The Queen, Cassandra Austen, and Me

In the hubbub surrounding the recent passing of the queen, the word I keep encountering in all kinds of places is duty.

It’s a concept I was already mulling over as I finished the excellent Miss Austen by Gill Hornby. The novel, wreathed in calm shot through with an old loneliness, extrapolates from a famous but mysterious incident in the Austen family—that after Jane’s early death, her sister Cassandra was known to destroy correspondence written by her famous sister.

After all, “Cassandra was the executor of her sister’s estate: the keeper of her flame; the protector of her legacy.” Our protagonist is defined by this sense of obligation. Wearily in old age, Cassandra observes to herself, “A single woman should never outlive her usefulness.” Later, she remarks, “It is as if Nature can only throw up one capable person to support each generation. In my family that has always been me. […] Our fortune is to have families who need us. It is our duty, our pleasure. Our very worth!”

Throughout the novel, then, Hornby works to valorize this humble dedication to duty, illustrating the unflashy devotion Cassandra shows her sister, Jane, and their family, even when it requires self-denial. In this way, Cassandra resembles the quieter heroines her sister dreams up: the Elinors, the Fannys, the Annes. This duty is no pitiful delusion, either, for as Cassandra declares silently, “Look at me, Isabella! I have known happiness. Without man or marriage, I found a happiness, true and sublime!” (And this, the cautious reader should note, is not revealed to be a secret anachronistic fling, either, rest assured.)

Struck by tragedy while still a young woman, Cassy resolves, “From the moment the news had been broken to her—badly, insensitively, not as she would have liked or deserved, but no matter—Cassandra had identified that as the occasion to which she must rise.”

By Doyles of London, via Wikipedia

While we can and maybe elsewhere should argue whether the late queen’s duty was one worth always following, even when it pitted her against ex-subjects in the developing world or her own family, certainly we can recognize that in her day to day life, in both its splendor and tedium, Elizabeth unstintingly gave her life to her perceived duty.

And maybe that’s what fascinated so many of us, whether we were avid consumers of royal gossip or simply casual viewers of The Crown: her duty was both like and unlike our own. In her decades of service were jewels and rich brocade, private jets and dignitaries, far from our own sometimes dull-as-dishwater domestic duties. And yet there is something recognizable, something lacking in the lives of so many public figures, who seem committed only to a life of ambition or pleasure. This may be part of Elizabeth’s enduring appeal for many, that, like the costume dramas to which so many of us kinda religious, kinda stay-at-homey ladies find ourselves drawn, in Queen Elizabeth we recognized a woman like ourselves, trying (though sometimes failing) to discern what was right and to do it — rather than just what would make her happy.

We have, of course, the purer, undiluted example of the saints. But for so many of these, the example is often a fierce and alien flame: a blazing martyrdom, a heroic triumph. That’s why we gravitate to the small and attentive dutifulness of figures like St Thérèse of Lisieux, I think, toiling away in their mundane, quiet corners, but find the writ-large duties of the royal materfamilias so fascinating.

Cassandra’s reward for a lifetime of service comes in perusing a last letter of Jane’s, in which Jane deems her the “dearest, tender, watchful sister,” and, with a rare straight-faced earnestness, proclaims, “As to what I owe her, I can only cry over it and pray God to bless her more and yet more.”

It’s all any of us can work for then—a little gratitude, a little recognition, the prayers of those around us, whether we end up as the longest reigning monarch of England or the sister in the shadows. I hope that ultimately Queen Elizabeth found those things for herself—and that I might, too.

Is Career Prep the New Marrying for Money?

There’s a trend right now in universities to emphasize the career training aspects of even a liberal arts education. The whole thing drives me nuts.

Let’s play a thought experiment, shall we? Here’s a passage from Pride and Prejudice with one alteration:

“A lucrative career had always been her object; it was the only provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want. This preservative she had now obtained; and at the age of twenty-seven, without having ever been handsome, she felt all the good luck of it.”

I’ll say that again: “however uncertain of giving happiness.” We all sympathize with plain, practical Charlotte Lucas. And things turn out ok for her, I guess. She marries a foolish man and she’s set up for life. She carves out her own spaces and routines and resigns herself to the comfort that she’s found her “preservative from want.” But is true happiness likely in her choice? Definitely not.

Image via

Compare this focus on financial security to Marmee March’s approach in Little Women, where again, I’ve made a few editing changes:

“My dear girls, I am ambitious for you, but not to have you make a dash in the world, hold down a lucrative job merely because it makes you rich, or have splendid houses, which are not homes because love is wanting. Money is a needful and precious thing, and when well used, a noble thing, but I never want you to think it is the first or only prize to strive for.”

