I Don’t Want to Be Famous

(This is the result of some things I’ve been pondering over the course of the school year as a result of conversations that I’ve had with my students.)

I was talking to a group of third graders about what they want out of life recently. One of them told me that they wanted to be rich and famous. We talked about what they wanted, and I had to make a confession.

I don’t want to be rich. I don’t want to be famous.

We talked a bit about how I don’t want some of the burdens (mental, practical, or otherwise) that come with wealth. I didn’t get super in depth about it because, well, they’re nine. We don’t need to have an in-depth conversation of wealth or taxes or investment portfolios.

But I decided to elaborate about the fame thing. We live in a fame-obsessed culture, and many of my students talk about wanting to be famous. I wanted to have a brief conversation about why I DON’T want to be famous.

I pulled up this picture on my phone.

As I understand it, this picture was taken when Chris Pine had gotten off a transatlantic flight. Now, Chris Pine is a naturally above average person. However, in my experience, no one looks fabulous when they’ve just gotten off a twelve-hour (or however long) flight. Heck, I can think of two very specific instances in which I probably looked like sheer hell after getting off of a two or three hour flight. (Thanks, motion sickness and rocky landings!)

One thing that I genuinely enjoy about the pleasant anonymity of my life is the fact that when I get off of an airplane (having perhaps just thrown up) no one is trying to take my picture. I can get myself back together and collect my luggage without strangers trying to take my photo and then post said photo all over the internet. It might be nice to jump lines or be first anywhere I go. But to have that sort of attention focused on me all the time? Oh hell no. Being photographed when I go to get coffee or arrive at an airport? No. Thank. You. Every Chipotle burrito I eat becomes a pregnancy rumor? Uh, let’s skip that.

I don’t want to be famous. As I told my third graders, I don’t want to have people obsessing over every aspect of my life. I told them the story of the married writer who interviewed Tom Hiddleston…and then found photos of herself with Tom online in which she was described (with clearly romantic connotations) as a mystery brunette. I don’t want rumors whirling around me. I don’t want my life to be analyzed by random strangers all over the internet.

I find our fame-fixated culture to be a little disturbing. I work with kids who want to be famous. They talk about becoming YouTubers for profit or becoming an online “influencer.” Being an actor or pop star is seen as even more attractive. They see fame as cool, but is that really the kind of life that anyone wants? Do you really want people analyzing every area of your life?

As I’ve been saying, I don’t. I don’t need paparazzi following my family or my relationships around. I don’t want fans writing tumblr posts about why I seemed sad during a press tour or wondering who I was going to date next. I don’t want to google myself and find out that people are writing fan fiction about my life. I don’t know what the answer to this sort of behavior is. I don’t know how we stop treating celebrities like they’re our best friends and we have a right to their lives. I know that we ought to let them just be people, but I don’t know how we make that happen. I also know that some celebrities encourage this sort of behavior. They allow fans to have this limitless access to their lives.

The other day, my friend and I were discussing why our culture embraces “holidays” like “It’s gonna be May” and celebrating Cinco de Mayo when one has no Mexican heritage…or any concept of what the Battle of Puebla actually was. (May I bring some crepes to your Cinco celebration to remind you who won that war?) Her theory, which makes sense to me, is that as we’ve stopped celebrating religious feasts, we’ve “had” to create secular feasts to replace them. If you’re not going to have a big celebration/festival for Pentecost or Easter or any other feast, then you have to find another reason to have a celebration.

I think that our celebrity fascination stems from a similar place. We don’t celebrate Saints anymore. Similarly, there isn’t much attention paid to secular “greats.” But we have celebrities. And with our modern technology, we have all kinds of access to them. That’s made them into our heroes and idols. Now, there’s nothing wrong with having heroes; I think that everyone needs at least one hero. But I think that it’s important to consider why we choose our heroes.

I also think that our current technology allows us to have seemingly unlimited access to our heroes, which can be dangerous. (After all, who was it who said that we should never meet our heroes?) We can learn too much. We can see flaws and judge the things that we don’t like. But it can also be hard on the heroes. Having unlimited access to a person can wear on that person. Imagine being Chris Pine having someone take pictures of you when you’ve just gotten off an international flight. As I said above, you couldn’t pay me to deal with that. Imagine being almost any famous person and having your personal life dissected by complete strangers.

I think this is all unfair to famous people, and it’s not a life I’d want. I don’t think that I’ll manage to change my students’ minds, but I can still try to present what I believe to be my rational point of view. Reason doesn’t cost anything. I may never change the world, but maybe I’ll get a few people to at least think about my opinion.

