You know those house tours? The “at home with” posts and “design files” circulating blogworld? I love them, but everytime–everytime–I see one that I think I absolutely have to repost and share with my own lovelies, it ends up being a kids room. I’m not completely sure what that says about me: A lack of maturity? A love of the occasional stuffed creature I just can’t shake? An undeniable attraction to pink, or a devotion to childhood that just won’t fade…In my defense though, take out the tiny, tiny skirts, replace the bears on the cabinet with some stacked sweaters and this room could definitely be adult-worthy. Either this girl’s got style or her mum just took over, but either way they got to this design–I’m in love. That wallpaper is gorgeous. An all-over small print like this is usually too much, but in this room it totally works; and the pops of neon pink and whimsical bobbles on the curtains keep those metallic hydrangeas from sending out old-lady vibes. Virginia Woolf said it’s ok to have illusions–even as a grown-up–so I’m coming to terms with my kids-room attraction as something I’ll never lose….I’d just “acquire others” anyway, and I kinda like this one.
This week I’m starting a new blog-post-theme, or more like a new goodwill quest: giving vintage muses the opportunity to become part of the Pinterest world by pinning (in their honor of course) things I am certain they would adore. What would Grace Kelly’s Pinterest look like I wonder? Hepburn? Monroe? What about Virginia Woolf? Perhaps a little dreary, ok…what if Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice were given a username? Gertrude Stein? Are you intrigued yet? To start things off and in honor of Easter peeking around the corner, today’s “guest” pinner is the brilliant and lovely Beatrix Potter.
Besides publishing twenty-three books during her lifetime and being perhaps one of the most beloved children’s book authors of all time, Potter was also a conservationist, purchasing “Hill Top Farm” in the English countryside and successfully preserving almost all of what we now know as the gorgeous “Lake District” of Britain. The scientific community during her era was also very interested in her work and illustrations in mycology, as well as her sheep breeding. During a time when women weren’t really welcome in the education and work-world, Potter successfully created her own illustration and print business with her adorable and now universally well-known creature characters and was respected in many spheres for her devotion to nature, articism, and creativity. If Beatrix Potter pinned, I’m pretty sure I’d be a devoted follower.
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.
Probably 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.
To 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.
Plain Jane: “The world may know my words, but it has no such privileges with my heart.”
-Jane Austen in her letters
When an author as prolific and popular as Jane can say that her inner-self is elusive from her work, that is good writing indeed. The best authors are ones who you cannot hear speaking through their words. When they create characters they create them without putting themselves into them. “Incandescence” is what it’s called in English-major world. In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf says Shakespeare reaches incandescence in his work. It allows the writer to create so much diversity in character because they are not only limited to their own point of view, but can explore and relate other viewpoints in a way that is convincing and real.
I have lots to celebrate today. For one thing, its the first monthiversary of the blog! It seems both much longer and much sooner than a month ago that I began. Thank-you to everyone who has been reading along and commenting, its so great to hear feedback of what you’re enjoying most.
It is one of my main intentions with this blog to offer to all of you some examples of women who embody the definition of a classic woman: one who is graceful, kind, seeks to lead by example, is able to love and be loved, supports, inspires, is ambitious without being aggressive, and selflessly nurtures when called upon to do so.
Perhaps you say though that this still doesn’t prove it can be done in the modern world; that this style and way of life is archaic. That the modern world necessitates that we re-think how women dress, act, achieve, and live. You even may say that the era of golden girls like Grace and Sandra is long gone, and Mary Poppins’ lessons are fine and dandy for when you’re five years old, but what about when you grow up and its 2012? What then?
It is possible though. I am convinced because I see it acted out everyday. The muse is a real woman; in fact, she’s a modern woman, and I offer her to you as a perfect example of what it means to represent femininity at its best.
She’s my real life Grace Kelly, my Mrs. Gigglebelly, my Mary Poppins. Everything that fills my life with joy and beauty, I first learned from my mother:
I learned about Jane Austen from her copy of Pride and Prejudice, placed always on the dining room bookshelves and read so often the binding was falling to pieces. I learned that reading the entire children’s section of the Beale Memorial Library was not impossible. I learned that writing was fun; that Doris Day and Cary Grant are the best on-screen couple. I learned that the most powerful job you can have is being a wife and mother; that showing love is not measured by dollar signs but often by a handmade gift, always (willingly) showing up to every dance rehearsal, putting someone’s hair in the perfect bun, or racing home to fetch the forgotten essay. I learned that arguments are settled by conversation, and that there won’t be arguments if there is conversation. I learned that you don’t have to know what you’re doing to decorate a room, you just try it and love it or hate it and change it and have so much fun in between. I learned that being selfless makes you the most precious, that laughter is the most beautiful sound in a home, and what reliability looks like.
Most of all though, what I learned from my Mom is how to love. How to show someone that they are your whole world, that you cannot imagine a life without them, and how you never regret anything that is for them. So, thanks mom, for being a muse far better than any other woman, real or fictional, and for effortlessly acting out what it means to be a wonderful woman. Oh yes, and happy birthday.
Whatever you know of Virginia Woolf’s life and works, you probably don’t associate her with styling. Surprise, surprise: the woman knew the effects on the mind and body of a well-styled room long before Better Homes and Gardens, Martha Stewart, or HGTV filled our lives.
In my third year of college I spent twelve rather grueling weeks studying, obsessing, and making sense out of Virginia Woolf’s writing. It was quite the journey. Out of her stream of consciousness, abstract imagery, and at times rather depressing prose, two things stuck in my mind:
1.) Maintain a room of one’s own:
In her famous lecture turned essay, Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own that one of the most essential things to the success of an artist, and, more specifically, a female artist, was to have a space all to oneself. At the time, Woolf wrote this to point out one of the crucial reasons she believed that women had been unable to write effectively. The nineteenth century woman who “never (had) an half hour…that they can call their own,” did not possess the means to acquire a room, or time, to herself unless “her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble.” At the mercy of her husband or some male support, the average woman, if she desired to write, had to “write in the common sitting room” where of course, “dogs will bark; people will interrupt; money must be made; health will break down.” Woolf felt that, unlike the man who might wander off to an office and shut himself away to work for hours, the women of nineteenth century homes had no such place to work, create, or imagine in.
Women no longer have such restrictions. We make our own money, own our own homes, and follow our own ambitions. Yet, with no limits to our “duties” or desires, women seem to need a room of their own for entirely different, but no less important, reasons. The modern woman is fulfilling roles the nineteenth century woman never dreamed of. By fulfilling these roles though, there is little time to escape into a place where the mind can focus on self, what is important, and what needs to be culled out of a life packed to the brim of to-do’s.
So, take Woolf’s advice: steal a workplace for yourself.
Convert a closet:
Tidy a desk just for you:
Or create an inspiration board:
Maintain a room, a corner, a space all your own where, regardless of whether you are an artist or not, you can put life on pause lest your mind become “heaped…with bitterness and resentment” from the everyday.
2.) Whatever you do, do it like a woman.
In her criticism of a female novelist during the nineteenth century, Woolf noted that the novelist’s writing voice was muddled by her belief that she ought either to admit that “she was ‘only a woman,’” or protest “that she was ‘as good as a man.’” Contrasted to these women, she notes that only Jane Austen and Emily Bronte were successful in their craft because “they wrote as women write, not as men write.” They neither excused themselves for their writing because they were “merely” women, nor tried to adopt a false voice in order to be compared to a man. They were, in essence, essentially themselves. In speaking of women writers, Woolf expresses that “it would be a thousand pities if women wrote like men, or lived like men, or looked like men, for if two sexes are quite inadequate, considering the vastness and variety of the world, how should we manage with one only? Ought not education to bring out and fortify the differences rather than the similarities?”
Wouldn’t she be horrified at the current androgyny? Woolf stated that Jane Austen was one of the few successful female novelist during her time for, unlike other women, she did not try to learn from the “men’s sentences” that were her only examples. Instead, “Austen looked at it (the man’s sentence) and laughed at it and devised a perfectly natural, shapely sentence proper for her own use and never departed from it.”
Whatever you desire to do, take it from Virginia: do it as a woman would do it, not as a man would. Devise your own approach and never depart from it. Excuses and protests will achieve little, but give a woman a space to think and the confidence to think as herself, and there will be, as Virginia found, “no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”