Max of the Month 2. When reading non-fiction books from the 19th Century, one finds no shortage of great writers who have now been largely forgotten. However, occasionally a writer comes to light whose work is so entertaining, and who was so incredibly popular in his lifetime, that is it almost inconceivable that he is not still a household name. One such author is Max O’Rell.
This month’s quote from the writings of O’Rell is taken from John Bull’s Womankind, published in 1884, which focusses on women in England at the time. O’Rell was from France, so this was an outsider’s perspective.
Marrying one of John Bull’s daughters is not all honey.
One cannot help wondering how it comes to pass that the English, who for centuries have been reforming their religion in every sense imaginable, have never yet turned their attention to making the language of the Church as choice and euphemistic as is the language of good society. The Protestant Church alone seems to have retained the sole privilege of calling a spade a spade, or something worse still.
At the ordinary services, it does not so much matter. The clergyman is at a certain distance from the congregation, and when he reads you, from the Bible, a story that makes you tremble for fear of what he will read next, you can comfort yourself with the idea that the charming young lady at your side has perhaps not been listening. Besides, that which is addressed to everybody is addressed to nobody; witness, the effect upon Christians of all the sermons that have been preached to them for nearly two thousand years.
But when it comes to going through the marriage ceremony in church, it is quite another matter.
You are standing beside your bride, and close to the clergyman who is facing you. Six or eight bridesmaids, sometimes young girls twelve or fifteen years old, are grouped behind the bride. Breaking the profound silence, the minister thus addresses you, not in Latin, but in plain English: “Dearly beloved brethren, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this congregation, to join together this man and this woman in holy matrimony; which is an honourable estate …. not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men’s carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God; duly considering the causes for which matrimony was ordained.” And then he goes on to say that it was ordained for the procreation of children, for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication, that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body.
That is how the ball opens. It is promising, is it not? You would give the world to sink through the floor, or to be able to seize your dear little wife, and fill her ears with cotton wool. You blush, as you think of the sweet creatures in white, blue, and pink, who are just behind you biting their lips, and wondering what those brute beasts, that have no understanding, have to do with the ceremony, and you feel ready to fall on your knees and implore the forgiveness of the innocent young girl at your side, for having brought her there to hear such things. And that which strikes you with wonder, nay, with amazement, is that just after, when the minister says to her, “Wilt thou have this man to thy wedded husband. . . . wilt thou obey him, and serve him, love, honour, and keep him in sickness and in health?” she does not indignantly exclaim:
“No, indeed, not for the world!”
Thus have the English, in their rigid puritanism, managed to spoil a ceremony that might, and ought, to remain engraven on the memory among life’s sweetest souvenirs.
Max O’Rell was born Léon Pierre Blouet, but chose a pen name to avoid any embarrassment in his role as a teacher at St Paul’s School in London. He had worked there since 1874, and the same year married his English wife. Such was the success of his writing that he resigned in 1885 to tour, lecture and write full time. O’Rell wrote more than a dozen books, which fall broadly into two categories: characteristics of different nationalities, and characteristics of women.
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