Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.
I've been out on the beach and up in the hills of Maui this past week.
Like the surf I watched rise, break and thunder toward the beach, when I left the hurried work world of meetings and memos and never-enough-time it felt for awhile like my days had pooled into one of those sandy indentations that captures water from a receding wave - suddenly stilled.
I have been filling the stillness -- fun with breakfasts and lunches with friends, and leaning into writing my book -- but in Maui the calm became really helpful. (If you read my blogpost from a few weeks ago, then you'll know that I've suspended high-octane writing in favor of making sure I have a stronger story foundation.) So, I've been deep-diving into the possible motives behind protagonist Johanna's actions. Her decision to promote Van Gogh's artwork feels so out-of-sync with the expectations that society would have set for her.
For instance, since my story takes place in the late 19th century, Johanna lives during a time of strict societal rules. Victorians had four rigid social classes: the nobility, middle class, upper working class and lower working class. The nobility was especially obsessed with slotting people into specific, permanent social classes; yet, this also was a time when a rising middle class began to disrupt this social order. Commerce created new ways to get rich, so industrialization drew people away from rural lifestyles.
These societal cracks mostly helped men. Money opened influential doors that had previously been locked. But even as urbanization provided men new freedom, it narrowed women's spheres, until eventually gender roles became more sharply defined than at any other time in history. As the 19th century progressed and men increasingly commuted to work -- whether to a factory, shop or office -- women were left at home to oversee servants carrying out domestic duties. They became moral guardians. At an earlier time it would have been normal for women and men to work side-by-side whether on a farm or in a shop. The Victorian Age's rapid economic growth changed that partnership.
I wondered how these societal influences could have shaped Jo. She was born in Holland, some distance from the intensity of London's rigid social-class atmosphere. It's likely she would have been born with the expectation to be highly educated (she was - in music and languages), to obsessively attend teas and balls; to knit and horseback ride; and to learn to run a household by instructing servants in all aspects, from housekeeping to child-rearing. Lots of detailed etiquette rules had to be learned - such as how to eat a piece of fruit (Cut and slice into small bite-size pieces with a knife and fork. Never, ever hold fruit in one's hand!). Her central goal would have been to marry well.
Let's say her husband Theo van Gogh was a good catch. When he died, Jo would have been able to keep his property but there was a lot she couldn't do -- buy or sell it, for example, without her father's permission. However, Theo wasn't wealthy upon his death. For one thing, he'd been financially supporting his artist brother, Vincent, for years and the strain of supporting both the artist and his own family (Jo and their baby also named Vincent) placed a lot of pressure on Theo.
So, as a young widow, Jo had few choices. The socially acceptable action would have been to move back home with her parents, as they asked her to do. She chose not to despite these liabilities:
- Inability to afford servants: She'd been trained to oversee the running of a household, which included having servants take care of her infant son. By choosing to go her own way, she would have faced the criticism of placing her son at a disadvantage and not being a good mother.
- Inexperience in business: The only acceptable work for women were professions such as nursing, Men and women were expected to occupy separate spheres and business was definitely a man's world, including art dealers.
- Useless knowledge of the classics and language: Jo was smart; she earned the equivalent of a college degree in music and languages; yet, on the surface, it would appear that this education was useless against the practical need to earn a living.
Each of these liabilities can be assets. The fun thing about this research is that I have to try to suspend my 21st-century judgment in order to try and see the world through a 19th-century lens. Jo made decisions that were out-of-step with her time. The question I'm noodling on is why?
Do you have any ideas?
I'll keep you posted as I dig in.
How I'm Writing the Book
Story Genius course: We're into Week 2 of the class. Among the exercises to figuring out the "why" is to dig into what has happened before the novel begins. Johanna has a worldview that's been shaped by her life so far, including what she desires and fears. These are building blocks to who she is and the decisions she will make.
Books I'm reading: Long plane rides make for great reading. I finished Teri Case's Tiger Drive. Long after I finished reading it, the characters have stayed with me. Each of the four -- gritty and distinct on the outisde -- had in common an internal longing and desperate hope for a new start. Next, I switched it up with Nora Ephron's book of essays, I Feel Bad about My Neck. Really funny and New Yorky and moving. She writes with such candor I wondered what she would have said about today's #metoo Hollywood stories. Finally, I'm getting close to finishing The Whispering Season by Ivan Doig - a captivating story about a widower and three boys in 1910 in homesteading Montana whose lives are upended by a sister-brother duo. Wonderful.
On another front of wonderful - Cristina & Jay have moved their wedding from October 2018 to March 2019 and, as a result, found the perfect Kansas City venue. I have a DRESS for Eric & Angie's June wedding (Next up: shoes - must be able to wear for hours, walk on grass and have heels not too-totteringly high. I'm on it!)
Let me end this blog with another note from Nora Ephron. The quote comes from a commencement address she gave at Wellesley College in 1996. When I read it, it seemed like the wish I have for Johanna.
Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady.
I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women.