KANSAS COLLECTION BOOKS
Life at Laurel Town in Anglo Saxon Kansas by Kate Stephens

DWELLERS IN LAUREL TOWN

VII


As years went on Laurel Town was drifting into the moorings of an academic, residence-town, where


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the old, democratic estimate of the person maintains itself and yet standards of good breeding prevail; where an easy humor thrives; where houses have an air of retirement, leisure, and women exchange cooking receipts, and embroidery patterns; and the home life of the men is comfortable and constant, proving the law John Stuart Mill stated, "Whoever has a wife and children has given hostages to Mrs. Grundy."

In this maturing clubs figured; for instances, the men's "Old and New." Meeting every fortnight for logomachy, the host of the evening chose a subject on which his thoughts and studies had turned, and presented his views; continuing lighter arguments upon his guests going in to his table for oysters. Before the end of the discussion each man commonly accepted the ground posited or gave reasons for dissent.

Their alert minds bent on invigoration, women gathered, too, of Tuesday afternoon, in various unions -- the first in the early eighteen seventies as "Friends in Council," a name borrowed from an English book of the time. Decorous always, and as radical as that day permitted "ladies"* to be!

A whetter of interest to home-circumscribed women! A sweetener and expander of the mind!

In their founder the "Friends" honored a spinster

Terribly unconventional it was for a woman to be vigorous in those days, when "The Little Health of Ladies" excited public discussion. Ridicule of strength and independence in women, such gibes as you find in pages of Thackeray and Tennyson, still bore their sting.


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of best American traditions; and tall, with high-shoulders, jetty hair and Juno brow. A lady carefully habited also in prevailing fashions. *

Along with her massive physical impressiveness, a native intelligence increased through study of various tongues of Europe, and a quiet, decisive, formal, nay, icily conventional manner, which, like her figure, always seemed well-corseted.

One March day this ceremonious dame issued from Fraser Hall at the moment with a slender student, myself. During the morning she had been speaking French with classes reading Moliere, or Racine. I had listened to stories by our Latin-tongued professor and Englished Tully.

A March day, we say, and in Kansas. Spanking gales enlivened the noon hour, and I accepted her invitation to join the lady. It was a professor's invitation; like royalty's you can not easily refuse. Then,

Her broaches,         "lady-trifles . . .
Immoment toys, things of such dignity
As we greet modern friends withal,"
ranged from carved gold to Florentine mosaic and Neapolitan coral. Sitting before her every morning, I counted a new one twenty-eight days, and then gave up numbering for fear I should repeat and so exaggerate.


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too, her talk was delightful; and at this juncture walking surer-footed in her lee.

As we went on our chat somehow, perhaps because of her founder's interest, fell about the "Friends in Council," that year studying the history of the French people. Next week, she said, they would be reading and talking about the war in La Vendee.

"You will probably read Swinburne's "Les Noyades," I ventured, the mention of Vendee bringing Carrier to my mind.

"Don't know it," answered the lady. "What is it?"

"Oh, I mean the poem turning on an event when Carrier was torturing in Nantes."

"I never heard of it," returned the lady. "Is it long? If it isn't, won't you read it to us?"

So it came that next Tuesday afternoon I met with the wives and mothers. They received me with the measured, Anglo-American good-breeding of that time, and when they were done with their tasks the founder-president smiling toward me explained why a student was with the muse of a beautiful poem with which she would supplement their day's programme.

At once I began

"In the wild fifth year of the change of things,
     When France was glorious and blood-red, fair
With the dust of battle and deaths of kings,
     A queen of men, with helmeted hair,


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Carrier came down to the Loire and slew,
     Till all the ways and the waves waxed red;
Bound and drowned, slaying two by two,
     Maidens and young men, naked and wed."

The poem held me. I did not think of auditors till I came to its end. Saturated with its beauty, I looked up.

Did I see aright? -- dismay, perhaps, on nearly every face!

Had I not read the poem well? I thought shivering. Had I wronged the work? -- an unusual subject treated with the adroitness of genius. Possibility that others would not enjoy it had not crossed my mind.

An awful pause. Then one lady, who seemed to me more prunes-and-prisms than any I knew, remarked that it was an undesirable subject for a young lady to deal with -- in fact, (this with a compression of lips and a side-glance) the poem was not decent.

Oh, what a sudden, striking humiliation! It was personal, then! The trouble was not with Swinburne's poem, but with me! These women evidently united in their estimate. No voice spoke for the poem; or for the reader of it.

