You know me, Al… a letter to Alfred, Lord Tennyson

My dearest Alfred,

You know me, Al, I’m always missing you. Right now, I’m missing you very much. In fact, I think about you a lot. I care very much for you and especially your older brother, Fred. (I miss him greatly–I long to read his words again. It’s been too long, but I’ve been so very busy since I last had a chance to read his poems and letters, since 2009. It’s not the way I wanted it to be, but sometimes life has a way of changing our perfect plans.) I know part of the reason I miss you so (and Fred) is that I ran off with a few other British writers last spring and fall, and they were not as cool as you, but I didn’t ignore you entirely–I still read a great deal of your poetry over the academic year and had many good conversations about you with students and friends.

Still, I wish you were here to talk with; I’m dying to discuss love with you. In the last few months, I’ve talked to many of my women friends over port (your favorite) about love in the 21st century. I find that it troubles me when I read of your men and women who had so much drama–so many unsaid words–so much pain over lost chances–so much disturbance over love. You lived through particularly poignant loss, postponed love, endured financial difficulty as well as emotional and intellectual doubt. (Fred, too, suffered. It breaks my heart to think his dreams may have been crushed by your cousin–I wish I knew the details. Still I offer Fred my empathy. Julia, perhaps, felt the twist and pinch of family and social pressures which controlled her world and moved her to the action she felt she had to take. So it goes.) I’m keenly aware of how hard it is to be a Victorian man (or woman), and oddly enough, it often feels as if nothing has really changed since that time, at least not for me and some of my dear women friends. Having your perspective would be lovely–so don’t hold back, I want to hear exactly what you think–then and now.

Victorian manhood conferred great pressure; it was immense responsibility; the ball was mostly in your court when it came to courting. (Unless a woman had family to intervene on her behalf with your family to keep your acceptance or rejection secondhand, it was all about you you you.) The risk of declaring interest or intention was mainly yours. And so you had to put your whole being on the line for a woman you desiree, experiencing elation should she answer in the affirmative or spend years crying in your sherry should she reject your advances. Being a Victorian woman, though, was also extraordinarily difficult: how did a lady let a gentleman know of her interest? She could not do anything much beyond glances and subtle words spoken, usually, in the company of others… Letters could be exchanged, but the text must needs be circumspect. Unless a man was especially Holmesian about uncovering a woman’s clues, laid about regarding her interest in him, he might easily have missed the signals she offered.

In the 21st century, times have changed somewhat. Many men and women may not regularly deal with the older methods of relationship conduct (or just a few still do). You can see the break from tradition in the tweeting, Facebooking, or texting of the intimate details of one’s physical desires or photos of a personal nature. Or sexting. (The Victorians were grand porn producers–but that isn’t something I will talk about in this letter–though I’ll say this: they’d be all over Facebook and the texting thing. Over a glass of port and a smoke some time, we’ll talk, eh?)

No matter what we call this interaction between men and women in the information age–good or bad–social media and technology have changed the world of communication between the sexes. Girls call boys on their cell phones. Women ask out men for drinks and dinner. Everyone texts everyone. But not everyone, perhaps, adheres to all these ways of interacting, nor perhaps does everyone really appreciate an elimination of some kinds of gender roles. What is it to be a man now? What does it mean to be a woman today? I can hardly say most of the time. We may have more confusing love times than you did, Alfred.

Are there still men and women operating in the 21st century with something like a modern ideal of equality but a more traditional ideal regarding relationships of care? Oh yes. Indeed. Perhaps this is a remix of the Victorian and the now. Not such a bad thing perhaps–remixing is hip.

Alfred, you might learn a lot from this weird mash up of old and new that I’m writing about–perhaps if you are reincarnated and hanging out among us now, and confused about women, I can be of help to you as you try to write about love: a new Maud, a new Princess, a new Arthur, a new soldier (tell Fred, too–feel free to share parts of this letter with him)–what might men and women “look” like if you were writing today (I’d love to find out!). Or if this is a letter that can travel back through time to you (a Victorian spiritualist internet sort of thing), then you could consider this letter in your own context. Regardless of the time you read this, you’ll see how hard it is to reconcile the feminist “now” with the patriarchal “past,” but is not the meshing of philosophies for an individual, part of the rights we have worked so hard to ensure ever since women could first vote and attend universities? (By the way, a whole lot has happened in the 30+ years after you died. You might have enjoyed seeing what went on in the early 20th century, especially between men and women–not the Great War, of course, that was awful–but social change and economic development was remarkable. The whole science and religion conflict gets so much more interesting–I think you’d love Albert Einstein and know you’d love Stephen Hawking. You might even dig Hemingway–I’ll tell you more about him in another letter.)

