Recently, I've been reading North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell, on Holly's suggestion and watching the BBC series adaptation. It is a tale worthy of Austen, if not quite written with her flair and humor. It borrows heavily on the themes in most great love stories written in an age when society still believed in honor and God and character and men behaving as gentleman and women being ladylike. It's hero, Mr. Thornton, could stand proudly beside Mr. Darcy, Captain Wentworth, and Fairfax Rochester (Of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte) as his equals - tall, proud, passionate heroes skilled in making female readers admire them for their violent declarations of love to indifferent, strong-willed, highly-principled women.
And so I thought, Well, I have a romantic hero in my life, and, crying out loud, no one's more fit to be a spirited, opinionated, principled heroine than I am. How is our great love affair like an Austen/Bronte/Gaskell romance? Let me count the ways:
We met when he came to the country, I went to the city, and I became a governess to his ward (aka illegitimate child)Actually....well, uh, no. My sister met him a few thousand miles away, and he thought she was quite pretty (the handsomest woman in the room, as Mr. Darcy would say), and she, married and blond, asked if he liked brunettes.
"Umm....why?" he wanted to know.
"I have a little sister," she told him. "She's a brunette."
And he thought, If the sister looks like this one, I'm in luck.
I was Proud and Prejudiced.My sister Annie gave my number to a strange Texan so he could call me long distance? Boy, was I mad. My dad and I railed for half an hour about how "these things" never work out, while my mom stood to the side and said wisely, "You never know. Give it a chance. Let him call."
He did call, the bold guy, and I learned he was newly baptized Catholic, and I freaked out like any self-respecting Protestant would do for no good reason, wailing to my dad, "He's Catholic! A Catholic! Catholic!"
I was not handsome enough to tempt himOnce I got over my paranoia, for weeks we talked regularly, agreeing not to send each other our photographs. We planned to meet blindly for the first time in person at San Antonio. But I couldn't stand it, and I found the most unflattering picture of myself and sent it by the next post. It was a photo of me and my cousin, both with red eyes and disarrayed hair, and I was holding my pet bunny squashed against my face. The rabbit looked tame enough. I looked feral.
I thought the photo was an authentic representation and was utterly humiliated when Matthew told me in a subsequent phone conversation that he would now have to "wait and see" how I looked in person, whether I at least sometimes had decently coiffed hair, etc., and that he felt certain I had sent a bad picture on purpose.
I vowed, with my wounded pride, never to dance with him at a ball - even if he did ask me - while Dad, eager to marry off his youngest daughter so he would never again have to hear about her weird dreams, claimed I tried to sabotage the relationship before it could begin.
We first saw each other at a country ball, and there was an interfering middle-aged ladyActually, it was a Mexican food restaurant, and - phew! - there was no chance of dancing, so my vow was safe. Matthew's friend had already informed him that I looked much better in person than I did in that atrocious picture. I could tell that Matthew thought so, too, as I walked by the pastry counter for our first romantic encounter.
We were with a large group of people, and one of them, a stout, well-meaning saleslady, told me over aperitifs - right in front of my hero - that if our date didn't work out, she had a young relative to whom she would gladly introduce me.
I tried to be as changeable as possibleOne day I flirted and was sweet and encouraged him, the next I acted as if friendship and respect were all he could gain if he worked hard. That's a woman's job; we do it well.
I wore a fancy gown, and he was speechlessWe had a lunch date, and as soon as the door opened, I knew my power, one might say. He just stared. I was surprised by his reaction, because I had in no way engineered it. It was a simple cotton turquoise dress - no low bodice, satin or lace - that my sister had given me, a hand-me-down. I don't even think he knew why he liked it so much on me; it was just one of those magic moments.
