The First Lady Problem

first ladies

Besides sending Valentines, candy-grams, and adorable yet grossly-cute messages to their BFF’s and short-lived “relationships” of elementary school, the kids packing schools across the country also celebrate some presidential lovin’ in February. With President’s day, Lincoln’s birthday and Washington’s birthday this month, we’re all about remembering some fine role models that have led our nation. With all that Presidential pride though, no one seems to give much attention to the second half that occupies the Presidential pad: The First Lady.

If the President’s role as Chief of State involves being an “inspiring example” to the American people, “upholding the highest values and ideals of the country” then I suppose we could infer that the First Lady has similar duties for leading and inspiring the women of the great U.S. of A…yes? Though not a salaried employee of the nation, and has no “official” duties, we expect our First Ladies to be the stalwart, second-half to their husband’s career. We check in to see what they’re wearing, what their workout routine is, how they interact with their family, and what kind of a hostess they are. We don’t want them to take a front seat, in fact, when Laura Bush entered the press room  to lead a conference during her husband’s presidency, it rocked the news world, spawning questions about whether it was “appropriate” for President’s wives to take a more “official” role in the more serious tasks of leading the country, and, overwhelming, the answer was “no.” We want our First Ladies to maintain a very traditional “female” role it seems, out of the front seat, and safely holding together the First family behind the scenes. Even before the First Lady becomes the First Lady, we expect her to accompany the campaign stops, representing the strength of “family and marriage” to potential voters who critically eye the potential, or incumbent, leading man, often judging him on his marriage and interaction with his wife. So, what are our First Ladies telling us?

Along with President’s birthdays abounding, this month also marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique, credited for beginning the second wave of feminism in the 1960’s that focused on women’s rights in the workplace, family-life, and even reproductive rights. Since its debut, the debates the book has inspired definitely have not eased. You could probably say it’s still the nation’s number one hot topic, because, for some reason, we just can’t decide what women want. Career and family? No family, I want a career…wait, no, I’m lonely…I just want a family. Wait, no, I’m feeling ambitiously starved and have sudden clouds of low self-worth…Ah! I can’t do both! I’m stressed…why can’t we be more like men? Why can’t men be more like women? Why does there have to be “men” and “women”? And on, and on, and on we go. Yet, if we take the nation’s “first couple” as our muse, since, that’s part of their “duties:” to be an example of morality, uphold the nation’s ideals, and symbolize our values, then it seems as if marriage, family, and “traditional” female roles are our ideal…doesn’t it? That’s what it appears to be, and if it is, then the militant feminists who attempt to relate that traditional family, marriage, and maintaining different male and female roles are antiquated and nothing more than patriarchal attempts of suppression have a serious First Lady problem because, the First Ladies are still up-holding traditional values. Most First Ladies spearhead their own campaigns during their husband’s presidency to be sure: focusing mostly on education, humanitarian, or women’s health issues, yet, we see them firstly as wives and mothers, the help-mate to the President and the symbol of our nations oldest and most treasured values: motherhood, marriage, strength of a traditional family, and womanhood. The debates, battles, throw-downs, and disagreements about “a woman’s place,” the relevancy of marriage, and equality between genders will continue to be waged, but, whatever side you’re on, just remember the First Ladies, they’re leading the nation’s women in age-old traditions.

Sources: Scholastic | whitehouse.gov | Firstladies.org | image source: FirstLadiesmuseum gallery

– <3 A. 

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Plain Jane

jane austen sketch Plain Jane: “A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.”

-Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey

Obviously a  prod at her era’s ridiculous ill-treatment of “smart” women, Jane definitely didn’t conceal her knowledge of working words into beautiful sentences (thank goodness!). I often wonder if Jane had been a modern writer how successful she would be. She reveled in contradicting the status quo yet always maintained her point of view, dignity, respect, and, of course, her femininity without compromising her art.

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

jane austen illustration via mollands.netPlain Jane: “no one can think more highly of the understanding of women than I do. In my opinion, nature has given them so much, that they never find it necessary to use more than half.”

-Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey 

A rather tongue-in-cheek compliment I think. I take it more as Jane’s attempt at a veiled motivational speech for the feminine sex: that is, that she saw so much that women could offer and few women who realized their potentiality themselves. I hope you use all of yourself today, whatever it is you are doing!

