Playing the Odds

As is commonly the case in the S household, Mr S was reading Mrs S an article on statistics. This time Mrs S found it particularly annoying as she had already gotten out of her chair and was on her way to the kitchen for a cup of tea. Then Mr S asked her “Do you know you are now more likely to be killed by your trousers than win the lottery?” As it happened, Mrs S did not know that, and she despaired of ever getting her cup of tea, for now she needed to listen to the rest of the information to hear (1) if problem lay with the particular trousers she was wearing; (2) whether she would be safe if she changed into a skirt; and, most importantly, (3) whether sweatpants and pyjama bottoms were classified as trousers in this analysis.

  It turned out that the article was not about trousers at all, and so Mrs S had no excuse need to revamp her autumn wardrobe.  Damn it! Phew!  The UK National Lottery has added ten new numbers to its selection options. Previously, six numbers were chosen from 1-49; now you may select any number up to 59. Of course, Camelot, the company that administers the Lottery, is eager to highlight how much more choice it gives you. Hooray for choice! They are less keen to inform you that your odds of winning the jackpot have now dropped from 1 in 14 million to 1 in 45 million. Ah well: Mrs S figures most people who play the lottery aren’t in it because of its sound investment profile. And what if your lucky number is 50? Well, you’ll just be relieved to see the end of the discrimination that smiled favour upon those whose luck resides in lower numbers.


Is this crowd there for you? The odds are 20 million to one.

 Mr S continued to read out a series of astounding things one was now more likely to do than win the lottery: be killed by a bee, become a Cabinet minister, etc. Then he got to the point, and the reason he knew his wife would want to hear these numbers: According to the statistical analysis of some nerd somewhere, you are more than twice as likely to be cannonised a saint in the Roman Cathoic Church (20 million to one) than win the lottery (as above 45 million to one). Mrs S cannot confirm or vouch for these figures. The reader is likely already aware that the lady has a tense and troubled relationship with numbers: she cannot count past ten without removing her socks. But nonetheless she took strong and immediate umbrage with Mr S’s implication that sanctity was a matter of chance. Mr S took strong and immediate umbrage with Mrs S’s conflation of ‘chance’ and ‘randomness’ in her critique, reiterating that statistics describe data populations, not causes. In short, the fact that statistical analysis indicates that in any randomised population of 20 million people one of them will be canonised, does not mean that that one person is selected at random, independent of causal factors. Mrs S was sure she knew this already, so she stomped off and made tea in a huffy manner.

The thing is, the terminology of statistics aside, the comparison is obviously apples and oranges. The odds of winning the lottery are calculated on a one entry per draw basis.  Canonisation is a one-shot deal: you have one soul, so you get one entry. To increase the odds of winning the lottery one merely has to buy more tickets. In fact, buying just three tickets for a single lottery draw slashes the odds of winning to 1 in 15 million, making a jackpot win more likely than canonisation. But, of course, the lottery remains subject to randomness in a way that sanctity does not. It’s black and white, too: any combination of numbers is as likely to win as any others. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 is as likely to be a winner as 3, 14, 25, 27, 32, 54. All entries are equal, so when you buy an extra ticket you increase your odds of winning by a set and easily defined increment. However, with respect to sanctity, you can’t multiply your entries, so your only way of increasing your odds is to work on the one entry you have, t make it the type of soul that can be canonised. And that’s a bit trickier.

  Mrs S was pondering how to increase her odds of cannonisation. Now, of course, cannonisation is not synonymous with sainthood: the Church believes that all in heaven are saints, but the canon of saints is made up of those in heaven we can name (on the evidence of their martyrdom or intercessory power), whose  lives and deaths provide us with an example of holiness. However, all canonised saints are in heaven, even if not all in heaven are canonised saints, so Mrs S figured this line of thought was just an extension of the question ‘How do I live a good and holy life?’

Mrs S thought about the type of sanctity that lead to canonisation — a life lived in prayer and penance, with courage and tireless fortitude, with patience and humility —  for as long as it took the kettle to boil twice. (The first time around she somehow forgot who she was making the tea for and used a decaf tea bag and added sugar. Yuck.) And as she waited she pondered the example of saints. There is, of course, the Little Way of St Thérèse: ‘finding God in the pots and pans,’ working quietly and with humility, offering every little act of love, and even the most dreary mundane tasks for the greater glory of God. This is a model especially well-suited to the life of a wife and mother, and many wise people have recommended it to Mrs S. She finds it cripplingly difficult and absolutely hates what it shows her about the state of her soul. So, she figures it would be easier to find a different exemplar, one with a bit of flair and a good excuse for being rubbish at housework. And then she began to think how much easier all of this would be if she did win the lottery. 

