“… I saw that there’s a better way to value people. Not as fun or not fun, or stylish or not stylish, but as warm or cold, generous or selfish. People who think about others and people who don’t. People who know how to listen, and people who only know how to talk.”
Recently I tallied up how I spend my time on average. As it turns out, I spend a lot of time with dead people.
Not even the recent dead. The very, very long dead.
The longer the better, in fact.
The scariest part is, the older I get, the more I cherish the time I spend with those who have long since passed on. Or more properly, with the words they left behind.
Lately I’ve been most attracted to those scribal ancestors who also happen to be women. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I can have those words with me often. Whenever I like, in fact.
For me this is usually when I’m drawing.
Six months ago, I started drawing my page-a-week graphic novel, The (Re)Invention of Alethia Grey. It takes about 10 hours each week for me to do one full 11×17 page by hand, get it scanned, designed and written in Photoshop, post and promote it. Most of that time is dead “ear space” where my hands are busy but my mind, not so much.
Somewhere at the beginning of the project, I decided to start listening to 19th-century novels by women writers. This was partly due to my own need for diversion, and partly due to the beautiful book A Jane Austen Education, ironically written by a man and a scholar, that unfolds the true worth of that lady’s words and wisdom more powerfully than any other single commentator I have ever read.
I devoured these books as a teenager, living as I did in an almost-Victorian existence in a conservative subculture where courtship, modesty, and other Victorian virtues were both prized and lived by. (My first reading material was a 1769 King James Bible; it wasn’t very far from there to the English of Jane Austen’s day!)
But A Jane Austen Education did something different for me. It helped me understand why these women and their words still have something to say not just to Neo-Victorians of my former community but to all of modern life. It made me hungry again to go back and commune with voices I’d long forgotten.
And thanks to Alethia Grey, I suddenly had the time.
So far this year I’ve (re-)listened to all three of the Bronte sisters’ (Charlotte’s, Anne’s and Emily’s) novels, all of Jane Austen’s novels, and a smattering of Charles Dickens (we’ll forgive him for being male and for dying before Edwin Drood was finished), Now I am making my way through the masterworks of Elizabeth Gaskell. Wives and Daughters and Cranford were my last ports of call. Now it’s on to North and South and Mary Barton.
Perhaps I undertook this project because I wanted the making of my graphic novel—about a genteel 19th century woman suspected of murdering three wealthy suitors—to be surrounded and infused with the sentiments of real 19th century women. Most of whom were not suspected of murder, of course, but found occasion to perpetrate it in fiction, when the mood struck.
If truth be told, I’ve benefited far more from these partnerships than Alethia ever will.
Initially I listened to these books in order to pass the significant portion of my week now devoted to drawing. But at some point on the journey, I began to approach them not merely as diversion, but as a kind comfort. Not just as enjoyment, but as connection.
I felt (and feel) as if I gained more than narrators. Somehow, I’ve gained sisters.
I no longer feel quite so alone.
At this point, I could move on to list out for you all the tricks of storytelling I’ve picked up from my elder stateswomen in literature, or wax eloquent about their use of language, or how they amaze me by standing up with modest and quiet courage to the social issues of their day (and ours), wielding their pens as deftly as knights their longswords.
Instead I invite you to ponder my last words with me: “I no longer feel quite so alone.”
This, to my way of thinking, is the essence of what it means to write.
Isolation, I would venture, is one of the great curses of our age. This may sound counterintuitive coming from an introvert and a high-functioning aspie, but as Susan Cain has pointed out in Quiet, needing a lot of solitude (as I do) doesn’t necessarily mean wanting to be isolated.
We live next door to people we hardly even know. Most of our friends are on social media. We text our family more than we call or visit them.
If you’re like me, most days of your week you know exactly who is going to be in your house. The list doesn’t include drop-in callers, friends from out of town or neighborly gossips of any kind. More likely it will just be you: eating and sleeping and rushing out again into the busy world of commerce.
Pardon my boldness if I call this a kind of isolation. And add to it the increasing cultural alienation many of us (me especially) feel as our society rushes toward artificial intelligence and sentient machines, while our own passions for handcrafts, old materials and sturdy “antiques” seem more preposterously outmoded with each passing year.
I do not critique or even grumble about these changes. But very often I feel alone in my yearning for a different time: one as unequal and technologically tempest-tossed as our own, but where I feel I have something I do not in this alien modern world.
Somehow, in the nexus of my digital world and personal handicrafts, I met these brave, bold women. I am awed daily at their clever wits and brilliant psychological insight, not to mention comforted by the discovery that their woes and joys were not so different from mine.
These writers have made me alternately laugh and weep over my pencils—all for the plights of people who are little more than scribbles on paper. But though this power is indeed marvelous, I believe their true strength lies not so much in observation or even entertainment.
It lies in their constant reminder that though much changes, much more never does.
Like older sisters, the great novelists of the Victorian era steal into my third-floor studio and beguile me with stories that sooth my anxieties and dry my tears (or cause new ones). With their words alone, they carry me away to other places and times.
We are together there. Really and truly together, for as long as the story lasts.
And when we are together, I am not alone.
About the art: “Sisterhood Across Centuries” is a ModPodge collage of pages from famous Victorian female novelists’ work, with free-handed cloth silhouettes and India ink stamped lettering.
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(If you enjoyed this post, you may enjoy my other thoughts on
C.S. Lewis, H.P. Lovecraft and Elizabeth Gaskell. And
I’d love to hear from you in the comments: which
19th century writer do you love most?)