Last night I dreamed that I was at the table with Jane Austen and Mary Wollstonecraft. Perhaps it was over dinner, perhaps tea. To my left sat Wollstonecraft, canonical mother of feminism and Mary Shelley, a woman consumed by human darkness and her own fears. To my right, sat Austen, this enigmatic figure whose history is shrouded in wit and speculation, mother of nothing other than chic lit has and the breezy style synonymous with the novel heroines we model ourselves after. With the former, we know too much, the latter, too little.
They are two sides of me, these women. One is devoured by her passions and her fury. She can burn too hot, crushed by social censure and her own shadows; she was buried alive under the tomb of her memoir, laying bare the heart of a revolutionary woman in a world not yet ready for her. And yet, despite all this, despite the fact that her public words were tainted by her private life exposed, she retained the hope of a more empowered way of living, a more compassionate one equal parts heart and mind.
Austen is the soothing balm to the frayed woman's soul Wollstonecraft laid bare. There is hope, she tells us, there is hope. We do not need to sink under the weight of social pressures nor commit ourselves to a less authentic version of ourselves. No, we must simply be patient, live softly and deeply, crafting a new world through our intimate bonds. We do not need to dwell on the darkness in order to see the light. She pushes these matters off stage; they serve only as the background to the immediate story of home and intimacy and the happiness built on the day in, day out.
I consider these two women as I sit at their table (or perhaps they sit at mine, as it was my mother's mica teapot we poured from, as I now recall, and my own table spread with a fresh cloth and my own adobe home). At one point, I can't help noticing how dark my hands are compared to theirs. Strange, since we are all made up of the stories, the hopes, the fears of women readers who want at once to live in this world and create our own, to feel passionately but sensibly, to find our truth and live it out with unabashed pleasure.
What would I tell them, I wonder? What did I tell them? That is for another dream, another story.
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