You are probably instantly reminded about that pesky parable about the camel and the needle’s eye, especially if you were at Mass this morning. But Mrs S is quite convinced her motives are pure. Nearly everyone has their lottery win planned out. Mrs S knows exactly what she would do. There are a few personal things — Clearly, she would never fly coach on a transatlantic flight ever again. Obviously she would hire a cleaner. And a gardener. And she would be thin because she could pay for one of those gourmet calorie-controlled programs that delivers food right to your door (presumably with a side of will power to sustain you between meals). And she could just pay to have The Artist and the Serpent published and distributed, with a snazzy, professional looking cover. And its sequels. (Did you not know about these? Ah, well, if Mrs S ever finishes the first book, she can set to work on the sequels she’s already plotted: The Artist and the Citadel, The Artist and the Holy Mountain, and The Artist and the Fallen Angel.) — but having done these things, which are not really very costly with reference to a large lottery jackpot (Mrs S never plays for less than £50 million), there would be millions upon millions for good works. Schools, hospitals, religious orders: there are so many worthy recipients. She could endow a chair in the philosophy departments at each of her former Universities. There are other bloggers she admires and would like to fund. Aid to the Church in Need, and a few other choice charities, would get millions. And the idea of being a professional philanthropist, of swooping in with the wherewithal to finance good, is deeply appealing. It’s almost like it wouldn’t matter if she continued to deeply resent the need to clean the kitchen, or continued to lack discipline in prayer, because surely on balance…

Ok, so maybe Mrs S’s sanctity would not be assured by having the financial resources to fund the virtuous activities of others. Faith without works is dead, to be sure, for what can be thought to exist of a faith that does not transform behaviour? But works without faith are mere spectacle with regard to the soul, however much good they do in the world. (Which is not to say they shouldn’t be done, just that they shouldn’t be confused with sanctity.) It is the most irritating feature of holiness that it cannot be delegated. She was listening to her parish priest’s homily this morning on the rich young many who asked Jesus how to gain eternal life. Jesus tells him to keep the Commandments, and when the young man says he has always done this all his life, Jesus says that he should sell everything he owns and give to the poor.  Naturally, the man is saddened by  this, because he is so rich. The priest pointed out that the command to give everything away is nearly unique in the Gospels to this man. Mrs S thought of line that says Jesus  looked on the man and ‘loved him.’ There’s this idea in the text that Jesus wanted union with this man. (This may seem like a leap, but Mrs S spent a lot of time in grad school reading Aquinas, whose definition of love has two parts: desire for the good of the beloved, and desire for union with the beloved.) Jesus has told him what’s good (‘Keep the Commandments, buddy!) and is now explaining wherein full union consists. It’s like “sell your possessions” is shorthand for “Now all you need to do is get rid of all this junk that is your first love so we can be together.” So, it’s hard for the rich to become saints. Not because wealth is evil (if it was then it would be impossible for the rich to become saints), but because it’s seductive. More than anything else, money can allow us to feel like we’re doing really well. You can give vast sums to good causes, help the needy, always have a tidy house, always be up-to-date on current events and the latest artistic trends. If you have enough money you start to feel like virtue itself can be bought. So, despite a moderately well-formed conscience and the great desire to do good, Mrs S imagines she too would end up a slave to her lottery winnings.  

As it is, Jesus’s advice to Mrs S, after he told her to get a grip on the Commandments, would be to put down her book and clean the kitchen, to find him in the pots and pans. Mrs S is more comfortable with the theoretical than the concrete and temporal. She has many lofty ideas about organisation and no patience with tidying up. This makes dometicity hard: she bears primary responsibility for the temporal good of her family. She needs to keep them fed and in clean clothes, and in tolerably non-squalid surroundings. She has often told people that her idea of freedom is not having to clean anyone else’s backside. She becomes inexplicably anxious when every day problems intrude in her consciousness. For example her hands are currently shaking and she’s having trouble typing because this afternoon Mr S noticed a mouldy patch on the ceiling of the pantry, and further investigation revealed that there seems to be some kind of leak in the boxed-in pipes behind the bath. So tomorrow she needs to call a plumber. And then it should be fixed. But all she can think is “How much of MY time is this going to take up? Can I give the children baths tonight? Do I need to take everything out of the pantry? When will I find time to really clean the bathrooms upstairs so I’m not embarassed when the plumber shows up?” Truly disproportionate and neurotic. So clearly there is much work to be done in the development of charity, patience, fortitude, generosity, because Mrs S is as miserly with her time and mental energy as the rich young man seems to have been with his material resources. 

At least peripherallly aware of all of this, by the time Mrs S had gotten to grips with temporal matters sufficiently to make herself a drinkable cup of tea, she decided that she was overjoyed that the odds of becoming a saint were as good as one in 20 million, or hopefully better if you don’t mind about being on the calendar, and also that she was very unlikely to have to manage enough money to cause her problems, even if a few good causes would have to look elsewhere for support. She went back to the living room to tell Mr S that the moment she earns a cent from writing she’s hiring a cleaner, because the best will in the world couldn’t compensate for her domestic deficiencies. She needs to free up a bit of energy to devote to sanctity. Those are long odds to beat, and life is short.


