Marie Corelli's reply to the toast of 'Sovran Woman' by the Rev. Dr Watson (the novelist Ian Maclaren) at the Whitefriars Club's Annual Ladies' Banquet at the Hotel Cecil on 4 May 1901. Friar Winston Churchill MP was in the Chair.
I feel myself placed tonight in a rather strange and unique position. It is the first time I have ever spoken at a public dinner. It is equally the first time I have to thank a London club of literary men for any kindness or consideration. (Applause.) It is altogether a new experience for me, and I need scarcely say it is as pleasant as it is new. When I started to come here this afternoon I thought of Daniel in the Lions' den. Daniel knew he was going among lions; so did I. He thought possibly some of them might bite; so did I. (Laughter.) He was agreeably disappointed; so was I. (Laughter.) I stand here surrounded by lions, and gentler animals I have never met. (Laughter.) They have been purring round me softly on either side – (laughter) – and I must say I found them very agreeable companions. One of them, Dr Watson, better known to fame as Ian Maclaren, has just roared ''an't were any nightingale' in proposing the health of Sovran Woman. I am sure all here present, especially those of my sex, have been profoundly moved by his eloquence.
Speaking for myself personally I may say that never until tonight have I heard sovran woman proposed by sovran man. I do not think it can be a very ordinary expression, because the inspired individual who does the Book-shop column in the Daily Express lately said he does not know what it means. In alluding to the approach of our present festivities he said, 'Dr Watson will propose the toast of “Sovran Woman”, whatever that may mean.' (Laughter.) For myself I consider it a very pretty phrase, but I should not like to take it too seriously. It seems to me rather like a ballroom compliment. (Laughter.) All women are acquainted with the dear old ballroom compliment, the worn and threadbare thing that our partner in the dance whispers to us at the close of the evening, how he never, never, never will forget – which, if we are wise, we shall know means that he forgets all about us the very next morning. 'Sovran woman' is said tonight; but will it hold good tomorrow? Will Dr Watson, for example, when he is asked to pronounce an opinion on a woman's work look as amiable as he does now, and breathe forth a fervent 'sovran woman' before proceeding to pass judgment? (Laughter and applause.)
These are dark and dreadful questions. (Laughter). I will not dwell upon them for tonight our gallant and chivalrous hosts of the Whitefriars have of their own free will paid us those honours which are our rightful due – ('hear, hear,' and laughter) –and have set us on those thrones which are truly ours to occupy for all time. For sovran woman is queen of the whole world round, and sovran man knows it. (Laughter and applause.) He sometimes pretends he does not know it – but he does!
We hear a great deal now-a-days of strife and competition between the sexes, but surely there should be no strife between the two halves of a perfect whole. Man is king as woman is queen, and to do good work in the world the two must rule harmoniously together. One is not greater or less than the other. Each has the qualities necessary to make both happy, and men and women are never seen at better advantage than in their total unlikeness one to the other. An effeminate man is contemptible; a masculine woman is ridiculous. It is not by asserting herself as the equal of man that sovereign woman will best keep her sovereignty; it is rather by emphasising and insisting on the great difference between herself and him.
Imitation is, we know, the sincerest form of flattery, but to flatter man so much as to make ourselves in any way like him is carrying the compliment somewhat too far. We women can be useful workes in the world without sacrificing our chief birthright-womanliness. It is not by copying man's dress, his sports, or his customs, that we shall keep and hold our best influence over him. His costume, if the gentlemen will permit me to say so, is really not worth imitating. ('Hear, hear.' ) His sports and his customs are of his nature, and not of ours. No woman ever gains anything by asserting that she is as good as a man. She ought to be so much better that any assertion of that kind is totally unnecessary. ('Hear, hear,' and laughter.)
It is generally understood and considered that man objects to the movement which is called the advancement of woman. If he does so object, his objection is perfectly reasonable and natural. For long centuries of tradition and history in all countries he has been accustomed to make his own laws for his own convenience, and those laws have kept woman in a subordinate position, as more or less of a drudge or a toy. He finds it difficult to understand now that with better education woman has better aims, and instead of cringing at his feet she wishes to walk at his side, the free companion of his thoughts, the inspirer of all good things to him, the defender of his honour, and his most faithful friend on this side heaven. (Applause). Surely this is what woman in the truest sense of womanhood means when she clamours for her rights. She wants the right to help in the work of the world, the right to have a voice in the affairs of life and society in which she is obliged to take so great a part, the right to suggest ways out of difficulty, to bring light out of darkness, and, above all, the right to inspire and encourage man to his noblest efforts by her steadfast and cheerful example.
I take it that the sum and substance of woman's ambition when she talks of her advancement in life and work is to help sovran man–not to help herself so much as the whole work of the world. In arts and letters this must be, or should be, her chief concern. A Rosa Bonheur has filled a court in the Palace of Art; a George Eliot has filled a corner of the Temple of English Literature. Women can be either a Rosa Bonheur or a George Eliot, without challenging an Edwin Landseer or a Walter Scott. There need be no quarrel. Time is lost and temper wasted in discussing comparisons and equalities. The rewards of art are the same for both sexes. Failure means poverty and contempt; success means the spite and the envy of the unsuccessful. ('No, no,' and laughter.) It has always been so, and always will be so till the end of time. ('No, no.') No worker in art or literature ever gathered the roses of a triumph without the thorns.
We women may be justly proud of the fact that woman's work in every branch of art and industry has begun to be a recognised factor in the progress of civilisation, but I think we should be careful that while we gain we do not also lose. My friend, Dr Watson, has gone very much on the old grounds of the mistakes of women – how she tidies up a man. May she long continue to do it – ('hear, hear,' and laughter) – for he is by nature a most untidy mortal. (Laughter). He also touched on her predilection for dress. Long may she continue to be better dressed than he is! (Laughter).
He touched also on her love for gossip. I can only say that I never listened to such a babel of tongues as I happen to have heard in a men's club, nor have I known many more reputations picked to pieces than there. (Laughter.) Women are very good at that sort of work sometimes, but so are men. It is a case of six of one, and half-a-dozen of the other. (Laughter and applause.) As regards our love of dress we again have to turn to sovran man. He does not like to see us dressed as he is dressed. He generally complains, and makes a row about it, if one of his family should attempt to put on clothes like his. Therefore we have to dress to please him, and we do our best. We generally find we succeed, too. We should try by what we call our advancement not to repel sovran man, but rather to doubly attract and fascinate him.
We do not want to be his rivals or opposers; we wish to be his friends and helpers. I am sure that is what all the best women want. They do not want to be independent, unhappy creatures, roaming about the world without a single man to say a kind word to them. They want to be the friends, the companions of men, and help them in every good work. As I said, we should not attempt to repel man by our so-called advancement. We should show him that we have an increased charm, an increased kindness, a gentle helpfulness, for every man is our naturally born admirer and worshipper, and it rests entirely with ourselves to keep him so.
I have no more to say except to thank Dr Watson for the somewhat dubious manner in which he proposed sovran woman, and also to thank our hosts of the Whitefriars for the cordiality with which they have responded to that hesitatingly handled toast. I thank Dr Watson and the Whitefriars on my own behalf, and for all of my sex here present. However much we women may be haled from our thrones tomorrow in the conflict of this workaday world it is something to remember that we have been so courteously acknowledged the queens of to-night. (Much applause.)