A Celebration of Women Writers


"My Visit to Utopia".
by Anon. [Elizabeth T. Corbett.]
In Harper's New Monthly Magazine, January 1869, vol. 38, issue 224, pp. 200-204.


MY VISIT TO UTOPIA.

I.

IT would occupy too much time, and perhaps trespass too largely on your patience, if I should tell you exactly why or how I went to Utopia, or even the precise geographical locality of that much-disputed place. Suffice it that I have been there, and that what I saw and heard during my brief sojourn was so remarkable that I recorded it at the time, and feel that it is quite worthy of your attention now.

It was late in the afternoon of a day last April when I reached my destination – so late that, after the customary delay in identifying my trunk, I looked down the fast-darkening street with a very slight decrease of my courage. I said "slight" because I remembered even then that I was in Utopia, and that remembrance tended to reassure me; so I walked briskly out of the waiting-room at the station to the nearest corner.

By one of those fortunate chances which are common to dreams and novels, but so seldom occur in real life, I had in my porte-monnaie the card of an old school-mate and friend, long since married, like myself, but who, I was certain, had not forgotten me; so I determined to pay her a visit at once.

Feeling naturally doubtful as to the direction of my steps I asked the necessary information of a well-dressed man who presently overtook me, and I must say that I was agreeably disappointed at receiving, instead of a gruff answer thrown over his shoulder and scarcely audible at that, such a careful and courteous direction as once more reminded me that I was in Utopia.

As the distance was trifling, I soon reached my friend's house, and, ascertaining from the servant that Mrs. Jenkins was at home, I sent in my card and awaited her coming.

I had not long to wait; in an instant my friend was at my side, while her affectionate embrace spoke as plainly as her words of welcome of her pleasure at seeing me. There was no such thing as resisting her cordiality; and almost before I knew it I found myself comfortably seated in her cozy library, with my bonnet and cloak put out of sight, a tempting supper on a small table beside me, and a messenger dispatched for my trunk.

"For you must make your home with us, of course," said Laura, decidedly; "and we'll try to make your visit as pleasant as we can; won't we, William?"

"We will, indeed, dear," said Mr. Jenkins; and added so many expressions of satisfaction at seeing his wife's particular and oft-mentioned friend at last that I yielded, well content, and began to make myself, as Laura urged, "very much at home."

After she had asked, and I had answered, countless questions as to the fortunes and whereabouts of mutual acquaintances, and we had both exclaimed, a dozen times at least:

"Why, how natural it seems to see you again!" and, "Who would have thought it?" I said, looking at an open volume on the table:

"Don't let me interrupt the employment of the evening, Laura. I am sure you were reading before I came in, for I fancied I heard you as I stood in the hall."

"No," said Laura; "that was William reading the newspaper, and he had just finished it when you came."

"And nearly finished you with it," laughed her husband, "for you were almost asleep when Jane announced your friend."

Laura laughed too, as she replied: "Well, I believe I was; for the paper was uncommonly stupid, and I was very tired. You don't know how fretful the baby has been all day, and he wouldn't let the nurse touch him."

"Well, never mind," said Mr. Jenkins, soothingly; "I'll manage him to-night, so you will be rested and wide-awake for to-morrow evening."

"Truly, Laura," I said, softly, "you have a model husband – reading the paper to you instead of enjoying it in silence, as is the manner of husbands in general, and, more wonderful still, proposing to take care of your baby at night merely to let you sleep. I'm afraid you are not half grateful enough for such a prize."

Laura looked at me with an air of genuine astonishment, which speedily gave place to a smile, as she answered:

"Oh, I had really forgotten; you are not accustomed to the ways and manners of our country, and therefore even such a small matter as this surprises you, but – "

"Small matter!" I interrupted. "Do you call it such a small matter to have a husband who cares not only for your amusement, but for your comfort as well?"

Laura smiled again as she replied: "I suppose it is only in Utopia that one finds husbands quite perfect and wives quite satisfied; therefore I can easily imagine that you think William quite a paragon, when in fact he is only acting as any man ought to act under the same circumstances – that is, trying to lessen. by sharing, his wife's cares and duties; and to increase, by division, his own pleasures."

"But," I began, "it is generally conceded that it is a woman's especial duty to – "

"To wear herself out! Yes, I know it is so believed in your part of the world," said Laura, warmly; "but I am happy to say that no such belief exists in Utopia, and even orthodox suicides are unheard-of in consequence. We decided long ago that the heaviest burdens should not be suffered to fall on the weaker partner in the matrimonial contract (of course, when I say 'the weaker,' I mean physically weak), and our children are educated accordingly. As a natural consequence our husbands are not ignorant of their duties; and the man who could sleep tranquilly while his wife walked the floor with the baby, or who could enjoy an unsociable cigar or paper in the evening, when his wife needed the cheer and comfort of his words as well as of his presence, would be voted a monster and punished as he deserved."

