Run Mad as Often as You Like

(NB: When I started this series, I intended to publish every Thursday in March. However, I was in a car accident a few weeks ago and felt the need to take a week off from writing in order to better recover physically and mentally.)

Two weeks ago,  I wrote about a female writer who lived shortly before the phrase “feminist” was coined. This week, I’m looking at a writer who lived about a hundred years before last week’s author. She’s an authoress to whom I have a strong connection, and many people think of her almost immediately upon thinking of me.

You got it. The one. The only. Jane Austen.

She was a lady writer in a time when that wasn’t conventional. The heroines she created tend to follow the dictates of tradition and society on the whole, but none of them is completely bound to those rules. Each of them exercises at least a bit of independence and unconventionality.

Because each of Austen’s heroines has a different personality, different people connect with different of these ladies. This allows different women to find encouragement from different stories. For me, I’ve always connected with Elinor Dashwood, Elizabeth Bennet, and Emma Woodhouse in strong but unique ways. I’ve been compared to Jane Bennet before, but I didn’t understand that. I’ve been asked if Anne Eliot resonates with me because she’s the oldest of Austen’s heroines and naturally as a single woman who is almost thirty…yeah, Anne Eliot is awesome, but she and I are VERY different people. I don’t understand Fanny Price very well, and I find Catherine Moreland annoying.On the other hand, I know women who really connect with Anne and can’t understand Emma for the wide world.

Austen crafted six novels, each of which is centered around a strong woman. These women exemplify strength in different ways. They are also surrounded by women who are strong but again not necessarily in the same way as the main character. This allows us as readers to see conflicting viewpoints, to know the heroine’s flaws, and to understand what does and doesn’t constitute female strength in a deeper way. Each of Austen’s heroines has a female foil (or more than one) who allows us to see what Austen admires in strong women and what she does not value.

(I’m going to look at Pride and Prejudice and Emma with more depth than the other four novels to save this blog post from becoming a novel.)

In Pride and Prejudice, Austen gives us two strong foils for Elizabeth Bennet. First, we meet Caroline Bingley, Elizabeth’s peer and a rival (of sorts) for Darcy’s interest. Later, we meet Darcy’s aunt, Lady Catherine DeBourgh.

Caroline Bingley sets herself up as Elizabeth’s rival almost from the beginning. She appears to dislike Elizabeth on sight and almost without cause. Perhaps she senses that Elizabeth will be her rival for Darcy’s attentions? Perhaps she resents Elizabeth’s less sophisticated origins? It is not clear initially why Caroline dislikes Elizabeth so much, but given the way in which she treats all of Meryton, it is most likely Elizabeth’s origins. Whatever the cause, Caroline’s resentment causes her to act in a less refined manner than one might expect from her education. In doing so, she allows us to see some of Elizabeth’s strengths. Her one real attempt to act kindly towards Elizabeth shows us two of Elizabeth’s flaws-pride and prejudice. (Wait…what is this book called again?

Lady Catherine is ostensibly a well-educated woman who ought to be refined and dignified. Instead she is rude, impertinent, and self-important. She considers herself to be an expert on everything, and she bestows her opinions on everyone who can hear her. She shows Elizabeth to be a more moderate person and a woman who is willing to listen to others even when she doesn’t agree with them. Elizabeth listens politely to Lady Catherine’s lectures, and when she does respond to them, our heroine shows herself to be intelligent and wise with her words. Lady Catherine helps us to see Elizabeth’s strengths and gifts.

Emma offers a few foils for the titular heroine. We have both Mrs. Elton and Jane Fairfax who show us Emma’s virtues but also her flaws.

Mrs. Elton is a self-important woman who thinks that everyone around her NEEDS her opinions and guidance. To me, the most quintessential Mrs. Elton moment comes late in the book when she scolds Jane Fairfax for acting without her guidance. After all, Jane might have lived without Mrs. E’s help for the previous twenty-odd years of her life, but she cannot proceed from here on out without the Divine Counsel of Mrs. Elton. Emma may seek to guide and arrange others, but she doesn’t get mad at them if they don’t listen to her. She will argue with people who disagree with her (see her relationship with Mr. Knightley) but she doesn’t scold people as if they are complete fools for making choices without her guidance.

Jane, on the other hand, shows a more moderated lady than Emma. Emma has her rough edges. She’s incredibly strong-willed, and she doesn’t do well when she doesn’t understand the motivations of her friends’ actions. Jane has a more temperate disposition, and through that, Austen shows us the ups and downs of Emma’s temperament.

