs a ladder, we may find wisdom in a woman;" whilst another old saying runs, "She hath less beauty than her picture, and truly not much more wit."

In some instances, we find the essential requirements needed to make a good woman laid down, as in an excellent Chinese proverb, which runs thus: "We ask four things for a woman--that virtue dwell in her heart, modesty in her forehead, sweetness in her mouth, and labour in her hands;" with which may be compared a well-known Sanskrit maxim, "The beauty of the cuckoo is the voice, of women chastity; of the deformed learning, and of ascetics patience." On the other hand, under a variety of forms, proverbial literature inculcates the necessity of our remembrance of these four evils thus summed up in the Italian warning: "From four things God preserve us--painted woman, a conceited valet, salt beef without mustard, and a little late dinner." A similar idea is conveyed in the Assamese proverb: "To be the husband of a worthless woman, a cart covering with a hole in the middle of it, a hired weaver--these three are the agony of death." To understand this proverb it must be remembered that "in Assam the bullock cart is covered with a hood made of matting, with bamboo hoops to support it. Any one who has travelled in a bullock cart with a hole in the hood will appreciate its truth."

A trait of character, however, which women are proverbially said to their disadvantage to possess, is a lack of truth and reliability; and, according to an old proverb, "He who takes an eel by the tail, or a woman at her word, soon finds he holds nothing." The popular adage which warns a man not to trust a woman further than he can see her has been variously expressed, one version in Germany being "Arms, women, and books should be looked at daily;" and, according to another, it is said, "Beware of a bad woman, and put no trust in a good one;" which are similar to the Hindustani adage, "A hare and a woman are yours while in your power." The Italians have a maxim to the same effect, "Woman always speak the truth, but not the whole truth," and hence there are the frequent admonitions against trusting womankind, for the French affirm that "he who trusts a woman and leads an ass will never be free from plague;" and, similarly, it is said, "The ruses of women multiply with their years;" and where truth is deficient in a woman there can be no reliance in her word, for, as the Chinese affirm, "An untruthful woman is rotten grass and tangled hemp." But, unreliable as a woman at times may be, we cannot endorse the Turkish maxim, "The dog is faithful, woman never;" which is not unlike the Kashmiri proverb: "A horse, a wife, and a sword, these three are unfaithful;" and Hindu proverbial literature, speaking of woman's insincerity, says that "while the wife is eating her husband's food, she is inwardly singing the praises of her mother."

On the other hand, in defence of woman, it has been urged that good-nature and simplicity of character are liable to imposition, for, as it is commonly said, "All lay load on the winning horse," a version of which is to be found among Sindhi proverbs "A mild-faced woman has her cheeks pulled." We may further compare our own proverbs: "She is as quiet as a wasp in one's nose," and "She looks as if butter would not melt in her mouth;" and, again, "A gentle housewife mars the household"--in other words, through her leniency there is "a want of discipline."

An amusing phrase to denote a proud woman is this, "She holds up her head like a hen drinking water;" and when Herefordshire folk speak of a strong, robust girl, the remark may still occasionally be heard, "She hath one point of a good hawk, she is hardy." When a girl simpers and puts on an affected appearance, in such a way as to excite ridicule and amusement, she is still, in old proverbial phraseology, said to "simper as a mare when she eats thistles," or to "simper like a furmity kettle." An indolent girl is described as "having broken her elbow," and the phrase applied to a woman who grows inactive after marriage is, "She hath broken her elbow at the church-door." The same idea, again, is conveyed in the adage, "She had rather kiss than spin," implying that many a young girl, instead of being industrious at home, would much sooner gad about and play with love; and, if this be not in her power, to use a Somersetshire phrase, "She is as crusty as that is hard-baked."
Chastity, to which references will be found in ensuing chapters, has been universally regarded as an essential necessity for a good woman, for as a popular proverb, current under a variety of forms in most countries, enjoins, "An immodest woman is food without salt;" and a Chinese maxim tells its that "modesty is a woman's courage;" whereas Tacitus wrote in his day, "When a woman has lost her character, she will shrink from no crime." And, where this trait of character is wanting, the consensus of opinion seems to be that no amount of care, or foresight, will prevent a woman going astray; for a Kural saying, too, teaches much the same lesson

"Of what avail are prisons barred,
Their chastity is women's guard."
And a Malay proverb emphasises the tenacity of a woman's purpose, whether that be good or bad--

"A whole herd of buffaloes might be shut up in a pen,
There is one thing not to be guarded--a woman."
Much to the same effect is the Eastern proverb, "Women, if confined at home by faithful guardians, are not really guarded; but those women who guard themselves by their own will, are well guarded," to which may be added the German adages: "A sackful of fleas is easier to watch than a woman," and "A woman and a glass are always in danger;" whilst the old English proverbial phrase, "She will stay at home, perhaps, if her leg be broken," implies that nothing but what happens through compulsion will keep many a woman at home. Indeed, it has always been held that there is no compensation for the lack of chastity in a woman, an old Tamil maxim declaring that "beauty without chastity is a flower without fragrance."

On the other hand, an Arabic proverb says that "The modest woman's walk lasts from morning till evening," which has been thus explained, "The modest woman rarely goes out, or meets any one, and, when she does get the opportunity to go out, she is as delighted with the various sights as if she were a stranger, and she spends a long time in looking at them, and in chatting with those of her intimate friends whom she meets, so that the length of her absence from the house has become proverbial."

Lastly, due consideration for the frailty of woman is extensively enjoined in proverbial lore, a Tamil adage telling us that "though you see a woman sin with your own eyes, cover it over with earth," for, it adds, "if she says, I am a woman, even the devil will have compassion on her;" and hence a person is sternly warned "not to dare to stand on the earth when passing unjust remarks on a woman." A German proverb says, "Frailty, thy name is woman," which is to the same effect as the Eastern aphorism, "Women, like flowers, are of tender fabric, and should be softly handled;" which coincides with the Indian maxim, "Do not strike, even with a flower, a woman guilty of a hundred crimes," and with the Hindustani proverb, "It is not right to lift one's hand to a woman."

At the same time, our forefathers were strongly of opinion that a certain amount of correction was good for women, an opinion to which we have referred in our chapter on "Woman's Goodness," where we have given some of the proverbial wisdom on the subject. Among Oriental proverbs too much leniency is deprecated, it being said that "the petted boy becomes a gambler, and the petted girl a wanton," which is similar to the Marathi maxim, "By the mother's petting the child becomes an idiot;" and to our own proverbs "A child may have too much of his mother's blessing," and "Mothers' darlings make but milk-sop heroes;" for, says Ray, "Mothers are oftentimes too tender and fond of their children, who are ruined and spoiled by their indulgence." In Hindustani lore we find the same idea expressed, a familiar adage maintaining that, "Melons require the sun, and mangoes want the sun; women need a strong hand, and children want love." The reason for this would seem to be that a woman does not always know what is best for
her, hence the Welsh adage:--

"A woman mostly will prefer
The thing that is the worst for her."
And hence, as the Italians say, "Women, apes, and nuts require strong hands." There is an African proverb which says that "a man is not obeyed by his wife in his own house," which, we are told, implies that she does not consider him her husband "unless he beat her, thwack"--a mode of treatment which, it is needless to say, would not be endured by the wives of the West

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