"And how would that be?" I asked.

"Why, by depriving him of his home – a very appropriate discipline too for any man who doesn't know how to value a home. Such an offender would be sent to the 'House of Correction for Bachelors,' I suppose, and there he would be obliged to wait upon others in exact proportion to the degree in which he had allowed his wife to overtask herself for him. Imagine the misery of a married man suddenly deprived of all the comforts of his home and the kind attentions of his wife, with not even the poor satisfaction of fault-finding left to him, and tell me if you don't think the wife will be amply avenged!"

"Doubtless he will think so, but you made one remark just now, Laura, which I would like you to qualify; you spoke of 'the cheer and comfort of a husband's words as well as his presence,' and I was thinking that if he was a grumbler, or even an habitually fretful man, the 'cheer and comfort of his words' might be questionable, to say the least."

"Your hypothesis might be worth discussing, my dear, if it were not so impossible," answered Laura, with a mischievous smile. "You are continually forgetting that this is Utopia, and that husbands of the types you instance are only found in less happy localities. Grumblers indeed! Why, a woman could get a divorce here without a week's delay if she could prove that her husband was addicted to such a vice."

Too much bewildered to say any thing more, I was silent for a few moments. Mr. Jenkins, who had been an amused listener thus far, now took up the argument.

"I should suppose that you would fall in readily with Laura's views," he began, "since they tend so directly to the benefit of your sex. To be her husband's companion in truth, as well as in name, must conduce to a true woman's happiness, while at the same time it necessitates mental culture and constant development. She must be worthy of the position assigned her, and so we begin by teaching her aspiration through possession – not aspiration without the possibility of attainment, as is the common practice."

"Oh! I see it all now," said I; "you have tutored your husband to defend the oft-vexed question of 'Women's Rights' very creditably. Do you, then, approve of female suffrage and the rest?" I added, returning to Mr. J.

"Indeed you astonish me, my friend," he said, earnestly, "for I have but spoken a truth so simple that it is in danger of becoming a platitude, even from more eloquent lips than mine; and yet you treat it as if it were, to you at least, a novelty. But I won't discuss this subject with you to-night, for I trust that during your sojourn with us you will learn as much from facts as from theories; besides you are fatigued, as I see."

"But one thing you said certainly did surprise me," now said Laura, as she rose at my request to show me to my room; "you spoke of female suffrage as if it did not exist in your country. Can it be possible that women vote nowhere but in Utopia?"

"Even so," I answered, as I bade Mr. Jenkins good-night, and I retired to bed with a lively curiosity to know more of this strange country, and a vague wish that I too lived in Utopia. And so wishing I fell asleep.

II.

The next morning as we sat chatting over the breakfast-table Laura said:

"How fortunate it is! we are invited to a wedding this evening, and you can go with us; it will give you an insight into our customs and ways of thinking that I know you will enjoy, besides the ever-new delight of seeing two people tied together 'for better for worse.'"

I was too anxious to see the workings of this new system, as I called it, to make any demur; so after a discussion as to what I should wear, a matter, by-the-way, which is never ignored in Utopia, where people are always expected to look their best, the thing was settled. Another good long talk with Laura and a drive filled up the day, and soon after dinner we made our toilets and sat down to wait the arrival of the carriage. We were joined presently by Mr. Jenkins, also in holiday costume; but Laura, after a critical survey of his tout ensemble, exclaimed:

"Oh, William! your collar is too high, and it isn't at all becoming to you."

"Think not?" asked the husband, surveying himself complacently in the mirror. "Why, Laura, this is the newest style of collar, and all the rage just now."

"I can't help that; they don't look well on you," said Laura. "Now do go and get on another before the carriage comes, to please me."

Up stairs went Mr. J., while I sat speechless with surprise. At last Laura broke the silence.

"I see," said she, "you are amazed because William is changing his collar to please me, isn't it so?"

"It is; and I am more amazed than I can express. I never saw a man do such a thing before."

"Well, of course, I don't know how it is with you, but with us a man is just as much bound to please his wife as the wife to please her husband. I wear this dress because William admires it, then why shouldn't he defer to my taste? The obligation is certainly mutual."

"Ah yes! that's all very well in Utopia," I sighed, as the carriage was announced, and our conversation ended.

We were somewhat later than we had intended to be, so we found the bridal party already in their places when we were ushered into the rooms, and very natural they looked too – not unlike the bridal parties I had seen often before. This was somewhat surprising at first, but afterward I reflected that love was more or less Utopian in its origin and character; and I began to wonder whether most newly married pairs did not aim at Utopia on their wedding-tours.

