Thumbing through issues of The Saturday Review while in the U.S. this summer, I came across an interesting item. A review by George Dangerfield of Isabel Paterson’s last novel, If It Prove Fair Weather, which I featured here a few months ago, was juxtapositioned with a piece about the book by Paterson herself: “As the Author Sees It.”
In my continuing interest in advancing the cause of Paterson’s fiction, I’m taking the liberty of ignoring whatever copyright may or may not still apply and reprint the piece here in its entirety:
What this country needs is a good stiff course in ethics and moral theology. Why I think so is because I have written a novel–If It Prove Fair Weather. To understand the question fully you might have to read the book; but that does not worry me. The main point is, those who have done so, with advance copies, are almost unanimously severe on the man in the story (his name is Wishart). It is a love story. Especially the men readers seem to feel–well, I don’t know what. He makes them mad. There is an unmistakable implication that they would have behaved far otherwise, in his position.
Possibly so; and it may be my fault that they don’t seem to notice there was no way for him to behave well. He had only a choice of behaving badly in different ways. What I mean is that like is like that. Many of the most admired moral examples really will not stand close and logical examination. It is so in the nature of things. Human beings are inevitably in an appalling predicament between their emotions and their obligations; the two elements are not even conveniently distinct, but inextricably snarled in a cat’s-cradle. And the more you try to untable it the worse it becomes.
I admit, of course, that Wishart is not wholly admirable. He is a man. He is an upright citizen, with a business and a family; and he becomes interested in a woman not his wife. This is ethically reprehensible, if you allow any ethical standards whatever. I speak seriously. What is more, you’ve got to have ethics. (At present, some countries are saying that you don’t have to, but the results are not entirely satisfactory). Then ethics apparently tell you that you must, if necessary, be completely insensible, incapable of being interested or of wanting personal satisfactions. That is a very hard saying, surely. Shade it a bit, and say rather that it is your duty to repress and restrain such feelings if they go beyond the boundaries of previously established obligation. That sounds very lofty; but it may still be at the expense of another person, or even two other persons. It is not so nice to be the recipient of duty either.
This is extremely obvious, and twenty years ago was thought to be a complete answer. It was then affirmed to be a higher duty to discard the inconvenient obligations and go ahead on the new path. Now one may see what comes of that. A trail of wreckage. It doesn’t work even as well as sticking to the old line.
But let us imagine duty as the constant lodestar from the beginning. All of us have favorite characters; one of mine is Sir Thomas More. He took and held a straight course. Deeply religious, with a strong intellect and character, and scholarly tastes, as a young man he thought of entering a monastic order. But as he was also robust and of an affectionate nature, he feared he had not the authentic vocation, and decided it was better to be a good layman than a sinful cleric. So he married and was a faithful and kind husband and father, all his days.
He married twice. The first time, he was undecided between two sisters. His personal preference was for the younger and prettier of the two; one may assume he was in love with her. But out of sheer altruism, he felt it would be invidious to leave the elder and plainer sister slighted. So he married the elder. It is not known whether the younger was in love with him. She might have been. He was a man of charm, wit, and general attractiveness. And if the younger girl was in love with him, I can’t make up my mind–I am very fond of him–which of the two girls had the best right to murder him on the spot. Both of them, in my opinion, had every right to do so. He had injured the girl he loved and insulted the one he married.
Nobody but me has ever noticed that, so far as I know. He is always held up as a model of masculine virtue. I guess he was. That’s what I’m talking about…. In later life, he became a widower, and married again, a woman he didn’t like much, to be a mother to his orphaned children. She should have killed him too, if she cared for him. Otherwise, I suppose it was all right. He was one of the best men that ever lived, so he only needed to be murdered three times by justly infuriated females, if he had got his desserts. He is highly praised by men. Though of course a less worthy man would have married the pretty sister, and then maybe fallen for a more attractive woman later.
Women are annoyed at Wishart. They have reason. Still, women also might examine the premises. That masculine line, “loved I not honor more,” has always filled women with silent rage. Because they can’t answer it. A woman friend of mine says that, reading the book, she hated every hair of Wishart’s head. She ought to. She is married to a delightful and honorable man, a sea-captain. I can’t think what she would answer if compelled to decide whether her husband, in the course of his vocation, ought to go down on the bridge as the rules prescribe, and never mind about her; or should he leap into the first lifeboat and save himself for her sweet sake. The fact is, in such contingency, when a woman might have to think whether her husband must put his duty or herself first, she really believes he ought to do both, and could if he put his mind to it. That’s where there is no other woman in question at all. In case another woman deflects his thoughts from her, she isn’t going to debate the matter for a moment. She will merely scalp him and boil him in oil, and see how he likes it.
[Published in The Saturday Review, September 7, 1940.–Ed.]
Now, if that isn’t one of the most astute and amusing things ever written on the subject of men and women, I’ll eat my hat. The world is long overdue for a Portable Isabel Paterson with a collection of her Herald Tribune columns, Never Ask the End, and excerpts from The Golden Vanity and Fair Weather. Her libertarian tracts can fend for themselves.