A March Christmas

little women image via angelblee.com

You may not think of it as a tale for Christmas-time, but Little Women is one of my favorite films to watch as soon as the twinkle lights go up. With scene after scene of the little family gathered around a fire and a Christmas tree, it’s impossible not to get excited that December has come again at last.

winona ryder Little Women image via gaurdian.co.uk

little women winona ryder

Beyond it’s Christmas cheer though, the story also has quite a bit to say about some pretty hot topics even for the modern world. The 1994 version starring Winona Ryder as the indomitable Jo March I think captures very well what Louisa May Alcott intended to do with her novel. Though you may believe it to be merely a children’s story, Little Women is chock-full of some rather serious themes: Anti-slavery, transcendentalism, women’s rights, war, and the list goes on. Very quickly it becomes clear that Jo (Winona Ryder) is the new feminine ideal that Alcott seeks to promote. While the other girls follow typical (for the time) feminine pursuits of seeking love and marriage, Jo longs for adventures and accomplishments outside the home. Disgusted when her oldest sister Meg begins to fall for a young tutor, Jo remarks that she “can’t get over (her) disappointment in not being a boy, and it’s worse than ever now, for I’m dying to go and fight with Papa, and I can only stay home and knit like a poky old woman.”

Set during the Civil War era, women definitely had few rights and were expected to  fulfill their roles as wife and mother without thoughts of education or accomplishment. The March family, and Jo specifically, is rather radical however. They promote education, Mrs. March encourages Jo in her writing and even assists her in gaining a position as a governess in New York City when Jo grows fitful and restless in the domestic realm of her home.

little women winona ryderThrough Jo, Alcott captures the battle many women, even modern women, experience: the pull between loving one’s family so desperately yet simultaneously seeking to use their skills to change the world beyond their intimate family. Jo is, by far, the most sentimental of all her sisters. Though she longs for experiences beyond her home, she is in anguish over her family being “broken up” by growing up, getting married, and becoming women. When she at last goes to New York, Jo comes up against obstacle after obstacle for all the adventures she believes she will begin to have. The writing she intended to live off of is described by the serious journals as simple “fairy tales,” and she is crushed that the talent she had nurtured at home begins to be seen as insignificant in the world at large.

little women winona ryder Longing to be respected as other male writers, Jo writes of violent battles, pens dark tales, and publishes under the pseudonym “Joseph March.” Despite her friend Professor Bhaer’s advice to “write what she knows,” for only then will her writing illustrate the passions of her heart and be memorable, Jo tries again and again to write how she believes she should. It is only when Jo returns home following her sister’s death when she discovers what Professor Bhaer meant. Sitting in the attic of her childhood home, the film shows Jo writing page after page of the “domestic” story of how she and her sisters grew up. The story, though Jo shrank from writing it for she believed it to be merely a woman’s tale, is a huge hit: Jo at last writes from her heart, her feminine heart. She wrote about what broke it, what fulfilled it, what she hoped for, who she loved, and why she loved them. She stopped trying to live out the adventures she wished she could have fighting alongside the men on the front-lines, and wrote about the battles she faced in her own life.

image via gutenberg.org

Jo came to understand that she didn’t have to try to live her life as a man did for she had something to offer they didn’t. She could use her femininity to her advantage. She began a school in the manor her wealthy aunt left her, married her best friend Professor Bhaer, and sought to teach others what her mother had first taught her. Though it took her most of her young life to understand, Jo realizes that in their own way, “women work a good many miracles,” and THAT power is a significant one indeed.

 -<3 A. 

Modern Views: A Battle with the Boys

Today I have a bit of a hot-topic for you. Actually, probably the hottest topic in current American culture: Gender roles and women in the workplace. Don’t bring it up at a Christmas party, you’re sure to get icy stares, a few less friends, an angry defense, or a long, long, longggg uncomfortable silence. 

mad men

If you didn’t read / hear about Suzanne Venker‘s article “The War on Men” published Monday on foxnews.com, you’re missing quite the debate. VMMV is not a blog for soapbox posts but this article, and Suzanne herself, has so much to say about topics similar to why I even began this blog that I thought it would be appropriate to share. If you feel like joining the debate, check out the comments about her article on this Facebook page. I’ll warn you though, it’s pretty heated!

