Robert Louis Stevenson


[Part I]

WITH the single exception of Falstaff, all Shakespeare's
characters are what we call marrying men.  Mercutio, as he was
own cousin to Benedick and Biron, would have come to the same
end in the long run.  Even Iago had a wife, and, what is far
stranger, he was jealous.  People like Jacques and the Fool in
LEAR, although we can hardly imagine they would ever marry,
kept single out of a cynical humour or for a broken heart, and
not, as we do nowadays, from a spirit of incredulity and
preference for the single state.  For that matter, if you turn
to George Sand's French version of AS YOU LIKE IT (and I think
I can promise you will like it but little), you will find
Jacques marries Celia just as Orlando marries Rosalind.

At least there seems to have been much less hesitation
over marriage in Shakespeare's days; and what hesitation there
was was of a laughing sort, and not much more serious, one way
or the other, than that of Panurge.  In modern comedies the
heroes are mostly of Benedick's way of thinking, but twice as
much in earnest, and not one quarter so confident.  And I take
this diffidence as a proof of how sincere their terror is.
They know they are only human after all; they know what gins
and pitfalls lie about their feet; and how the shadow of
matrimony waits, resolute and awful, at the cross-roads.  They
would wish to keep their liberty; but if that may not be, why,
God's will be done!  "What, are you afraid of marriage?" asks
Cecile, in MAITRE GUERIN.  "Oh, mon Dieu, non!" replies
Arthur; "I should take chloroform."  They look forward to
marriage much in the same way as they prepare themselves for
death: each seems inevitable; each is a great Perhaps, and a
leap into the dark, for which, when a man is in the blue
devils, he has specially to harden his heart.  That splendid
scoundrel, Maxime de Trailles, took the news of marriages much
as an old man hears the deaths of his contemporaries.  "C'est
desesperant," he cried, throwing himself down in the arm-chair
at Madame Schontz's; "c'est desesperant, nous nous marions
tous!"  Every marriage was like another gray hair on his head;
and the jolly church bells seemed to taunt him with his fifty
years and fair round belly.

The fact is, we are much more afraid of life than our
ancestors, and cannot find it in our hearts either to marry or
not to marry.  Marriage is terrifying, but so is a cold and
forlorn old age.  The friendships of men are vastly agreeable,
but they are insecure.  You know all the time that one friend
will marry and put you to the door; a second accept a
situation in China, and become no more to you than a name, a
reminiscence, and an occasional crossed letter, very laborious
to read; a third will take up with some religious crotchet and
treat you to sour looks thence-forward.  So, in one way or
another, life forces men apart and breaks up the goodly
fellowships for ever.  The very flexibility and ease which
make men's friendships so agreeable while they endure, make
them the easier to destroy and forget.  And a man who has a
few friends, or one who has a dozen (if there be any one so
wealthy on this earth), cannot forget on how precarious a base
his happiness reposes; and how by a stroke or two of fate - a
death, a few light words, a piece of stamped paper, a woman's
bright eyes - he may be left, in a month, destitute of all.
Marriage is certainly a perilous remedy.  Instead of on two or
three, you stake your happiness on one life only.  But still,
as the bargain is more explicit and complete on your part, it
is more so on the other; and you have not to fear so many
contingencies; it is not every wind that can blow you from
your anchorage; and so long as Death withholds his sickle, you
will always have a friend at home.  People who share a cell in
the Bastile, or are thrown together on an uninhabited isle, if
they do not immediately fall to fisticuffs, will find some
possible ground of compromise.  They will learn each other's
ways and humours, so as to know where they must go warily, and
where they may lean their whole weight.  The discretion of the
first years becomes the settled habit of the last; and so,
with wisdom and patience, two lives may grow indissolubly into