"And how did you like our marriage service?" questioned Laura, as she drew me to a sofa at one end of the room.

"To tell you the truth, I missed so much that I am accustomed to hear that I don't think I was particularly pleased. In the first place, the minister omitted entirely the promise to 'love, honor, and obey,' on the wife's part; and in the next, he said nothing at all of the husband's duty as protector and guardian of his wife, or of 'her duty as regards proper deference to his will – absolutely leaving out of his address all the things that are most indispensable as well as touching, on such occasions. Why, I was astonished."

Laura looked amused as she replied: "Ah, my friend! your prejudices will not let you understand or appreciate these things yet. Don't you know that in Utopia people always marry for love? and, therefore, we do net exact at the very altar a promise to love each other, since we know that the sentiment can not be compelled by any form of words. As for the honoring and obeying, why surely true love always honors and (better than obeying) always seeks to please its object; so we drop the obsolete and useless sentence out of our service. Did you not observe that the minister (taking for granted that these two people really loved each other as they should do) spoke much of mutual effort and forbearance, much of reciprocal tenderness and courtesy, addressing husband and wife equally? Did you not hear him say, too, that people when they marry ought to strive to make each other wiser and happier, and therefore better, all the time? and could any more be said? But come, I want to introduce you to some of our friends here, so we must not pursue this subject at present."

"Tell me first," I said, detaining her as she rose from her seat, "who are these young people directly in front flirting so desperately?"

"Flirting!" said Laura, beginning to laugh as usual at my words, but she grew grave directly as she continued: "That is another of your educational errors, my dear, and a very unfortunate one, let me tell you. There can be no candid and profitable intercourse between young men and young women if it is liable to such a construction as the one you have just alluded to; and therefore, as we regard this same companionship not only as a pleasure, but also as a means of culture for both parties, we encourage it in every possible way, and particularly by never commenting upon it. You will never hear any of our young people say that 'Mr. So-and-so has been very devoted,' or that 'Miss This or That has given him the mitten;' and the very name of flirt is unknown to them. A young man may have, and should have, many female friends whom he admires and respects, without of necessity being in love with any of them; and, of course, a. young girl has the same privilege. What more natural than that they should enjoy each other's society? and what more unfortunate than that they should grow up with a mutual distrust of each other?"

"I am reduced to my usual answer," I exclaimed. "This is all very well in Utopia, but it would not answer – "

"Well, then, let me answer for both of you, that supper is ready, and I would like some," said Mr. Jenkins, as he offered an arm to each, and ended our conversation, which was not resumed during the rest of the evening.

III.

The next day Laura proposed that we should "do a little shopping," a custom, by-the-way, which is in no wise different from ours, except that every thing was (as it ought to be in Utopia) enchantingly cheap.

"How is it?" I asked, as we walked homeward, "that you have so few young men or boys in your shops? Do you prefer female clerks and assistants?"

"It is not a question of preference, but of right, since we give to females all these less arduous and fatiguing avocations for which they are so abundantly qualified, and employ men in the severer labors for which their physiques so plainly indicate that nature designed them."

"As for instance?"

"Why, scrubbing, house-cleaning, and the like – all that requires the application of mere muscular force without mind. It is well understood in Utopia that a woman's organization is too delicate and susceptible for many of the employments assigned her elsewhere; so we have corrected this abuse as far as is possible by giving such employments to men.

"Consequently when we need assistance in very laborious tasks we send for a man; and though he can not work as deftly as a woman can, and is much more trying and perverse, that is no argument whatever against his employment."

"But in our country," I persisted, "women object to being waited on by women clerks. I have even heard my friends say that they disliked to enter shops where only females were in attendance."

Laura looked indignant, somewhat incredulous, as she said:

"Such a sentiment is too unwomanly for utterance, certainly too much so for belief."

"But the men themselves – did they not rebel against this new division of labor? How is it possible that they have been made to consent to such a revolution?"

"Oh, people are never quite unreasonable in Utopia; even men can be convinced;" and so saying, Laura rang the door-bell, which she had quite forgotten to do before in the interest of our discussion.

We had to ring several times before we could gain entrance, however, and then the nurse opened the door, exclaiming as she did so:

"0h, Mrs. Jenkins! such an accident! The cook has fallen down the cellar stairs and broken her arm, and the dinner all to be cooked yet; and the doctor has been to see about it, and he says she had better be taken home directly; and – dear me, I'm all out of breath!" which she must certainly have been, as she had not stepped to take any since the beginning of her speech.

Meanwhile Laura hastened to the kitchen, from whence she presently returned with a more cheering report.