If you haven’t read it, the article starts with a new study showing that while the percentage of women who believe a successful marriage is one of the most important things in life has gone up since similar polls in 1997, the percentage of men who believe this has actually gone down. Why? Well, Venker suggests that this is because men are sick and tired of the fact that “women aren’t women anymore.” She suggests that the feminist agenda pushes women to believe men are the competition, or, the enemy. The drive to achieve equality (or, often, superiority) in work-place respect, wage-earnings, and corporate positions has made women either angry or defensive and created a modern woman who won’t let a man do what is in his DNA to do: “Men want to love women, not compete with them. They want to provide for and protect their families.” And men, as the poll and Venger suggest, are beginning to give up hoping to do that. She says that if women are angry at the state of the modern man: retreating from marriage, slacking responsibility, and being immature and dependent, it’s actually the woman’s fault. In her words, the “rise of women has not threatened men. It has pissed them off.”

mid-century modern officeAs you can imagine, the responses to Venker’s article were charged with some serious emotion. Many women took her suggestions to the extreme and protested that women have worked hard to move beyond their “role” as a June Cleaver, pushing vacuums in pearls and greeting her sons at the kitchen door with home-baked goods. They were horrified that any inhibitions of the modern male could possibly be blamed upon women who were finally being given opportunities they deserved.

june cleaverWhat I believe Venker was suggesting though was not that women shouldn’t pursue high-education or lofty personal ambitions and career goals, but that they need to give up on the lie that women can have it all, and do it all well. Whether you want to admit it or not, Venker says that “women are forever seeking a balanced life.” That is, a balance between the modern options of pursuing pretty much any career you desire, or nurturing the natural feminine desires to have a family. If a woman wants a man who acts like a man, that is independent, responsible, self-sufficient and capable of caring for a family, then she must be a women: someone who is nurturing, selfless, capable of loving and of being loved. Women will protest, why aren’t men expected to be at home with the kids? Why must the woman give up her personal goals for someone else? Why indeed? Because women and men are different. However much modernity is pushing for equality, women and men were made for different purposes. Of course women should have equal opportunities, equal wages, equal rights for those to take who want them. But, be careful what you wish for. If you’re prepping for an ambitious career, don’t be too angry when someone doesn’t hold the door for you. Or, if you’re choosing to share a life with a man and hoping to create a home, just know the men are a little gun-shy.

vintage woman in the workplace

If you’re a woman who’s disgusted at the modern gender confusion though, Venker  offers some hope. She suggests that “women have the power to turn everything around. All they have to do is surrender to their nature–their femininity–and men will surrender to theirs.”

So, what do you think? What’s your take on the modern views on gender roles? I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts. Comment on the post or send me an email (aaelightsey@gmail.com) if you’re feeling like this topic is a little bit too hot for public view of your opinions.

– <3 A.

Celebrations

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.

It’s easy to pick out muses like Grace Kelly and Sandra Dee for their impeccable style; to quote authors like Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf; or to point to fictional characters like Mrs. Gigglebelly, Kathleen Kelly, and Mary Poppins for their life lessons.

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.

My Mom.

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.

– <3 A. 

Perfumes of Progress

Since I talked about shoe-emotions yesterday as an easy way to change how you’re feeling about your style-mood without doing a complete closet-swap or spending some serious $$$, I thought this week might be a good one to do a little mini-series on some essential accessories that keep elegance in your everyday.

Even though I love the onset of colder days and the chance to wear fuzzy things, sometimes dressing during the fall and winter months mean feeling a little like Randy from the 1983 classic, “A Christmas Story.”

Even with the best intentions of wearing lovely coats and handsome, tailored things, sometimes being warm means being really not very cute. Pile on layer after layer and soon no one really knows what’s under all that fluff. Despite the gradual decline of gender specificity with the progress of winter however, an essential accessory to keep you girly even beneath the thickest, androgynous hoodie is a little splash of perfume.

Having a signature scent can be fun. My favorite thing is to have a special perfume I only wear on date nights or special occasions and then some cheaper stuff to have to throw in your purse for the everyday. I am still savoring my last few drops of one of my favorite perfumes that I poured into my vintage perfume bottle. It’s nothing pricey, but I absolutely love it:

For all my fellow Target-lovers, you probably know the British-based company, Soap and Glory, used to happily grace Target’s shelves. But, sadly, they decided to no longer distribute their product across the seas and I have been saving every last drop of mine for only the best of days. I believe Sephora is going to be their new American distributor but I haven’t made it out to check and see if I can resupply.