In the Name of These Refugees

“Take the child and his mother and flee.”  –Matthew 2:13

When Mrs S was a child, her mother did a great deal of volunteer work teaching English to Russian and Ethiopian refugees. These people were forced to leave their homelands for fear of political or religious persecution, or were displaced due to war and famine. Some of them escaped with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, and when they arrived in the United States were initially wholly dependant ont he compassion of strangers for survival. Theirs was not a planned and careful emigration, prepared for with language lessons, realestate purchase and job interviews. They left in fear, furtive and hurried, and carried with them worries for loved ones left behind heavier than any worldly goods abandoned in flight. Mrs S didn’t know what all their stories were, but she does remember how difficult it all appeared to be: arriving in a country where you couldn’t speak the language, and few spoke yours, where you had no money, no status, and many people thought you were an intruder. And yet they seemed so glad to have these hardships over the ones they had left behind, that one knew immediately what they had run away from must have been very bad indeed.

To this clear and persuasive example of charity and mercy, Mrs S’s mother added this formative image. Though the poster was tucked away in a corner of the home library, it made an impact on Mrs S such that she cannot hear of a new tragedy afflicting refugees without it springing instantly to mind:

Be not deceived that this image of Mary, Joseph and the Christ child fleeing to Egypt to escape the murderous jealousy of Herod speaks only to Christians. Admittedly, it speaks most clearly and accessibly to Christians in the manner of a short sharp clip upside the head: “Your Lord and Saviour was himself a refugee. When you fail them you fail Him.” But behind the religious maxim is a principle that ought rightly to be at the heart of western democratic Liberalism: the universality of humanity. Hardship and suffering do not strip away the essential human dignity of any person. 

The BBC is stubbornly sticking to the allegedly neutral term “migrants” to describe those fleeing from Syria and elsewhere in that part of the world. (They explain why here.) How ridiculous: as though these desperate, displaced and war-ravaged people are casually strolling into non-native lands by preference. When thousands upon thousands of people flee with nothing but what they can carry and show up at a foreign border, en masse, they are not just merely migrants. When they are willing to risk not only their bold young men, but their elderly, their women, their children, and their babes in arms, to leave their homes, to climb onto a boat that is little more than a raft, you can be sure that it is only because this fearful journey is less terrifying than what they are leaving behind. When people are fleeing an evil greater than all the perils of escape, they are not ‘migrants.’ They are refugees.

There are times when Mrs S feels called to polemic, and this is one of them. The so-called ‘migrant crisis’ is suddenly getting a lot of press, probably because Syrians are not just suffering at home: they are drowning in the Mediterranean, right on the doorstep of the Western first world. (Though more drowned in April than in August, so the timing is still odd.) They are dying in the trucks whose drivers were bribed to smuggle them across Europe. They are living in tents on the streets of Greece — Greece! where we were all directing our pity so few months ago. And all of this to avoid being slaughtered in their homeland. But the situation in Syria and the broader Middle East  and north Africa is neither new, nor unforseen. And for every poor soul who escapes, many more suffer violence, persecution, acute deprivation, and death in their native land. For any rich Western government to be caught unprepared, when there has been ample time to take action to avert this humanitarian crisis, or, failing that, prepare to do what is necessary cope with it, is indefensible. For those fleeing from terror and atrocity to arrive and find their place of refuge unready is inexcusable. For them to arrive and find the borders closed is criminal. It is certainly hard to know how to house and care for large refugee population, both in the short and the long term, but unfortunately they do not have the luxery of time to wait for us to figure it out. However reluctant, unprepared or unequal we feel when faced with this necessary act of mercy, now is not the time for political posturing and hand-wringing. Whatever economic or practical concerns arise, they are trivial in comparison to the plight of displaced peoples. It is not a question of resources, for Europe has the money, but of willing. We just have to take them in. There is no moral way around it.