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A Toast to the Bard

Four hundred fifty four years ago, a child was born in Stratford upon Avon. His father was a local merchant. His mother was from a wealthy Roman Catholic family. John and Mary Shakespeare surely had, as all parents do, hopes and aspirations for their new baby, their first son.

I have no doubt that neither of them ever dreamed that this new baby would change the world. They had no idea of the things that this new baby would grow up to do. How could they? How could anyone look at a baby and imagine at this child would grow up to revolutionize literature and theater, invent words, coin what would become common phrases, invent names that would become popular, and shape the way that the world would view a nation’s history?

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.

It is unimaginable. Even that child himself must have had no idea what he would accomplish. The man never published any of his plays. He wrote to pay the bills, to entertain the masses, and to please his patrons. (I’m sure that he also wrote to satisfy his own internal drive.) He wasn’t trying to become the greatest writer in the English language. He wasn’t trying to become a household name. And yet…

A few years ago, I asked my Facebook friends to tell me why they think that Shakespeare matters. One of my friends pointed out that tons of movies are based on his plays. (The Lion King, Ten Things I Hate About You…) Someone else pointed out that his plays are a foundation for storytelling. Several people mentioned his facility with language. Someone pointed out that if you’re a guy you can impress girls by quoting Shakespeare. (Someone else pointed out that Shakespeare doesn’t know who Ken Branagh is.)

Shakespeare knows how to use language. I remember being fourteen and seeing a stage production of Much Ado About Nothing. I was hooked on Shakespeare. I was in love. I loved the language and the stories, and I just wanted to live in his world. Then I heard the St. Crispian’s Day speech, and the love grew. In the spring of 2003, I saw a stage production of Pericles that was set in the Far East. The culture of the play was new to me, but I got the story. If I’d been in love before, now I was completely gone. This man could tell a story like nobody else I’d ever encountered.

I’ve taken three Shakespeare courses in my life. I’ve read most of his plays. I’ve taught a few of them. I’ve seen countless film and stage adaptations of his plays. I’m fairly certain that a decent amount of my attraction to Tom Hiddleston is a direct result of his love for Shakespeare. (If you want to woo me, quote Shakespeare. If you want me to fall head over heels, play a thoroughly delightful Henry V.) I genuinely believe that Shakespeare is our most important literary inheritance.

Recently, I found myself puzzling over my fondness for Beatrice from Much Ado. Beatrice has been my favorite literary character since I was in high school. (When I was fourteen, I wanted to be Hero, but then I got a bit older, saw the show again, and just connected with Beatrice’s spunk.) I struggle with wondering if I like her so much because she is like me or if I became the way that I am because I like her personality. I don’t know the answer there. Maybe it’s a bit of both?

One of Shakespeare’s greatest gifts is his ability to understand humanity so well. His characters show a remarkable understanding of the human psyche. He gets how people think. He understands greed and anger and lust and fear and love and…emotions. He created characters like Lady Macbeth and Coriolanus who are obsessed with power, Juliet who wants to be loved, Prospero who wants revenge, Brutus who claims to want to restore Rome to the people, and Dogberry who really just wants everyone to know that he is an ass. Shakespeare creates characters who can feel real. Are there caricatures in his plays? Of course. But they are merely the background to vivid and lively heroes and villains.

Shakespeare understands that many people seek power, but others desire justice. But he also sees the dangers and mistakes that can happen on our road through life. He knows that some men (like Falstaff) would rather an easy life than a virtuous life. He sees how circumstances or a weak mind can destroy a man. The Bard sees and portrays humanity at our best and our worst…and on those places in the middle. Many of us may desire to live at our best and fear to live at our worst, but Shakespeare readily reminds us that it is far more common for us to live in the middle.

Shakespeare can make me laugh. He can make me cry. I believe that he has a quote or a moment for every mood. I’m sure that John Shakespeare and Mary Arden had no clue that their tiny baby would grow into a giant of literature when he was born 454 years ago, but no parent really knows at birth what their child’s full potential is. All that I know is that I’m enormously grateful to the Bard for pursuing his potential and to his friends and colleagues for ensuring that his words outlived him.

So raise a glass to the Bard tonight. I’m sure he wouldn’t scoff at a toast of wine or ale. Read something he wrote. Watch a production of one of his works. And rejoice that Shakespeare lived.

Choose the Wedding

There is a saying that all of Shakespeare’s plays end either with a wedding or a funeral. (It’s not entirely true; some end with more than one wedding or funeral.) If a play ends with a wedding, it’s a comedy. If it ends with a funeral, it’s a tragedy. (If it ends with a dude dying alone in a castle in northern England, it’s a history.)