Was the old always bad? Is the new always good? Could be that absolutes are always absolutely impossible. You sort of got that, didn’t you? (I haven’t forgotten your martial poems; you really got down from the fence on those puppies and caused all kinds of uproar–good on you, baby, good on you. Never let the reader know you entirely–keep ’em on their toes, hit it where they ain’t, hit and run, damn the torpedoes.)

Upcoming: some general thoughts for you to ponder that might help you understand how a modern woman could signal to you that she is into you. (Well, not you because of Emily, but you know that in your position as sage, you could do a lot of good for the modern woman, if you’d plant some poetic seeds). If, of course, a woman cannot possibly say what she is thinking out loud–some clues could be most important. And there are still lots of women I know personally who are ladies, not just females, and will not spill the emotional beans. (The below are not my thoughts alone, so it’s not just my voice here, though I am the writer–sort of like how you came to represent this or that in your time. It happens to writers a lot, and it’s a huge pain, but when we commit words to a page, we commit to allowing readers to read as they will. Part of the risk and the thrill of writing is not knowing how writing will be understood or used.)

These thoughts are not an attempt to reconcile the feminist ideal with the Victorian ideal of womanhood, which I think can’t be done, but rather it’s a conversation that more of us need to take part in, chat between centuries about what women want, need, are confused about, and wish we understood (and by the way, may Disney characterizations of women burn in hell–what Disney did with the fairy tale and womanhood is not just sad, it’s criminalesque). (Still can’t deny that Disneyland is the happiest place on Earth–I love it there. Hate the sin, love the park.) What’s up with men and women is a 200-year old conversation we can’t totally finish (actually, it’s a 2,000-year old+ conversation, but my letter to you must be a letter not a 14-volume tome).

Alfred, as you read, if you find all this confusing, believe me, women in the 21st century do, too. (And poor men, bless their hearts. To the 21st century man, women must seem like aliens really, in so many ways, especially all-the-way-grown-up women who are perched on some strange fence between these eras and notions of modern womanhood vs. ladylike behavior.) Who are we anyway? Are we Victorians still mired in fairly strict gender roles or 21st century modern humans who should have moved beyond the harmful dichotomies of polarized gender roles? Or is real partnership and equality never going to be possible? Or is that really what we want or need? It seems that a good partnership is a give and take deal that morphs over time as needed: sometimes 50/50, sometimes 60/40, sometimes 90/10 and even sometimes 100/0, but the ratio works out to around 50/50 over time. That’s all fine and good for the time when men and women are in the midst of a relationship. But I think the bigger concern here and now, for many women, is really about the beginning of a relationship. Isn’t that the tricky part, Alfred? I mean, you know me, Al; you know I think that’s the hard part, the great part, but the most difficult–so true for those of us who are a mashed up ball of the now and the Victorian period. What are modern folks supposed to be doing these days about embarking on the path to holding hands?

Again, let me just emphasize that this letter reflects thoughts by more than one woman with whom I have chatted recently–by no means, though, does this writing account for how ALL modern or Victorian women feel. Some women, like Marianne Dashwood (though fictional), are blessed/cursed with entirely open hearts and work with few restrictions emotionally (well, that was until Willoughby turned out to be a money-grubbing jackass). Mainly, we modern women want to state some things to you, raise some questions for us to wonder about, and create a conversation about how men and women deal with each other as it doesn’t seem as if the difficulties in the past that hobbled engaging in productive, satisfying relationships have been removed by the freedoms of the present. And you really get the men and women thing. Much better than Robert Browning, though I really like him–and adore his wife–I know you and she didn’t always see eye to eye politically, but I think you both got love the same. Robert wrote some really creepy men/women work.

Here are some things women want–hoping this will help if you need it:

  • We want and deserve the same pay for the same job.
  • We want you to open the door for us (and we’ll sometimes get the door for you).
  • We want you to put your hand on the small of our backs as you guide us lovingly to our seats, through a door, up stairs, around a corner, into a car.
  • We want you to stand up and offer the best chair to us.
  • We want you to stand ready to assist us as required.
  • We want you do things we don’t ask you to do but that need doing–and we want you to do those things in a proficient manner with manly grace.
  • We want to be nurtured and cared for as we desire to nurture and care for you.
  • We want to adore you and be adored by you.

