Two wise women, from different eras and backgrounds, once commented on the state of marriage. One was Jane Austen, who never goes out of style. The other was Gertrud von le Fort, a German baroness who has been out of style for at least 25 years. Ironically, neither women ever married, yet each one understood marriage as if she had been married a lifetime. Each one, however, looked at marriage from the perspective of her own culture and her own point in history.
For Jane Austen marriage is one of the great stabilizing institutions of society. Jane Austen saw not only that the relationship between a man and a woman is the most endlessly fascinating phenomenon of human life, the inexhaustible fodder of a good novel, but also that the attitude people have toward sex is so basic to their general moral view that it goes a great way toward determining what they want the whole of society to be. Jane deliberately chose to keep her window on society the miniature one of the English country village of the early nineteenth century. But within that small frame she, in whose novels there occurs scarcely anything to be called a kiss and whose view of sexual morality was a traditional Christian one, reveals a commanding knowledge of human nature in which the regulation of sexual relations forms the fundamental rule of social and political order.
With the classic sanity and balance of a female Chesterton, Jane realized that what is wrong with the world originates in what is wrong in a family. Her novels are cast in the small sphere of a few families. The highest good she sets for her heroines is to marry them off to responsible, well-ordered men of good sense and income enough to provide for a family. Jane is no romantic. Although she is feminine enough to know full well the powers of attraction and charitable enough never to burden her heroines with ugly heroes, she nonetheless scoffs at ill-considered love. She understands how essential to love are the values of right order, permanence, prudence, goodness, truth and trust. Before the end of any of her novels, Jane has brought her heroine to love both intelligently and rightly.
A look into Jane Austen is a look into marriage and family as the centerpiece of a healthy, solid society. That there is always a loyal band of Janeites is as good evidence as we may find, perhaps, that marriage is not so out of favor as we fear.
A complement to this view of marriage as an institution of social good is the quite different world of the German aristocrat, Gertrud von le Fort. Miss Von le Fort’s slim but powerful volume, The Eternal Woman, was popular in the thirties when she wrote it, but when feminism came into favor, The Eternal Woman fell out. It deserves a resurrection. As different in style from Jane Austen as Wagner is from Bach and Handel, Gertrud von le Fort does not contradict Jane Austen but simply looks at the world through a different window. Hers is not the objective social world but the subjective metaphorical world of the German romantic poetry of Geothe and Holderlin. She moves with ease, too, in the milieu of the German philosophers.
In her three sweeping chapters, “The Eternal Woman,” “The Woman in Time,” and “The Timeless Woman,” she describes the nature of woman, always connecting it to the figure of Mary herself and always depicting the character of woman as directly related to the spousal nature of creation. The Von le Fort work is the key book that a young woman should read after she has been married about a year. A woman would have had time by then to begin to grasp the thunderbolt of her life—that getting married is her introduction to metaphysics. If before she has asked herself some of the ultimate questions, she has now been thrust literally overnight into the circumstance of living out some of the answers. In one great liturgical act she finds herself immersed in the metaphor to end all metaphors: The love of the bridegroom Christ for his spouse the church. It is such a mind-bending idea that a woman can barely glimpse an edge of it. Yet experience confirms that it is so. Marriage for a woman is the living out of the principle of St. Thomas that sensible experience leads to knowledge of reality. Thus one of the loveliest surprises of being a new bride is to discover that one begins to see the whole creation in a new light. It is as if a woman’s marriage is an introduction not only to who her husband is but to who God is and what the world is. It is her joyful discovery that her spouse is to be the prism through which she will receive much of the light of revelation. As through a prism, moreover, that light will not constrict itself but will radiate to the wider world.
It is a significant point in Gertrud von le Fort that a man, as Christ acts with his church, sets in motion what his wife is; a man, who in a sense always loves first, is the instrument who frees his wife to be all that she can be. It is a Von le Fort precept that perhaps the strongest motivation in a woman’s life is to surrender—not a surrender from weakness, of course, but a surrender from fullness. The surrender to her husband’s love echoes her surrender to God’s love. To be filled by her husband, to be filled by the Lord is the whole point of her being. It is this active receptivity—the very antithesis of passivity—for which Mary’s fiat forms the model.
To the modern world receptivity may look like passivity; for that reason our world has forsaken contemplation for political activism. But Gertrude von le Fort would insist that living receptively is the only way in which a woman really can live. It is living in harmony with herself. It is why her physical being is set up to operate rhythmically. Receptivity characterizes a woman’s deepest nature; if she allows it to work, it will be the way in which she reads, prays, works, and loves. It is essentially a contemplative listening. And listening is complete alertness, the fullest kid of activity.
Modern marriage manuals have not held men and women together. It may be time, then, to turn to a vigorous mix of English common sense and German poetic imagination.