Monday, March 23, 2015

Are Men Gay Deceivers?

Headline from the November 18, 1909 issue of The Republican.
Though it sounds funny to our ears now, in the nineteenth century, the term 'gay deceiver' referred to a man who used his charm for personal gain. The term could most certainly be applied to Oscar Wilde's older, and more sinister, brother, Willie.

The following essay, entitled "Are Men Gay Deceivers?" was written and published by Mrs Frank Leslie on the occasion of her divorce from Willie Wilde. She was seeking a divorce because he had clearly married her for her money and refused to work, but spent all of his time drinking instead. In the almost two years it took for their divorce to be finalized, she slandered her soon-to-be ex-husband in the press, while he shacked up with his future wife, the heiress, Sophia Lees. It's hard to not read this essay as Leslie's assessment of Willie's character at this time.
It is a stock phrase under certain unfortunate circumstances to say that a girl has "been deceived" by some man, or to call an immoral man "a gay deveiver." Now, the question in my mind is whether this is, in the majority of cases, a correct judgement, or whether one might not better say the woman deceived herself and blinded her own eyes.
The fact is that most women are far more clear-sighted than most men, and even those of the sex who might be called deficient in intelligence are endowed with a keen, if vague, instinct which cries "'Ware, danger!" even though it is quite unable to describe the precise nature or position of the menaced trouble.
Willie Wilde by Alfred Bryan.
But a woman, no matter of what degree, so soon as she falls in love blinds herself, or rather, she sets up her own ideal of the beloved object between herself and the reality, and if she said reality only reasonably keep quiet, and not persist in destroying of stepping out from behind his shelter, all will go well.
 The trouble is that few men have enough tact to be really deceitful; few have finesse enough to enter into a woman's mind and perceive the position which she has assigned to her hero of the moment and adapt themselves to it. They try to do it, but they don't often succeed; and by way of a glittering generality on may say that men mean to be deceitful and are really transparent, and that women, while apparently most deliciously transparent, are actually subtly deceitful.
Here, I suspect that Leslie is reflecting on the beginning of her marriage, when she reported in the American press that she had married Oscar Wilde's older brother and that Willie was even more of a genius than Oscar was. It seems that she feels it would have been very easy for Willie to make their marriage work, if he had only seen what a high opinion she had of him and pretended to be clever.
Of course, like other generalities, this rule has particular exceptions; and there are men who really do deceive, and women who cannot do so. I must say that for myself I do not like either of these classes; they are out of nature, and require special study.
Like George Michael, Leslie feels that, as a rule, "There are boys you can trust and girls that you don't."
Born Miriam Florence Folline, she changed her name to retain control of her third husband's publishing empire. Willie Wilde was her fourth and last husband.
The really deceitful has a strong feminine coat of character, and this of the womanish and not womanly nature. He is a self deceiver like her, but not because, like her, he wishes to believe others better than they really are, but because he is determined to believe them as bad as he wishes them to be. He adopts a code of morals, or immorals, and various forms of casuistry persuades himself that this is not only justifiable for himself, but the actual code of others, no matter what they may profess. If he is clever, he can argue from this standpoint that black is white, and left is right, and crooked straight, with so much conviction and candor that he may often end in persuading even a woman to believe him and to adjust her own beliefs to his.
But this sort of man is unfortunately rare; the more usual form is the man who knows very well his right hand from his left, an is perfectly sure that the moon is not made of green cheese, but who wishes to make some woman believe that it is; it is rather interesting to watch the maneuvers of this class of deceivers; the casual mention of the fact to be established, let us say  of the cheesy quality of the moon; the apparent surprise and indulgent amusement when the pupil indignantly contradicts the proposition; the gentle arguments, the mock deference and respect for the feminine view so diffusely and vaguely set forth; the raillery and playful irony, often more effectual than any other weapon; the compliments so skillfully introduced, and the thoughtful pause, as if considering the true value of the pearls of wisdom let fall from the pretty lips, at which he gazes so admiringly.
Later in life, Mrs Frank Leslie fashioned herself the Baroness de Bazus. 
Then comes the personal appeal: "If anybody could convince me, it certainly would be you, and your arguments are so strong and so well put that I am half inclined to accept them in spite of my own reason, and yet I can't but see that there is a very, very cheesy look to the moon, and so many people older and perhaps wiser than either of us have believed it. Don't you think you are perhaps a little prejudiced? I wish we could think alike upon this as upon so many other matters. Now don't you se," this and this?
Victorian advice on handkerchief flirting.
Probably at this point of the game the game the woman who is in love begins to finger the handkerchief with which she will presently blind her own eyes; she listens more to the compliments and personal appeal than to the arguments; she begins to take note of the hyacinthine locks, the careful moustache, the white teeth, the handsome hand of her companion-but shall I tell you where she did not look? It is into his eyes; for although I have seen a great many men trying to deceive, I have never seen one who could bring his eyes into full subjection. He may open them wide and stare you boldly in the face; he may raise them to your own with elaborate candor; he may gaze upward at the ceiling or outward at the sky, or downward in pensive consideration, but I have never yet saw an eye absolutely successful in deceit; and I believe that if Marguerite had looked Mephistopheles full in the eye, and meant to read the truth there, he would not have had power to conceal it; and if he could not, less expert "gay deceivers" need not try to. But if the woman is not in love she is very much tempted to laugh aloud and say: "What a clever special pleader you are! You ought to be a lawyer; but all the same, you don't believe a word you're saying and neither do I. We both know perfectly well that the moon is not made of green cheese, and never was, and never will be. Why pretend it is? 
