Saturday, January 25, 2003

Woman's Fickleness -- The Folk-Lore of Women -- by T.F. Thistelton-Dyer

"Ladies, like variegated tulips, show
'Tis to their changes half their charms we owe."
POPE'S Moral Essays, Ep. ii.
BY an unwritten law it is held to be the privilege of woman to change her mind, a licence of which she rarely fails to avail herself. Hence she has often been said to be chameleonlike, and, as a German proverb runs, "Women are variable as April weather;" a Sindhi proverb used of fickle-minded people being this: "A mad woman wears a bangle sometimes on the arm and sometimes on the leg;" of which there are other versions, as thus:--

"Maids are May when they are maids,
But the sky changes when they are wives."
and, "Fortune is like woman, loves youth, and is fickle."

According to an old adage in this country, "A woman's mind and winter wind change oft;" or, as it is sometimes said, "Winter weather and woman's thoughts often change;" another version of which we find current in Spain, "Women, wind, and fortune soon change;" and, similarly, it is said, "She can laugh and cry both in a wind."

But it has apparently always been so, and Virgil describes woman as "ever variable, ever changeable," and likens her to Proteus--

"Caeneus, a woman once, and once a man,
But ending in the sex she first began."
Similarly, Verdi, in his opera of "Rigoletto," speaks of woman as an inconstant thing. Catullus, again, was of opinion that, "What a woman says to her ardent lover ought to be written on the winds, or on running water," so shifting and transient are her vows and professions, which reminds us of Keats's epitaph--

"Here lies one whose name was writ in water." This failing has been made the subject of frequent comment and ridicule, and Pope tells us how--

"Papillia, wedded to her amorous spark,
Sighs for the shadow--'How charming is a park!'
A park is purchas'd, but the fair he sees
All bath'd in tears--'O odious, odious trees.'"
The French popular adage says, "Woman often varies, fool is he who trusts her." The story goes these words were written by Francis I. on a window-pane in the Castle of Chambord. His sister, Queen Margaret of Navarre, entered as he was writing what she considered a slander on her sex, and declared that she could quote twenty instances of man's infidelity. But Francis replied that her words were not to the point, and that he would rather hear one instance of a woman's constancy; to which the Queen replied, "Can you mention a single instance of her inconstancy?"

Francis triumphantly answered in the affirmative, for it so happened that, a few weeks before this conversation, a gentleman of the Court had been thrown into prison on a serious charge, while his wife, who was one of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting, was reported to have eloped with his page.

Margaret, however, maintained that the lady was innocent, at which the King shook his head, at the same time promising that if, within a month, her character should be re-established, he would break the pane on which the disputed words were written, and grant his sister any favour she might ask. Not many days had elapsed when it was discovered that it was not the lady who had fled with the page, but her husband. During one of her visits to him in prison they had exchanged clothes, whereby he was enabled to deceive the jailer and effect his escape, which his devoted wife remained in his place.

Margaret claimed his pardon at the King's hand, who not only granted it, but gave a grand fete and tournament to celebrate this instance of conjugal affection. He also destroyed the pane of glass, although the saying on it has long passed into a proverb. It may, however, be added that Brantome, who had seen the writing, says that the words were "Toute femme varie," and not a distich, as is commonly supposed:--

"Souvent femme varie,
Bien fou qui s'y fic."
On the other hand, Sir Philip Sidney was one of those who was forced to admit woman's fickleness, for he thus writes:--

"Ho water ploughs, and soweth in the sand,
And hopes the flickering wind with net to hold,
Who hath his hopes laid on a woman's hand."
Again, the unreliability of woman has been exemplified in the saying, "An eel's held by the tail surer than a woman;" a maxim which is said to be "an ancient truth in Field's "Amends for Ladies," published in the year 1618, and is much to the same effect as the following lines:--

"She will and she will not. She grants, denies,
Consents, retracts, advances, and then flies."
And an Oriental proverb says that "Women are like bows, they can bend as much as they please;" in other words, they are as changeable as the moon. But, although the proverbial lore of most countries makes fickleness one of the grave defects of a woman's character, it may be questioned whether, in this respect, she is a more grievous offender than man, despite all that has been said to prove her the greater sinner. However much, too, poets after the manner of Charles Mackay may have spoken of woman's fickleness in words like the following:--

"Whene'er a woman vows to love you
In fortune's spite;
Make protestations that would prove you
Her sou's delight;
Swears that no other shall win her
By passion stirr'd;
Believe her not;--the charming sinner
Will break her word;"
it must not be forgotten that the same charge has been made against man, and oftentimes in language still more severe, an illustration of which may be quoted from Dryden's "Absalom and Ahitophel":--

"A man so various, that he seem'd to be
Not one, but all mankind's epitome;
Stiff in opinions, always in the wrong;
Was everything by starts, and nothing long;
But, in the course of one revolving moon,
Was chemist, fiddler, stateman, and buffoon;
Then all for women, painting, rhyming, drinking,
Besides ten thousand freaks that died in thinking."
And yet the fair sex has always been credited with being fickle, one popular cure for which, in olden times, was the love-philtre, or potion, which forms the subject of a preceding chapter.

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