In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor’s quiet strength is contrasted against both Lucy Steele’s brashness and Fanny Dashwood’s manipulation. Fanny and Lucy both scheme to meet their goals. Elinor prefers to lead her life simply and quietly. If she loses out on certain things (like Edward Ferrars), she isn’t going to throw a fit or pull someone’s hair. She will be hurt, and she will struggle internally. But she isn’t going to create unnecessary drama. She also prefers to focus on the simple things in life. She wants a quiet country life. She doesn’t need money or titles for happiness. She wants a quiet life with the people she loves most close by.

Northanger Abbey offers a more subtle contrast between Catherine Moreland’s dreamy view of the world and Isabella Thorpe’s need to manipulate and connive. Isabella lies and conspires to achieve her goals. Catherine may dream about murder or mystery, but she tends to see the best about most people. (Except General Tilney-and that’s probably wise.)

Mansfield Park makes a clear distinction between Fanny Price and several of the women around her. But her most obvious foil is Mary Crawford, a woman who can simper and charm without scruple but doesn’t value the same things that Austen (or Fanny) did. Mary will break rules and mores to get what she wants. Fanny will not. While I don’t see much of myself in Fanny, I have a great appreciation for her commitment to her beliefs and her refusal to bend her will to make others happy. To me, that is her greatest strength. She may be quiet. She may appear mild. (I’m not convinced that she really is.) But she will not bend or change to make other people happy.

Persuasion gives Anne three foils-her sisters and Louisa Musgrove. It is when Anne is contrasted against vanity and a weak nature that we need the virtue of her quiet strength. Elizabeth preens. Louisa flirts. Mary plays the perpetual patient. And through it all, Anne stands by quietly caring for The Important Things in Life. Anne is intrinsically good. (That’s probably why I don’t see myself in her; I have too much Julia Flyte in me to ever allow me to be Anne.) Anne’s life is rarely easy or simple or fun, but Anne finds contentment when she knows that she is doing what is right.

Looking over this, I am once again amazed by the strength of even Austen’s mildest woman. And I am enormously grateful to Jane Austen for sending these women forth into the literary universe. I think that they provide some pretty excellent role models.


Books are like Lobster Shells

“Wherever you find a great man, you will find a great mother or a great wife standing behind him — or so they used to say. It would be interesting to know how many great women have had great fathers and husbands behind them.”

Despite the fact that I’ve only really been acquainted with her works for a few years, Dorothy L. Sayers is undoubtedly one of my favorite writers. Sayers is best known for her works of detective fiction, the Lord Peter Wimsey series. Although she passed away before the Women’s Movement really got off the ground and the word “feminist” entered common use, Sayers writes from a decidedly pro-woman viewpoint. Her books feature strong women, and her prose indicates that the men who should be most attractive the reader are the men who support and encourage strong women.

A few months ago, I was talking with a dear friend about my love of Sayers, and we happened upon discussing the Harriet Vane-Peter Wimsey relationship. Specifically, we were discussing a moment from Gaudy Night in which Harriet says to a mentor “If I once gave way to Peter once I should go up like straw.” The mentor replies “That is moderately obvious. And how often has he taken advantage of that?” I confessed that this is my dream. I love that dynamic. I love that Peter treats Harriet as his equal and will not take advantage of her. He, like most people who know her, knows that he take advantage of Harriet’s affections for him. But he never does it. Harriet has a similar power over Peter although I must confess that I’m not always sure that she is aware of her own powers.

In Harriet and Peter, Sayers has created an immensely attractive pairing-a relationship of equals. It takes them a bit of time to find their footing together, but they are equals. At a time when it was not the societal norm, Peter treats Harriet as his equal. Now, Peter was created by the pen of a female writer. One could assume that a strong, well-educated, independent female writer would create a man who is the type of person to whom a strong, well-educated, independent female writer would be attracted. But I find it hard to believe that Lord Peter Wimsey is merely some sort of wish fulfillment fantasy. I think that Sayers knew that there could be and there are real men like him.

Sayers created a man who didn’t want a partner who was soft or weak. He is attracted to Harriet’s strength. To me, that is a noble trait. Harriet is a strong woman. She’s well-educated and successful. Peter himself confesses that he loves Harriet in part because she never resists a challenge. And in a time when those were not traits that society promoted or encouraged, Sayers (herself a well-educated and successful woman) puts Harriet front and center. Then, she surrounds both Harriet and Peter with strong women-The Dowager Duchess of Denver, Lady Mary Wimsey, Miss Lydgate, Miss Climpson, Miss De Vine and Miss Martin to name a few. Not all of her women are strong, and none of them are perfect, but Sayers shows us that strength in a woman can be a true blessing to the world around the woman.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Gaudy Night. Gaudy Night explores whether or not academia can be the proper sphere of women. Sayers puzzles through the age-old question of what happens to those people who are cursed with both heads and hearts. Is it possible to have both an active mental life and an active emotional life? Can academics or busy professionals also have full and healthy emotional lives? Harriet is an intellectual, but she wants to have both an emotional life and an intellectual life. She spends much of the book struggling to determine if she can have it all.

