One of the chapters that I've been doing a certain amount of thinking about is titled "Eros Matutinus" (early love). In it, he writes about the attitudes towards sex in his youth (in this chapter, he writes almost exclusively about the wider culture, he's fairly reticent about what his own personal experiences were.) Zweig is generally pretty critical of what he sees as the hypocritically buttoned-up attitudes towards sex in the 1890s, which he contrasts with what he sees as much more natural and open attitudes "now" (the 1940s) and even in the 1910-1914 period.
While reading the chapter, I was trying to decide how seriously to take his view. Some of his claims don't hold up well against the test of time. For instance, he argues that freer attitudes towards sexuality have resulted in pornography and prostitution becoming virtually unknown. To my knowledge, even today prostitutions is less pervasive than it was in the late 1800s, however, the idea that loosened views on sexual morality have removed pornography from circulation is pretty laughable at this point.
Zweig particularly speaks against the double standard that was applied to the sexes in terms of sexual propriety: He writes that young men were pretty much expected to rack up a series of sexual experiences with prostitutes, lower class women and unfaithful married women while girls were intensely sheltered until marriage. Of girls he writes:
I cannot deny that, on the other hand, this ignorance lent young girls of the time a mysterious charm. Unfledged as they were, they guessed that besides and beyond their own world there was another of which they knew nothing, were not allowed to know anything, and that made them curious, full of longing, effusive, attractively confused. If you greeted them in the street they would blush -- do any young girls still blush? Alone with each other, they would giggle and whisper and laugh all the time, as if they were slightly tipsy. Full of expectation of the unknown that was never disclosed to them, they entertained romantic dreams of life, but at the same time were ashamed to think of anyone finding out how much their bodies physically craved kind of affection of which they had no very clear notion. A sort of slight confusion always animated their conduct. They walked differently from the girls of today, whose bodies are made fit through sport, who mingle with young men easily and without embarrassment, as their equals. Even a thousand paces away in our time, you could tell the difference between a young girl and a woman who had had a physical relationship with a man simply by the way she walked and held herself. Young girls were more girlish than the girls of today, less like women, resembling the exotically tender hothouse plants that are raised in the artificially overheated atmosphere of a glasshouse, away from any breath of inclement wind; the artificially bred product of a certain kind of rearing and culture.This is put so strongly, that I couldn't help wondering if it was a bit of a retrospective exaggeration. However, though I have a certain protective affection for the mores of times past, I also have to be clear that I haven't lived with the social restrictions of times past, even though I have strong sympathies with the idea of socially reinforced moral codes.
Having this section of Zwieg's book I (which I'm reading in print) at the back of m mind, during my commute today I reached the point in my reread (via audiobook) of War and Peace where we hear about Prince Andre's courtship of Natasha Rostov.
Prince Andre if one of my favorite characters, and as in past readings I find myself wanting the romance between him and Natasha to work out. She's a likable character, and being in love seems to be good for him. Yet, this time through, one of the things that was hitting me with great force is that Prince Andre is my age (mid 30s) and a widower while Natasha is sixteen. And although here we're reading about Russia circa 1809 rather than Vienna circa 1890, Zweig's point about the extreme girlishness of young women seems to apply here. For instance, here's 16-year-old Natasha coming in to discuss another potential suitor with her mother a few weeks earlier:
One night when the old countess, in nightcap and dressing jacket, without her false curls, and with her poor little knob of hair showing under her white cotton cap, knelt sighing and groaning on a rug and bowing to the ground in prayer, her door creaked and Natasha, also in a dressing jacket with slippers on her bare feet and her hair in curlpapers, ran in. The countess—her prayerful mood dispelled—looked round and frowned. She was finishing her last prayer: "Can it be that this couch will be my grave?" Natasha, flushed and eager, seeing her mother in prayer, suddenly checked her rush, half sat down, and unconsciously put out her tongue as if chiding herself. Seeing that her mother was still praying she ran on tiptoe to the bed and, rapidly slipping one little foot against the other, pushed off her slippers and jumped onto the bed the countess had feared might become her grave. This couch was high, with a feather bed and five pillows each smaller than the one below. Natasha jumped on it, sank into the feather bed, rolled over to the wall, and began snuggling up the bedclothes as she settled down, raising her knees to her chin, kicking out and laughing almost inaudibly, now covering herself up head and all, and now peeping at her mother. The countess finished her prayers and came to the bed with a stern face, but seeing, that Natasha's head was covered, she smiled in her kind, weak way.And here's Prince Andre (called Andrew by this translator) falling in love with Natasha at her first ball:
"Now then, now then!" said she.
"Mamma, can we have a talk? Yes?" said Natasha. "Now, just one on your throat and another... that'll do!" And seizing her mother round the neck, she kissed her on the throat. In her behavior to her mother Natasha seemed rough, but she was so sensitive and tactful that however she clasped her mother she always managed to do it without hurting her or making her feel uncomfortable or displeased.
"Well, what is it tonight?" said the mother, having arranged her pillows and waited until Natasha, after turning over a couple of times, had settled down beside her under the quilt, spread out her arms, and assumed a serious expression.
These visits of Natasha's at night before the count returned from his club were one of the greatest pleasures of both mother, and daughter.
"What is it tonight?—But I have to tell you..."
Natasha put her hand on her mother's mouth.
"About Boris... I know," she said seriously; "that's what I have come about. Don't say it—I know. No, do tell me!" and she removed her hand. "Tell me, Mamma! He's nice?"
Like all men who have grown up in society, Prince Andrew liked meeting someone there not of the conventional society stamp. And such was Natasha, with her surprise, her delight, her shyness, and even her mistakes in speaking French. With her he behaved with special care and tenderness, sitting beside her and talking of the simplest and most unimportant matters; he admired her shy grace. In the middle of the cotillion, having completed one of the figures, Natasha, still out of breath, was returning to her seat when another dancer chose her. She was tired and panting and evidently thought of declining, but immediately put her hand gaily on the man's shoulder, smiling at Prince Andrew.One of the things that always has struck me in re-reads of Austen's novels is the maturity of her younger heroines like Elizabeth Bennet (though 27-year-old Ann Elliot in Persuasion does definitely seem more mature.) Natasha, however, is still very much a girl and seems like a girl. I find myself feeling almost guilty rooting for her and Andre's relationship to work out.
"I'd be glad to sit beside you and rest: I'm tired; but you see how they keep asking me, and I'm glad of it, I'm happy and I love everybody, and you and I understand it all," and much, much more was said in her smile. When her partner left her Natasha ran across the room to choose two ladies for the figure.
"If she goes to her cousin first and then to another lady, she will be my wife," said Prince Andrew to himself quite to his own surprise, as he watched her. She did go first to her cousin.