In Madeleine L’Engle’s Certain Women, this concept is used to describe a way of approaching life. You can either choose the wedding or the funeral. You can either choose joy or you can choose sorrow. Choosing joy doesn’t keep bad things from happening and choosing sorrow doesn’t completely eliminate bad things. But it’s about your mindset. How will I approach each day? Each situation? Will I choose the wedding or the funeral? Will I choose to live with joy or will I choose to live in the negatives?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. My week began with a funeral and will end with a wedding. As I was describing this to a coworker last week, she said, “Oh, it’s the circle of life!” At first I thought she was kidding, but she has a point. Weddings, births, funerals…it is the circle of life. But it also brings to bear a good question.

Am I living in a way that chooses the wedding or that chooses the funeral?

I don’t know the answer to that question. I think that I tend toward the funeral more than I ought. But when I think about it in such terms, I don’t want to choose the funeral. I want to choose the wedding. I want to choose joy. I think that’s a place to begin.

“Joy is a matter of perspective. It often takes work. But there are no circumstances of life in which you cannot experience Christian joy. You can experience it as a concrete reality in your life, not just as an abstraction.”

-Father Michael Scanlan, TOR

But it’s only the beginning. Wanting to do a thing is not the same as doing it. And actually choosing joy is much harder than wanting to choose joy. I can’t give you some magic solution or some quick tip to make it happen. It’s the result of consciously getting up in the morning day in and day out and making a conscious choice to live with joy.

“Walk joyously through life. And at the times you cannot, at least walk with faith and courage.”

-St. Francis de Sales

I’m told that things like this get easier as they become habits. I can’t promise you that. I can tell you that I hope it’s true. I’d like it to be true. But I know that building a habit is hard. The only advice that I can give you is to make an active decision to focus on joy. Ask God to put joy into your heart, and choose joy daily. To quote Henri Nouwen, “choose joy and keep choosing it.”

Sometimes (like this week for me) life feels like a whirlwind. That’s a real thing. It doesn’t always work out smoothly or perfectly. But in this week, I’ve been reminded that in good times and bad, we’re given the opportunity to choose joy.

So let’s do that. Whether we’re going to a wedding or struggling through the worst bogs of singleness, let’s remember to find God and goodness in the little things. Let’s choose joy. Let’s choose the wedding.

If they weren’t women…

“Without a spine she [Teresa of Jesus] couldn’t be a woman and if she wasn’t a woman, she couldn’t be a saint.”

-Dr. Peter Kreeft

I studied abroad in Spain in the fall of 2008. At some point in one of my literature classes, my professor (a middle-aged man who was quite proud of being Spanish) began waxing poetical about how Teresa of Avila was the first female Doctor of the Church. I’m pretty sure that he also called her the only female doctor of the Church. My Good Catholic Girl hand shot up. I told him that he was wrong. She wasn’t the first. She isn’t the only. But she is super important. He asked me who the others were. I told him about my darling Catherine of Siena and the excellent Therese of Lisieux.

Over the past fifty years, the Catholic Church has elevated four women to the rank of Doctor of the Church-the three I told my professor about and Hildegard von Bingen a few years after that conversation. They’re an oddly diverse grouping, and I think that each of them is a good role model for women in her own way.

St. Therese of Lisieux is the only of the four to have lived in the age of photography. We have paintings and such of the other three, but we have photos of Therese. Intellectually, I know that she died young. But it’s one thing to know a fact, and another to look at the face of a young woman who died at the age of 24 and realize that she is a Doctor of the Church. She is someone whose wisdom I respect. And she became that person in a relatively short amount of time.

That sort of thing doesn’t just happen. It’s the result of two things: the action and guidance of God and an openness on the part of the individual to God’s action. Therese of Lisieux could have died at the age of 24 and done nothing to matter to anyone outside of her family. She could have lived a mundane life. She could have lived her life guided by her own desires and choices. But she didn’t.

Instead, she said yes to God in big ways and small. She chose to allow God to overcome her natural selfishness and her other human failings. She chose to allow him to make something truly great out of her life. She became a Doctor not on her own power but because of what she allowed God to do with her.

“When we are expecting nothing but suffering we are surprised at the least joy, but then the suffering itself because the greatest of joys when we seek it as a precious treasure.”

-St. Therese of Lisieux

That can be said of each of the four female Doctors. They didn’t become Saints or Doctors on their own merits. They became what they were because they allowed God to use them. When I ramble about St. Catherine of Siena, I often refer to her as the person who brought the Papacy back to Rome. But she didn’t act on her own power. And she didn’t force the Pope to do anything. Under divine inspiration, she wrote to him, and he returned-acting under divine inspiration.