But marriage, if comfortable, is not at all heroic.  It
certainly narrows and damps the spirits of generous men.  In
marriage, a man becomes slack and selfish, and undergoes a
fatty degeneration of his moral being.  It is not only when
Lydgate misallies himself with Rosamond Vincy, but when
Ladislaw marries above him with Dorothea, that this may be
exemplified.  The air of the fireside withers out all the fine
wildings of the husband's heart.  He is so comfortable and
happy that he begins to prefer comfort and happiness to
everything else on earth, his wife included.  Yesterday he
would have shared his last shilling; to-day "his first duty is
to his family," and is fulfilled in large measure by laying
down vintages and husbanding the health of an invaluable
parent.  Twenty years ago this man was equally capable of
crime or heroism; now he is fit for neither.  His soul is
asleep, and you may speak without constraint; you will not
wake him.  It is not for nothing that Don Quixote was a
bachelor and Marcus Aurelius married ill.  For women, there is
less of this danger.  Marriage is of so much use to a woman,
opens out to her so much more of life, and puts her in the way
of so much more freedom and usefulness, that, whether she
marry ill or well, she can hardly miss some benefit.  It is
true, however, that some of the merriest and most genuine of
women are old maids; and that those old maids, and wives who
are unhappily married, have often most of the true motherly
touch.  And this would seem to show, even for women, some
narrowing influence in comfortable married life.  But the rule
is none the less certain: if you wish the pick of men and
women, take a good bachelor and a good wife.

I am often filled with wonder that so many marriages are
passably successful, and so few come to open failure, the more
so as I fail to understand the principle on which people
regulate their choice.  I see women marrying indiscriminately
with staring burgesses and ferret-faced, white-eyed boys, and
men dwell in contentment with noisy scullions, or taking into
their lives acidulous vestals.  It is a common answer to say
the good people marry because they fall in love; and of course
you may use and misuse a word as much as you please, if you
have the world along with you.  But love is at least a
somewhat hyperbolical expression for such luke-warm
preference.  It is not here, anyway, that Love employs his
golden shafts; he cannot be said, with any fitness of
language, to reign here and revel.  Indeed, if this be love at
all, it is plain the poets have been fooling with mankind
since the foundation of the world.  And you have only to look
these happy couples in the face, to see they have never been
in love, or in hate, or in any other high passion, all their
days.  When you see a dish of fruit at dessert, you sometimes
set your affections upon one particular peach or nectarine,
watch it with some anxiety as it comes round the table, and
feel quite a sensible disappointment when it is taken by some
one else.  I have used the phrase "high passion."  Well, I
should say this was about as high a passion as generally leads
to marriage.  One husband hears after marriage that some poor
fellow is dying of his wife's love.  "What a pity!" he
exclaims; "you know I could so easily have got another!"  And
yet that is a very happy union.  Or again: A young man was
telling me the sweet story of his loves.  "I like it well
enough as long as her sisters are there," said this amorous
swain; "but I don't know what to do when we're alone."  Once
more: A married lady was debating the subject with another
lady.  "You know, dear," said the first, "after ten years of
marriage, if he is nothing else, your husband is always an old
friend."  "I have many old friends," returned the other, "but
I prefer them to be nothing more."  "Oh, perhaps I might
PREFER that also!"  There is a common note in these three
illustrations of the modern idyll; and it must be owned the
god goes among us with a limping gait and blear eyes.  You
wonder whether it was so always; whether desire was always
equally dull and spiritless, and possession equally cold.  I
cannot help fancying most people make, ere they marry, some
such table of recommendations as Hannah Godwin wrote to her
brother William anent her friend, Miss Gay.  It is so
charmingly comical, and so pat to the occasion, that I must
quote a few phrases.  "The young lady is in every sense formed
to make one of your disposition really happy.  She has a
pleasing voice, with which she accompanies her musical
instrument with judgment.  She has an easy politeness in her
manners, neither free nor reserved.  She is a good housekeeper
and a good economist, and yet of a generous disposition.  As
to her internal accomplishments, I have reason to speak still
more highly of them: good sense without vanity, a penetrating
judgment without a disposition to satire, with about as much
religion as my William likes, struck me with a wish that she
was my William's wife."  That is about the tune: pleasing
voice, moderate good looks, unimpeachable internal
accomplishments after the style of the copy-book, with about
as much religion as my William likes; and then, with all
speed, to church.

