Monday, October 15, 2012

Book #9: "Early Autumn" aka The House of No Sex

 I can't imagine living in a world where every single one of your life's decision is dictated by the people around you. How you dress, what you eat, how you dance, when you dance, where you dance, with whom you dance, whom you marry, and so on. Each character in this book (and every other Victorian-era novel) seems helplessly bound to societal standards and will sacrifice any hope of happiness or pleasure in an attempt to conform.

Do we live under such standards today in 2012 and we just don't realize it? I would love to say I am a genuine free spirit who is exempt from the expectations of my middle class upbringing but I'm not sure if that would be true.
 Just like a good little suburban girl, I finished high school and enrolled immediately into a university. Were those my choices or was I simply doing what was expected of me? I suppose I didn't have any other plans on what to do with my life in regards to education so I had no real reason to rebel against that sequence. But had I decided I wanted to drop out of high school at 15 and move to Los Angeles to be an actress, would I have been "allowed" to do it? How much resistance would I have faced from my family, friends, community, and neighbors? Would I have been brave enough to toss them all aside and disappoint my parents by going rogue on life? I'm thinking the answer is a resounding "yeah right." What about decisions I've made since then? I am sure most people in my life thought I was nuts to pack up after grad school and move to the other end of the country with no salary and no apartment lined up. But, being 24 years old with two degrees in hand, my parents were no longer really in the practice of plotting out my life for me. If they had any reservations about my plan, they completely kept them to themselves.
However, what if they sat me down and told me they "forbade" me to do it and others in my community had openly spoken against it. Would I have taken into consideration my parents opinion and their potential embaressment? Would that have led me to instead rent a small apartment outside of Detroit and accept a comfortable position at a local public library? I honestly don't know... I suppose a person is only as brave as they have to be and I've never had to be that brave. I've made "wild" and "unconventional" life choices, but never in the face of blatant opposition from my family.

I guess it is very easy for me to unfairly judge the characters in Early Autumn as being cowardly or naive about how important it was to conform when I've never once been in their shoes. When I felt trapped and smothered in Detroit, I was perfectly free to leave so long as I didn't need to ask anyone else for the money to do it. When I decided I wanted to treat myself to a month-long trip to Europe, there was no one's approval to seek, no boss to ask for time-off, and no jealous boyfriend threatening me that he wouldn't be waiting for me when I returned. When I decided to get married, my parents adored my fiance so there was never a question of whether or not we would be "allowed" to wed. If I wanted to divorce him today, I assume everyone in my life would trust my judgement enough that I would be making the right decision.

At one point in the novel, one character said to another "People care what we do." Their pressure to behave in a certain fashion went beyond their own family. They felt pressure from the entire community at large, even in the face of their servants and the anonymous people who gossiped about them all over town. To be under that sort of microscope had to have been suffocating. And how does one get out without completely throwing away the reputation, fortune, and position that your ancestors worked so hard to establish? You are not only feeling pressure from the living, you are being smothered by the expectations of the dead!

I am really starting to get the feeling that these post-Victorian novels were all written to warn people about the sad realities of being wealthy. The main family's lavish home is described as cold, dreary, and oppressive. Their parties and vacations are drab and strangling. Their life of leisure is devoid of diverse pleasures. Their incomes have been fixed for centuries and no longer hold the thrill of entrepreneurship. (And oh what a thrill that is!!) It is like an entire family of people sitting around waiting to die. Who on earth would crave that after reading this book?

One surprising note: This book is about sex. Or perhaps this book is about not having sex? In sharp contrast to the other books we have read so far, sex (and the sorrow over the lack of it) permeates every aspect of this story. Every single character, from the patriarch to the stable hand, is fully defined by their virginity, chastity, or promiscuity. This also was the first book where people actually had difficult conversations outside of their comfort zones. For once it was the things that were NOT left unsaid that created tension and anxiety! I wonder how shocking that was to contemporary readers?

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