Mrs S has written and rewritten an uncharitable rant about westerners who are not willing to share from out of their vast resources, who place finances and convenience before the moral demands of humanity. But the fact is a large number of Westerners are concerned — more than concerned — about the plight of refugees. There are prolific efforts to raise awareness and form the consciences of those who still lack passion for the welfare of their afflicted brethern. Some of these come in the form of highly sensational, and hugely distressing, images of brutalised, maimed and even drowned children. Mrs S spent rather a long time trying to figure out why she was upset by this tactic. She thinks of herself as a realist, meaning that she does not imagine that facts wait upon her pleasure or approval. Photographs of this kind are deeply upsetting, but they are a vivid depiction of the nature of the evil that is stalking so many of the most vulnerable. But do images like this form a conscience to fight evil and eagerly safeguard its victims? Mrs S is concerned that the more natural response is to recoil, first from the image and then from the atrocity itself, to turn away and refuse to see what cannot be born. Those sharing the image want to ignite the moral fervour of those who disparage the “migrants” and wonder why those troublesome people don’t just stay where they are. The pictures offer a forceful proof of harm. The message of the picture is “Without our compassion more children will die like this.” But someone seeing such a picture, perhaps caught unawares (Mrs S certainly was, several times, on Facebook), may instead be brought to despair that this child had not been saved. Conscience, instead of being nurtured, is paralysed, seeking refuge in willful ignorance or desensitisation. Better, if possible, to form conscience through diligent example, tireless witness, and, bluntly, making a nuisance of oneself to show that the truth and the urgency of this crisis are more than passing media fads. 

So, what witness should this be? Well, if you are reading this you clearly have internet access, and a very little time with a select few search terms will uncover reputable organisations dedicated to helping refugees and the afflicted. For many, donating to these causes is the most effective way to help, so long as it is not viewed as buying insurance against future obligations. But Mrs S thinks the simplest and best council is to be guided by the works of mercy ennumberated by the Church (and, Catholic or not, it is hard to argue with this list). There are seven corporal works of mercy, which care for the body: 

feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, tend the sick, visit the imprisoned, bury the dead

and seven spiritual works of mercy, which care for the soul: 

admonish the sinner, instruct the ignorant, council the doubtful, comfort the sorrowful, bear wrongs patiently, forgive all injuries, pray for the living and the dead. 

For those who want a simple rubric for virtue, there is no truer guide. In everyday life, do these things. When you encounter great need, do these things. Wheresoever you go, do these things. In the name of these refugees, do these things. 

The Effects of Fresh Air on Literary Criticism

Mrs S has just returned from two blissful weeks in the wilds of Northumbria. She could happily have remained indefinitely in the former-Methodist-Chapel-turned-holiday-cottage, in a tiny little village called Halton Lea Gate, nestled between the northern Penines and the Scottish Borders, in landscapes naturally soft and cushy, despite their grandeur, through the sheer number of sheep that reside there.  And thus entrenched she would have had no needs beyond pen, paper and reliable childcare. There was something stirring about the landscape that moved Mrs S not merely to poetry, but to mythology. Poor Mr S had to listen, on several occassions, as his wife complained that Peter Jackson really could have filmed the Lord of the Rings trilogy in the UK, for Northumberland was surely perfect. In truth it’s not that Mrs S objects to the New Zealand landscapes, but it would have been lovely to have a Tolkien tourist attraction or two to visit. As it was, they enjoyed themselves greatly at the Roman points of interest, mining and aeroplane museums, sundry churches of delicate ancient beauty, and in the landscape itself. Whenever they were ‘at home,’ and no one needed feeding, Mrs S had her pen and notebook in hand. She has never been so productive. (Not all of her writing was for the novel, which will annoy Mr S greatly to discover, but a great deal was accomplished nonetheless.) Then, after two weeks in pleasing proximity to Hardian’s Wall, the S family reluctantly made the five hour drive home to Hertfordshire.

The morning after returning home Mrs S was talking to her mother, the Matriarch, waxing lyrical about the beauty and wildness of Northumbria, and detailing her pie-in-the-sky ambition to move there. She must have over-egged it, for the Matriarch said something unexpected:

‘So, you’ve become a Bronte-lover.’ 

Lest the reader be deceived that this was a benign observation, the Martiarch’s tone should be said to have been deliberately incredulous, the implication that ‘we don’t do that sort of thing in this family’ crystal clear.

Mrs S was left speechless, her mouth moving without linguistic effect. How could one’s mother be so cruel? Surely the Matriarch knew that two weeks in the North could never transform a dedicated acolyte of Jane-Austen into…that. There is a world of difference between enjoying a bit of untamed countryside in one’s travels and developing a taste for untamed emotion in one’s reading. Needless to say, Mrs S was deeply wounded by this insinuation, but could not go off and sulk without proving the Matriarch’s point.

The very thought that Mrs S could become a devotee of the Bronte sisters is more than laughable: it threatens to undermine the whole stability of her existence, which is founded upon the very Austen-ian lesson that the greatest romance is not only compatible with the most ordinary of virtues, but indeed depends upon them. Insensible to the depth and worth of Jane Austen’s writing, Charlotte Bronte found only an unforgiveable lack of feeling:

“She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well; there is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy in the painting: she ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound: the Passions are perfectly unknown to her; she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy Sisterhood; even to the Feelings she vouchsafes no more than an occasional graceful but distant recognition; too frequent converse with them would ruffle the smooth elegance of her progress.”