 I say the woman may be tempted to make this little speech, but if she is a wise woman she will resist the indulgence, for she knows perfectly well that to mortify a man's amour propre is to lose that man's allegiance, whatever that may be. Every man is born with the belief that he is intellectually full-blooded specimen of his sex he carries that belief to his grave; and it is very commendable that he should do so, for one likes to see landmarks respected.
1890s ideal of the perfect man.
 Now, of course, if the woman sees through the man's sophistry, and laughs at his attempts to deceive her, it is flinging confetti or even mud-pellets at the landmarks; it is disturbing tradition and suggesting that she actually knows as much and is quite as clever as her traditional lord and master. Therefore the clear-headed woman never laughs at the man's attempt to deceive, unless  she is ready to be rid of him, and even then it is not a good plan, for no wise woman wishes to sow dragon's teeth in her own path; no, as a general thing she gently deceives him, but not herself; she listens to his arguments, she looks sweetly considerate over his propositions, however absurd; she appears to be on the point of yielding while fixed like a rock in her own position. When tired of the situation, she ends it by murmuring, with pretty deference: "There's a great deal in what you say, and I never looked at the question from your point of view; of course you have studied these matters a great deal more than I, and you have a much wider opportunity of observation-but-well, I must think it over; and certainly I shall look at the moon with different eyes from what I ever did before." But sometimes, alas! one only wishes the man could and would be more deceitful than he tries to be. Most men, when in a candid mood, confess that there are depths in the masculine nature which few, perhaps no women, can fathom; that they are of coarser fiber and more earthly material than women are, and that no woman ever enters into their temptations or realizes their possibilities. All this may be so; if they say so of themselves, one is bound to believe it, for surely no man can be suspected of deceit in this direction. But if these depths do exist, one would wish them to be securely and constantly concealed. the oubliettes in the Imperial Palace were so well disguised that the innocent guests walked over them quite unconsciously, and if some sinister rumor of their existence came to unwilling ears, it could at least be dismissed with the verdict, not proven. But if people insist upon glass windows over their oubliettes, and call upon you, as you gayly tread parlor-floors, to gaze upon the unclean depths below, one wishes that such people were wise enough to at least try to be deceitful. Again, a man is ignoble; he is dishonest in his affairs, he is cowardly, he is disloyal, he is purse-proud, or perhaps he has rheumatism, or colic, or some other distressing complaint not necessarily apparent. Well, let him cover up both his mental and his bodily diseases and deficiencies while in society, and refrain from obtruding sentiments, theories or symptoms with which the companion of the moment can not agree or alleviate. But if he is not wise enough to do this, he may, perhaps never suspect that he ought to have done so, for one of the most charming and most dangerous traits in a woman's nature is her power of sympathy and her dread of giving pain.
She feels for the man who is making himself ridiculous as he would be quite incapable of feeling for himself, and she gently guards him from perceiving his own folly, even while she is dimly conscious that no human power could make him see it. I have seen a very clever woman listening with serene patience and apparent interest to a deluded individual who was explaining the wonderful system he would adopt if he were Secretary of the Treasury, and winding himself up in such a spider's web of words that he finally turned very red and moist, and stammered into silence, with a suspicious glance at the gentle face beside him, upon which, however, not a trace of a smile could be observed as the candid voice replied: "I don't wonder you despair of making me understand. I never could get hold of politics, and am glad all these matters are in your hands rather than mine."
Do you call this woman deceitful? Well, so do I-admirably, generously, charmingly deceitful; and if that man went away comforted in his soul rather than humiliated and stung, was it not well for him and also for her?
When Leslie begins speaking about Titanias, I have to wonder if she is thinking of the woman Willie is living with at the time and will eventually marry. If she is, I suspect she feels more sympathy than jealousy.
Sometimes, of course, the sympathetic in the woman degenerates into weakness; and I have seen nice women behave in anything but a nice manner, simply because they did not wish to mortify their male companions by showing that they felt shocked at their language and manners. In fact, I think women seldom enjoy or wish to indulge for their own pleasure in objectionable pursuits; they simply allow themselves to be led by their companionship, and will, out of real goodness and delicacy, pretend to be bad and coarse. But to return to the first point, of what deceit a good woman will cultivate when she is in love. It is one of the most painful, or rather, pathetic, sights in life to see some lovely, piquant, little Titania trying to impress both the world and herself with the idea that Nick Bottom is a hero, and the ass' head is the true model of an Adonis. How wistfully she watches him in society; how she hovers around his conversations, darting in now and again with some word or hint, or little laugh or gesture, that seems to interpret his platitudes or errors into capital jests and hidden bits of wisdom. How she finishes out his sentences, and suggests to his dull brain something to say next. How lovingly she listens to the dullest and most prolix harangues; how she puts a noble construction upon his most ignoble deeds, and tells everybody how prudent he was in not making that investment, or helping this imposter, or subscribing to their plan, when all the world knows he was saved from loss in these directions by the pigheadedness that never allows him to do what anybody asks him to do.
Shakespeare's Titania depicted by Edwin Landseer in his painting
Scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Dear, deceitful little Titanias! What a multitude of them there are, and how I love them, even while they always remind me of an old Dutch tomb whereon are sculptured two delicate little angels tugging away at the soul of an uncomfortable old alderman who declines to budge an inch.
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