Is Marriage a Failure?

by Henrietta Payne Westbrook

The following is Chapter 15 of Westbrook’s autobiographical novel The West-Brook Drives (1902), a book she devoted to her late husband’s memory. A note at the head of the chapter states that she had earlier presented it “to a parlor audience,” and that it furnished “entertainment for a stormy evening.” Five years after its publication, on April 28, 1907, Westbrook debated with Voltairine de Cleyre on the subject of marriage, reading a lecture entitled “They Who Marry Do Well” to The Radical Library of Philadelphia at 515 Pine Street, 2nd floor. We present this alongside de Cleyre’s 1907 lecture because it is as close as we’ll ever get to Westbrook’s 1907 version, and it may very well be the same text under an earlier title. We preserve as much of the original format and editing as is possible.

Rhode Island-born Henrietta Payne Westbrook (1834-1909) was a physician and freethinker of Philadelphia, graduating from Women’s Medical College in 1880. She was the second wife of the former Protestant minister, then coal mine operator, then judge Richard Brodhead Westbrook (1820-1899), sometimes a leading figure of the US secular movement. Richard was the author of Marriage and Divorce (1870), and he later raised ethical issues relating to marriage laws. While not anarchists themselves, Henrietta and Richard were active members of the anarchist-led Ladies Liberal League for several years, beginning in 1892. They were also friends, and sometime mentors, of the sex radical Ida C. Craddock.

Answer. No! Wedlock may be a failure, but marriage never.

What is marriage?

Before we prepared to discuss the question of its failure, we must have a closer conception of what constitutes marriage.

The truly ideal marriage is a union of a man and a woman, so perfect, they may be truly said to be “one flesh,” and one mind.

In the beautiful allegory of Eve in Eden, the twain being one flesh is clearly taught. In the progress of the race, in the evolution of ideas, we have come to include the one mind also.

The ideal wife of to-day is not a lovely Eve of flesh and blood, but she is beside that, a magnificent Minerva, springing full fledged from the brain of her Jupiter, and predestined to set the world astir, and lift it to a higher plane, by her John Wards and her Robert Elsmeres.1

Man is no longer sole prince of Intellect, but doth share his realm or reason with his companion, woman. Henceforth, side by side, step by step, the ideal couple walk together.

“Bearing each other’s crosses,
Wearing each other’s crown.”

I think that it was Theodore Parker who compared marriage to a sum in fractions.2 Some, he said, were only an eighth, or a quarter married, while many others were half married, and a few others were wholly so.

These last are like “mixed streams of meeting rivers, whose blended waters are no more distinguished, but roll into the sea one common flood.”

Marriage is a law of nature. We meet its prototype even in the simplest forms of creation. Its object is perpetuation of the species, and ultimate happiness of the race.

In our present state of existence food is necessary to our existence, and a beneficent Providence has ordained that appetite shall wait upon necessity, and give us pleasure in our feeding; so marriage is for a pure and holy purpose; and love is the desire that leads to it.

Thus it has been said, “Love makes the world go round.”

There are numberless persons today who will confess, I am far happier married; not for all the wealth of the Orient would I be unmarried.” And as to the multiplication –the replenishing the earth –how else should we be here tonight?

Whatever unborn generations may say, we must declare the object has been accomplished. It is a success.

Many make the mistake of confusing wedlock with marriage. Now wedlock is the legal union of two persons who publicly pledge themselves for various reasons, to remain in more or less willing community and combination.

In mere wedlock, I grant you, although it may become a heaven, there is usually a locally constructed hell.

I have seen pairs tied together at which I felt like exclaiming, “O horror! Horror!! After this alliance, let the tigers match with hinds, and wolves with sheep; and every creature couple with its foe.”

How many such have, when too late, cried out in bitterness of soul.

“O for a curse upon the cunning priest,
Who conjured us together in a yoke that galls us so!”

Many a man leads to the hymeneal altar the woman who is to be his torment and his ruin. Many a woman goes to the altar, like the lamb to the slaughter, with the man, who is to be, to all intents and purposes, her murderer!

I, who speak to you, have stood by and seen the death blows dealt, and I was powerless to prevent. I know of many cases where the husband has been the direct cause of the wife’s death. Yet the law could take no hold on him. There are wounds which leave no external mark, and yet a physician may discover them.

Words, and even looks, can stab as fatally as knives.

I have seen those who were “abroad too kind, while at home ‘tis steadfast hate, and one eternal tempest of debate.”3

Who among you has not known several families where the master was an object of terror? –where mirth was silenced, and all cheerfulness vanished, and callers suddenly remembered a previous engagement, when the gentleman of the house appeared?”

Some men think variety the spice of life, and having by winning wiles secured a wife, seek then “fresh fields and pastures new,” but know, young man, that

“In the calm of truth-tied love there is a joy
Which novelty’s stormy raptures never yield.”

I have known someone who after a few years, or months, of married life, imagined they had compassed the sphere of the one by their side; and I have found them utter strangers to each other. What? Two immortal souls, with infinite possibilities, entirely fathom and exhaust one another?

