Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘letters’

01 MAY, 2014

How to Turn Down a Marriage Proposal Like Charlotte Brontë

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A bold defiance of oppressive gender ideals, packaged as the ultimate it’s-not-you-it’s-me gentle letdown.

“There is no subject on which more dangerous nonsense is talked and thought than marriage,” George Bernard Shaw asserted in his 1908 meditation on the subject. “We look for communion, and are turned away,” Denise Levertov wrote in her poem “The Ache of Marriage.” Bridging the thinking of dangerous nonsense and the turning away is the marriage proposal — and its considered refusal.

From Hell Hath No Fury: Women’s Letters from the End of the Affair (public library) — Anna Holmes’s magnificent collection spanning centuries of missives, which also gave us Simone de Beauvoir’s exquisite breakup letter and this moving breakup moment from the Vietnam War — comes an outstanding contribution to the genre from none other than Charlotte Brontë.

On the last day of February in 1839, eight years before Jane Eyre was published, Brontë received a letter of marriage proposal from Henry Nussey, a Sussex curate whose sister Ellen was one of her close friends. Brontë’s reply, written on March 5, 1839, is nothing short of brilliant — assertive yet generous, unambiguous yet kind, and a masterwork of the it’s-not-you-it’s-me model. She essentially spells out why she would make a terrible mate by the era’s standards for what a good wife means — “her character should not be too marked, ardent and original” — channeling with equal parts humility and dignity her quiet confidence in being the antithesis of these qualities.

My dear Sir

Before answering your letter, I might have spent a long time in consideration of its subject; but as from the first moment of its reception and perusal I determined on which course to pursue, it seemed to me that delay was wholly unnecessary.

You are aware that I have many reasons to feel gratified to your family, that I have peculiar reasons for affection towards one at least of your sisters, and also that I highly esteem yourself. Do not therefore accuse me of wrong motives when I say that my answer to your proposal must be a decided negative. In forming this decision — I trust I have listened to the dictates of conscience more than to those [of] inclination; I have no personal repugnance to the idea of a union with you — but I feel convinced that mine is not the sort of disposition calculated to form the happiness of a man like you. It has always been my habit to study the character of those amongst whom I chance to be thrown, and I think I know yours and can imagine what description of woman would suit you for a wife. Her character should not be too marked, ardent and original — her temper should be mild, her piety undoubted, her spirits even and cheerful, and her “personal attractions” sufficient to please your eye and gratify your just pride. As for me, you do not know me, I am not this serious, grave, cool-headed individual you suppose — you would think me romantic and [eccentric — you would] say I was satirical and [severe]. [However, I scorn] deceit and I will never for the sake of attaining the distinction of matrimony and escaping the stigma of an old maid take a worthy man whom I am conscious I cannot render happy.

[…]

Farewell—! I shall always be glad to hear from you as a friend

Believe me
Yours truly
C Brontë

Brontë remained unwedded until a year before her death, when she married Arthur Bell Nichols, her father’s curate, who had been in love with her for years. (“Currer Bell,” the male pseudonym she had used to secure unbiased consideration of her works with publishers, was based on Nichols’s middle name.) One has to wonder whether Jane Eyre would’ve ever come to life, and gone on to inspire generations, had Brontë succumbed to the era’s oppressive standards of female domesticity.

Hell Hath No Fury is an enchanting read in its totality, featuring letters from both ordinary lovers across the ages and such cultural icons as Sylvia Plath, Edith Wharton, Queen Elizabeth, Zelda Fitzgerald, Anne Boleyn, and Virginia Woolf. Ten years later, Holmes followed it up with the equally, if very differently, delightful The Book of Jezebel: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Lady Things.

For more meditations on marriage, see Charles Darwin’s endearing list of its pros and cons and Susan Sontag’s youthful rant.

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24 APRIL, 2014

Children’s Endearing Letters to Judy Blume About Being Gay and Her Timeless Advice to Parents

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Warm wisdom from the beloved author to console on one of life’s deepest sources of isolation.

“Dear Judy, please send me the facts of life, in numbered order.” So requested 9-year-old Fern in one of the many gems collected in Letters to Judy (public library) — an infinitely endearing compendium of the missives beloved author Judy Blume received from children, whose classic capacity for asking questions at once simple and profound shines here with soul-expanding luminosity.

Because her young-adult novels have tackled such timelessly tricky subjects as teenage sex (Forever…), sibling rivalry (The Pain and the Great One), divorce (It’s Not the End of the World), masturbation (Deenie), menstruation (Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret), and bullying (Blubber), Blume shares a special bond of emotional intimacy with her young readers, generations of whom have seen in her — and continue to see — a private confidante who approaches with nonjudgmental understanding what no one else seems to understand and everyone else seems to judge.

Sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, always earnest, these letters cover everything from the innocent joys of first love to the despairing anguish of loneliness and loss to the general psychoemotional turbulence of puberty. But one of the most moving sections deals with children’s inquiries about same-sex crushes and homosexuality, following which are Blume’s own wise words on the subject — doubly so for writing in 1985, decades before marriage equality reclaimed the dignity of love.