Here are some things women don’t want:

  • We don’t want to chase after you.
  • We don’t want to call you (not every time).
  • We don’t want to ask you out on a date.
  • We don’t want to plan everything we do together.
  • We don’t want to be unkind to you ever–we want to be kind always.
  • We don’t want to assume any one thing is your job or our job (except, we love it when you woo us).

Little Victorianish? Yep. ‘Tis. Since we know such ideas place a great deal of the initial relationship building burden on men, we offer the following clues so that you, Alfred, and other men (like Fred) might know how we feel. (Or is it always going to be hopeless between men and women who do not possess emotional brazenism? Onward. We’ll give it a shot below.)

In the hope that men and women, Victorians and otherwise, can actually find a tolerable partner (without eHarmony and without the interference of overbearing mothers who believe every single man with a fortune must be in search of a wife), we offer the following that these clues might help men know if women are into them (some true in the 19th century, some only applicable now):

  • We make sustained eye contact; occasionally our eyes widen just slightly to let you know we want to take in more of you, or that we are open to your attention.
  • We ask pertinent and/or intelligent questions related to what you care about.
  • We consistently smile at you–the sort of smile that includes the eyes and the heart (pay attention–not everyone gets this kind of smile).
  • We frequently initiate communication opportunities (tweets, texts, FB, email, a nod of the head from our carriage as we ride through the park and run into you, and we allow our eyes to linger on your brougham after you have passed).
  • We regularly seek out physical proximity–we like being next to you. When playing Whist, we always seek the chair closest to you, and lacking that, we will take a seat near you to ensure you can hear our conversation, which will be witty.
  • Our body language mirrors your body language–we lean back when you lean back, we lean forward when you lean forward, we cross our legs when you cross your legs. We don’t do this on purpose or even consciously, but we notice when this natural reaction occurs and recognize it as a sign of our affinity for you.
  • We offer empathy, not sympathy. We feel what you feel because we are into you; we don’t feel sorry for you. We ache with your pain; we don’t feel bad because you are in pain.
  • When we temporarily part from you, we hug you, full on, with an additional moment of holding at the end (not so much in the 19th century).
  • Once in a great while we kiss your cheek, slowly swooping in to make contact; it’s a short, gentle, sweet, delicate kiss high on the cheek. The our lips linger just after contact–tantalizingly close to the cheek. Then we pull away–your lips could have been on our lips right then. Think about that. (For Victorian women, this may happen after a relationship has officially begun.)
  • We laugh at your jokes, and we mean it. We are delighted by you.
  • We watch you leave the room, and we wish you weren’t leaving the room.
  • We watch you enter a room, and we hope you are heading toward us, but wherever you go in the room, we watch you go there.
  • We look at you sometimes when you’re across the room; you catch us, we smile, we don’t look away. You do the same.
  • We choose to perform and be present for people everywhere who need that from us, but that doesn’t mean you are not special to us–you are. We perform and are present for you–if you pay attention, you can see how we give special attention to you (read this list a few times if needed).
  • We are easily silent in your presence–that also marks our esteem for you.
  • We respect and admire you beyond how we might feel about how cute you are. How can you tell? How can’t you tell?
  • We place a hand on your arm when we are talking and look directly into your eyes. This is very bold indeed, but sometimes we go to the bold place.

Caution must be taken with such information. One of these signs does not necessarily mean a woman is into a man, but over time, and with all of these signs in regular rotation, you may safely assume that there is a caring relationship brewing or the desire for one. Take notes, Al, and pass this on if you think this might help (be sure to tell Dickens about all this before he meets Maria Beadnell, if you can remember).

Alfred, please read this letter to Fred, just some excerpts. I do adore him and wish he would get a grip. (If I could travel through time to 1837 Italy to be sure he meets me before he meets his lovely wife, do you think he would adore me? Well? Obviously, don’t read this last part to him. I think he would adore me. I love cricket and Mozart and Italy. He would totally fall for me, right? I could overlook the whole spiritualist thing. Or I’d try.) Write soon and tell me what you think. I await your reply like a Victorian, stoic in some ways, resigned in some ways to Fate, but with all the impatience of a 21st century woman. Oh, just forget the penny post, text me. I want to know what you think right now.

Ever yours with respect and admiration–give my love to Emily–always your 21st century friend, E.D.

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