With my own nuptials fast approaching, I wanted to highlight a wonderful essay by the peerless E. B. White. In 1956, the editor of the Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin asked him to write some impressions of life with Katharine Sergeant Angell White, his wife and a graduate of the university. The result was a rather bemused but touching account of the trials and joys of marriage to a “Bryn Mawr girl.” The simple elegance of White’s prose is captivating: “I once held a live hummingbird in my hand. I once married a Bryn Mawr girl. To a large extent they are twin experiences.” I could go on and on with quotes, but the text is below and it’s well worth reading in full. And as one who will soon similarly be wedded to a lovely Bryn Mawr girl, here’s hoping that Charlotte and I have as long and happy of a marriage as the Whites’ obviously enjoyed.
Call Me Ishmael: Or, How I Feel About Being Married to a Bryn Mawr Graduate
This is a ridiculous assignment. The sensations of a Bryn Mawr husband are by their very nature private. Even if there were some good excuse for parading them in public, a prudent male would hesitate to make the attempt, so greatly do they differ from common sensations. But as far as that goes, a prudent male wouldn’t have married a Bryn Mawr girl in the first place – rumors would have reached him of the wild fertility revels that take place on May Day, of the queer ritual of the lantern, of the disorderly rolling of hoops, and of all the other racy symbols and capers of the annual Elisabethan hoedown. A sober male, sifting theses disturbing tales of springtime debauchery, quite properly would have taken stock of the situation. A girl who has spent her senior year dancing around a Maypole and beating a hoop might easily take a lifetime to cool off. A prudent male would have boarded the first train for Poughkeepsie and sought out some simple, modest maiden with daisies in her hair.
I do not, in fact, recommend that any young man enter into a marriage with a Bryn Mawr girl unless he is sure he can absorb the extra amount of emotional experience that is involved. To awake to a serene morning in a green world; to be overtaken by summer thunder while crossing a lake; to rise bodily from earth, borne aloft by the seat of one’s pants as a plane passenger is lifted from the runway — unless a man can imbibe these varied and sometimes exhausting sensations, can profit from them, can survive them, I recommend that he take the easy course and marry into Wellesley or Barnard or Smith. But if he is ready for anything, if he wants to walk straight into the jaws of Beauty, if he aspires to rise above the fruited plain and swing by his heels from the trapezes of the sky, then his course is clear and the outskirt of Philadelphia are his hunting ground.
Bryn Mawr graduates, in their appearance and their manner and their composition, are unlike all other females whose minds have been refined by contact with the classics. They have long hair that flows down over their bodies to below their waist. They rise early, to sit in the light from the east window, brushing their tresses with long, delicious stokes and then twisting them into an intricate series of coils and loops and binding them with pins made from the shells of tortoises or, more lately, from the plastics of Du Pont. The husband’s day thus begins with the promise of serenity, of order. But there is nothing static about Bryn Mawr. As the day advances, the pins grow (as though nourished by the soil of intellect), thrusting up through the warm, lovely hair like spears of crocuses through the coils of springtime. When fully ripe, the pins leap outward and upward, then fall to earth. Thus does a Bryn Mawr girl carry in her person the germinal strength of a fertile world. Once a week she makes a trip to a hairdressing establishment that used to go by the name of the Frances Fox Institute for the Scientific Care of the Hair, where she is restored and cleansed by three ageless nymphs named Miss Abbott, Miss Nelson, and Miss Robinson, usually (as near as I can make out) while sitting in a booth next to the one occupied by Lillian Gish.
Bone hairpins are not the only things that fall, or pop, from a Bryn Mawr graduate. There is a steady cascade of sensible, warm, and sometimes witty remarks, plus a miscellany of inanimate objects, small and large, bright and dull, trivial and valuable, slipping quietly from purse and lap, from hair and ears, slipping and sliding noiselessly to a lower level, where they take refuge under sofas and beds, behind draperies and pillows – pins, clips, bills, jewels, handkerchiefs, earrings, Guaranty Trust Company checks representing the toil of the weeks, glasses representing the last hope of vision. A Bryn Mawr girl is like a very beautiful waterfall whose flow is the result of some natural elevation of the mind and heart. She is above paper clips, above Kleenex, above jewels, above money. She spends a large part of each day making money and then comes home and rises above it, allowing it to fall gently through the cracks and chinks of an imperfect world. Yogi Berra would be the perfect husband for a Bryn Mawr girl, but I am no slouch myself; I have come a long way in the catcher’s art and am still improving my game.
I have known many graduates of Bryn Mawr. They are all of the same mold. They have all accepted the same bright challenge: something is lost that has not been found, something’s at stake that has not been won, something is started that has not been finished, something is dimly felt that has not been fully realized. They carry the distinguishing mark – the mark that separates them from other educated and superior women: the incredible vigor, the subtlety of mind, the warmth of spirit, the aspiration, the fidelity to past and to present… What is there about these women that makes them so dangerous, so tempting? Why, it is Bryn Mawr. As they grow in years, they grow in light. As their minds and hearts expand, their deeds become more formidable, their connections more significant, their husbands more startled and delighted. I gazed on Pembroke West only once in my life, but I knew instinctively that I was looking at a pile that was to touch me far more deeply than the Taj Mahal or the George Washington Bridge.
To live with a woman whose loyalty to a particular brand of cigarettes is as fierce as to a particular person or a particular scene is a sobering experience. My Bryn Mawr graduate would as soon smoke a cigarette that is not a Parliament as sign a check with an invented name. Not long ago, when a toothpaste manufacturer made the wild mistake of changing the chemical formula of his dentifrice, he soon learned the stuff Bryn Mawr is made of. My wife raised such hell that our pharmacist, in sheer self-defense, ransacked the country and dredged up what appears to be a lifetime supply of the obsolete, but proper, paste.
You ask me how I feel to have undertaken this union. I feel fine. But I have not recovered from my initial surprise, nor have I found any explanation for my undeserved good fortune. I once held a live hummingbird in my hand. I once married a Bryn Mawr girl. To a large extent they are twin experiences. Sometimes I feel as though I were a diver who had ventured a little beyond the limits of safe travel under the sea and had entered the strange zone where one is said to enjoy the rapture of the deep. It was William Brown who most simply and accurately described my feelings and I shall let him have the last word:
Briefly, everything doth lend her
So much grace, and so approve her,
That for everything I love her.
From Poems and Sketches of E. B. White (Harper & Row, 1981)