gall and gumption

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Well, Thank Heavens That’s All Over With

Leslie has been having Valentine's' Day fun with this Lori Gottlieb piece, which I sent to her after finding it at Pandagon. She looks up from her work and from small crises like the cat catching its tail on fire and bops Gottlieb on the head with the sheep's bladder and then goes back to work again.

Gottlieb strikes me, first of all, as awfully dismissive of the experience of love – when it happens to other people – she is not making her arguments from much understanding of, or curiosity about, other people’s inner lives.

So I find myself wondering what standing she has to be telling other women what to do, other than her own experience, when, if you’ll pardon the expression, she doesn’t even seem to have actually experienced that, either.

They let anybody do that? Well, maybe I'll try it.

So here is my first bit of unsolicited advice on relationships: If you find yourself at brunch, or a baby shower (God help you!) or any gathering of these females, flee.

Whether you acknowledge it or not, there’s good reason to worry. By the time 35th-birthday-brunch celebrations roll around for still-single women, serious, irreversible life issues masquerading as “jokes” creep into public conversation: Well, I don’t feel old, but my eggs sure do! or Maybe this year I’ll marry Todd. I’m not getting any younger! The birthday girl smiles a bit too widely as she delivers these lines, and everyone laughs a little too hard for a little too long, not because we find these sentiments funny, but because we’re awkwardly acknowledging how unfunny they are. At their core, they pose one of the most complicated, painful, and pervasive dilemmas many single women are forced to grapple with nowadays: Is it better to be alone, or to settle?

I am assuming that these are not fictional people; they sound a lot like fictional people, but that could be because they are all pretending to be friends. In any event people who act as if they are people in genre romances are best avoided, wherever you find them. Unless you like the prospect of a party that is 1) achingly boring and 2) has this moment – possibly the moment after the cutting of the cake, when you’re looking at them and they’re looking at you and you don’t know that they are thinking Gee she’s no spring chicken any more. What a pity she doesn’t have a life, er, man. Washed up at 35!

Is it better to be alone, or to have friends like these?

No, if you fear loneliness the first thing to do is ditch these “friends.” People who talk like this are emitting loneliness – that’s what you’re inhaling, the exhaust fumes, the flatus, of their narcissism and vulgarity. If you breathe those fumes for long you may be tempted to knock back the last of that mimosa and fling yourself under a bus. Go and call one of your real friends. Go take a walk. Go look at shoes. But get up from that brunch table ASAP. Do you have a book in your purse? Good. Then go sit and read it for an hour and look at people walking by and daydream about adventures you can have. Go out and flirt with somebody.

I hope the book is Persuasion.

Read it to learn about unselfish endurance and tenacious love. Read it and understand that Anne Elliot has chosen to live single because she lost the one love of her life, and being alone is better than “settling” because she knows what love is like. When we meet her at the opening of the novel her feelings about Captain Wentworth have endured for eight years and she doesn’t expect ever to see or hear from him again.

I’m really trying to restrain myself here from talking at length about Persuasion, but think about the prospects of Anne’s life; they are to see and not be seen, and to be regarded as an object of use by almost everyone else. A dogsbody, a person whose feelings are of no interest, no account to anyone else, even if she is the most perceptive and keenly feeling person around. Austen describes all this with such a light touch, she places Anne’s situation in a comic setting, there you find her among these silly relatives. That’s Austen’s genius and yeah I do mean genius. It’s up there with Pushkin and Chaucer and Mozart, those writers who make the image of the human condition (doomed) beautiful and not a bit less true for being so.

I’m going to digress here for a moment to Jane Eyre where, with a considerably heavier touch, Charlotte Bronte gets at another aspect of this. I was in a bookstore with Tom here in Washington and this book group was discussing Jane Eyre. They were talking about when Jane goes back to Gateshead to visit her aunt, who is dying. Mr. Rochester gives her some money for the journey and offers to send a servant to escort her. Jane takes basically her back pay and declines the offer of the servant. The women in the book group called attention to this offer of an escort. Why was that necessary? And of course when Jane runs off after the failed wedding she runs off on her own. So I think this got into the discussion too. The leader of the group suggested that there was danger of being raped. But I don’t think that’s it. It’s that a woman who is out on her own is in danger of being exposed to impertinent familiarities that are the ordinary lot of unprotected and unrepsctable women. It’s not so much her person as her respectability that will come under assault. Without the externals of respectability (family, connections, clothes, money, husband, etc.) a woman is presumed to be no good. Bronte wrote this scene because she felt the vulnerability of her own place in the world; one, she was a passionately sexual woman, and two, she was poor. Had it not been for the fame of her books she would have been just another poor, insignificant daughter of a clergyman, and her imagination must have imagined worse.