-12th April, 1850, in a letter to W.S. Williams

Elsewhere she complained of Austen’s refinement, writing to L.H. Lewes that:

“Why do you like Jane Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point. … I had not seen Pride and Prejudice till I read that sentence of yours, and then I got the book. And what did I find? …a commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck.”

-12th January, 1848 (Is this the passage that put the Matriarch in fear of Mrs S’s literary soul?)

These allegations are shocking in two senses, the first being that they are mostly untrue, and the second that to the extent that they do apply, they are virtues, rather than shortcomings, of Austen’s writing.

To begin with, Jane Austen’s acquaintance with the passions is apparent in dozens of passages, but to take but one example, it is hard accuse the author of any lack of feeling in the letter of Captain Frederick Wentworth to Miss Anne Elliot in Persuasion:

I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone forever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone, I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine. I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would have been lost on others. Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice, indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating in 


Maybe Charlotte Bronte never read Persuasion (and certainly she could not have known that Ciaran Hinds would portray Captain Wentworth to great effect in the film adaptation) but still: it packs a punch, does it not? Mrs S is frequently misty-eyed and breathless after reading this passage. What more can the poor man do? Bleed onto the page? Needless to say, Anne is appropriately flustered by receiving such a letter, and after eight and a half years of dignified anguish and seperation, the lovers are reunited. But whilst they may mourn lost oppurtunities — Captain Wentworth urgently asks Anne if she would have become engaged to him six years earlier when he returned to England between voyages, and she replies that she would have — Austen is very clear to point out the greater happiness the couple now enjoy than could have been theirs in the beginning:

There they returned again into the past, more exquisitely happy, perhaps, in their reunion, than when it had first been projected; more tender, more tried, more fixed in their knowledge of each other’s character, truth, and attachment; more equal to act, more justified in acting.

And this perhaps is the type cultivation of which Charlotte Bronte speaks so slightingly. For Jane Austen’s characters feel the strongest passions, but are not overcome. They do not run wild. They are pruned, the more glorious bloom to produce, for what is cultivation but the work of man to direct and heighten the bounty and beauty of nature? The end of a Jane Austen novel is consummation, not abandon. Anne and Wentworth, Elizabeth and Darcy (& Jane and Bingley), Elinor and Edward (& Marianne and Brandon), Fanny and Edmund, even Emma and Knightley, and, in a different way, given the satire underlying Northanger Abbey, Catherine and Henry: they all reach maturity in the fulfillment of their romantic longing, but only because each in his or her lover finds support, even enoblement, of virtue and palliation of vice. It is not merely their passions that are satiated, but something deeper in their souls. Austen heroines (and heros) do not give in. They grow up. 

Consider now Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte’s magnum opus. The eponymous heroine has many admirable qualities. Though she is prudish and moralistic, but there is courage and determination there as well, and a true desire to be good, to do right. And she never compromises…until she does, of course. How is it that Jane and the revamped Bluebeard-figure Edward Rochester end up together? Does the rake and attempted bigamist reform? Indeed not, but since his first wife, the mad, bad Bertha, dies (maybe, possibly, but not proven, by his hand, though certainy in part through his cruelty and neglect), it was at least legal in the end. And he was maimed and blinded in the house fire, so his fidelity was more or less assured through lack of other options.  But is Rochester humbled and reformed? So unconvincing is the text on this point that when, at the age of fourteen, Mrs S read the famous line “Reader, I married him,” she tossed the book aside and did not pick it up again until six months later to grudgingly and with gritted teeth read the final pages. Just when one thinks Jane has had a lucky escape from the clearly unbalanced St John Rivers, she goes running back to some low-budget Byron with an extremely unadmirable moral flexibility and sinister sense of entitlement. Circumstances, not characters, evolve in Charlotte Bronte’s novel. Passion wins. But does Jane? Does Rochester, even? That is less certain.

Contrast this with the famous reform of Mr Darcy in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the novel specifically maligned by Charlotte Bronte in the passage above. Unlike Jane Eyre, who accepts Rochester’s proposal of marriage, “poor and obscure, and small and plain as [she is],” in Rochester’s stated estimation, Elizabeth Bennet, hearing a proposal rather similar in content and tone pulls Mr Darcy up with the words 

“I might as well inquire why, with so evident a design of offending and insulting me, you chose to tell me that you liked me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character?”

