In the early 1970s I learned how to become a woman by reading fiction. From Jane Austen I learned that genteel women in the 18th century had ambitions too; which they fulfilled by marrying as well as they possibly could, and by avoiding scandal.
If they were fortunate, they bestowed their blessings on their less fortunate sisters by inviting them to balls (where they too might meet a mate), by sharing their homes with them on key occasions, even by giving them material support. Their husbands, though they might grumble a bit at the constant parade of undistinguished relatives, didn’t stand in the way.
Compassion and Moral Wisdom
George Eliot taught me that truly good and intelligent women might languish unnoticed by fame and history, but they could still bestow their compassionate blessings and moral wisdom on the benighted–the Doctor Lydgates and Rosamonds of the world.
They could also bestow their affections on men who did not deserve them, the elderly Dr. Casaubons. They could help the poor by building workers cottages. And they could, after much travail—and in defiance of the elders of the community–eventually find happiness with that dark and curly-haired but somewhat disgraced and penniless “foreigner,” Will.
Poor Choices in Men
What else did I learn? From Virginia Woolf, that every woman needs “A Room of Her Own,” Which I had, more than one. I also learned that too much thinking could drive you to suicide. And Henry James taught me, in his Portrait of a Lady, that even smart women, in the first flush of a decent inheritance, can be snagged by fortune hunters and make poor choices in men.
I identified with all of these characters, to a greater or lesser extent, at least for the time I was reading them. And they left a residue. They built up in me gradually the idea not only that there was more to life than careerism, but also the idea that good women—particularly women of a previous age—could have a different kind of career—the career of moral accounting.
And this moral reckoning took place side by side with, and sometimes in conflict with, one’s material attributes. Fiction taught me that money itself could lead one astray, in particularly womanish ways.
Was it the characters or the authors who engaged in this keeping of moral accounts, moving their characters around like puppets, to make their point? It didn’t matter. I didn’t distinguish. I focused on the story and the lessons to be learned. I was broadening and deepening my definition of what it meant to be a woman—namely, conflicted and confused.
Who were your favorite authors in college and early career? What did you learn from them?
Register below to comment and join in the conversation!