It cannot be. There has been no union yet of two souls who think they have done this.

Yes, we admit what Peter Pindar4 says,

“Wedlock is a saucy, sad, familiar state,
Where folks are very apt to scold and hate.”

We insist, however, on the distinction between mere wedlock and marriage. True marriage is the nurse of all that is good. “In her arms sweet virtue smiles, appearing, as in truth she is, Heaven-born, and is destined to the skies again.”

Love is eternal, and in true marriage, [it] grows.

What is this which the poet Moore says to his love in his old age?

“Although my heart in earlier youth,
Might kindle with more wild desire,
Believe me, it hath gained in truth,
Much more than it hath lost in fire;
The flame now warms my inmost core,
That then but sparkled on my brow;
And though I seemed to love thee more,
Yet, oh! I love thee better now.”

I once found in a medical book belonging to a very unromantic friend of mine, and written on the fly-leaf, the following little poem addressed to the wedded one.

“We are growing old together;
When we drop the body’s veil,
The one will wait the other,
Within the silent pale.

“Into the grand forever
Together we will glide;
No power in the ages
Our being will divide.

“We shall grow young toge’her,
What poet ever sung
The raptures of immortals,
Who love forever young!”

As the years go by there is a gracious trust, a delicious confidence, an ever-abiding tenderness, gradually and constantly developing. There is an increasing charm of intellect, a loveliness of life and heart, a beauty of spirit, far more enchanting than the springtime radiance of the merely physical beauty, which may have faded from the face with the first spell of sickness. “For we know that if the earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building (called character or self, the real person, the ego), a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens;” (the highest place of the soul).

We grant you that all, even in a true marriage, do not attain to this lofty ideal, but

“Of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: it might have been.”

But alas! Dangers beset us on every hand. Eternal vigilance is the price of love as well as of liberty.

“A word unkind or wrongly taken!
Then ruder words will soon rush in
To spread the breach that words begin."

There is always danger—

“When eyes forget the gentle ray
They wore in courtship’s smiling day;
When voices lose the tone that shed
A tenderness round all they shed;
Then fast declining one by one,
The sweetnesses of love are gone.”

Remember love is dainty and divine. It keeps at the modest distance which itself lends enchantment. Love anticipates desire; it is obliging, and does and says sweet things.

O, maiden married, beware! The lover in the husband may be lost. “Cultivate the graces that did his heart allure. These, with thy wifely virtues, will his custody ensure.”

Honest marriage is said to be like a banqueting hall built in a garden where the delicious breaths of violets dwell. And so the garden is to be tended, and all courser perfumes kept out. I have seen a young man out a-courting, whose kid gloves and moustache seemed both to have been laid in lavender; for his breath was sweet as new-mown hay. But after some time of connubial felicity,

“With vulgar smells he saluted her nose
With gin, tobacco, and onions.”

But if it is important that women retain the affection that her charms have won, how much more important for the man to preserve her love and respect! How important to his happiness, to the happiness of their children –to everyone’s happiness. If any man has been wicked enough to deceive trusting, guileless girl into thinking him an angel, let him not be weak enough to undeceive her. Let him struggle to maintain the character he has assumed. In that way only may the offspring be great and good. It is a fact not generally known, that it matters not so much what the father of a child really is, as it matters what the mother of that child thinks he is. If she adores him, her babe will be endowed with the grand qualities which her love and imagination attribute to him.

Some pessimist has said, or sung, that one of the surest phases of love is love grown cold --but let us refuse to believe it. In true marriage, lovers have souls ever ardent and pure. Their affections are forever free from decline. The husband of the good wife, the Bible tells us, is “known in the gates when he sitteth with the elders of the land” –the city fathers. “She is not afraid of the snow, for her household (including her husband, of course) is clothed in scarlet” (red flannel, I suppose).

I met with one such case recently. A gentleman was thrown from his carriage, and taken up insensible. As his clothing was removed we could not but mark how immaculate was his linen; how perfect in all its appointments. Even if we had not known him, we could not have failed to recognize that this was a married man.

Suppose some of the bachelors of our acquaintance met with such an accident! Think of the possible revelations!

“The treasures of the deep are not so precious as are the concealed comforts of a man locked up in woman’s love.”5 One scents the air of blessing as one comes near his dwelling place. A good wife is man’s “guardian angel o’er his life presiding, doubling his pleasures and his cares dividing.” In his house, “she is a light shining within, when all without is night.”6

If a man who has a good wife is known in the gates,7 no less is the woman who has a good husband. To such we would say, quoting Shakespeare, “Down on your knees and thank heaven, fasting for a good man’s love.”8

Do you know, a woman who is conscious of exclusive possession of a true man’s devotion, never grows old? She has found the fountain of youth. The hair may turn gray, but it is a crown of glory. Even the wrinkles of age become but the lines of an added beauty. Happiness, conjugal happiness, keeps the heart always young.

The waves of affliction may have rolled over her; for “into all lives some rain must fall,” but he has “kissed off every tear as soon as shed.” Her clothing, according to scripture, is “silk and purple.”