The cook had not broken her arm, only sprained it, but she was suffering so much pain that she begged to be taken home at once; and accordingly a carriage was called and she was sent thither without delay. As soon as this was accomplished, I asked Laura if I could not help her in some way, adding:

"You have no idea how capable I am in the culinary department, my dear, so have no scruples."

"Help me? in what?" she questioned, looking puzzled.

"Why, in preparing the dinner, to be sure; did not your nurse say that it was untouched? and I know Jane is too inexperienced to attend to it."

"And so you fancied that cook's presence must be replaced in some way?" said Laura, laughing. "Why, do you know that I haven't the most remote intention of cooking any dinner, or letting you do it either? No! on the contrary, we will rest from our fatigues of the morning – you on that lounge, I in this easy chair – and by so doing we shall feel like dressing and entertaining William when he gets home."

"But it is precisely on his account that I volunteered my services, Laura. Won't he be annoyed if he finds no dinner prepared on his return?"

"Certainly not," she replied, coolly. "Why should he be more annoyed than we are? Of course, this accident will bear more heavily on me than on him, and consequently he ought to take it amiably."

"Well," was my only comment, "this is certainly an extraordinary country, where the wives consider their own comfort, and the husbands eat cold dinners and are expected to be good-natured notwithstanding. It makes one wish that the rest of the world was like Utopia."

Despite all that Laura had said, and all that I had seen, I was decidedly curious to know how Mr. Jenkins would conduct himself under the circumstances; and I was not sorry to find that, when Laura ran to meet him as he opened the door, she had left the door of the library half open, so I was an unobserved spectator of all that followed.

"You are earlier than usual, William, are you not?"

"Yes, dear, I believe I am; but the fact is I was uncommonly hungry, and so hastened my steps. Is dinner almost ready?"

"Poor fellow!" said his wife, playfully, "you are doomed to a sad disappointment to-day" – and in a few words she told him all the contretemps of the day, ending with, "But you need not make up your mind to starve, after all, for there is plenty of cold ham, and, with bread and butter and a cup of coffee, I think you may contrive to satisfy your hunger."

"I have no doubt I shall do very well," said Mr. Jenkins, pleasantly, as he ran up stairs, while Laura returned to me with a triumphant smile, which I could not avoid noticing as she inquired:

"Now, my dear friend, what do you say to Utopian husbands?"

"Why, I can only wish that some husbands I know would take pattern by them; but perhaps I should not judge by Mr. Jenkins. He may be an uncommon specimen; now isn't he, Laura?"

"No," she said, frankly; "I can not say that he is; in fact, I know he is not. The praise you would award to him is due not so much to the man as to the system under which he has been trained, and through which he has been taught that the inevitable mishaps of domestic life are not necessarily occasions for cold looks and harsh words; and that a woman can better bear the demolition of her best china dinner-set than an unsympathizing reprimand from her husband as to her folly in keeping Bridget. If an occasional hitch in the domestic machinery warns one that it is yet far from perfection, how contemptible it would be to quarrel with the perplexed engineer of the fabric, who is doubtless expending all her care on the comfort of the ingrate himself! And now what do you say to dinner, good people?" said Laura. So to dinner we went. The repast was certainly very enjoyable, after all. Mr. Jenkins was in excellent spirits, and entertained us with some laughable stories, which we applauded warmly.

After our return to the parlor he read to us for a while; and then, as it was the last evening of my visit, and I had some packing to do. Laura and I excused ourselves, and she went with me to my room.

"I am so sorry that you must leave us in the morning," said she, seating herself on my trunk when every thing was done. "I don't see why you couldn't have staid longer."

"Many thanks, dear Laura, for your kindness; but I can not delay my departure another day. To tell you the truth, it would not be wise for me to do so if I could, for I should grow discontented with my own country if I remained too long in yours; and, worse than that, it is even possible that I might wish all our husbands – "

"Were in Utopia," suggested Laura. "Well, then, I won't urge you any further, but say 'goodnight' at once."

IV.

Early the next morning we parted with many expressions of esteem and friendship, and a cordial invitation from Laura and Mr. Jenkins that I would visit them soon again.

But I have not complied with their wishes, nor do I think, much as I enjoyed my sojourn there, that I shall ever return to Utopia; for – I might as well confess it – the effect even of my brief stay in that favored land was to make me (at least so my husband said) "very unreasonable and exacting."

One word more. I have become very tolerant of all those reformers, as they are too often derisively called, who are fighting, with too much violence and too little grace, perhaps, in the cause of progress, on the side of liberality.

I am, as I said before, tolerant of all these, notwithstanding that I do not indorse them fully or approve their manner of warfare; because I see that they too have been in Utopia, and that they are striving to reproduce even a dim outline of that symmetry and beauty which have led their souls, as mine, captive.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom