Men vs. Women: Why Who Leads Matters

why who leads mattersIf there was ever a stereotype more negative, more degrading, and raised more eyebrows, it’s probably the one surrounding men bearing the title of “stay-at-home-dad.” In the eighties, “Mr. Moms” were made rather famous by Michael Keaton’s portrayal of just that. His character highlighted all the reasons men usually don’t want to be a Mr. Mom: The whole reason Keaton becomes one is because he loses his job at a car manufacturing company and is beat out by his wife who lands a job in an advertising company quicker then he can find another position. He fights to gain respect from her new jerk-face boss who picks her up for a business trip in a suit and a limo while Keaton struggles to control the vacuum, the plumber, the baby, the laundry…and his temper. The new roles he and his wife play are clearly unnatural and they start to bicker, resent, and envy one another.

Of course we’ve come a long way from the Mr. Mom of the eighties. Now many men are choosing to stay at home not because they “failed” and lost their jobs, but simply because the woman is earning more and when a couple makes the decision that they would like one parent home full-time with their children, the natural choice for who is going to kick the 8 to 5 is obviously the one earning less. Yet, there’s still something a little strange about it: call it lingering prejudice, ok, or call it entrenched, disgusting stereotypes–but whatever you want to call it, the uncomfortable aura the title “stay-at-home-dad” conjures up has to be acknowledged and investigated.

In a recent episode of HGTV’s hit show Love it or List it, where a real estate agent tries to get the featured family to move and “list it,” while a designer tries to re-do their current home and make them stay and “love it,” the couple featured was a working mum and a stay at home dad who ran a daycare business out of the home. Just watching them interact was a bit off-putting. The mum was cold and very business-like calculating. She openly admitted she needed space away from her husband and all of the kid’s toy paraphernalia he had for his business, and quickly became irritated by his needs. At the same time, her husband was really rather whiny, yet quickly caved to her demands and was anything but masculine. Now of course they had issues that all can’t be blamed or perhaps none can be blamed on their obvious role reversals. If the roles had been reversed (the dad the cold, distant parent, working away from home, the mom the stay-at-home whiny pushover), I still would have been uncomfortable, labeled him a jerk and her probably a sad, trampled woman. Yet, is it strange of me to wonder if his whiny, seeming personal insecurities did not in some deep, perhaps subconscious way, stem from his position in their family as, well, the stay-at-home dad? And was her cold, distant air simply part of her (unfortunate) personality? Or, did it spawn from her disrespect for a husband who wasn’t exactly exemplifying very many, um, masculine attributes?

Clay Parker, a stay-at-home dad, recently wrote an article for “Lean In” –the site I mentioned last month in It’s Just Natural— defending his role as something contrary to all the negative stereotypes. In the article, he tackles many of the battles stay-at-home-dads have to face (a list much longer than their female counterparts). He makes some good points in his piece: The way he writes about being an involved father figure makes it a role of strength (as it should be) instead of weakness, and further, he highlights that the role of a stay at home parent (male or female) is an enormous contribution to the family unit and shouldn’t be a position ever to feel degraded about. Good points, yes? The title of his article “Stay-at-Home-Dads: We are Leading Men,” followed by the tagline, “forget the rubbish that men should always be ‘heads of household,'” however, begins a juxtaposition of ideas that never quite work themselves out in his piece: He is in essence saying that the idea men should be leaders, heads of households, primary bread-winners etc. is an outdated, inconsequential notion: “rubbish.” Yet, his primary argument in support of his role is convincing himself–and other Mr. Moms–that they are still “leading men.” I’m already confused. He says that he has “come to view [his] role as a ‘stay-at-home-dad” as a kind of ‘Best Supporting Actor’ role, absolutely essential to our story.” He then whips out his number one piece of evidence (from Wikipedia might I add) to help him come to terms with his role, saying that he doesn’t mind being a supporting actor because on Wikipedia it says “that there is sometimes controversy over whether a particular performance should be nominated in the Best Actor/Actresses or Best Supporting Actor/Actress category.” Ah ha! I smell jealousy of that #1 spot. His masculinity is showing! Stop that! Though he seems to want to be okay with being the one stepping down from the leader of his household, he attempts to twist every shred of evidence he can to make himself feel as if he still is…I wonder if it’s because it’s just…more…natural?

It’s quickly obvious that he knows his role is rather unnatural and the nontraditional reversal of roles is less than ideal. In fact, interestingly enough, he lumps his unusual household makeup with his “daughter’s neighborhood friends” who has “two moms.” He says that those moms “love and nurture [their son] as fiercely as any other set of parents.” Yet, he knows there is something unnatural, something less than ideal about his own situation as well as the boy with the two moms because, he follows his defense of non-traditionalism by saying that he has “no doubt that children lacking either a ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ presence in their home find-and are found by-such role models in either a broader family context or the world at large.” In essence, in the middle of his defense of gender role reversal and nontraditional, same-sex parents, he is admitting that the ideal family is one in which children grow up with strong masculine and feminine role models. And, for those who don’t have them (when dads are at home, mums are away, or two moms/dads are in charge) they must look outside the home to meet this essential need.

So what? So what if the home is less than ideal and children must seek these “ideal” role models outside of the home? Clay Parker says the process of how one gets to the end goal of parenthood (“to raise happy, healthy children who will someday move in the world autonomously and with confidence”) doesn’t really matter…it’s the end result. But, processes do matter. In fact, most end results are a direct reflection of the process it took to get there. Processes are so important in fact, many can be patented. And if companies protect their processes so carefully in order to make the perfect end result every time, I’m not really sure why we are trying to change the way we’re raising children and gambling with the results of an altered process. Ideals aren’t always attainable, but it really does matter who’s in the lead of a family. Simply hoping the little ones will happen across them elsewhere is a process I wouldn’t like to toy with.

– <3 A. 

Just Like Esther

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esther williams vintage bathing suitsEsther Williams images and fonts via | 1950’s belted suit | 1960’s pea green suit | 1970’s striped boy-short suit

The lovely movie star / bathing beauty / swimming champion Esther Williams died last Friday at the age of 91. For all her personal success and beauty though, Esther’s story behind the screen, or, rather, outside of the swimming pool, was actually rather tragic as far as her relationships were concerned. She was married four times: Her first husband, a pre-med student, she supported and even paid off in order to get a divorce from him. Her second, was an alcoholic, and gambled and lost many of her millions from her movie success. By the end of the marriage, he gave her three kids and a steep debt with the IRS for unpaid taxes. Her third husband happily paid for his own keep, but wouldn’t let Esther’s three children from her former marriage attend the wedding or live with the new couple. Her last marriage lasted until her death. When asked who her favorite leading man was in all her movies, Esther replied that it had been “the water” of course, for on and off screen the men in her life didn’t seem to lead at all, and the ones who did led her to break off the relationship.

When I was reading about Esther’s life I wondered how she could get it wrong three times. Weren’t there warning signs? A “jerk-face” sign popping up around the guy somewhere pre-marriage? Is being a celebrity in a relationship just really that hard to find even a resemblance of a “good guy”? I suppose I shall never know but I do know that while I might want to suit up like Esther this summer, I think I’ll steer clear of her man-meter, it seemed to be tipping the scales a bit on the wrong end of “lasting.”

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-<3 A. 

Guest Pinner: If Lily Bart Pinned

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house of mirth repins via local milk House of Mirth “repins” via

 During my senior year of my undergrad years, I studied Edith Wharton’s novel House of Mirth and it’s tantalizingly yet depressing protagonist Lily Bart. Lily loves her upper class life in the early 1900’s yet is tormented by the upper classes’ views on marriage: believing girls of the upper class should maintain their status by marrying a man merely to continue to “live well” instead of because you may love and respect him. Lily turns down proposal after proposal, even from Lawrence Seldon whom she actually loves for she is caught up in the idea that she must marry well, yet is horrified by the prospect of a loveless life. As she slowly begins to reject the upper classes’ view on marriage, attempting to gamble and win her way to the “top” herself, she soon finds the upper class rejects her. She goes from taking yacht tours of Europe and rejecting a future with Lawrence Seldon in the hopes of marrying “even higher,” to working at a millinery, living in poverty, and eventually overdosing on sleeping pills. Lily repeatedly sabotages herself from a potential happy life with Seldon, rejecting Lawrence’s offers of help when he could have helped her, so focused is she on the idea of striking it rich.

Besides the overdosing part I hope, I think Lily’s struggle has been so universally popular even with modern women because we all find a piece of Lily in ourselves.  Like it or not, the archetypes for women have always been the Stepford Wife-type, the selfless mother-type, or the career girl-type. And more likely than not, there’s the desire to be all those types in all of us: Admit it, isn’t that why we love Disney Princesses? Stories about wealthy men falling hard for the girl they cloak in luxury? The reason why we slurp up wedding magazines and sappy fairy tale stories? Maybe you do it when no one else is around, when you’re home alone on the weekend. Maybe you erase your search history after you read one of those stories, and maybe you pretend to scoff at them in public but I know that you have to say yes! We love them! They strike the Stepford in all of us and it’s alluring, glamorous, and desirable. But how many times do we find ourselves falling into the Lily-Bart-trap of sabotaging our own happiness because we are discontent, always looking for more, trying to do it alone, building relationships that look impressive, making judgments based on appearances, growing jealous over comparisons, and holding out for better things when we could be perfectly content if we only looked around instead of always, always forward and upward? The House of Mirth is a satire of course–that’s obvious by its title–but it’s also something of a tragedy because so many times we strive to build our own houses of mirth, hoping that by creating it, joy will come, instead of making our house where there already is happiness and laughter for the most impressive thing in the world is a woman who is completely content with whatever and wherever she is.

– <3 A. 

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Emma: A Surprisingly Modern Marriage

emma images via mollands.netBesides Pride and Prejudice,  Emma is perhaps Jane Austen’s most beloved novel and definitely her most humorous. Emma herself, despite being labeled a “heroine that no one would like but myself (Austen),” is actually rather endearing as she bumbles through acting as matchmaker for the small, country town of Highbury.

Austen usually takes quite the heat for her seemingly old-fashioned “girls only” novels about quiet, domestic life of the nineteenth century and romantic tales of “good girls win.” Emma especially, as the daughter of a wealthy gentleman with little to do but parade around Highbury trying to marry off her less-well-to-do neighbors couldn’t seem much further from a modern woman. Yet, out of all of Austen’s heroines, Emma is the most modern, the most forward-thinking, and the most independent–a fact that perhaps caused Austen to say that Emma would be a “heroine that no one would like but myself” for Emma, like Austen herself, was indeed well ahead of her time.

So how is Emma so modern? Think about it, she’s the only one of Austen’s heroine’s who isn’t obsessed about getting married. Of course, she wants everyone else to marry, and she at times (falsely) believes she is in love for rather ridiculous reasons, but, for the majority of the novel, Emma has no interest in tying the knot herself.

The most incomprehensible thing in the world to a man, is a woman who rejects his offer of marriage

image via mollands.netEmma already has status, wealth, and security–all primary inducements for women of the nineteenth century to scramble to be wed at the first opportunity, and she has no interest in changing her circumstances. Emma could essentially be her own, independent woman and she is very happy being just that. When she finally does marry, it is not for any of those reasons, instead, she marries purely for love when she discovers that her friendship with Mr. Knightley, who isn’t her superior but is in fact her equal in wealth and circumstance, is actually much more than just a friendship. Even after they are married though, Emma doesn’t give up any of her independence. It is Mr. Knightley who moves into her estate so that she can continue to care for her ailing father. Modern? Powerful? Independent? I think so. In the novel, Emma did in fact achieve what modern women seek in their relationships: equality and independence.

A woman is not to marry a man merely because she is asked, or because he is attached to her, and can write a tolerable letter

image via mollands.netYet, though equal in wealth, and retaining her voice within their marriage, Emma’s relationship to her husband couldn’t be further from how how many modern women view equality for Emma and Mr. Knightley’s “equality” wasn’t a competition, it wasn’t a “I can make that much money too” race, and it wasn’t a “who is busier and more important” challenge. It was simply respectful equality: A partnership instead of a battle of the sexes where each understood one another’s different roles without falling into the modern train of thought that different roles = different worths.

Emma entered her marriage with Mr. Knightley not because she found his wealth and status attractive, but because she admired and respected him. he had wisdom, was rational, and had a strong sense of morality. He treated everyone fairly and kindly, whether they were poor, elderly women, or wealthy, independent men. Ten years her senior, Mr. Knightley brought a wisdom and moral compass to their marriage and though he often reprimanded Emma for her naive, romantic ideas, he did not think less of her and she did not lose her sense of worth. While he brought wisdom, Emma brought cheerful optimism and a fervor for life, and together, they created a perfect balance. Emma didn’t lose anything when she married. She was still essentially herself: respected, loved and was loved, had a voice, and, with Mr. Knightley, created a surprisingly modern marriage.

Men of sense, whatever you may choose to say, do not want silly wives

quotes via emma, austen, penguin books / images via

– <3 A. 

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The Mother of All Resumes    Much Ado about Golightly    The Dalloway Complex 

Plain Jane

ardentlyPlain Jane: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

-Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice

Perhaps one of the most famous first lines of a novel, this “universal truth” has indeed continued to be quite universal: I think the producers of the “Bachelor” could be accused of copying Jane’s idea. Although, I’m sure Jane never saw that result of her “universal truth” coming.

The Dalloway Complex

image via folio society

In last month’s edition of Elle magazine, Daphne Merkin tackled a review of the British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips’ new book Missing Out:  Praise of the Unlived Life. From Phillips’ book, Merkin quotes that the “idea of the unlived life-or, as he calls it, ‘the myth of our potential’- is more prevalent now than it once was, because affluence has allowed more people than ever before to think of their lives in terms of choices and options.” The quote struck something in me, for post-college life has made me uncomfortably aware of the enormity of the consequences of decisions I now make. For the first twenty odd years of my life, my “plan” seemed murky at times but the fog always eventually cleared into a straight forward line. From elementary you trudged through middle school, from those troublesome years to high school, and from high school you went to college, and then from college you went….where? Now, every decision eliminates certain paths, dreams, and desires, for I fully believe you can only walk down one, if you want to walk it well, despite the modern addiction of “having it all.” As I began to read Merkin’s article, “Who’s Sorry Now,” the ever-present female struggle between self, ambition, and the woman’s inherent nurturing nature reared it’s head yet again. Not more than two paragraphs into her article, Merkin says that Phillips’ book forced her to conjure her own life regrets wherein she discovered that her biggest was her failure to fully fulfill and see through a traditional role as wife and mother:

One of my sharpest feelings of regret involves a vision of myself as Marmee in Little Women. These range from an ongoing feeling of nostalgia for my daughter’s early years and a pained sense that I hadn’t fully appreciated them, hadn’t been sufficiently alert to every gurgle and adorable bit of phrasing.

She goes on to detail her regret over being a single mother of an only daughter who “loves me one minute and despises me the next,” and woefully describes another imaginary life where she dreams of she and her ex-husband working things out and being the happy friends in marriage as they now are outside of it. Seemingly frustrated by the relationships in her life, Merkin finds comfort in Phillips’ theory that “all love stories are frustration stories,” and the unlived or “wished for” lives that paralyze our potential decisions or fill our current decisions with regret aren’t really bad but “are as important to us as our real existence-if not more so- because they provide us with a metaphysical safety net, allowing us to consider transgressive urges and ungratifiable impulses without necessarily acting on them.” Here though, as a fellow woman, I have to disagree with Merkin and ask her if this constant consideration of transgressive urges and “wished for” lives are not the reason for her current regret, if those things actually distracted her from fully appreciating and being “sufficiently alert to every gurgle” of her daughter’s youth, creating instead a young woman who grew up ever-conscious that her mother’s life with her was not complete enough to stave off other, “wished for” lives.

mrs. dalloway image via foliosocietyProbably the most archetypal source for this now mainstream story of female struggle and regret is Virginia Woolf’s protagonist in Mrs. Dalloway. Clarissa Dalloway is a frustrated, bourgeois housewife, struggling, as many were post World War I, with personal identity and a crisis of life purpose. Troubled and feeling stagnant in her role as an aging wife and now unneeded mother, her present life is constantly interrupted by remembrances of her childhood friend Sally Seton who represents in Clarissa’s memory what Clarissa had always wanted to be: an independent woman, staving off the repressive institution of marriage, and carefree of tradition, societal norms, and reputation. Her vision of Sally as she last knew her stands in stark opposition to the reality of her own life:

But often now this body she wore, this body, with all its capacities seemed nothing-nothing at all. She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible; unseen; unknown; there being no more marrying, no more having children now, but only this astonishing and rather solemn progress…this being Mrs. Dalloway, not even Clarissa anymore; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway.

folio societyTo Clarissa’s shock however, when she again chances across Sally Seton, the wild-child Sally has transformed into the elegant Lady Rosseter, wife to the self-made Lord Rosseter, mother to five boys, and yet, still exuding her individual, independent self. Unlike Clarissa, Sally was happy in her choice, she had committed to her marriage and family and in her full commitment to one choice had not lost any of herself in these mental wanderings of “wished for” lives as Clarissa had done and as Daphne Merkin now does. She had chosen a path and had used all that she was to make that choice everything it could be. She had not lost herself nor regretted what could have been because she was fully involved in what was. She would never have to regret not being “sufficiently alert” to her children’s youthful gurgles, nor was she haunted by feelings of a lost self, being “invisible; unseen; unknown,” because the present was all that she lived in.

We all digress into regret now and again. Especially as modern women there are myriads of lives we have the opportunity to choose, to dream about, and to live. Yet, I have to disagree with Adam Phillips, Daphne Merkin, and Clarissa: I don’t want to lose myself into even the imaginings of “wished for” lives even if I never act upon them. I’d rather not lose myself to the Dalloway complex of always wishing, longing, regretting, and imagining a life better or more fulfilled. As Clarissa found out, what she imagined someone else’s life to be was not always what it was, so why imagine another life from your own? Just live what you’ve chosen the best way you presently can.

image source: the Folio society

– <3 A. 

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Perfectly Persuaded

I had quite the merry weekend celebrating the college graduation of a very good friend from my own place of alum. Returning to the small, California, central coastal town always brings about the strangest mix of emotions though. The setting is beautiful, the town couldn’t be more picturesque…

california central coast DSC_0602

…and yet there is many a painful memory mixed in with all the beauty. Despite those though, with every visit I make, I find myself loving the place and growing fonder and fonder of it for all of its trials, tribulations, and triumphant memories that re-shaped me.

In Jane Austen’s last-completed novel Persuasion, and possibly one of her least-appreciated ones, I believe Austen speaks most frankly about her views upon women’s lives: how they were forced to live versus how they desired to live, how they loved, and how a steadfast character is the most charming and endurable quality in a woman. If you’re confused by my connection between college memories and Jane Austen novel’s, take a quick look at today’s Plain Jane. In short though, the female portraits Austen paints in Persuasion, perhaps best embody the lessons I learned while navigating the strange times of college-life, and, after that, the even stranger world of office-life. If you’re facing some perturbing waters, perhaps consider reading Persuasion, I’m certain you will find some characters to pattern your navigations after, and some who will illustrate how NOT to tackle that trial. Throughout her novel, Austen makes her idea for how the ideal woman lives a life that will conclude fulfilled and happy quite clear. I have seen these female portraits (both good and bad) of Persuasion in our own world, and Austen’s truths still stand true:

#1) The finest ladies make turbulent waters appear smooth.

 “But I hate to hear you talking so like a fine gentleman, and as if women were all fine ladies, instead of rational creatures. We none of us expect to be in smooth water all our days.” -Mrs. Croft

mollands.net austen sketchMrs. Croft, the wife of an admiral, is probably the most forward-thinking of all the females in Austen’s novels. Without compromising any of her femininity though, she is strong and independent, yet kind and loving. While most women of her time stayed at home and sought merely to make a good marriageable match, Mrs. Croft sails the world with her husband, and lives for the adventures she encounters on the sea. Devoted to her husband yet living out her ambitions for travel and accomplishment, Mrs. Croft is the perfect portrait of a balanced life: knowing how to love and support her husband while fulfilling her own goals and facing the troubles that arose in their travels with grace and endurance.

#2) A selfish woman makes everyone miserable.
 
“So you and I are to be left to shift by ourselves, with this poor sick child; and not a creature coming near us all the evening! I knew how it would be. This is always my luck. If there is anything disagreeable going on men are always sure to get out of it, and Charles is as bad as any of them.” -Mary Musgrove 
 

jane austen illustration via mollands.netMary is the dissatisfied wife of Charles Musgrove and the sister of Anne, the heroine of the book and the polar opposite character of the self-centered Mary; seeking to be served and adored by everyone else, Mary is even loathe to care for her own ill child. The nineteenth-century equivalent to a modern “bimbo,” Mary is a ridiculous woman more intent on pleasure and social-climbing than the happiness of her family. Because of her failings as a wife and mother, though she believes it is her husband who gets out of “anything disagreeable,” it is actually her own character that makes everyone else’s life so very, very painful.

#3)  Regardless of accomplishment, title, wealth, or distinction, landing upon the proper proportions of strength and sweetness is the female’s greatest power. 
 
“When he more seriously described the woman he should wish to meet with, ‘a strong mind, with sweetness of manner,’ made the first and the last of the description.” -Captain Wentworth
 
jane austen sketch

Captain Wentworth is the male protagonist of the story and at the beginning of the novel has returned to visit the family of the love of his youth: Anne Elliot. Wentworth once proposed to the young Anne, but she was persuaded to reject his proposal based upon his lack of family connections and distinctions. When he returns, though he finds Anne much-changed in appearance by many years of woe over her decision to elevate title above affection, she has gained a sweetness of temperament towards even those in her family who do not deserve it, and a surety of opinion that he respects and falls deeper in love with than when she was a young, thoughtless beauty.

#4) Modernity has, thankfully, allowed women to be considered estimable for far, far more than our appearance. Yet, a little fashion sense still can’t hurt. 
 
“Morning visits are never fair by women at her time of life, who make themselves up so little. If she would only wear rouge, she would not be afraid of being seen; but last time I called, I observed the blinds were let down immediately.” -Sir Walter
 
mollands.net

Sir Walter is Anne’s father and a rather backwards man who judges everyone sheerly by appearances.  While he obsesses over his own clothing, decorating his home in the latest fashions, and traveling to popular destinations, he shamefully mistreats his own daughter, Anne. Anne’s strength of character is able to overcome  even her father’s cruelty however. When juxtaposed against her father’s idiocy, her own sweetness of temper is highlighted and makes Captain Wentworth love her all the more for her endurance under tribulations, as he now finds her an “elegant little woman…with manners as consciously right as they were invariably gentle.”

#5) Regardless of what you desire to achieve, learning to love and be loved is perhaps the greatest fulfillment of all.

“All the privilege I claim for my own sex is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone.” -Anne Elliot
 
jane austen sketch

At the conclusion of the novel, Anne and Captain Wentworth discover that they both have continued to love one another though they both considered the other’s heart hardened towards a life they could have once had together. Putting aside their situations, Captain Wentworth’s successes versus Anne’s trials, his anger and her past discrimination, they forgive and forget all. She sees he has never faltered in his love for her, and he sees her compassion, new-found strength of mind, character, and opinion, and her enduring femininity that did not harden throughout trials nor did it give up under distress. Instead, her trials produced a woman who illustrated the perfect balance of strength and sweetness and now had nothing but to “endeavor to subdue (her) mind to (her) fortune.”

 Source: Persuasion, Jane Austen, publ. by bantam classic, new york, 2008.
                                                      – <3 A. 
 
 
   
 

Plain Jane

Plain Jane: “I pay very little regard…to what any young person says on the subject of marriage. If they profess a disinclination for it, i only set it down that they have not seen the right person.”

-Jane Austen in Mansfield Park

Jane never married. She got close once, even entered into an engagement, but the day after saying yes she decided what she really meant by yes was…no. I sometimes wonder what sort of man Jane would have been attracted to. Her insights into human character are indeed so deep that it is no wonder a man couldn’t stand up against them. I guess its best for all of our novel-cravings that she never married but instead devoted herself to offering examples to the rest of us of “just what a young man ought to be” (Pride and Prejudice).