She concludes, “I’d rather see you patching together some gigs, if you were happy, beloved, contented, than queens on thrones, without self-respect and peace.”

Really Seeing Marmee: Oh, How 'Little Women's' Matriarch Has ...
Image via

Do you see what I’m getting at? Just as we naturally root for true love in classic novels and feel at best only exasperated sympathy for characters who cop out and go husband-hunting, so should we feel the same about influences that demand we set the marketability of our (and our children’s) skill sets above all other factors.

Doing the right thing and pursuing virtue in love and career does sometimes financially pay off, of course, as when Amy March lands Laurie, but only after they’ve fallen in love. And more often, we rejoice in characters who abandon their dry, calculating pragmatism in pursuit of true love.

When we first meet Anne Shirley’s future college roommate, Philippa Gordon in Anne of the Island, she declares frankly, “Honey, you couldn’t imagine ME being a poor man’s wife, could you? I can’t do a single useful thing, and I am VERY extravagant. Oh, no, my husband must have heaps of money.” Still, after several years of virtuous living with Anne and their roommates and a thorough education, she eventually engages herself to a homely, poor preacher. Anne teases, “You’ll have to give up a good many things you’ve always had, when you marry Mr. Blake, Phil,” to which Phil retorts simply, “But I’ll have HIM. I won’t miss the other things.”

Her time in the girls’ college cottage, with its domestic pursuits and tight budget, has outfitted her for this new role. She vows, “I shall be poor as gaily as I’ve been rich. You’ll see. I’m going to learn how to cook and make over dresses. I’ve learned how to market since I’ve lived at Patty’s Place; and once I taught a Sunday School class for a whole summer.” Because her time in university involved not just college classes but also the school of love formed by the four girls and Aunt Jamesina, their housemother/chaperone, Phil has been trained to choose the good, rather than simply a “preservative from want.” We cheer for Phil, as “heart-glad” as Anne.

We can prepare our children for the world and for a profession, of course, but time is a limited commodity and it would be wrong to neglect the higher things: a strong moral formation, religious education, a robust relationship with us and each other. As Christie Purifoy says, what you do in your life has so little to do, ultimately, with what you do as paid work. I’ll quote her again because I love it so much:

It is especially strange that we burden children with this question of what they will one day do when so much of our lives is already prescribed. What will my children do? I can already see most of it. They will sleep. They will eat. They will live in relationship with others. They will celebrate special days and live ordinary days that tick with repetitive tasks. The truly important question seems not to be what they will do but how they will do it.”

We would do well to remember this when we’re sifting through a thousand extracurriculars or opting for just a bit more practice on some weak academic subject. When we stay awake worrying about whether our struggling first grader will ever hold a job that can support his family, maybe we should also ask ourselves if the bigger question is if we are preparing him to support his family in other ways: through his ability to form deep relationships, to manage his mental health and find happiness in difficulty, through his admiration for the natural world and the God who made him.

My husband teaches in computer science, which is the new major for parents to shove talented kids as a guarantee of future employability. (When I was a student in auld lang syne, that major was pre-med.) Many of the students don’t have the skills they need for the major, much less the passion to pull them through programming languages and tedious coding.

Maybe there is a place for mercenary marriages in the pursuit of survival — “Miss Lucas, who took the job solely from the pure and disinterested desire of an establishment” (P&P) — because certainly there is a place for abandoning fluffy “do what you live” sentiments and plugging away at the job that will put food on the table for your family. But that place, I think, shouldn’t be the primary focus of an education.

It’s something I’ve been thinking about since before the coronavirus outbreak, but the idea gains new force in our current climate. If you find yourself frantically trying to check boxes and leave no subject uncovered as a temporary homeschooler, terrified your children will be left unprepared for the nebulous “real world” because of this weird, disjointed season, try to cut yourself a little slack. Remember Marmee’s reminder — “Money is a needful and precious thing, and when well used, a noble thing, but I never want you to think it is the first or only prize to strive for.”

Seven Tiny Book Reviews

In writing my year-end writeup of everything I’ve read, I realized there were a few titles I wanted to revisit with you. Have you tried any of them yourself? What did you think?