Jane’s journey across the moor, before she fetches up at the house where St. John and his sister, is an idealized best-case scenario of what happens to a woman who (even innocently) falls off the edge of the world.

When you didn’t get a man it meant a very confined life.

You might stop, also, and ask yourself whether the women at that birthday brunch are really different in substance from Sir Walter Elliot. I bet you read Persuasion and thought people like him didn’t exist. Goldberg has done you one favor at least; she has proved that people like him do exist. It’s only in fiction that they confess themselves so readily. It’s not beliefs that indicate Sir Walter’s stupidity, it’s his inability to cover them up.

… Sir Walter's remark was, soon afterwards--

"The profession has its utility, but I should be sorry to see
any friend of mine belonging to it."

"Indeed!" was the reply, and with a look of surprise.

"Yes; it is in two points offensive to me; I have two strong grounds
of objection to it. First, as being the means of bringing persons
of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honours
which their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of; and secondly,
as it cuts up a man's youth and vigour most horribly; a sailor grows old
sooner than any other man. I have observed it all my life.
A man is in greater danger in the navy of being insulted by the rise
of one whose father, his father might have disdained to speak to,
and of becoming prematurely an object of disgust himself, than in
any other line. One day last spring, in town, I was in company
with two men, striking instances of what I am talking of;
Lord St Ives, whose father we all know to have been a country curate,
without bread to eat; I was to give place to Lord St Ives,
and a certain Admiral Baldwin, the most deplorable-looking personage
you can imagine; his face the colour of mahogany, rough and rugged
to the last degree; all lines and wrinkles, nine grey hairs of a side,
and nothing but a dab of powder at top. `In the name of heaven,
who is that old fellow?' said I to a friend of mine who was standing near,
(Sir Basil Morley). `Old fellow!' cried Sir Basil, `it is Admiral Baldwin.
What do you take his age to be?' `Sixty,' said I, `or perhaps sixty-two.'
`Forty,' replied Sir Basil, `forty, and no more.' Picture to yourselves
my amazement; I shall not easily forget Admiral Baldwin.
I never saw quite so wretched an example of what a sea-faring life can do;
but to a degree, I know it is the same with them all: they are all
knocked about, and exposed to every climate, and every weather,
till they are not fit to be seen. It is a pity they are not knocked
on the head at once, before they reach Admiral Baldwin's age."

The joke here (and it is Austen’s joke—she always knows what she’s doing) is that Sir Walter is patently absurd when he talks about men that way, but of course men, and women, talk about women this way all the time. Except Austen doesn’t talk about women this way, even when, like Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice they choose to “settle.” Yes, Austen reviews Elizabeth Elliot’s life that way, but that is because those are the terms in which Elizabeth chooses to see her own life. It should give you pause to think that Charlotte Lucas would rather live with Mr. Collins than risk not gaining the tiny bit of respectable independence that marriage will give her.

But you and I don’t labor under those constraints. The world is wide open for us in a way that it could never be for Austen’s heroines. No husband? Well, this means that you can fall asleep reading with the light on every night. You have mobility that Austen and Bronte could barely dream of. But it means nothing if you don't use that mobility to actually, you know, go anywhere.

Personally, I find myself alone out here at the Tick Farm. I am surrounded by a meadow and woods. I get decent views of the stars. I'm liking looking at the stars for the sake of the stars, and not as the stage for a fictive romance.

Update: Here's some good advice.


At 9:51 PM, Blogger L7 said...

Oh, I can't believe I didn't think of Charlotte at the time. And yet, Charlotte at least had an excuse. What other choice did she have?
Same with Lucinda Roanoke, from The Eustace Diamonds, and Arabella Trefoil, from The American Senator, and Julia Brabazon, from The Claverings.

At 6:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Most of the people I'm reminded of by the brunch descriptions by Gottlieb are in their 40s and 50s. Some seem to begin their next chapter in life with writer's block, but they also have enough personal hobbies and creative pursuits so that finding a companion doesn't 'give their life meaning'. They don't seem to feel as if their settling--more like seeing a man as not that high a priority. When they find someone, they're excited the same way a clique of friends who play the lottery have a member who just won 40 dollars.

At 1:11 PM, Blogger Kia said...

Clearly these people don't feel as bad about themselves and their situation as they should.

At 6:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I get some criticism from friends who say my periods of isolation and indecision stems from my unwillingness to 'settle'; that I should hire temps. It's not like one is awaiting perfection, or remaining a virgin until they're married--it's a matter of people having a sense of what they feel they deserve. Self-esteem and respect for others makes it easier to refuse and to be refused.


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