This Valentine’s Day, I thought I would talk about true love for a little while.
I took a course on Jane Austen while I was in college, taught by one of my favorite professors. One day in class, we were talking about a somewhat dramatic episode in Austen’s life. At a house party near Christmas, a comfortably well-off friend of the family around her age, with a good reputation, proposed marriage. She accepted, only to refuse him the next morning. We don’t know what she was thinking. If she ever wrote about it in letters, they have been lost to us. Some of my classmates immediately started to clamor that maybe she was in love with someone else, that she was unwilling to compromise her romantic ideals, that she didn’t love him… And my professor just looked around at all of us with the look on her face, familiar to us by now, of a woman who was tired of hearing the words “love” and “Jane Austen” in close proximity.
“She knew she couldn’t get married and continue to write.”
“She could have…”
“She absolutely could not have,” my professor said. She reminded us of all the reading we’d done about life in the early 19th century. The endless chores, how long everything took, how even if you had servants you needed to be constantly checking up on them, how once you had children they had to be taken care of. There would be parties and balls to go to and to throw, and all of that would now be her duty, not a diverting pleasure. Sensing that we were still resistant to the idea, she lowered her copy of the biography we were reading.
“You cannot be a woman with a family and an artist at the same time. You must choose between being the best mother you can be and your creative life. It is possible to do both, but not both equally well. You have to understand,” she said, looking around at each of us, mostly girls, hardly worthy of being called women yet, “that you must choose.”
Here was a brilliant, successful scholar, respected in her field. We knew from other conversations in class that she had a child, now grown. She knew whereof she spoke, and she was telling us that if we thought we could do it all, we were going to break our own hearts in the process. I will never forget the impatient gentleness in her voice. It should have been obvious to us. It clearly was not.
Perhaps it became obvious to Austen as she lay awake that night, over two hundred years ago. Perhaps in the rush of the moment, she couldn’t have done anything but say yes. But then she must have realized. And so she chose.
It’s an easy choice for me to make right now. I don’t have children who need me as much as my writing does. My relationship isn’t suffering. It doesn’t seem to hurt my friendships much that I say, “I can’t come out this Friday – I’m writing.” I know they would all love it if I actually produced some work I let anyone read, but I’m going to just gloss over this. (Manuscript, I’m still mostly ignoring you…)
The Princess Bride, an anthem of our time if ever there was one, has a lot to say about true love. True love is magic, true love is the worthiest cause of all. In the movie, it’s two people in love with one another. But one’s true love does not have to be another person.
My true love is a cause no less worthy for being between me and myself. My true love is writing. Creating. Taking the things I have in my brain and transmitting them to words on a page. I’ve always done it. I used to scribble in notebooks before I could make words. Sometimes I wish I could go back to that, it was much easier then.
There are other people I love. I’m in a solid, wonderful relationship with someone who likes the craziness and waking up in the night finding that I’m hunched over my computer, and the occasional wails of, “I don’t know what goes in the middle of a book any more!” I’m lucky. I’m grateful. But it feels like a betrayal to be so clear that there’s this overwhelming need in my life that has nothing to do with another person. Even though everyone has things they love so much.
I’m not going to feel guilty about it. My family, friends and boyfriend all love me, and writing is such an intrinsic part of me that if they love me, they love the fact that I write, too.