Sayers believes that it is possible. Women can have full lives. It doesn’t have to be either/or. They can have heads AND hearts. (Men can too.) Harriet can be an authoress and a scholar and a wife and mother. Peter can be a detective and a diplomat and a husband. To me, that is the beauty of Sayers. She believes that women shouldn’t fit into boxes. They should live their lives fully with both their heads and their hearts. It might not always be easy, but it will be worthwhile.

And I’ll leave you, perhaps a bit inappropriately, with one of my favorite Lord Peter quotes:

“I do know the worst sin–perhaps the only sin–passion can commit, is to be joyless.”

A Book, too, Can Be a Star

I’ve been thinking about March being both Women’s History Month and Reading Month. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about my favorite female writers. I pretty quickly started thinking about Madeleine L’Engle. I first encountered Madeleine L’Engle when I was about eleven through A Wrinkle in Time. The school librarian (aka my mom) recommended it to me because she thought it would appeal to my interests.  I loved it, and I wanted to read anything-everything-that she’d written. I got her books out of the library. I once road my bike to the mall because I wanted to have my own copy of A Ring of Endless Light. I borrowed my friend’s copy of Certain Women because I started reading it while I was hiding in her room during a game of Psychiatrist. Suffice it to say, Madeleine L’Engle has been important to me.

Madeleine L’Engle’s books focus primarily on girls and women. Even when the main character is a man, he is surrounded by strong women. (See Many Waters) From my first encounter with L’Engle, that inspired me. I loved exploring the world through the eyes of strong but completely human women. I also loved how the men in these books encouraged the women in their lives to meet their full potential and supported them in that quest. I wanted to be like Meg Murry or Vicki Austin and have people around me who encouraged and supported me. I loved how Dr. Alex Murry, Mr. Austin, and Dr. Calvin O’Keefe each believed that his respective daughter(s) could do anything and encouraged them to do their best at whatever they were doing. Vicky is encouraged to pursue her love of the humanities but also to seek out their intersections with science. Meg’s greatest strength is math, and that’s nurtured. That’s really inspiring for a girl whose math teacher told her that most girls just aren’t as good at math as boys are.

L’Engle also introduced me to all sorts of literature that most middle school girls don’t know. I learned about John Donne, Tennyson, and various theologians because her characters quoted those writers. I met Fortinbras and Mr. Rochester because they were family pets in L’Engle’s books. L’Engle never assumed that her audience was too young to understand these things. By introducing me to these things, she challenged my intellect and encouraged me to push my curiosity. I sometimes think I have her to blame for my nerdy tendencies.

L’Engle also gave me some important spiritual insights. In A Ring of Endless Light, Mrs. Austin tells her children that prayer is not magic but rather “an act of love.” That resonated with my adolescent soul, and it’s given me a strong understanding of what prayer is. It’s helped me to continue praying even when there doesn’t seem to be an immediate answer or an obvious solution. She showed me that joy is “the infallible sign of the presence of God.” I’ll never forget Grandfather explaining to Vicky that “other men’s crosses are not my own” and her subsequent realization that there are moments when each of us is called to act like Simon of Cyrene and carry the cross of another for a time. Christians are not called to worry about others unnecessarily or bear their burdens, but we are called to live with the kindness and love of Christ. I like to think that she made me a better person.

Madeleine L’Engle’s books are stars to me. They lit my interior universe and opened new horizons to me. I owe her a great deal. She encouraged me to pursue new interests and to not fear strength. She showed me the beauty of strong women and introduced me to some truly excellent literature and music. I’m so grateful for her.

March Ado Round Two

As March Ado About Nothing begins, I wanted to give you a list of all of the posts that I wrote for last year’s March Ado. I will be creating new content for this year, but first I wanted to start with the old content.

March Ado Intro

Who do you trust?

If They Had Only TALKED to Each Other

What I’ve Learned From Beatrice

As I made clear last year, I really love this play, and I love getting to celebrate it throughout the month of March. I hope you can also enjoy that.

Also, keep your eyes peeled for some content celebrating March as Reading Month and as Women’s History Month.

Happy March Ado About Nothing!