I read a book by the name of Shades of Milk and Honey. I am still not quite sure why it was called that. I was given ample warning from everything from the dust jacket to the book reviews that this was to be a very Austen-esque book. (I’ve read a few of Jane Austen’s books, but generally thought she needed a good editor.) Anyhow! I’m getting far afield. The point is, I wanted a relaxing quick read to ease my mind and get my imagination going. I was a bit disappointed, because the book followed the trope so very closely that I began to find the experience boring.
The ironic thing is that there is this scene in the book–it goes like this: the dark, brooding, reclusive hero is busy brusquely telling our Plain Jane Heroine (which almost rhymes) that she does his work a terrible disservice to pay attention to the man behind the curtain; she ought to be entirely transported by the effect, and pay no mind the mechanisms. The irony comes in that–while I disagreed with dark, brooding, reclusive guy, I agreed with him. I like to look for the brush strokes in a painting, and think about the hand that formed them. But on the other hand, the story failed to transport me, and I was left looking at the mechanisms.
The plain, Jane older sister. Her beautiful, somewhat bratty younger sister. The handsome, charming gentleman that isn’t. The younger sister’s love-life falling into disgrace. The dark, brooding, reclusive man who falls passionately, deeply, irrevocably and suddenly in love with the Plain Jane.
Why is this the story? Why does it catch us? Why does it work well enough to be repeated?
Some people say that Good Girls like Bad Boys. Good, dutiful, responsible, polite girls, who are the conscious of their consciousless younger sisters. Girls who always behave, and hide their passions and emotions deep inside, even from themselves, as much as possible.
Maybe. Maybe it is the “opposites attract” idea, the idea that one needs to bring life to the other, and the other to temper the one. Maybe. I don’t really think that’s it, myself.
Maybe it is the other thing I have heard disgustedly said–that women think they can change men. That we think we can turn the dark, brooding recluse into the handsome, charming gentleman. I would argue vigorously against this stance; I don’t think this is what draws us in at all.
Is it all sour grapes? The sister who has all the beauty and winds up with the miserable life, the handsome, charming gentleman that wasn’t? Maybe. Maybe there is a little jealousy; maybe there is a little of finding lacking what we’ve been told or thought we wanted.
But I think this all is just edge of it, just the edge.
When I started working, I would find myself bracing myself when I walked into the waiting room and discovered there waiting for me a grouchy, reclusive, brooding man. Or woman. Either or, but I think more were men. And I would tell myself, “These men are your father.” My father, who is chronically in pain. My father, who is desperately shy. My father who loathes small talk, and feels terribly incompetent to perform it in anyway. My father, who is slow to trust, and assumes that everyone is putting him on, telling him what they think he wants to hear.
The Man in the Waiting Room was scary, but you don’t show fear in front of scary things. I would bring them back and very patiently, very determinedly, kill them with kindness. I smiled, I explained in depth, I avoided asking any questions that weren’t necessary, I made extremely good guesses at topics of conversation that would connect with them. I taught them to trust me enough that they would tell me things. I made them smile. I even made them laugh.
They would leave, and I would heave a small sigh of relief. I won. Almost no one–I do not believe a single cantankerous one of them–held up against my assault. People who scowled at the secretary, people who looked like they were sucking on lemons, people who pretended to fall asleep in the waiting room so they wouldn’t have to admit there were other people there. Sometimes I could turn them around in a day. Sometimes it took weeks. But I made them all smile, and every one of them was a victory.
I think when men write about these things, it goes like this. There was this monster. And I killed it. And it isn’t scary anymore. Aren’t I great? And I think women write the same story, differently. There was this monster. And I made it smile. And it isn’t scary anymore. Aren’t I great?
Because really? Really, Mr. Rochester was a jerk. But he was wild, and he was scary. But in the end, he wasn’t–because of Jane. We all like to think that it doesn’t matter who we were born as, doesn’t matter the shape of our bodies, or the shape of our noses–we can still conquer the terrifying things. The Men Who Don’t Smile. The People Who Don’t Like Us. Those Who Are Critical of Everything. The Ones Who Have Forgotten How to Smile.
It wasn’t changing of the scary person, as much as it was just breaking open the shell. The same person, but no longer holds the power of fear over you. It’s a different kind of victory than slaying dragons, but it’s a very real victory anyway.