The purdah

by Andrea Elizabeth

It was 1913 when H.G. Wells wrote the following in his novel, The Passionate Friends. He describes the viewpoint of those who succeeded in loosing social constraints less than a decade later.

There are no universal laws of affection and desire, but it is manifestly true that for the most of us free talk, intimate association, and any real fellowship between men and women turns an extreme readiness to love. And that being so it follows that under existing conditions the unrestricted meeting and companionship of men and women in society is a monstrous sham, a merely dangerous pretence of encounters. The safe reality beneath those liberal appearances is that a woman must be content with the easy friendship of other women and of one man only, letting a superficial friendship towards all other men veil impassable abysses of separation, and a man must in the same way have one sole woman intimate. To all other women he must be a little blind, a little deaf, politely inattentive. He must respect the transparent, intangible, tacit purdah about them, respect it but never allude to it. To me that is an intolerable state of affairs, but it is reality. If you live in the spirit of any other understanding you will court social disaster. I suppose it is a particularly intolerable state of affairs to us Strattons because it is in our nature to want things to seem what they are. That translucent yet impassible purdah outrages our veracity. And it is plain to me that our social order cannot stand and is not standing the tensions it creates. The convention that passions and emotions are absent when they are palpably present broke down between Mary and myself, as it breaks down in a thousand other cases, as it breaks down everywhere. Our social life is honeycombed and rotten with secret hidden relationships. The rigid, the obtuse and the unscrupulously cunning escape; the honest passion sooner or later flares out and destroys…. Here is a difficulty that no bullying imposition of arbitrary rules on the one hand nor any reckless abandonment of law on the other, can solve. Humanity has yet to find its method in sexual things; it has to discover the use and the limitation of jealousy. And before it can even begin to attempt to find, it has to cease its present timid secret groping in shame and darkness and turn on the light of knowledge. None of us knows much and most of us do not even know what is known.

[…]You will learn soon enough as you grow to be a man that beneath the respectable assumptions of our social life there is an endless intricate world of subterfuge and hidden and perverted passion,—for all passion that wears a mask is perversion—and that thousands of people of our sort are hiding and shamming about their desires, their gratifications, their true relationships. I do not mean the open offenders, for they are mostly honest and gallant people, but the men and women who sin in the shadows, the people who are not clean and scandalous, but immoral and respectable. This underworld is not for us. I wish that I who have looked into it could in some way inoculate you now against the repetition of my misadventure. We Strattons are daylight men, and if I work now for widened facilities of divorce, for an organized freedom and independence of women, and greater breadth of toleration, it is because I know in my own person the degradations, the falsity, the bitterness, that can lurk beneath the inflexible pretentions of the established code to-day.

I think he may have a few points, but if there is any justification for what has since happened in our social climate, it is not that offenders should be able to flaunt themselves, but that since purity is so hard to come by, judgement and condemnation should be more self-directed and mercy given. I also think a more Orthodox view of sin and salvation would be helpful.

Regarding the purdah, I agree, but not with his point that it is intolerable or impossible. I think passions and issues such as he describes have to be dealt with in an Orthodox contxt of confession and prayer, without doing away with the rules.