Pick the small ones

Marina Warner

  • Never Marry a Woman with Big Feet: Women in Proverbs from around the World by Mineke Schipper
    Yale, 422 pp, £35.00, April 2004, ISBN 0 300 10249 6

Dryden and D’Avenant’s debonair travesty of The Tempest pairs the innocent heroine, Dorinda, with Hippolito, a male juvenile lead of equal springtime guilelessness. While Miranda knows only Prospero and Caliban, and barely remembers her mother, neither Dorinda nor Hippolito has ever seen any other member of the opposite sex. Hippolito finds that Prospero left behind a single book, overlooked when he drowned his library. It’s a manual of proverbial wisdom, and Hippolito eagerly begins to read the adages and maxims, hoping to discover what a young man in his position should look for in a female partner, what he can expect from their relation, and how he should treat her. As Gramsci observed, ‘creating a new culture is not just a matter of individuals making “original” discoveries but also, and above all, of disseminating already discovered truths.’ Proverbs contribute to this process: they are repositories of ancient lore. A proverb used to be called a ‘gnome’, until the garden variety usurped the word, and ‘gnome’ comes from the same root as know.

This book of gnomes contains 15,735 maxims addressing the matter of Dorinda’s nature and future, from 240 languages, many of them unknown to Hippolito. It starts with a section on the ‘Female Body’ (an inventory from Head to Foot). Hippolito already finds Dorinda’s effect on him disturbing. ‘Women and sardines,’ he reads. ‘Pick the small ones.’ But while fish fill his net, he has no standard of comparison for his girl. Besides, he then reads that ‘the good essence comes in a small jar, but so does poison.’ Later, many proverbs recommend a woman without a tongue. Later still, she’s ideal if she has no brain. Further on, several recommend a headless sort. In one distant land, where English is spoken, the elders have decreed: ‘In marriage, the husband should have two eyes, but the wife but one.’ Other maxims hold that a woman should not go out and about, and if she does, she must not whistle.

Hippolito riffles through sections entitled ‘Phases of Life’ and ‘Basics of Life’. Girls are rubbish, he learns: ‘One lame son is more valuable than 18 golden daughters.’ When Dorinda was born there was a loud wailing and gnashing of teeth and she is lucky not to have been killed – the magnanimity of men must be responsible for this. Worse even than daughters are their mothers: in Persia they say that ‘the mother-in-law’s final breath is better than the nightingale’s song.’ Hippolito thanks Setebos, his god, that Dorinda hasn’t got any relatives. But she must be feigning the ingénue dewiness that makes him feel so loving and manly; females, he learns, are fiends of deceit. He’s fortunate that he has no rivals on the island for her favours, but the book warns that there are no depths to which a female will not sink. Union with Dorinda will be a cage, a chicken coop, a hangman’s rope, a bed of nails and an eel trap. But he will be able to escape it, the book reveals, as soon as life with her palls, by taking another wife. (‘Even a wolf is allowed to marry two.’) The adages of the ancients at this point become bewildering: ‘If you marry two, you’ll die all the younger.’ It’s advisable to take countermeasures: ‘“Every little lightness helps,” said the skipper, and threw his wife overboard.’

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[*] Over the last ten years, my mother, Emilia Terzulli, has been compiling an Italian-English lexicon of examples: it will be published by Tom Stacey Books.