Thoroughly Alive

We must hunger after the beautiful and the good...


Amy Dorrit

I take my respites when I can get them. This Christmas, between crazed bouts of typing and the ever-quickening whirlwind of all the family at home, I watched Little Dorrit, the BBC adaptation of Dicken's famous novel. A fantastic knot of interwoven lives as usual, this particular  story centers all on young Amy Dorrit. Born in debtor's prison, she has spent her young life caring for her mournful father and striving to keep her little family together. Everyone relies on Amy, and she strives to keep everyone's faith while cooking for this one, or getting that one out of debt, or comforting another after the loss of a job. All while life swirls around her in the sort of drama that only Dickens can conjure. The story is good, yet Amy stays with me beyond it all. Even now, several weeks after I watched it, I am still stirred strangely in my soul by this one stouthearted little woman. She walked into my thoughts and took up lodging, and now she calls me to action.

Amy Dorrit, I realized, is the sort of woman I want to be. There are a thousand and three modern models of womanhood these days. Culture seems confused as to what a girl ought to strive to be, yet glories in the freedom she has to choose. In this time, perhaps my choice of heroine is odd. I know that the model of womanhood pictured in Victorian-era novels is considered outdated. Read just a little literary criticism, and you'll find that many consider the women in those stories to be repressed, frustrated, unthinking servants. Dutiful to their detriment. Women like Amy Dorrit, or Dorothea Brooke (another favorite heroine from Eliot's Middlemarch), who give unstintingly to family or community, who serve the poor, and work for their families, and cook, and create in unending rounds, are considered inferior to their modern counterparts. They aren't "self aware." They have no idea how to realize their full potential, or free themselves from the tyranny of family expectation. They haven't "found themselves."  Their model is one of selflessness, an idea that is foreign, and seemingly impossible in our self-involved times.

Yet I am drawn to such outmoded woman with an intensity that is hunger and determination within me. What beauty they bear. What love they bring to all they touch. What purity of purpose they hold; this single-hearted conviction that they must be loyal and love with every fiber of their beings. They feel responsible for the whole world, something every modern counselor or psychiatrist would say is a guilt-complex, yet what grace they bring to the lives of all they touch. And dignity. What redemption comes because they decide to bear, to work, to love, to endure, whether or not anyone else does.

When I was just coming into my own as a teenager, with a mind and heart ready to take on the world, I got frustrated with how much love I was continually required to give. I listened to all those pop-culture voices saying that, "enough is enough." You can only give so much, or help so often, or love to a certain extent. You have to take care of yourself and fulfill your own dreams. Set boundaries, say what you need to say even if it hurts someone else. But when I sat down one day to very practically draw the line on how much more patience I would give to a brother, or help to my mom, or time to a needy friend, I was stymied.  I went to Scripture and found that God never sets a level of demand at which I can stop loving. Or separate myself from those who needed me. Or justify my abandonment of work, or a kind tongue, or a humble heart. The great foolishness of God's love, I think, is that it has no end.

That's a hard pill for a modern mind to swallow. We want there to be a limit of what is required, a point where we can draw the line and then its okay to rebel. Yet love, when it is a chosen work, an unconditional way of life, becomes a strength in your very soul. It isn't servitude, it is power; not to subject others to your will, but to cultivate life in all you know. Selfless love becomes a force you wield with grace. To love is not to be passive, it is to fight, to create, to be a master craftsman of beauty . Love becomes a brightness that wells up in you like water and pours through your fingers into every person you touch and work you begin. That is what I see in my old-fashioned heroines. They lived by the rule of love, the giving away of self instead of hoarding it. The beauty and strength of their lives is storied. Literally.

Don't worry, I don't have a guilt-complex. I'm not saying I don't know how to say "no" if I need to. I'm not going to be a pushover. I am no demure, dutiful daughter, tied to family and bound to silence by a sense of law. I have traveled, I am a writer, I'm full of life and opinions, and revel in the possibility to realize the many dreams I have. But the models I choose for myself as I relate and grow and learn, are not modern power women, nor self-obsessed dreamers. The mantra I choose will not be the realization of self. Instead, I choose Amy Dorrit, and Dorothea, and Esther (from Bleak House), and all those faithful, good-hearted women who loved without stint or measure, and were the stronger for it. Their stories were marked by the beauty they chose to create, the love they chose to lavish, the songs they chose to sing even in the darkest of times. And this is who I hope to be in my own world.

The hurry of my life, the demands and details sometimes steal my gentleness. The self-obsession of my age tempts me to turn inward. Life often tries to steal my vision of this sort of existence. But I still bear the desire for it in my heart. I still believe in love without limit, even when the culture around me says to watch out for myself. I believe in gentleness, in harsh words left unspoken, rather than shouted and left to destroy. I believe in the gracious strength of women to uphold and enrich the lives of all around them.

The challenge now is to become an Amy Dorrit in my own time. To live out her sort of verve and love amidst all the foibles of the modern world. Maybe I should start by writing my own novel. Maybe I should write my own model of lively womanhood into modern existence. A new story is always a good way to begin.

Sarah Clarkson13 Comments