In one such letter, 13-year-old Margo shares her story, post-scripted with the heartbreaking self-doubt and alienation achingly familiar to those of us who have spent our teenage years with a profound sense of being different:

Dear Judy,

I am a girl in seventh grade and I have a funny feeling about one of my teachers. I am afraid I might be in love with her or something. My friend says she feels that way about her cousin. I’ll bet a lot of girls — and boys — feel this way. Could you please write a book about it?

Thank you.

P.S. You don’t have to. Maybe it is only me who feels this way.

In another, 11-year-old Polly writes with endearing earnestness:

Dear Judy,

I like boys but I think I am gay! Please don’t think I am just thinking that. I do believe I am gay.

Often, too, kids don’t even have the proper vocabulary to articulate their sense of difference or are too timid to try, but get their point across obliquely. Longing for an answer to their inner turmoil, they seek the answer in a book — after all, what is a book for if not, to paraphrase Anne Lamott, to decrease our sense of isolation? Here is 14-year-old Ned, writing with palpable and disarming desperation:

Dear Judy,

I am close to my mother but not my father. However, sex is not an open subject with us. Would you do me a favor and consider writing a book about how homosexuality becomes involved in good friends in grades four through eight. It isn’t something that will stick but it does happen. Thanks.

But one of the most stirring letters comes from a once-child, a now-adult named Joanne, who writes:

Dear Judy,

When I was about twelve I noticed that I was feeling toward girls the way most girls begin feeling about boys. I had no label to put on it and certainly no one to talk to about it. It was tormenting, horrible, and I kept trying to cover it up and hoping one day I would miraculously find a boy I could feel the same way about. I was desperate to find The Boy who would change me and save me from this awful thing. Of course, I never did.

Anyway, for the sake of a lot of young kids out there who think they’re the only ones in the whole world, would you consider writing a book about this.

Blume addresses the central concern that unifies these intimate cries for help with her signature warm wisdom:

Like Joanne, other adults have written sharing their experiences and urging me to write a book about a young person who is gay. A man in his thirties wrote that when he was young, he felt “despairingly lonely.” There was no one he could talk to about his feelings. He searched bookstores, hoping to find a book that would let him know he was all right. Another man wrote poignantly about having denied himself the joy of young romance. He still does not know how to tell his family he is gay. He is afraid they will reject him.

Because I tend to write out of my own experience and feelings I don’t know if I will ever write that book. But others have written about being gay and will again. I hope parents will remember that early same-sex crushes, sexual play and experimentation do not necessarily mean that a person is homosexual. What is most important is to prevent young people from feeling judged or condemned for their feelings and to encourage them to feel good about themselves, no matter what their sexual preference.

Letters to Judy is an immeasurably wonderful read in its entirety. Complement it with this compendium of contemporary writers’ answers to kids’ questions about how life works, including one from yours truly, as well as kids’ amusing and poignant responses to gender politics during the second wave of feminism in the 1970s and 1980s, then treat yourself to this lovely musical homage to Judy Blume by Amanda Palmer and see more children’s correspondence with C.S. Lewis and Albert Einstein.

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24 APRIL, 2014

Anthony Trollope’s Witty and Wise Advice on How to Be a Successful Writer

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“My belief of book writing is much the same as my belief as to shoemaking. The man who will work the hardest at it, and will work with the most honest purpose, will work the best.”

“Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time,” I paraphrased Debbie Millman in the last of my seven life-learnings from seven years of Brain Pickings. While the notion of “grit” as the greatest predictor of success may be a product of modern psychology, the ethos behind it is something creative people, and writers in particular, have known for ages. The novelist Isabelle Allende put it best: “Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.” E.B. White, too, admonished that “a writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” Indeed, a look at the daily routines of famous writers makes one meta-point clear: Showing up day in and day out, without fail, is the surest way to achieve lasting success.

But no one captured this grand truth more unequivocally and elegantly than Anthony Trollope (April 24, 1815–December 6, 1882), one of the most prolific and successful Victorian novelists. In April of 1860, 45-year-old Trollope responded to a letter by his neighbor, Catherine Gould, whose husband had decided to try his hand at writing for money and wanted to know the secret of the trade. The letter, found in The Letters of Anthony Trollope (public library), is brilliantly timeless and timely, a much-needed reality check for all aspiring writers as well as entrepreneurs of all stripes in our age of expecting instantaneous success:

My dear Catherine.

I have no more doubt than you have, — and probably in truth much less, that a man like Gould with good education & good intellect may make money by writing. I believe that the profession requires much less of what is extraordinary either in genius or knowledge that most outsiders presume to be necessary. But it requires that which all other professions require, — but which outsiders do not in general presume to be necessary in the profession of literature, — considerable training, and much hard grinding industry.

My belief of book writing is much the same as my belief as to shoemaking. The man who will work the hardest at it, and will work with the most honest purpose, will work the best.

All trades are now uphill work, & require a man to suffer much disappointment, and this trade more almost than any other. I was at it for years & wrote ten volumes before I made a shilling –, I say all this, which is very much in the guise of a sermon, because I must endeavor to make you understand that a man or woman must learn the tricks of his trade before he [or she] can make money by writing.

Trollope’s wisdom joins this growing archive of notable advice on writing. Complement it with more advice to aspiring writers from Ernest Hemingway, H.P. Lovecraft, and Neil Gaiman, then see more thoughts on the question of writing for pay from John Updike and Michael Lewis.

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