I should warn readers ahead of time, this could get sappy. Exactly four years ago today, I asked Mary Elizabeth Burke to be my wife. To my utter relief, she said “yes”1. I thought I would honor this date by saying a few words about Mary and women like her: Bluestockings.
Bluestockings are ladies of a literary or intellectual bent. In the mid 18th century, writers like Elizabeth Montagu and Hannah Moore formed “Bluestocking Societies.” These were groups of women dedicated to social reform and the world of ideas. As you can imagine, this was none too popular among men; the Bluestockings were largely ridiculed by the cultural elite2. When I look at the world today, I wonder whether things have really changed.
Yesterday was St. Valentine’s Day — a day when lots of women get to feel special and loved. But just as many women don’t feel special and loved. I only have anecdotal evidence, but I suspect a number of the women on the losing side of Valentine’s Day are modern-day Bluestockings.
Frankly, that sucks.
For whatever reason, smart women have it rough. This is especially true in adolescence. I grew up with an incredibly bookish sister, the sort of reader who got so absorbed in stories that she would shout at the characters … sometimes in public. I recall her favorite books being ones that had profound love stories: Anne of Green Gables, Wuthering Heights, Pride & Prejudice… Perhaps it goes without saying that her high school was sorely lacking in Fitzwilliam Darcys, and she was forced to spend Valentine’s days alone3.
I have heard a lot of criticism leveled at the male love interests from Victorian novels. More than a few of my teacher friends have told me that when teaching Pride & Prejudice, the male students in their class revolt — complaining that they can never compare to someone like Darcy, or Mr. Rochester, or Gilbert Blythe. Even more they resent these (female) authors for daring to suggest that such characters are what men should be. Call it the Lloyd Dobler effect.
For what it’s worth, I think these boys (yes, boys) are dead wrong. Literary male characters might be ideals, but they are ideals worth aspiring to. And any woman who accepts less than a Darcy is settling.
So on this day-after-Valentine’s-Day, let me raise a glass to my sister, to my wife, to every Bluestocking — past and present. Thank you for demanding more of us men, and forgiving us when we fail. I leave you with some final words from Charles Warnke’s lyric essay “You Should Date an Illiterate Girl4:
The girl who reads has spun out the account of her life and it is bursting with meaning. She insists that her narratives are rich, her supporting cast colorful, and her typeface bold. You, the girl who reads, make me want to be everything that I am not. But I am weak and I will fail you … You will accept nothing less than passion, and perfection, and a life worthy of being storied.
- 1. This is not hyperbole; over the course of our relationship, I had only once brought up marriage … and by “brought up” I mean muttered something about how fun it would be to one day merge book collections. ↩
- 2. with a few notable exceptions ↩
- 3. It is worth mentioning that this sister flourished in college, became a lawyer, and is now happily dating a wonderful guy. ↩
- 4. If you like this essay, you might also want to check out Rosemary Urquico’s “Date a Girl who Reads” ↩