(Charlotte Bronte wants a “stormy Sisterhood” of the passions: did she even read that scene? Did she think that the logic behind the objection undid the fervour with which it was presented?) It is one of the few deep regrets of Mrs S’s life that she has never received an unexpected proposal from a deeply arrogant man, having read and reread this masterclass in setdowns hundreds of times since she was twelve. In this scene we have the crystalisation of the central problem of the book: pride (& prejudice, for now Lizzy must discover and suffer from her own misapprehensions). And this problem is not created by external circumstances, but by the nature of the characters involved. If Lizzy had accepted Darcy despite his disdain for her, despite his defects, even if she had managed to feel flattered enough by his attentions or dazzled enough by his fortune to form a passionate attachment of her own, Pride and Prejudice would have become a garden variety tragedy, for passion would win, but it would bring no happiness. How could it? He was not the man she deserved, and if she accepted less than that she would not be the woman he imagined. Character, not feeling is the basis of a sound marraige for Jane Austen, as we hear in Lizzy’s reflections in the midst of the scandalous Lydia and Wickham affair:

She began now to comprehend that [Darcy] was the man who, in disposition and talents, would most suit her. His understanding and temper, though unlike her own, would have answered all her wishes. It was an union that must have been to the advantage of both: by her ease and livliness, his mind might have been softened, his manners improved; and from his judgment, information, and knowledge of the world, she must have received benefit of greater importance.

…But how little of permanent happiness could belong to a couple [i.e. Lydia and Wickham] who were only brought together because their passions were stronger than their virtue, she could now easily conjecture.

This, rather than any insensitivity, is why Austen skims over heartfelt declarations with little detail. And how right she is to do so. What could knowing Darcy’s words add to the description of what followed Elizabeth’s acceptance of his second proposal. The reader is assured that “he expressed himself on the occassion as sensibly and warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do.” Elizabeth is so overcome she cannot meet his eyes, or even look at him, but only listen to his words of love. The passion is there, but it is only an embellishment, proof of the nobility of character that each has won in the end. The important words Austen records. Darcy relates the transformation of character wrought by his “dearest, lovliest Elizabeth”:

“By you I was properly humbled. I came to you without doubt of my reception. You showed me how insufficient were all my pretentions to please a woman worthy of being pleased.”

This, in a line, is what is wrong with Charlotte Bronte’s conception of romance. Rochester is manifestly insufficient to please a woman worthy of being pleased, and so, in being pleased by him, the otherwise worthy Jane Eyre is debased. That is what happens if, in the end, one’s passion is stronger than one’s virtue. 

Of course Jane Eyre is a fantasy, as is Pride and Prejudice, so they don’t depend upon strict realism to be plausible.  Mrs S has no expectation of hyper-realism of story. It would be very dull to read, after all. The problem with Jane Eyre is not that it is fantastical. And the Austen-Bronte debate is not (or at least shouldn’t be) about who is a good writer and who is a poor one.  Mrs S can easily acknowledge that Charlotte Bronte, and her sisters, wrote with grace, verve, and beauty, even if she prefers the style of Austen. But in the end, stories don’t “work” just because they are realistic or well-written: they can only pull this off by being true to character. And Mrs S can never be persuaded by Jane Eyre, because in her own fantasies, to put it bluntly, no one is ever quite so stupid as Jane is in the end. 

The role of a novel is to show the beauty of virtue, and by extension the ugliness of its opposite. That probably sounds prudishly moralistic, and likely to lead to very wearying, heavy-handed tales, so let’s put it another way: all stories are moral, because they are about people. Stories tell us what is good by showing us what is beautiful. Jane Eyre is a confused tale that reveals un underlying moral confusion in its author. The reader spends nearly the whole book admiring Jane’s dogged perseverence in goodness, her refusal to be coerced, her courage in resisting Rochester, who is the embodiment of selfishness and incontinence. Then, without significant reform, Rochester gets Jane anyhow.  Does he suffer? Undoubtedly. But not all suffering is redemptive. The death of his first wife is sufficient to allow Jane to give in to her inexplicable passion for him, and the result is that all of Jane’s goodness, which was so poetically portrayed as the source of her strength and freedom, is reduced to a sort of legalism. Charlotte Bronte writes that Jane was happy. How improbable. The most that can be said is that, if not reformed, Rochester is at least hobbled in his tyrrany by his infirmity, and so there is a lucky sort of blissful ending, which tells us, above all, that life’s beauty rests not in moral character, but in getting what you want, whether or not the object of desire is worthy. And that is drivel.  

Jane Austen, too, has her share of overblown romance. The exchange between Elizabeth and Darcy in which she asks him how he came to fall in love with her, for one:

“My Beauty you had early withstood, and as for my manners–my behaviour to you was at least always bordering on the uncivil, and I never spoke to you without rather wishing to give you pain than not. Now be sincere; did you admire me for my impertinence?”

“For the livliness of your mind, I did.”

Now, that is pure smut. Mrs S cannot read that passage without needing a cold shower afterwards. Even Darcy and Elizabeth have to go immediately to write letters to their aunts — the most unerotic task there is — to cool down. (It would be a mistake find any sarcasm in this paragraph.) We now know that Darcy is rich, handsome, properly humble, generous and just; and on top of that he is attracted to women, or rather a woman, who is too clever for her own good, and certainly more quick-witted than he is. And yet the effect of the story is not spoiled by such flights of fancy, because the underlying moral picture is sound.

