Thursday, January 16, 2014

Mission Accomplished?

I think this might be kind of like a rant. If I start a new blog called, "The Bitter Harpy" this is the kind of thing that I'll probably publish, only with more profanity. Enjoy! :-)

I just re-read "Pride and Prejudice" because I caught some of the movie the other night and the Bennet girls reminded me enough of the Kardashian sisters to make me think I might enjoy reading the book. Plus, it's in the public domain, so you can download it to your Kindle for free. At that price I might be convinced to read a bunch of classics (but probably not). It's been a few years (like maybe 25) since I read P&P, and I was struck by a few things. First, P&P is a totally different book than I remembered. I think I was confusing it with Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights," which I read as a senior in high school and know for sure that I won't be re-reading because all I remember is mad descriptions of the moors. I know that I'm not an intellectual because I can't stand lengthy descriptions of landscapes. Just give me a general idea of what a moor is, and I'm good: tall grass blowing around, marshy, heather, got it. Save your pages to advance the plot, Miss Bronte, I beg of you. Meanwhile, Austen is all about snappy dialog and plot, which is way more my cup of (Earl Grey) tea.

Another thing that I found interesting about P&P is the whole issue of a woman's value. To save you from having to download P&P and actually read it, let me help you out with the basic plot. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet have five daughters, all of whom must be married off because Mr. Bennet's inheritance is entailed (holla, "Downton Abbey" fans) and when Mr. Bennet dies the girls are screwed because they'll have no place to live. So right off, sucks to have only daughters in early 19th century England. Mrs. Bennet is on a mission to get these girls married off ASAP and her desperation benefits no one in that she acts like a fool and scares off potential suitors. Your heroine is the second daughter, Elizabeth who is distinguished by being clever, an attribute that, I gather, was not particularly useful for a woman in 19th century England.

When Elizabeth first meets her future husband, Mr. Darcy she thinks he's a jerk and awful and offensive in many ways, but mostly because he is very proud. Austen talks about Darcy's pride often, I guess to make sure we all understand the title of the book. One of their first conversations illustrates why Elizabeth might find Darcy to be rather objectionable. They are speaking with Darcy's friend, Bingley and Bingley's sister about "accomplished" women. Miss Bingley mentions that Darcy's sister is very "accomplished," to which Mr. Bingley responds that it seems like all young ladies are accomplished, "[t]hey all paint tables, cover screens, and net purses. I scarcely know anyone who cannot do all this, and I am sure I never heard a young lady spoken of for the first time, without being informed that she was very accomplished." Mr. Darcy objects and says that you have to do way more than just net some dumb purses to be accomplished in his book. His list requires that, "[a] woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half-deserved." Plus, Darcy says, "to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading." Elizabeth is like whaaaaat?? And tells him that she's surprised he knows any accomplished women because his definition is insane and his standards are ridiculously high. And we ALL love her for calling him out because...right on, sister.

This whole exchange is so interesting to me because I never think about 19th century women doing much of anything other than getting married young and dying in childbirth. Despite the fact that many women followed this path, they still wanted to be accomplished and to be acknowledged for their accomplishments. In a lot of ways not much has changed since then and the evidence is all over the Internet. So many women have blogs that seem to have either the primary or strong secondary goal of proving the blogger's accomplishments. Look at how well I...fill in the blank.. parent, cook, exercise, dress, decorate, paint tables, write funny things. I'm sure many bloggers want to be helpful and share their expertise so that others can learn from them. But, of course, the bloggers get feelings of worth from that, as well, so that's not purely altruistic, either. I don't think there's anything wrong with this, but why do we feel this need to prove our accomplishments?