There was a Wickham/Willoughby character
His name was Winters, a highly appropriate name, and he sold private planes for a living. He was dark, suave and debonair, had a fancy estate and an SUV with seat warmers that made me extremely nervous and fidgety on the drive home after our only date. Later, he told me that though he appreciated our stimulating, intelligent conversations, a man and woman should make "apple pie" together. He also asked if I shopped at Victoria's Secret and told me that Matthew had once robbed him of a valuable family living.
We were not suited.
Right before Matthew was to come visit at Christmas, I saw this man trying to ensnare another young lady at the mall and was reminded of how he had charmed me once. After climbing the escalator and calling mournfully, "Winters! Oh, Winters!" under the rain-spattered skylight, I got a sharp reproach from Dad for my silliness. So I murmured with a dignified air, "Go, go. I would not wish you back again." Or something like that.
Dad and daughter were closeMy dad and I were buddies. We shared a love of writing, books, chocolate and nature and a passion for talking about God. Still, he did not say bitter-sweetly, "I could not have parted with you to anyone less worthy, Hillary, my dear." No, during Matthew's Christmas visit he suddenly announced, holding a wine glass aloft as if to celebrate, "Watch - these two will be married before the year is out."
I think he was ready to let go.
I had no family connections or fortuneI didn't even own a vehicle or know how to drive...mainly, because I had no money and failed my eye exam.
Though I didn't go sightseeing at his New Mexico family home with my kindly aunt and uncle after rejecting his hand, I did call his Acura "my car" on our second date touring his alma mater. I still don't know how that came about, but I was more embarrassed than Elizabeth on the beautiful grounds at Pemberley, I can assure you, and he teased me mercilessly.
There was a woman with a beautiful voice ready to take my placeAn old girlfriend, she didn't call until a week after our wedding (oops - gave away the ending). A close escape, because I didn't want to resort to sticking my hat pin in her bum or pushing her into the nearest koi pond. Stooping to such unladylike tactics would surely have hurt my dignity. Any how, she had a beautiful genteel voice as she asked to speak to my husband, and he got on the phone and said as abruptly and bluntly as Darcy would have done, "I see you just met my wife."
I didn't refuse him but I tried to run awayHe did not declare his love for me under a huge old tree or find me alone in the drawing room, because we didn't know where a drawing room was in Texas. Knowing my fondness for long country walks and exotic animals, he took me to the zoo. I noticed his heart beating wildly just before he proposed to me in a little sitting area by a large blue parrot. I tried to flee, crying, "No way! No way!" He kept a firm grip on my hand.
On our wedding day as we at last stood before the Catholic priest, his smile was more brilliant than Mr. Darcy's by far. But he always did have more of Bingley's jovial nature than Darcy's sternness.
But unlike the great literary heroes, Matthew never enthralled me with ardent words of undying passion or talk about his suffering. He never stalked the town piercing people with his intense gaze; no, I have to get him really, really mad for that. While dating he did tell me that he compared all women to me and couldn't find anyone like me, but to me that only meant he was still looking - to which I thought, Ha! Good luck, mister. I'm original, alright.
He's a true man, and I know very few who can speak about their feelings as well as women writers have them do in fiction...unless, of course, they're writers themselves. But he did give me his sports watch when I left San Antonio and swear he would give me anything in his possession (even the Acura?!). He also kept a token of me, a cheap little necklace I'd forgotten at his apartment; something I didn't find out until much later.
Once we got married, he found less use for words then before he'd won me. Now he communicates his adoration by smacking my fanny or squeezing my thighs while I'm cooking dinner. The only time he ever says pretty things spontaneously is...cough...never mind.
He has Thornton's business sense, Bingley's steady good nature and Darcy's reserve. He is nothing at all like Rochester...unless...well, there was that time he asked if I was willing to move to another state and be his mistress (I told him an emphatic No), and he did buy me an expensive bauble when we'd barely been together a month. But he's unique. He's my hero - tall, even-tempered (one of us should be), amiable, God-fearing and dark-haired as I knew he would be.
We're made for each other, Mr. Ibarra and I.