The knack that Jane Austen has for showing virtues to be romantic, and romance to be at the service of domesticity, is what makes her books the best escapist reading there is. All her heroines are different, each with her own faults, which is why it so delightful to see how Jane Austen brings them up to scratch for their happy-ever-after, and each is aspirational in her own way. The most enjoyable conversation Mrs S has ever had with another human being was during an interview for a philosophy graduate program. She was discussing Jane Austen with an older (male) professor who was likewise an admirer. He asked her at one point which Austen heroine she most identified with, and, with all the seriousness and deliberate archness a twenty-year-old can muster, Mrs S replied that she most wanted to imagine herself an Elizabeth Bennet, but lived in perpetual fear that she was truly an Emma Wodehouse underneath. The professor laughed and said “May you live long enough to be Anne Elliot, my dear,” which is a very noble benediction indeed, and one which Mrs S called to mind when the Matriarch accused her of crass romanticism. What would Anne do? Anne would show forebearance, knowing that Lady Russell would, in time, either be proven right or come to her senses. Hopefully the latter.


The Virtue of Not Yet


The Frozen makeup box Mrs S believed would be less troublesome than the Frozen DVD

 Mrs S bought C a Frozen-themed make-up set. She had thought it would be fun to play with alongside the dress-up clothes. What little girl doesn’t like dabbling? But she had unwittingly created a cosmetic-fiend. The rule is that C may wear a bit of makeup at home on the weekends to play princesses, or mums and dads, or ballerinas, or whatever, but she may not wear makeup when the family goes out. Four year olds are too young to wear makeup in public. But now C wanted to wear makeup to church. Of course, being a born negotiator, C did not ask. She informed her mother she was just going to put on a bit of eyeshadow and some lipstick.”No,” said Mrs S. “You know the rules. You can put some on to play dress up when we get home.”

“But I want to be beautiful!” C exclaimed.

“You’re beautiful already!” Mrs S told her truthfully. There are days when she worries she will give C a conceited streak, or teach her that looks maketh the girl, for it is nearly impossible not to constantly heap praise her auburn ringlets, cornflower blue eyes, peaches-and-cream complexion, and searingly radiant smile. C is a beautiful child.

“But I want to be more beautiful!” C shot back, before stomping her foot and leaving the room in a huff.

Mrs S followed her to retrieve the makeup case. She knows her daughter too well to believe she had won the argument. But more to the point, she remembers that feeling: thinking that beautiful meant looking older. It’s a hard lesson to teach: the ‘you are too young for that’ lesson, the virtue of Not Yet.

Mrs S wears makeup everyday; partly from vanity, or course, and to stop the angry villagers from burning her as a witch, but mostly because it is one of the only things that makes her feel like a genuine, functional adult, capable of managing the whirlwind of motherhood. It’s warpaint, really. It gives her courage. But, unaware of this, and too young to understand, nearly every morning C stands in the bathroom watching Mrs S doing her face and sighs at each stage: “You look so pretty, Mommy. I like your eyeshadow. Why don’t you wear some really pink lipstick today?”

Mrs S traded C the makeup kit for a tropical fruit-flavoured chapstick, which somewhat mollified the child, who tucked this new “lipstick” in her handbag next to her change purse, sunglasses, notebook and pencils, hairbrush, and tissue pack. Mrs S shook her head and smiled. The problem with C, or rather, the problem Mrs S runs up against while trying to kindly, effectively and properly parent her, is that C is tremendously precocious. She is remarkably self-possessed, socially-aware, clever, articulate, nurturing towards her little sister, independent, and sophisticated in her tastes. A decaf cappuccino at the local Italian café is her favourite after-school treat. She has been known to ask Mrs S to read her sonnets for her bedtime story. At four she can read simple stories aloud, write legibly and with plausible spelling, and follow complex, muti-step instructions to the letter. She has lovely manners with adults, and bursts of confidence that allow her to chat with most people, should the whim take her. Of course she is not perfect. The tantrums when she is tired, or thwarted, can be amazing and terrible all at once, and the teenage-level back-chat is a habit Mr and Mrs S are keen to nip in the bud. And she never — truly never — stops chattering: if she runs out of things to say, she’ll just start over from the beginning. But all in all, Mrs S has always thought she had one key advantage over C: the child is a carbon-copy of the mother. In nearly every situation Mrs S knows what C will think before she thinks it. She knows what C will do before she does it. And she can usually spot the tantrums coming a mile off, even if she is powerless to actually stop them. And it is this fearsome knowledge that makes Mrs S nervous, because her mind races ahead just as C’s does: four is nearly five, which is nearly ten, which is nearly twelve, which is nearly eighteen, which is nearly twenty-two. So you see, despite her vestigial toddler traits, C is already all grown up. Mrs S too has spent the whole of her life being, by her reckoning, already all grown up.

