Lessons from Jane Austen: On Being a Woman

So Dean Kutzler‘s suggestion was a biography, and even though I have one already it’s hardly an exhaustive one, is it?  So I’ve decided to write on an aspect of my life that in many ways is responsible for my involvement in crafts like spinning, weaving, and embroidery.

Now, this *may* come as a shock to some of you, so be sure you’re sitting down.  If you have not, in fact, noticed by now, I am a woman.  I know, I know… “Eliza!  How did this happen??” you cry.

Well, I’ll tell you.

It happened when my sister introduced me to something called Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen.

Ah yes, I can see the confusion on your faces. “Wait… does that mean you weren’t a woman before that?”

Yes.  I wasn’t.  I was a girl.  Well, actually, I was a tomboy, (which, in many ways I still am) but I was a girl.

“Ah, semantics.”

Yes and no.

One annoying thing about American culture is a lack of, what I’ll call “rights of passage” observances.  Oh, we have superficial ones, like 21st birthdays or sweet 16s but as a whole, there is no meaningful, cultural marker of the transition from childhood to adulthood, with the conveyance of both benefits and responsibilities.  It makes me sad.  But that’s not for this journal.

Growing up, I never wanted to be like the popular girls.  I didn’t *want* to be stuck-up and more worried about my clothes than my grades.  I still don’t wear make-up except for *exceptions* like friends’ weddings or the like.  I didn’t spend time doing my hair, or doing my friends’ hair, or them doing mine.  I had very different sorts of friends.

We spent time hanging out in the woods building forts, or throwing jelly beans around her cabin watching stupid funny movies.  I lived in the country, so a lot of my own free time was spent out in the woods behind our house, making tee-pees with tree branches and a tarp, and climbing trees and playing in the ditch (I used to make whole villages on the banks of the “river” (i.e. drainage ditch water) and weave exceptionally tiny baskets out of grass and fill them with puffs from the cattail heads like they were cotton.)

So I was a tomboy.  I never wanted to be girly, and since I equated all irritating “girly” things as what it meant to be a girl, I didn’t want to be.  That’s not to say I ever wanted to physically be a boy, I just didn’t want to be a girl.

So I was about… I’ll guess 24 or 25 the first time my sister brought this movie in called Pride and Prejudice.  I was absolutely enthralled with the movie, because in some ways, for the first time I had a standard by which to say “That!  That’s what it means to be a *woman*, that’s the kind of woman I want to be!”

Not like Eliza’s younger sisters, silly, ignorant, idle, vain… I wanted to be like Eliza! (well, probably at the time I was more like Jane, very quite and reserved) but Eliza really got my attention.  She didn’t have to put on airs, chase after men, or be terribly concerned about the condition of her petty coat.  She was strong, she had a quick and sharp wit, the goal of her life wasn’t the ‘getting of a husband’… I could go on for two pages about why Eliza Bennett became what I decided was the ideal woman.

Helped along, of course, by Mr. Darcy’s description of “a truly accomplished” Lady:

‘…A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing and the modern languages to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved.’

‘All this she must possess,’ added Darcy, ‘and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.’

So even by these standards, I do fail rather miserably.  I love music, but I have no real knowledge of it.  I can at least claim to have a greater range of musical tastes than ‘your average American’.  I can sing badly in the shower and loudly in the car, but not well.  I have a little skill at drawing, though I do *adore* dancing!  That is one area I really do have some talent in.  And by dancing I don’t mean busting it on a dance floor, I mean I have done Jewish Folk dance, Scottish Country dance, Irish step dance, belly dance, etc, and I love each one dearly.

The only language I know – modern or otherwise – is English.  I know a bare smattering of Spanish words, even less Hebrew, and the only Swedish or Finnish I know is what I sing along to with my music.  When I visited Holland I at least tried to sound things out and figure out what they meant.  (Falafel!  I know that one, that’s what I’ll have! *grin*)  My friend was delighted, actually, making good natured fun of me.   She said no one else had ever come to visit her and tried to read the street signs or dragged her to the grocery store to see what was different and what was the same.  And she made fun of how I held my fork 😛

I can’t claim any special ‘something’ in my air or speaking.  Rather I suppose I’m quite coarse at times, and this tends to be where my tomboyishness really shines through.

But I do so love reading.  I’m so glad you put this in, Mr. Darcy, it really is one of my few saving graces in your list.

So there we go, I really fall quite miserably short of Mr. Darcy’s accomplished woman in most areas, but that was 200 years ago, so surely I can update a little, right?  I can obviously add writing to the list, since Jane Austen was an author, and that’s something to aspire to as a woman!

This is where the arts and crafts come in.  It’s too late for me to try to learn Latin, I’m certainly not going to enroll in Miss Kitty’s School For Fine Ladies anytime soon, so I had to improvise a bit on that list of Darcy’s.

It’s not an easy task to remake a dedicated tomboy into a Lady.  Especially not when you really have little but yourself to guide the process.  And… it just struck me that a lot of my crafts would probably have fallen well below Miss Bennett and Mr. Darcy’s societal stations in life.  But I’m going to ignore that in favor of the 200 year time gap and just go with it.

So back to the SCA (my historic reenactment group), I went to an arts and crafts event and learned how to do blackwork embroidery.

Up to this point, I had never done any kind of needlework in my entire life.  I had barely ever threaded a needle!  But here I was, creating these gorgeous designs on a bit of fabric and thinking “Wow!  I did this!  Me!”  And that was the beginning of my absolute love of crafts.

I learned to embroider, and sew, and spin, and I learned basic inkle loom weaving, and I did repousse, and Norse wire weaving, and I sewed a vaguely Turkish garment, and I learned silk painting, and I make paper, and I learned to cook!  And I write, write, write!

And I’ve learned to draw and paint better than I ever thought I could.  I am old fashioned, I’m really not ashamed to admit it.  I like doing the things that I associate as being feminine, not girly – which I hate –  but feminine.   Because they make me feel like I could fit into the world of Eliza Bennett.  Because, in doing all this, I feel like a woman!
… anyone know a Mr. Darcy?
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9 thoughts on “Lessons from Jane Austen: On Being a Woman

  1. First of all, I absolutely adore everything you write! This is so well written and a joy to read!
    I can understand what you mean when you say you want to be feminine and not girly. I think that’s the case with me too. And yes, 200 years is a long time to stick with Mr.Darcy’s standards, but I must say he said that very well. 🙂
    I can sing and dance, and I love to read, although I’m not sure how “smart” I can speak. 🙂 For the crafts – well, you know what I do. But to my shame, I don’t like embroidery very much. Tried it, and it’s not for me. But the worst thing for Mr.Darcy would be my Serbian “thing” – we are just a bit too loud and open. 🙂
    Anyway, one of my favorite writers is Jane Austen. I plan to read all her books again. And again. 🙂

  2. You wrote this so well. It flowed and made sense and I got caught up in it. I was a bit of a tomboy too, when I was younger, but I had a much different reaction to Pride and Prejudice. I sort of thought that the plot was a little silly and all.

    But maybe I was projecting my distaste for the British class system.

    Anyhoo, this was an amazing story and your crafts look awesome.

    • Well, I didn’t know anything about the British class system at 24, so I just saw the elegance and all the ‘that’s what I want to be’ that was in the story – obviously not what it would have entailed in reality.

      But thank you 🙂

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