With local libraries closed, my reading has branched in two directions. I am re-reading old favorites from our shelves and browsing available library downloads for fresh selections. Among the latter is E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel, A Room with a View. Written just over a hundred years ago, it may not qualify as a new book by most definitions, but I have neither read it nor seen a movie of it, so it is quite new to me.
As I tend to read in bed at night, my mind is far from fresh and I sometimes fall asleep in the middle of even the most interesting book. Nonetheless, I was jolted awake by these words at the beginning of chapter 4:
“Why were most big things unladylike?… It was not that ladies were inferior to men; it was that they were different. Their mission was to inspire others to achievement rather than to achieve themselves.”
These words described what young Lucy, the protagonist of the novel, was taught as a budding English lady in Edwardian England. In my experience, a number of people today who are antagonistic to those who choose to be traditional wives, homemakers and mothers think that these “old-fashioned females” share this 19th-century view of a lady’s ‘mission’.
I found something off-putting about those first and third sentences (I have no problem with men and women being different), but only once I awoke the next morning did I realize what I didn’t like.
I realized that the troublesome word in the first sentence is “big” while the annoying word in the third sentence is “rather.” Not only do they suggest that inspiring others is the only thing women can do, but they also imply that inspiring others is a secondary achievement.
Over the course of many decades, my aunt was a popular science teacher. Incredibly, she continued teaching into her nineties. Accompanying her as she walked the streets of her town was slow going as so many people, young and old, stopped to greet her. Once, while in her eighties and in the hospital for some tests, an orderly settled her in a wheelchair and took her away from the hospital’s main corridors towards a suite of offices. Confused, she was soon joined by a doctor introducing himself as the hospital’s head of cardiology. Bringing her into his office, he pulled out a junior high yearbook, pointed to her picture, and said,
“I am here today because of this science teacher. I wanted to thank you.”
I don’t believe that in all her years of teaching, my aunt saw herself as inspiring others to achieve rather than achieving herself. Her achievement was being an excellent teacher. I see no reason that replacing the word “teacher” with “wife” or “mother” changes the equation any more than replacing it with “doctor” or “executive.” While I wouldn’t say that every woman must make being a wife or mother her priority, I think more women than it is politically correct to believe would find being an excellent wife and mother to be a big achievement in and of itself.
In early 20th century England, it may well have been unladylike (probably impossible or close to it) for a woman to become a barrister or surgeon. That is certainly not so today. However, many women today are not choosing to “achieve big things” through their jobs but are, instead, regretfully working to afford a high cost of living and high rates of taxation.
Some women are working long hours at an office because they and their husbands were indoctrinated to believe that only a Neanderthal man would want to support a family on his own. Along with their wives, these men assumed lifestyles dependent on two careers. Some women graduate college and professional school believing that a career is the best road to satisfaction and achievement only to find themselves unhappily missing other parts of life. They discover that they would love for their “big thing” to be focusing on their husbands, homes and families, yet society’s message taught them that doing so is unimportant and unfulfilling, perhaps even a betrayal of womanhood. The prevailing cultural message of today may not be the one best suited to them just as Lucy’s wasn’t in her time.
For us mere mortals, trade-offs in life are inevitable. Along with that, most of us have moments or days or months where we dream of doing something other than what we are doing. The reality of our dreams is rarely part of a 24/7 actualization of said dream. I haven’t finished A Room with a View and at this point, I don’t even know if I like the book, but from what I have seen of Lucy, I am pretty sure that if she faced the hard work, sacrifice and obstacles of “big things,” she would be no less discontented. I do know that doing whatever we undertake with dedication and commitment is a “big thing.” If it is a worthwhile endeavor, then whether it is in our own homes or outside of them, if we do it well we will have achieved a great deal.