To deal plainly, if they only married when they fell in
love, most people would die unwed; and among the others, there
would be not a few tumultuous households.  The Lion is the
King of Beasts, but he is scarcely suitable for a domestic
pet.  In the same way, I suspect love is rather too violent a
passion to make, in all cases, a good domestic sentiment.
Like other violent excitements, it throws up not only what is
best, but what is worst and smallest, in men's characters.
Just as some people are malicious in drink, or brawling and
virulent under the influence of religious feeling, some are
moody, jealous, and exacting when they are in love, who are
honest, downright, good-hearted fellows enough in the everyday
affairs and humours of the world.

How then, seeing we are driven to the hypothesis that
people choose in comparatively cold blood, how is it they
choose so well?  One is almost tempted to hint that it does
not much matter whom you marry; that, in fact, marriage is a
subjective affection, and if you have made up your mind to it,
and once talked yourself fairly over, you could "pull it
through" with anybody.  But even if we take matrimony at its
lowest, even if we regard it as no more than a sort of
friendship recognised by the police, there must be degrees in
the freedom and sympathy realised, and some principle to guide
simple folk in their selection.  Now what should this
principle be?  Are there no more definite rules than are to be
found in the Prayer-book?  Law and religion forbid the bans on
the ground of propinquity or consanguinity; society steps in
to separate classes; and in all this most critical matter, has
common sense, has wisdom, never a word to say?  In the absence
of more magisterial teaching, let us talk it over between
friends: even a few guesses may be of interest to youths and

In all that concerns eating and drinking, company,
climate, and ways of life, community of taste is to be sought
for.  It would be trying, for instance, to keep bed and board
with an early riser or a vegetarian.  In matters of art and
intellect, I believe it is of no consequence.  Certainly it is
of none in the companionships of men, who will dine more
readily with one who has a good heart, a good cellar, and a
humorous tongue, than with another who shares all their
favourite hobbies and is melancholy withal.  If your wife
likes Tupper, that is no reason why you should hang your head.
She thinks with the majority, and has the courage of her
opinions.  I have always suspected public taste to be a
mongrel product, out of affectation by dogmatism; and felt
sure, if you could only find an honest man of no special
literary bent, he would tell you he thought much of
Shakespeare bombastic and most absurd, and all of him written
in very obscure English and wearisome to read.  And not long
ago I was able to lay by my lantern in content, for I found
the honest man.  He was a fellow of parts, quick, humorous, a
clever painter, and with an eye for certain poetical effects
of sea and ships.  I am not much of a judge of that kind of
thing, but a sketch of his comes before me sometimes at night.
How strong, supple, and living the ship seems upon the
billows!  With what a dip and rake she shears the flying sea!
I cannot fancy the man who saw this effect, and took it on the
wing with so much force and spirit, was what you call
commonplace in the last recesses of the heart.  And yet he
thought, and was not ashamed to have it known of him, that
Ouida was better in every way than William Shakespeare.  If
there were more people of his honesty, this would be about the
staple of lay criticism.  It is not taste that is plentiful,
but courage that is rare.  And what have we in place?  How
many, who think no otherwise than the young painter, have we
not heard disbursing second-hand hyperboles?  Have you never
turned sick at heart, O best of critics! when some of your own
sweet adjectives were returned on you before a gaping
audience?  Enthusiasm about art is become a function of the
average female being, which she performs with precision and a
sort of haunting sprightliness, like an ingenious and well-
regulated machine.  Sometimes, alas! the calmest man is
carried away in the torrent, bandies adjectives with the best,
and out-Herods Herod for some shameful moments.  When you
remember that, you will be tempted to put things strongly, and
say you will marry no one who is not like George the Second,
and cannot state openly a distaste for poetry and painting.