  1. A Quiet Life in the Country: Lady Hardcastle and her lady’s maid Flo have retired to the countryside after a life of high adventure at the turn of the century, but things in their new hamlet are not as quiet as they seem. This cozy mystery has deeply delightful banter but I just didn’t care about the mechanics of the storyline, and the only characters with any depth were the two main characters. I almost liked them enough to try another in the series, but I doubt I’ll bother — at least as an audiobook, where it’s particularly difficult to focus on plot details.
  2. Sense & Sensibility by Joanna Trollope: I’ve never read anything else by her, because her name seems ridiculous and her covers are always kind of frivolous and embarrassing. BUT ARE THEY ALL THIS GOOD? For more of my thoughts, check out my year-end reading post.
  3. A Confederacy of Dunces: Ok, so I’m glad to read this one — a bad Catholic book club pick if ever there were one — but I definitely wouldn’t have made it through if the group weren’t led by a medievalist who loved it and whose taste I trust. I just hate the earthiness of medieval stuff, which I think is one of the reasons I struggle with Dante. I know I’m supposed to laugh but I’m grossed out and that makes me feel like a prude which makes me mad. So: knowing that John Kennedy Toole loved Flannery O’Connor helped me through the book, and it ending with some hope and mercy helped a bit, but I’m not sure I’d be able to recommend the book, overall.
  4. The Heart of Perfection: How the Saints Taught Me to Trade My Dream of Perfect for God’s: When I was in high school, I believed I was laidback (!!). Later, my boyfriend pointed out that I’m only competitive in arenas where I think I can win, and now I look back and see the marks of perfectionism all over my childhood. I still struggle today, and I often refer back to a favorite line from Anne Lamott: “I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die.” Colleen Carroll Campbell urges us in this book to be gentle with ourselves, to accept God’s love, to trust, to deliberately and diligently root out all the places in our lives where we grasp for control and grow harsh in our striving. A must-read for any ambitious Ravenclaw Catholic.
  5. Underground Airlines: I loved Ben Winter’s Last Policeman series and was fascinated by the premise of this book. This is an America where the Civil War was settled differently, and slavery maintained in certain Deep South states, and here, Victor, an escaped slave, has made a deal with the devil to catch escaping slaves on behalf of the US government. I thought the plot grew convoluted, though, and I thought the optimism of the end and setup for a sequel were both a bit clunky. I don’t think I’ll read any subsequent books in the series.
  6. Waiting for Tom Hanks: Another kind of embarrassing one that I ended up enjoying. I had forgotten how much I enjoy the cringiness of romantic tension, and the self-aware references to favorite films like You’ve Got Mail certainly helped. The plot itself was fairly improbable (as per the genre) and a bit given to wish fulfillment and neat endings, but the characters were relatable and I really loved how — as in movies like the aforementioned YGM and Notting Hill — the community surrounding the protagonists had warmth and color.
  7. Marilla of Green Gables: I didn’t love this one. I felt like the author was imposing too much on the character, refusing to accept her for the rigid but warm person she is in the canon and instead inserting a lot of anachronistic social justice stuff like so many period dramas, which rush to make every character espouse the most progressive views, regardless of their social context.

Commonplace Book, 24

packing and holiday chores with toddler help

What is a commonplace book? For me, this is a space where I post interesting links, reflections on what I’m reading, and the newest recipes I’ve been trying out — a collection of miscellaneous micro-posts.

What I’m fixing:

  • Cinnamon ornaments: Not for eating, though Scout has tried her darnedest. We made these one afternoon with Pippin while Scout slept off her second cold of the winter. He loves cinnamon, and is an indifferent eater, and I loved that I didn’t have to swoop in and be precise about measurements since these aren’t after all, edible. (Dog biscuits are also great in this regard for toddler/preschool baking projects.)
  • TELL ME YOUR INSTANT POT RECIPES. I just got one, and I have big plans to make four-minute rice this evening, but after that, I’m kind of at a loss. Please advise!

What I’m reading:

  • Sorting Jane Austen Characters Into Hogwarts Houses: The Definitive Guide: made my nerd heart glow and caused legit LOLs more than once. Seriously, though — Henry Crawford is definitely a Slytherin, right? (Also, we started to talk Anne characters in the comments and “basically Ron in puffed sleeves” will now be my new catchphrase.)
  • Uganda Police Arrest “Separatist” Tribal King’s PM: This was our tribe in Uganda when we lived there in 2008-9, and we saw the king a time or two at the cathedral, flanked by his blockbuster-about-Africa-scary-sunglassed guards. The tribe has a fraught history with the rest of the nation — I try to explain it as sort of the hill people of Uganda, politically alienated, disadvantaged, comparatively fundamentalist and poorly educated, but the situation is further strained by the tribe being split across the border with DRC. I definitely don’t understand everything (much!) about the situation, but it doesn’t sound good.
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. I started and quit this once before, but listening to the audiobook is going much better. (J’s read it before, and I refuse to have him read something I haven’t. Except pure philosophy. Also geometry of any kind.) After having just read those monk picture books for co op, it’s fun to continue steeping myself in monastic culture, albeit post apocalyptic rather than medieval:

Now a Dark Age seemed to be passing. For twelve centuries, a small flame of knowledge had been kept smoldering in the monasteries; only now were there minds ready to be kindled. Long ago, during the last age of reason, certain proud thinkers had claimed that valid knowledge was indestructible—that ideas were deathless and truth immortal. But that was true only in the subtlest sense, the abbot thought, and not superficially true at all. There was objective meaning in the world, to be sure: the nonmoral logos or design of the Creator; but such meanings were God’s and not Man’s, until they found an imperfect incarnation, a dark reflection, within the mind and speech and culture of a given human society, which might ascribe values to the meanings so that they became valid in a human sense within the culture. For Man was a culture-bearer as well as a soul-bearer, but his cultures were not immortal and they could die with a race or an age, and then human reflections of meaning and human portrayals of truth receded, and truth and meaning resided, unseen, only in the objective logos of Nature and the ineffable Logos of God. Truth could be crucified; but soon, perhaps, a resurrection

Sometimes, of course, it feels like we really are in an age that is rejecting reason. (Also, this passage seemed a better choice than my true favorite, “Bless me, Father. I ate a lizard”…!)

  • In This House of Brede. Not very far in, and loving it, despite Godden’s kind of hyphen-y style. More religious life! And just coincidence, since it’s something my parents got me off my Amazon wish list for my birthday. But so far it’s such a gentle, peaceful book for sleepy, firelit Advent evenings.

Happy Advent, y’all!


Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible and Entitlement

I’ll tell you up front: here be spoilers. On the other hand, Eligible is a modern-day retelling of Pride and Prejudice, so there won’t be many major surprises for a Janeite.

Let me start by saying Eligible is really funny, and compulsively readable. It hews very closely to the original, which is itself no small feat. I love Curtis Sittenfeld’s dryly funny observations, and particularly her Sisterlandso as an Austen devotee, I’ve been eagerly awaiting this adaptation for months.

Some characters’ updates are spot-on. Mr. Bennet, who I find both amusing and upsetting in the original, retains the same slightly cruel hilarity in Eligible — as when, in the face of downsizing, he quips, “If your mother and I lived somewhere smaller, we might have to actually see each other.” Of Liz’s “wastrel sisters,” the younger ones work better than do Jane and Liz, I think. Mary, who could easily be valorized as an intellectual in an update, mooches off her parents and racks up online master’s degrees, remaining “proof, Liz had concluded, of how easy it was to be unattractive and unpleasant.”

As with most modern takes on Pride and Prejudice, however, Sittenfeld neglects to address the moral framework that informs Austen’s original. While she cleverly imports and updates the humor and romance of Pride and Prejudice, she loses sight of its integral justice, in which brave and good characters like Elizabeth are rewarded with their moral equals, like Mr. Darcy, and self-centered, headstrong, immoral characters like Lydia suffer their just desserts with an unhappy match to the villainous Mr. Wickham. Here, for instance, Lydia is much more sympathetic, and her actions approved of by Liz: “Lydia and Ham are living their truth. […] More power to them.”

In Eligible‘s world, the central place of marriage in Pride and Prejudice is more or less deposed in favor of the pursuit of parenthood. The most striking and uncomfortable aspect of this retelling is how divorced child-bearing is from marriage and even love — and no one cares.

In this story, nearly-40-year-old Jane undergoes an IUI with donor sperm to become a single mother, and when the pregnancy is revealed, she and Chip Bingley break up (temporarily, of course). Social climbing Mrs. Bennet, hearing the news of the breakup but unaware of the pregnancy, “sounded so bereft. ‘Now you’ll never have children.'” By making ridiculous Mrs. Bennet the champion of traditional families in the novel, Sittenfeld throws into doubt the desirability of such a goal. (Indeed, the Bennets are the only intact family in the story, and they are, as in Pride and Prejudice, kind of a train wreck.)

Charlotte, practical as ever in Eligible, muses, when facing dissatisfaction over her rash decision to move in with Willie (Mr. Collins), “Maybe instead of taking the job, I should get pregnant now, and that way, even if Willie and I break up, I’ll still be a mom.” It’s a shocking proposal, and yet Liz offers no censure, even mentally. Men are a means to an end here, and that end is usually, but not always, motherhood on the woman’s own terms. (I was reminded here again of Simcha Fisher’s excellent piece, “The Earth Is a Nursery” about our contemporary longing for children.)

Liz, and presumably the novel itself, suggest that biological children are just one among any equally acceptable options, not the natural consequence of marriage. When Mrs. Bennet complains that Lydia, having chosen a transgender husband, will never give birth, Liz points to alternate means. By placing the argument in snobbish, racist Mrs. Bennet’s mouth, we are meant to see any sense of the fitness of biological children to be as silly and behind the times as she is. (She is, after all, the same woman who says, “Liz, I don’t know if Kitty and Shane are serious, but life can be very hard for mulatto children.”)

“Lydia will never be able to have babies.” Mrs. Bennet scowled at Liz. “And at the rate you’re going, neither will you.”

“Lydia and Ham can adopt. Or”—it was impossible not to think of Jane—”there are other options.”

Mrs. Bennet shook her head. “When people adopt, God only knows what’s in those genes.”

“God only knows what’s in any of our genes,” Liz said, and Mrs. Bennet drew herself up into a haughty posture.

“I beg your pardon,” she said. “Your father and I both come from very distinguished families.”

At 38 years old, Liz, who strongly wishes to avoid motherhood, nonetheless confronts its specter everywhere in her “rapidly approaching expiration date,” much as an old maid might be constantly reminded of her unmarried state in Jane Austen’s era. She initially bonds with Darcy, in part, because in a discussion following hate sex (!!!), it is revealed neither wants to be a parent: “When I went into neurosurgery, I was making a choice that either I’d be the kind of person who lets his partner do ninety-five percent of the parenting or I wouldn’t be a parent, period. […] Any man with a viable sperm count can become a dad, whereas only some people can perform a decompressive craniectomy.” This Darcy is articulate and honorable as ever, but the prospect of a intentionally sterile marriage for Elizabeth Bennet and her Mr. Darcy is nonetheless depressing to contemplate.

There is no indication that either shifts position upon falling in love and getting engaged; on the contrary, when Liz finally meets her new niece, she finds her, “a miraculous and tiny human whom Liz felt immediate devotion toward and was relieved not to be the mother of.” While this attitude toward motherhood may be designed by Sittenfeld to demonstrate that Liz, like Elizabeth in P&P, is not interested in the ruthless pursuit of goals, it reads somehow off to me.

Maybe I need to say that I believe strongly in adoption, and sympathize with infertility, and appreciate when people recognize they shouldn’t be parents. Still, the modern landscape presented by Eligible suggests a wasteland of desperate people (women, mainly): desperate to become parents at all costs or else desperate to avoid the consequences of love and marriage.

Jane Austen’s masterpiece argues compellingly for a marriage of equals, founded in love. In Pride and Prejudice, we are not meant to approve of Charlotte marrying for financial security, or Lydia marrying for lust. In the same way, an update of Austen, if it is to substitute motherhood for marriage, should not approve all paths to parenthood no matter how flippantly or selfishly followed. In Austen’s world, virtue leads to flourishing, and there are no shortcuts; otherwise Elizabeth might have married Mr. Collins, or Lydia would have ended up happily married after her irresponsible elopement. Though Charlotte’s resigned pragmatism might translate from mercenary marriage to, in this version, contemplating intentional single motherhood, and Lydia in this case might seek motherhood flippantly (“If Jane’s baby turns out cute […] maybe Ham and I will use the same sperm donor she did”), we cannot be meant to cheer on Jane Bennet settling for motherhood without the loving support of a father, or Liz choosing an intentionally barren marriage just so she can keep having fun. (Her reasons are fuzzier and less heroic than Darcy’s.) That we are meant to laugh fondly in the epilogue at self-centered, masturbating Mary, determinedly single, left unchanged by the events of the novel, is the final insult to Austen’s legacy — none of the characters grow (with possibly the exception of Liz and Darcy), yet they all end up happily ever after.

We all of us want to claim Austen as a card-carrying member of our pet causes, but I can’t think she’d approve of the ruthlessness so richly rewarded in Eligible. In Eligible, as in our world, love and reproduction have been severed and the results aren’t pretty.  Then again — it’s possible that I’m on a fool’s errand, forever on the search for a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, unaware that I’m not modern enough myself to appreciate one.