Why had I merited such a rebuff! I questioned the blue-bound "Laus Veneris" in my hand. The poet believed in the poem; else he would not have published it. Swinburne would defend me; he knew why I had read his verses.

Pulling on of wraps, and getting together books


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and papers, sounded a relief. I went forth in a cold perspiration, marvelling at the mysterious deeds of Friends when in Council -- and yet, after reacting from the shock of their condemnation, with an underlying feeling of triumph that I had somewhat those dames did not, perhaps some power of contemplation and enjoyment of the art of letters.

Years after, only, did a glimmer come to me of what the mature women of that afternoon may have thought, and mentally endued me with thinking. Long after, only, did I see what possibility their horizon had not ascribed to me that solely because of innocence of the world could I, elated with its music and historic picture, unconscious of its fleshliness, read the poem to their audience.

Nor did matters end there. They had illuminating corollaries. Later when I told this "Les Noyades" adventure to Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson of Boston, upon his asking me how, when a student, in classes with men-students, reading Greek and Latin with men-instructors I managed when I came upon sentences saying what we moderns deem immodest. Mr. Higginson said he was seeking my help to arguments he purposed to make for the admission of women to universities.

At that hour, I should for clarity add, a quota of men wrote and talked against the education of women, and women's study of Greek and Latin; saying, for


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instance, that passages in the old classics written in the naturalism of the ancients, would instruct our American girls in what they should not know; would brush the bloom from the grape, harden tender minds, suggest there was sex in the world. To read that a poet kissed a maid might be permitted girls -- staid Maria Edgeworth and Jane Austen would allow that; but without loss of mental cleanliness, even, perhaps, of moral standards, young women could not know how many times Catullus sang he had kissed, or was going to kiss, Lesbia.

All expression as to sex that girls might, without contamination, assimilate, seemed, to these men's thinking, to lie in the Old Testament; if sex-knowledge defiles, a defiler outstripping the classics.*

"What," said Mr. Higginson in this interview he had sought, "What did you do when you, a student, came upon Greek and Latin passages not in accord with our view of modesty?"

"I saw them in my reading at home. In classroom I skipped the matter and made no reference to it."

"And the professor -- didn't he?" pursued the Colonel in probing spirit.

Again, "What changes may one life see!" A study-enamoured Anglo- American girl shocking a group of married women by reading to them a Swinburne ballad, in the eighteen-seventies! An Anglo-American literary man analyzing the women's prejudices, in the eighteen-eighties, in his labor to overcome other prejudices! And to-day's girl! -- her Thais plays and Thais operas; her clothing, devised mainly by an exotic, oriental people and reflecting the character of the parasitic odalisque!


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"Never. Spontaneously, tacitly, such matters were passed by. You pass them by, everybody passes them by when they come up in readings in churches and other public places. Our students, men and women alike, merely treated sentences objectionable from our day's point of view as if they were not there."

"Didn't anything embarrassing ever happen?" persisted Mr. Higginson.

"Not while I was a student. When I had the chair of Greek a boy one day snickered on coming to such a passage. His laugh was not embarrassing, nauseating rather, and the young men of the class treated his amusement in a way that taught him better manners -- you can always trust the clean instincts of the university boy. Passages, such, for instance, as the last of the third book of "The Iliad," students merely passed over. They saw what they were outside class-room." "You say you were fond of Swinburne's poetry, even when you were seventeen," continued Mr. Higginson (if one may report to the very limit of digression), "What about his out-speaking?"

"I loved Swinburne for his freshness, his Greek quality, his marvellous music. You do not go to Swinburne for ideas -- perhaps we may except impassioned democracy, praise of the glory of liberty. The sexuality of his poems and ballads an American girl does not think of, sees only as a faint shadow. His music, as the choruses in "Atalanta in Calydon," his love of


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freedom, his revolt from inept, smoothly polished phrases, his color, his tumbling waves of rhythm recalling the motion of the salt sea he sang -- these kept his books in my hands for years.

"You can not deny American girls of Protestant training a native purity. For some reason they do not know, or do not understand the meretricious. They don't interpret it when it is set before them. Of Protestant training, I say, because I have seen other girls more sophisticated."

If what I told Colonel Higginson enriched his argument I do not recall. In those days the Boston mind, whether of Beacon Hill, Back Bay or Columbus Avenue, not yet fully conscious of its loss of leadership, still maintaining a de haut en bas attitude toward the rest of the country, showed distrust of whatever generated outside, especially westward of, its circumference.




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