The word "facts" is, in some ways, crucial.  I have
spoken with Jesuits and Plymouth Brethren, mathematicians and
poets, dogmatic republicans and dear old gentlemen in bird's-
eye neckcloths; and each understood the word "facts" in an
occult sense of his own.  Try as I might, I could get no
nearer the principle of their division.  What was essential to
them, seemed to me trivial or untrue.  We could come to no
compromise as to what was, or what was not, important in the
life of man.  Turn as we pleased, we all stood back to back in
a big ring, and saw another quarter of the heavens, with
different mountain-tops along the sky-line and different
constellations overhead.  We had each of us some whimsy in the
brain, which we believed more than anything else, and which
discoloured all experience to its own shade.  How would you
have people agree, when one is deaf and the other blind?  Now
this is where there should be community between man and wife.
They should be agreed on their catchword in "FACTS OF
without such an agreement all intercourse is a painful strain
upon the mind.  "About as much religion as my William likes,"
in short, that is what is necessary to make a happy couple of
any William and his spouse.  For there are differences which
no habit nor affection can reconcile, and the Bohemian must
not intermarry with the Pharisee.  Imagine Consuelo as Mrs.
Samuel Budget, the wife of the successful merchant!  The best
of men and the best of women may sometimes live together all
their lives, and, for want of some consent on fundamental
questions, hold each other lost spirits to the end.

A certain sort of talent is almost indispensable for
people who would spend years together and not bore themselves
to death.  But the talent, like the agreement, must be for and
about life.  To dwell happily together, they should be versed
in the niceties of the heart, and born with a faculty for
willing compromise.  The woman must be talented as a woman,
and it will not much matter although she is talented in
nothing else.  She must know her METIER DE FEMME, and have a
fine touch for the affections.  And it is more important that
a person should be a good gossip, and talk pleasantly and
smartly of common friends and the thousand and one nothings of
the day and hour, than that she should speak with the tongues
of men and angels; for a while together by the fire, happens
more frequently in marriage than the presence of a
distinguished foreigner to dinner.  That people should laugh
over the same sort of jests, and have many a story of "grouse
in the gun-room," many an old joke between them which time
cannot wither nor custom stale, is a better preparation for
life, by your leave, than many other things higher and better
sounding in the world's ears.  You could read Kant by
yourself, if you wanted; but you must share a joke with some
one else.  You can forgive people who do not follow you
through a philosophical disquisition; but to find your wife
laughing when you had tears in your eyes, or staring when you
were in a fit of laughter, would go some way towards a
dissolution of the marriage.

I know a woman who, from some distaste or disability,
could never so much as understand the meaning of the word
POLITICS, and has given up trying to distinguish Whigs from
Tories; but take her on her own politics, ask her about other
men or women and the chicanery of everyday existence - the
rubs, the tricks, the vanities on which life turns - and you
will not find many more shrewd, trenchant, and humorous.  Nay,
to make plainer what I have in mind, this same woman has a
share of the higher and more poetical understanding, frank
interest in things for their own sake, and enduring
astonishment at the most common.  She is not to be deceived by
custom, or made to think a mystery solved when it is repeated.
I have heard her say she could wonder herself crazy over the
human eyebrow.  Now in a world where most of us walk very
contentedly in the little lit circle of their own reason, and
have to be reminded of what lies without by specious and
clamant exceptions - earthquakes, eruptions of Vesuvius,
banjos floating in mid-air at a SEANCE, and the like - a mind
so fresh and unsophisticated is no despicable gift.  I will
own I think it a better sort of mind than goes necessarily
with the clearest views on public business.  It will wash.  It
will find something to say at an odd moment.  It has in it the
spring of pleasant and quaint fancies.  Whereas I can imagine
myself yawning all night long until my jaws ached and the
tears came into my eyes, although my companion on the other
side of the hearth held the most enlightened opinions on the
franchise or the ballot.

The question of professions, in as far as they regard
marriage, was only interesting to women until of late days,
but it touches all of us now.  Certainly, if I could help it,
I would never marry a wife who wrote.  The practice of letters
is miserably harassing to the mind; and after an hour or two's
work, all the more human portion of the author is extinct; he
will bully, backbite, and speak daggers.  Music, I hear, is
not much better.  But painting, on the contrary, is often
highly sedative; because so much of the labour, after your
picture is once begun, is almost entirely manual, and of that
skilled sort of manual labour which offers a continual series
of successes, and so tickles a man, through his vanity, into
good humour.  Alas! in letters there is nothing of this sort.
You may write as beautiful a hand as you will, you have always
something else to think of, and cannot pause to notice your
loops and flourishes; they are beside the mark, and the first
law stationer could put you to the blush.  Rousseau, indeed,
made some account of penmanship, even made it a source of
livelihood, when he copied out the HELOISE for DILETTANTE
ladies; and therein showed that strange eccentric prudence
which guided him among so many thousand follies and
insanities.  It would be well for all of the GENUS IRRITABILE
thus to add something of skilled labour to intangible brain-
work.  To find the right word is so doubtful a success and
lies so near to failure, that there is no satisfaction in a
year of it; but we all know when we have formed a letter
perfectly; and a stupid artist, right or wrong, is almost
equally certain he has found a right tone or a right colour,
or made a dexterous stroke with his brush.  And, again,
painters may work out of doors; and the fresh air, the
deliberate seasons, and the "tranquillising influence" of the
green earth, counterbalance the fever of thought, and keep
them cool, placable, and prosaic.

A ship captain is a good man to marry if it is a marriage
of love, for absences are a good influence in love and keep it
bright and delicate; but he is just the worst man if the
feeling is more pedestrian, as habit is too frequently torn
open and the solder has never time to set.  Men who fish,
botanise, work with the turning-lathe, or gather sea-weeds,
will make admirable husbands and a little amateur painting in
water-colour shows the innocent and quiet mind.  Those who
have a few intimates are to be avoided; while those who swim
loose, who have their hat in their hand all along the street,
who can number an infinity of acquaintances and are not
chargeable with any one friend, promise an easy disposition
and no rival to the wife's influence.  I will not say they are
the best of men, but they are the stuff out of which adroit
and capable women manufacture the best of husbands.  It is to
be noticed that those who have loved once or twice already are
so much the better educated to a woman's hand; the bright boy
of fiction is an odd and most uncomfortable mixture of shyness
and coarseness, and needs a deal of civilising.  Lastly (and
this is, perhaps, the golden rule), no woman should marry a
teetotaller, or a man who does not smoke.  It is not for
nothing that this "ignoble tabagie," as Michelet calls it,
spreads over all the world.  Michelet rails against it because
it renders you happy apart from thought or work; to provident
women this will seem no evil influence in married life.
Whatever keeps a man in the front garden, whatever checks
wandering fancy and all inordinate ambition, whatever makes
for lounging and contentment, makes just so surely for
domestic happiness.

These notes, if they amuse the reader at all, will
probably amuse him more when he differs than when he agrees
with them; at least they will do no harm, for nobody will
follow my advice.  But the last word is of more concern.
Marriage is a step so grave and decisive that it attracts
light-headed, variable men by its very awfulness.  They have
been so tried among the inconstant squalls and currents, so
often sailed for islands in the air or lain becalmed with
burning heart, that they will risk all for solid ground below
their feet.  Desperate pilots, they run their sea-sick, weary
bark upon the dashing rocks.  It seems as if marriage were the
royal road through life, and realised, on the instant, what we
have all dreamed on summer Sundays when the bells ring, or at
night when we cannot sleep for the desire of living.  They
think it will sober and change them.  Like those who join a
brotherhood, they fancy it needs but an act to be out of the
coil and clamour for ever.  But this is a wile of the devil's.
To the end, spring winds will sow disquietude, passing faces
leave a regret behind them, and the whole world keep calling
and calling in their ears.  For marriage is like life in this
- that it is a field of battle, and not a bed of roses.