I had such fun browsing some vintage perfume ads last night, I didn’t realize how much the marketing for perfume had changed. When you think of modern advertisements for the latest celebrity scent, you usually find some provocative ad with a ridiculous title. Some of my favorites that I found were “be devoured,” “be a sinner,” and, the topper: “The Modern Courtesan.” All of them, like this one from Givenchy, were posed as the “new feminine fragrance” and apparently spoke for the mass market of women as something they aspired to. Really though? The modern courtesan?

For 2012, it seems as if the perfume market hasn’t progressed much in the way they see women, or, the way they see what women want. In fact, comparing them to ads from the 1940s and 50s, it seems we may have been traveling the wrong side of the upward moving escalator.

In this 1948 ad for the Yardley perfume line “Bond Street,” the description of the scent reads that it recalls “exquisite ladies and gracious ways. Elegant and romantic, it is a perfume full of excitement and meaning for women who want to be distinguished.” That’s quite different from a courtesan. Last time I checked, despite being clients for the “wealthy and distinguished,” the Merriam-Webster’s first definition for the courtesan is still, “a prostitute.” For me, I’d rather be a “Bond Street” girl from the golden era of elegant glamour rather than a “liberated” woman of the modern malls.

– <3 A. 

Jane Explained

I’m sure by now you’ve figured out from the daily “Plain Jane” quotes that I’m quite the fan of the brilliant Miss Austen. Ok, more than a fan, I’m actually completely obsessed. I thought I ought then to do a post dedicated to her since she has a daily voice in this process. So, in lieu of just a quote, here’s a little more of just plain Jane.

Despite all her popularity, Austen is, I believe, one of the most prejudiced-against authors of all time. Lets just write out a few of the labels I’ve heard Jane try to be pigeon-holed in:

  • A writer just for women.
  • A writer just for women looking for a husband.
  • A writer just for women who want to stay at home.
  • A woman out of touch with reality.
  • A woman just writing about home life.
  • Definitely NOT a writer men would be interested in.
  • Definitely NOT a writer men should read.
  • Definitely strange that she wrote about love since she was never a mother or a wife.

Well that narrows the playing field just a bit now doesn’t it? And yet, If you’ve ever discussed Jane Austen in public, most likely you suddenly found yourself embroiled in a terrifying civil war between the the defend-to-the-last-breath-Austen-lovers and the-I-can’t-imagine-reading-more-than-one-novel-about-this-stuff-casual-readers.

For some reason, for being “just a writer of domestic novels,” Jane’s parlor-talk gets people really fired up. Trust me, after taking an Austen senior seminar in college where the class was given a debate topic–one side to defend and promote the decisions of one character, the other side to promote and defend a different one–the room quickly chose sides and tossed literary digs back and forth across the room like we were revisiting  the Chamberlain-Hitler meetings of  1938–only this time, there was no appeasement. Even our Professor grew a little worried and called off the torrents of impassioned quotes being bantered about…honestly, things were really getting heated.

So, what’s the big deal about Austen? How are her novels able to transcend generation gaps and centuries of progress to affect the emotions of readers everywhere–despite discussing the small lives of well-to-do English families of a past era?

The woman just gets it. She understands the human character. Her writing reveals the social absurdities in a time where few people had the confidence to call them out. And, since people don’t change, her commentary upon the human heart is still able to shock you into a bit of introspection. No one is safe from the observations of her pen, both good and bad, and these unbiased opinions are exactly what she is adored for.

Without being overly didactic, the pages of her novels are overflowing with advice on pretty much anything. Apparently, I can’t get enough of them so I had to have two complete sets from two different publishers.

My Penguin Books set is a little more worn–sorry Penguin. Hopefully they feel the love. And, of course, besides her snappy one-liners and heart-wrenching truths about human character, Austen is probably most famous and most read for her romance. You might wrinkle your nose at it, or roll your eyeballs until they’re sore at the squishy-ness of some of the dialogue, but please, confess, can you really read along and not feel just a little tingle of delight?

I sure hope not. Take it from Jane, “the person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” (Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey) You wouldn’t want to have that label now would you? Happy reading!

– <3 A.