Propriety and Prejudice: A Letter to Jane Austen

Dearest, darling Jane,

I will admit that I am a little terrified, summoning you. This is silly, since we are dear old friends and you have shaped me so deeply. Maybe I know you are beloved of many others. Maybe I am afraid of getting it right. I am not writing this letter with ease. Maybe there is too much to say. I could gush for days about your wit, your way with language, your vividly drawn characters. I could marvel at how you spin the ordinary, even banal lives of fairly simple women, how you rush them with drama and tension. I could tell you that I have compared every man I’ve dated to one of your characters, and that this gauge has actually served me well (‘Is he a Wickham? Cut him loose.’). I’ve learned that I am less of a Darcy girl than might be expected and surprised myself when I realized that my true love is a beautiful hybrid of Mr. Knightley and Col. Brandon. (Think about it. So good, right?) Then of course there is the question of what character I would be, and I suppose that here is where I have found my letter to you.

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I am Emma. I am Lizzie. I am Marianne. I’m a little selfish. I’m a little headstrong. I’m a little impulsive. On one hand, these comparisons are trivial and especially irrelevant since it is 2016 and we keep very different society. I do not have your concerns for reputation or financial stability. I have a lot more freedom than you. I support myself as a teacher, I write for pleasure, and I live in blissful sin with my Knightley-Brandon. In your day, I would be a penniless concubine schoolmistress. I think though, like me, you would be frustrated here. In so many ways, so much has changed, and yet lately I am feeling trapped by the general boundaries that come from the expectation that I will be a well-behaved woman.

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Those close to me are chuckling as they read this, since I am known for my snark and sass. I was a mouthy child who read a lot – an articulate brat. I can come off as aggressive, opinionated, crass and even dominant in my close circles. When I make the long trip to visit my loving family, within an hour of my arrival one of my parents will be provoked to say dryly ‘The bitch is back.’ I rather enjoy this status. It can be terribly amusing to be me, and my bad behaviour is often rewarded with laughter. It’s a beautiful, viscous cycle. I’m a real saucy article in my most intimate life.

This is probably why it is so hard for me to be good in the real world. The real world wants me to be gracious, to take the high road, to rise up. My employment contract even stipulates that I will conduct myself according to certain values. I’ve become awfully concerned with how I am perceived. I’ve become awfully upset with myself for not feeling the ‘right’ feelings, the feelings a ‘good person’ would feel. I’m growing weary of playing nice. Lately, I find that I am living in some constructs that feel very false to me, and if there one thing I absolutely cannot abide, it’s inauthenticity.

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An example: I was recently invited to dine at an especially revered estate.  I was a welcomed guest, warmly received, and was indeed very grateful to be included in the party. I made a real effort to be gracious, charming, careful. Conversation was boring but pleasant, until a turn wherein my gender was reduced to a stereotype of an almost medieval level, where my core beliefs were so greatly insulted that my lukewarm blood boiled hard and fast. Being myself, I did not stay entirely silent, but I managed to speak lightly, gently, respectfully. I made a mild case for myself and my sex, and I may have made a comment about our general need to grow as individuals by opening our minds. I was turned down quickly and firmly, so much so that I was forced to remain silent for the duration of the meal lest I insult my host beyond repair. (You must trust me here, dear Jane, despite my vagueness: this was truly my only option, and yes, this is a relationship I am forced to maintain.) It was interesting timing in a week full of memes of the American presidential candidates, the boorish bull interrupting the poised, smiling woman, the picture of propriety. As much as we have reached levels of equality you couldn’t have dreamed of, and as many gloriously feminist men exist in our society, we women have long been accustomed to letting men have the final say, to being interrupted, to smiling politely and then rolling up our sleeves when the bulls have left the pen and actually getting shit done.

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More complicated though, is how we women behave with each other. We have become so skilled at propriety that in some ways, we are silencing each other more quickly than men can. Passive aggression has moved to the level of art, and we are all so afraid of stirring the waters that we stew silently, complain about each other over hushed cups of coffee with our intimate friends, or lovers, or therapists, and put on an otherwise poised face towards the women who challenge us. Women can hold grudges for years. I know I do. I have hurts that I cannot let go of, stories I tell over and over, and social webs so thick, so twisted, that the truth is near impossible to draw out.

I am in one such situation whose complexities are so well spun that I have trapped myself in my own web. Everyone involved is terribly polite. We are gracious. We have paved the high road with compromise and diplomacy. I have lived for some time in boundaries that I didn’t get to make, and have stayed silent often for the greater good. I have been welcoming when I did not feel it. I have been flexible when I did not want to be. I have given up my true self for the sake of the comfort of others.

Jane. I’m fucking exhausted.

 

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I cannot run off into the moors like Marianne, and wait to be pulled out of the storm by a handsome rogue on a white horse. I cannot fester in my own patience like Elinor and resign myself to my fate. I don’t have Fanny’s steadfast goodness, or Emma’s boldness,  I don’t even have Lizzie’s faith. I think here, I am more like you. I have since decided to quietly defer the expectations, and instead set out on my own path, create my own boundaries and live more happily inside them. And if someone proves to need a stern turn about the room or a throwdown on the pianoforte, I’m not afraid to do it. Life is too short to be lived insincerely. I can live my own quiet riot against what is not true to me. I can do it gracefully, with kindness, even, if kindness is the order of the day. But I do not need to behave myself, if it means sitting quietly on my settee in the corner, weeping into my needlework or wine. I can defy expectation and still rise up in my own way.

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Your life did not go as you perhaps planned. You did not have control over your circumstances – you had to make compromises and concessions. In so many ways your life was not your own, and yet – and here is the great gift of your work- you claimed it as your own in the stories you told. You raged at the injustice of women’s financial dependence on their sons and brothers. You explicated a society where marriage was a woman’s way up. Interestingly, you did not write of motherhood. You let your heroines be flawed, and you forced them to grow out of their sensibility, their prejudice. You did not give a double standard for your men and women – the quality of a person’s intentions, their treatment of each other was always the anchor in a romantic union. We have so romanticized your work, we have mythologized it to the point of cliche, I’m afraid. But so often, on closer inspection, you are really asking us to take a hard look at who we want to be, who we are willing to be. You remind us what substance you are made of.

 

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I raise my teacup to you, my darling friend.

With love, and the greatest admiration,

L

 

 

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