In real life (as opposed to the Internet) I see so many of my stay at home mom friends looking for some way to demonstrate their own accomplishments. A lot of these women had real, honest-to-goodness, high-powered, paycheck-earning jobs before retiring to raise children and it's a shock adjusting to having exactly zero people tell them on a daily basis that they are doing something worthwhile. Some volunteer at the schools or with other charitable organizations, some pride themselves on having the most beautifully decorated homes and well-kept gardens, others are amazing cooks or bakers, and others become avid triathletes or tennis players. Some try to do all these things and they must be really, really tired. I'm sure that most of these women view these activities as "hobbies" rather than accomplishments, but I think that these activities have an element of external recognition that changes them from hobbies undertaken for your own enjoyment, to something you do to receive validation from others.

Why do we care whether other people recognize our accomplishments? Shouldn't we be secure in the knowledge that what we do makes a difference without outside recognition? Well, of course, in a perfect world that would be true, but I don't think that everyone has that level of self-assuredness or confidence. I know that I do not. We live in a world that rewards accomplishments, monetarily or with some other kind of recognition. If you're not getting paid and no one tells you that you're doing a good job, you can pretty quickly believe that you are simply spinning your wheels and then you wonder whether it's worth it. I've had days when the kids throw their garbage on the floor, punch each other, and generally act like they will never become functioning adults and I feel like a big fraud and a failure. Don't they know that they are my accomplishments?? What if your accomplishment is supposed to be raising the kids and they turn out to be, well, unaccomplished? You'd better have some backup accomplishments so that you still feel like you've done something with your life. You'd better bet that part of the reason I'm working on that book is because if the kids turn out to be unemployed and living at home in 20 years, I can say, "sure the kids are massive failures, but let's look at my book!"

I am certain that Mr. Darcy would not find me to be accomplished, but that is okay because he is only a book character. But, the world is full of real-life Mr. Darcy types, for whom painting tables, netting purses, or raising children are never enough. When I was in high school, I was friends with a few guys who were very smart. A few of them were talking about how they were going to be scientists when they "grew up." One was going to be a chemist, another a biologist, and another one a physicist. They were going to work together and make great scientific discoveries. Yes, I grew up with some nice, nerdy boys. Because I was always looking for outside affirmation that I was smart, I eagerly asked what they thought I was going to be. "Oh," said one of them, "you'll probably be a preschool teacher." Trust me when I say, that boy didn't mean it as a compliment to my brainpower. In retrospect I'm not sure if it irritates me more that he was insulting me or that he was insulting preschool teachers. I've said it before, there's a special place in heaven for preschool teachers. But, no matter, the point is that that boy was a Mr. Darcy (in the too-high expectations arena, not in the romantic hero arena) and to him being a great scientist was an accomplishment, being a preschool teacher was not.

I guess you just need to remember that the Mr. Darcys of the world (and they're not all men) will never think that anyone is sufficiently accomplished even if they have a career and children, speak five languages, play the oboe, waltz, and converse knowledgeably about foreign policy. Elizabeth called  Mr. Darcy on this, telling him, "I never saw such a woman. I never saw such capacity, and taste, and application, and elegance, as you describe united." The "accomplished" woman doesn't exist. No one is that perfect. "Accomplished" is a moving target that always remains out of reach. And, in the end, people are more than just the sum of their accomplishments. Even Mr. Darcy learned this when, despite all of her failings, he fell madly in love with Elizabeth.


  1. What a fabulous perspective, Susannah, and a much needed reminder. I dare say, I know very few women, working outside the home or not, that ever truly feel "accomplished". Sadly, it is a fleeting pleasure, and many of us spend our time trying to find a rewarding balance. Elizabeth's forward thinking words make a fabulous mantra for the modern woman. If it is of any comfort, I see you as an "accomplished" woman, with or without a best selling novel or a set of perfectly behaved children (although I wish you both). Surviving three children and keeping a sense of humor is amazing enough. Cheers!

    1. You, my friend, have accomplishments coming out of your ears. I don't know how you do all you do and still have the best outlook and cheeriest attitude. Let's agree to just compliment each other on all our accomplishments. That way, even if no one in your family has acknowledged your hard work, someone else has!

  2. I like this rant. You should do it more often!

  3. I've been in a ranting mood. I think this was actually more rant-y before I edited it.

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