Thinking back to her own childhood and adolescence makes Mrs S blush. From the age of nine she was convinced she was not really a child, and began to think of boys in ‘that way’. She recalls a journal entry in which she wrote about how she thought one of the neighborhood boys should take her on a date. He was sixteen or seventeen and she had it all planned out: outifit (ruffley neon skirt and pink top with denim jacket), destination (McDonalds), menu (big mac for him, happy meal for her), and outcome (a kiss). It took a few years before she was embarrassed by this fantasy, before she dismissed it as silly and childish, before she was really all grown up, before she turned eleven. From the age of twelve she was completely preoccupied with romantic fantasies. It is the preserve of teenagers, particularly teenage girls, to feel misunderstood, and to long for someone special who appreciates them as the adults they believe that they are. And it is perfectly natural that this desire would take shape as a romantic yearning. Romantic relationships are ideally equal, exclusive, and necessarily exclude one’s parents and other authority figures. And Mrs S has never been as unique as she would like to think she is, so she can well-imagine that many many teenage girls were led down the same path. From early on she had a decided disdain for boys her own age.  

 At twelve she may have had eyes for a sixteen or eighteen-year-old, but by fourteen her romantic longings, shaped partly by Jane Austen and partly by trashy, historical-themed romance novels, was focused on grown men.  

 She was probably only saved from serious romantic or sexual disaster in her teenage years due to the fact that these love interestes fell into three categories: (1) Imaginary; (2) Inaccessible; (3) Morally-Decent Human Beings.

Mrs S recently read an article by Simcha Fisher that brought back this teenage period in vivid toe-curling detail. Following the lenient sentencing (30 days) of a fifty year old man who repeatedly raped a fourteen year old girl (who subsequently committed suicide), Mrs Fischer looks at the tragedy of a society that thinks young girls, outwardly mature, are to blame, or at least complicit, when they are used and abused by older men. Because they appear “older than their chronological age,” we miss how vulnerable they truly are. Mrs S was never vulnerable in the sense of being unprotected or from a chaotic home. She had a good family that told her she was beautiful, valuable and clever. She had a mother who would not allow her to dress provocatively, or paint her face like a porn star, and who always knew where she was and who she was with. Then as now, she was deeply rooted int he Catholic faith. And still, she was vulnerable, because no one could have persuaded Mrs S that she was too young to have the kind of relationship she thought about day and night, wrote about in her school notebooks (preferring as she did to scribble stories rather than take notes), and read about in dozens, even hundreds, of poorly-written, ridiculously-plotted, stupidly-imagined romance novels. There was nothing you could have said to Mrs S to change her mind because she found childhood to be agony. She was drowning in an ocean of not-yets. She was sophisticated enough to find Romeo and Juliet a repellant tale due to Juliet’s youth (twelve or thirteen! read the text!) and the dumb irony of committing suicide out of love, but not precient enough to apply this moral rubric to her own life and desires.

This is why Mrs S quails when C wants to wear makeup. She is not worried about her becoming Lolita, and she doesn’t want to keep her a child forever, but she knows if she lets her “grow up” to the makeup wearing stage at four, she can’t wrestle her back into the realm of childhood at twelve, when C will be more independant and less obviously a child in other ways. Mrs S knows that both her daughters will spend years feeling like butterflies forced to dress in the garb of homely caterpillars. When all of childhood is — rightly — ordered towards growing up, it is hard to teach the virtue of Not Yet. It is hard to keep young girls from taking on the trappings of adulthood before they are actually full grown women, or at least nearly so. It’s had to resign oneself to allowing them heartache, with the lessons it brings, but still be vigilant enough to keep them from real harm and from making mistakes they cannot recover from.

This all seems to require depths of wisdom that Mrs S is no longer confident she possesses. Rather than straining ahead to the next big grown-up thing, Mrs S now spends most of her days wondering how it is that she is allowed to operate without adult supervision. Madness. But having spent substantial time meditating on the futility of closing barn doors after the horses have bolted, slippery slopes, the impossibility of unringing a bell, and all manner of other folksy bons môts, she is convinced that someday, with the benefit of hindsight, C will be glad that her mother didn’t let her charge headlong into the world of make-up, sexy clothes and adult relationships. What grown woman says ‘I wish my mother had just let me do as I please at twelve!”? And the virtue of Not Yet is harder at twelve than it is at four, so C will need some practice. And that is why Mrs S, the meanest mother in the world, has put the Frozen-themed makeup box on a high shelf, to be brought out only when it is time to play dress up.