To such a husband as hers, Mrs. Hemans9 said,

“I bless thee for kind looks and words,
Showered on my path like dew,
For all the love in those deep eyes
A gladness ever new!

“For the voice which ne’er to mine replied,
But in kindly tones of cheer;
For every spring the happiness
My soul hath tasted here.

“I bless the for the noble heart,
The tender and the true,
Where mine hath found the happiest rest,
That e’er fond woman knew.”

Just contrast this with the other side, where,

“The hour of wedlock ends the female reign!
And we give all we have to buy a chain;
Hire men to be our lords, who were our slaves,
And bribe our lovers to be perjured knaves.
O how they swear to heaven and the bride,
They will be kind to her and none beside,
And to themselves, the while in secret swear,
They will be kind to everyone but her!”

Or take this one, where the young wife begins to realize that theirs is only a fractional marriage, and she mournfully says,

“How sad it will be love when we two become
You thoughtless of me, and I careless of you,
And our pet names grown rusty with nothing to do.
How strange it will seem when the witchery goes
When your dream of me loses its coleur de rose,
When every day serves some new faults to disclose;
Ah Me how sad it will be!”

And still we say it need not be.

Whatever else you forget in married life, never forget your manners. Always be polite to each other. Would you snap and snarl at a stranger? How much less at your husband, or your wife. Carefully observe all the rules of good breeding. An appropriate present to a bridal pair is a book on etiquette. As soon as one finds himself neglecting the little courtesies of life toward his companion, it is high time to take an account of stock –a failure is threatened in that marriage relation.

Be lovers all your lives, is the advice I give. In politics you may sometimes safely differ, but in religion, never! Have one faith, and be sure you spend your vacations together. Enjoy your recreations and your pleasures in common.

The golden rule is quite as valuable here as elsewhere.

Would the husband enjoy hearing his wife rave over some handsome man? How then expect her to relish his little joke about having lost his heart over some fresher face, or prettier form! Before entering upon gallantries with other women, let him ask himself, “how should I like my beloved to receive such attentions from another man?” Not long ago I heard a gentleman say to his wife, “My dear, I know you are all right, but it would be such a mortification to me to have that coxcomb Jones think he could flirt with you. I could never get over it.” Yet that same man had often publicly flirted with other ladies. It did not seem to occur to him that his wife might have similar feelings on the same subject. It was very evident he did not do as he would be done by! Marriage will be less likely to become a failure as men become more unselfish, more pure, more true, more truly monogamic.

Did you ever think of it, what is the reason a married man’s opinion carries more weight than that of a single man? Why is the former broader and more comprehensive in his views, more honest in his policy, more charitable, and more humane?

The man rightly married is known in the gates for a less material and an even more potent reason than is suggested in the Bible. He has the advantage of having two heads, which are always better than one. Before going out to meet the elders he has wisely consulted with his wife, and so has the judgment of a double intellect. What wonder he outstrips his single brother in honor and preferment!

It is not that men and women are so like each other, but so unlike, that we insist upon a fair representation of both.

Behold a miracle –a marvel of nature –that two halves so diverse should make one perfect person. It is this very diversity which constitutes the basis of companionship, and is an essential part of matrimony. The individual differences are uniting differences.

“And the lord God said, ‘it is not good for man to be alone.’”

In the ancient story, Adam’s Eve was made specially for him. Undoubtedly there is a Jill for every Jack, a wife for every man. It is his business to discover her –to find the woman who, above all others, has the disposition and temperament so completely adopted to his own, that a union already exists between them that it may be properly said, “they are not twain but one flesh.” There is such sympathy of soul, “though meeting thought, and will anticipating will.”

The motto which Lucretia Mott10 gave to the newly married couple was this: “In the true marriage relation the independence of the husband and wife is equal, their dependence mutual, and their obligations reciprocal.”

Having adopted this sentiment, let the husband and wife love so perfectly that each prefers the other’s comfort and satisfaction to his own, and then there can be no domestic strife; then there is eternal harmony; heaven has begun on earth; we dwell in paradise. Then marriage is not, and cannot be, a failure. Then marriage is a grand success.

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1Robert Elsmere is a fictional character in the 1888 novel bearing his name by Mary Augusta Ward (England, 1851-1920). The plot followed a marriage under stress.

2Theodore Parker (United States, 1810-1860) was a Unitarian minister and theologian, an abolitionist, and a supporter of women’s rights.

3This is from Love of Fame, The Universal Passion by Edward Young (London, 1752).

4Peter Pindar was the pen-name of comic poet John Wolcot (England, 1738-1819).

5She quotes the English playwright and poet Thomas Middleton (1580-1627).

6She quotes the English poet Samuel Rogers (1763-1855).

7From the Bible, Proverbs Chapter 31.

8From As You Like It, Act III, Scene V.

9The popular English poet Felicia Dorothea Browne Hemans (1793-1835), who separated permanently, but amicably, from her husband in 1818.

10Lucretia Coffin Mott (United States, 1793-1880), the Quaker abolitionist and champion of women’s rights who lived in Philadelphia from 1821.