God used each of these four women in unique ways. He gave each of them different gifts, and he gave them different circumstances. He worked through them in different ways. But he was only able to do that because they allowed him to. He gave them gifts, but he never forced them to use those gifts. He worked with them as they were open to him.

NB: This post was supposed to have published on March 30 for the end of March as both Reading Month and Women’s History Month. However, I didn’t get it published before going to Church, so instead I’m publishing it for April 12 because it seems as good a day as any.

A People, Not a Place

Several years ago, I came across a quotation from St. Therese of Lisieux that resonated quite strongly with me. It’s probably one of the most significant things that I’ve ever encountered in my life with Christ, and yet it’s one of the simplest things that I’ve ever heard.

The world’s thy ship, not thy home.

I read that some years ago, and it stuck with me. In fact, for a good while, I’d forgotten who had even said it. I just carried that sentence around inside of me.

I’m going to put three quotations on a similar theme here, and I want you to read them.

“If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” (C.S. Lewis)

“For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come.” (Hebrews 13:14)

“Asgard is not a place. It’s a people.” (Thor: Ragnarok)

I’ve talked previously about my love for a Lewis quote similar to the one above, but this Holy Week and Easter season have found me looking at these quotations again and with a deeper significance.

I’m not a point yet where I’m able to talk about the specifics of this, but I’ve been going through a spiritual season of wandering in the wilderness. When the author of Hebrews talks about the holy ones of the Old Testament, he describes them as strangers and sojourners. That’s really struck me lately. There are some things going on in my life (both internal and external) that make feel like I’m wandering around almost aimlessly. I sometimes wonder what it’s all about.

(Side note: I really don’t know WHAT I’m going to do if it does turn out that the hokey-pokey is what it’s all about after all.)

I know that I feel like I’m a stranger in a strange land. I know that I feel like I’m sojourning without a clear vision of my destination. I wonder about the purpose of my life. Sitting on the brink of thirty with a job that I love but a great deal of confusion and uncertainty in most other areas of my life is stressful. I find it really difficult to find hope and peace when I don’t know if or when certain questions in my life will be resolved. Simply put, when you’re in the wilderness, it can be hard to believe that the Promised Land exists.

This morning, as I was driving to work I found myself praying. I told the Lord that I know he is there and he loves me, but I don’t feel that. I feel completely alone. I feel empty. I feel spiritually void. I know that feelings can be crap and all. I know that God is there even when I don’t feel him. But I could really use a reminder that my life isn’t without value. It’d be nice to know that my life will not have been useless or in vain.

But the purpose of my life is not limited to this world. In fact, this world is not my home. I may not have the things that I want in the here and now. But my life should not be lived focused on this world. I need to live my life with an eternal perspective. Last fall, I made some pretty major changes in my life because I want to live my life more fully for God. I want to live my life in such a way that will help me to draw closer to God and to serve his kingdom more fully. But in order to do that, I had to let go of some things that have long been a part of my life. I had to leave some places behind myself.

This was (and honestly still is) incredibly difficult for me. It was stressful and painful. I have grieved for the losses this decision incurred. While I am confident that I made the right decision, I am not completely at peace with the situation I left behind me. There are temporal matters that cause me pain and keep me from experiencing peace. But the Kingdom of God is not bound to this world. And the Body of Christ, the Church, is not a place; it is a people. And it is a people who are living not for this world but for the world to come. This world is our ship. It is a place where we are living, but it is not our ultimate home.

There is a moment in Thor: Ragnarok where Thor realizes that Asgard, the home of the Aesir, actually contained within the Aesir. Asgard lives in the hearts of the people who inhabit it, not in the physical location-the buildings and streets and bifrost. On Holy Thursday, I had a realization that the Church is the same way. God inhabits the hearts of his people. A church is the building in which those people gather. We as Christians need to meet together and pray together. We do that in a church building. But that building is not the Church. That is the people. The Body of Christ is in the human beings who call themselves Christians.

I am not alone because I am loved by a faithful God but also because I am part of a people who were purchased at such a great price. (I Cor 6:20)  I may feel alone, but I am not the only one wandering through the wilderness. There is some sorrow and struggle inherent to the life that we lead in this world. We as humans live in a fallen world. We live among brokenness. That inherently leads to sorrow and pain. But as Easter reminds us, this world is not the end. When we die, it is then that our lives will really begin. Another world awaits us. “All will turn to silver glass” and then…oh, what joy awaits us when our voyage on this ship has ended.

Be of good cheer. In the world we will have trouble, but Christ has conquered the world. (John 16:33) By death, he trampled Death. This world is merely our ship. We were made for another world, for a better world. We were made for the kingdom that is to come. And in the meantime, we have the people of God to uphold us and support us.

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.”