All posts by Alice

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Books That Have Taught Me About Self-Respect

When I discuss reading with my family we go down two very different paths. My parents and sister read to escape, they like fantasies and stories that take them out of their world. Whereas I read to understand my world, I enjoy realism and essays. I find nothing to dislike in their escapism, and while our roads diverge they cross over at points as well.

Our most recent discussion occurred as I was reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and it lead me to wonder what exactly I learn from what I read. What I understand about my world. I noted many things, but for this post I shall focus on self-respect.

Books that have taught me about self-respect:

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

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“To live without self-respect is to lie awake some night, beyond the reach of warm milk, phenobarbital, and the sleeping hand on the coverlet, counting up the sins of commission and omission, the trusts betrayed, the promises subtly broken, the gifts irrevocably wasted through sloth or cowardice or carelessness. However long we postpone it, we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously uncomfortable bed, the one we make ourselves. Whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether or not we respect ourselves.” Slouching Towards Bethlehem, P.144

Didion has quickly become my favourite writer, her writing is always on point and stunning. My favourite essay in this collection is, unsurprisingly, titled ‘On Respect’. Anyone who gets as anxious as I do will find direction in these seven pages.

“It is the phenomenon sometimes called ‘alienation from self.’ In it’s advance stages, we no longer answer the telephone, because someone might want something; that we could say no without drowning in self-reproach is an idea alien to this game. [...] To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back ourselves – there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect.” Slouching Towards Bethlehem, P.148

Joan told me to stop worrying, stop being anxious, that I’m letting myself down. It didn’t come with a ‘calm down’ or a ‘chill out’, she didn’t make me feel stupid, she highlighted where I was going wrong and how I could fix it. I couldn’t respect her more.

The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery

Valancy Stirling taught me that breaking away from societal constraints brings happiness. She accepted who she was and was happier for it. She went her own way, sure she thought she was dying, but she hadn’t realised what happiness was till she took the leap.

“Fear is the original sin. Almost all of the evil in the world has its origin in the fact that someone is afraid of something.It is a cold slimy serpent coiling about you. It is horrible to live with fear; and it is of all things degrading.” The Blue Castle

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

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I have waxed lyrical about my admiration for Fanny Price. Of all Austen’s characters, she certainly has the most self-respect. She never allows anyone to compromise how she understands the world or how she acts in it – no matter how different or puritan it may seem.

“Selfishness must always be forgiven you know, because there is no hope of a cure.” Mansfield Park

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

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I’ve already spoken on my difficult connecting to the protagonists of Anne’s novel. However, on the matter of self-respect Wildfell Hall speaks volumes. Helen Graham’s stand against her husband’s actions – considering the time in which the novel was set – were heroic. She stands by her principles, her self-belief, and faces scandal to protect her son.

Easter Parade by Richard Yates

“For a year she found an exquisite pain – almost pleasure – in facing the world as if she didn’t care. Look at me, she would say to herself in the middle of a trying day. Look at me: I’m surviving; I’m coping; I’m in control of all this.” Easter Parade

The book that broke my heart. Easter Parade is a typical Yates novel, people trying and failing to understand what it means to live a successful life. It’s the above statement that teaches self-respect. There is a pain to not caring what the world thinks of you, to not conforming. It’s not easy, but it’s healthy.

How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

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I couldn’t write this list without an ode to Caitlin Moran. Without Moran I would know nothing of self-respect. I wouldn’t have read this book, realised what I was blinding myself to and change my view of my place in the world.

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Coming back to edit this post I’ve noticed these are all books I have read in the last few months or years. There must be more than these that have taught me about self-respect, but for the life of me I can’t think of them now.

What Books have taught you about self-respect?

Poetry: This Be The Verse by Philip Larkin

I’m feeling maudlin today, so apologies for this in advance.

This Be The Verse
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

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Review: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

I’m not coping with October’s mild weather. I need an autumnal breeze, bare branches, shades of orange under my feet. If I wanted warmth October, I would have asked for it.

I picked up The Tenant of Wildfell Hall hoping I could channel the wintry Brontë atmosphere I have come to know and love, and relied on Anne to take me from this endless summer.

‘Gilbert Markham is deeply intrigued by Helen Graham, a beautiful and secretive young widow who has moved into nearby Wildfell Hall with her young son. He is quick to offer Helen his friendship, but when her reclusive behavior becomes the subject of local gossip and speculation, Gilbert begins to wonder whether his trust in her has been misplaced. It is only when she allows Gilbert to read her diary that the truth is revealed and the shocking details of her past.’ GoodReads.

It took me a chapter or two to adjust to a male protagonist. I was pushed off balance by Gilbert, I expected another Cathrine, another Jane. We read Helen’s narrative through diary entries and letters, void of the feeling that she is speaking to the reader. Gilbert controls the narrative, and what the reader knows. It was different, it was unexpected.

Both Emily and Charlotte’s novels envelope the supernatural, when reading both Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre I focused on the characters over anything outside of their isolated existence. Anne puts the reader within a community, she addresses social issues and highlights the plight of married women and the dangers of drink.

Helen is adamant she will not marry for love alone, but overlooks Arthur’s faults regardless. Arthur has affairs, abandons her for seasons and flaunts a wicked existence in her presence. At her lowest she is removed from her son, whom Arthur is set to corrupt. Her flight to Wildfell Hall is scandalous, though her motives pure.

“You need not fear me, for I not only should think it wrong to marry a man that was deficient in sense or in principle, but I should never be tempted to do it; for I could not like him, if he were ever so handsome, and ever so charming, in other respects; I should hate him—despise him—pity him—anything but love him. My affections not only ought to be founded on approbation, but they will and must be so: for, without approving, I cannot love. It is needless to say, I ought to be able to respect and honour the man I marry, as well as love him, for I cannot love him without.” – Helen.

Anne nursed her alcoholic brother Branwell, as well as being witness to his affair with a married woman. In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne tells a very personal story about the dangers of alcoholism and presents her plight of a woman in marriage in the guise of Mrs Graham. Where Charlotte and Emily write about love, Anne writes about cultural issues.

Reading Wildfell Hall was not the illuminating experience Wuthering Heights was, nor did it equal the struggle of the latter half of Jane Eyre. I found it difficult to sympathise with the forceful and emotive Gilbert or the pious Helen, but I appreciated the cultural criticism Anne gave me.

Of all the Brontë novels I have read, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has been the most important.