Reflections on Tempt Me and 2020
By Julie Cooper
For some reason, today I’m drawn to this excerpt from Tempt Me:
“Her dreams came with each dawn. She would waken upon a stifled scream, certain that the razor-edged teeth in the dream-man’s wicked, handsome smile were tearing open her flesh. There was no Jane to huddle against for comfort. Most of the time she could not go back to sleep, hence her early breakfasts. At least Mama was not here to caustically remark upon the dark circles under her eyes.
A few weeks before Christmas, despite there being no plans for a party or ball to celebrate the holiday, she asked for and received enough holly and evergreens to decorate the library. Pemberley maintained a battle-readiness that almost seemed usual now. In her letters to her sisters and relations, she wrote only of the beauty of her home and created pretend Christmas celebrations, telling no one of the stark oddities of her life; some curious protectiveness of Fitzwilliam constrained her.
By the same token, she refused to let Pemberley’s current residents see her loneliness. Every night she sailed into dinner as she had marched into a hundred assemblies: head held high, pretending she was serene and confident and full of hope.”
It is a dark passage, because of course, it is a dark time in Elizabeth’s life; there is so much she does not understand—cannot understand! Her world is full of uncertainty, inexplicable, unseen danger, and nothing is ‘normal’—with no end in sight.
Sound familiar? (Cough*2020*cough)
And yet, as I imagine her, Elizabeth refuses to allow herself to wallow in self-pity. No festivities? Fine; she decorates her favourite room (the library, of course) and fills it with beauty. No gatherings? Well then, she invents some, writing of them in letters to her sisters. Surrounded by incomprehensible people? There is nothing for it but to rely upon her own confidence, the strength she has gained from past adversity, and chin up, power forward as best she can. Jane Austen wrote an Elizabeth who was strong, confident, reflective, and unafraid to laugh—at herself as much as anyone. She was surrounded by people—family, even—she could not admire, and yet she found her own principles to live by, and she took whatever was good from her environment and made it her own.
For instance, Elizabeth’s schooling was almost entirely self-dependent—“…such of us as wished to learn, never wanted the means…” and yet there was no compulsion, no mandatory or rigid program of study, no governess whacking her fingers if she did not complete an assignment. Her own curiosity, desire to learn, and ambition guided her.
I do not pretend to have written anything close to Austen’s iconic Elizabeth, but I admire her so. In her, I find a heroine worthy of emulation even now, and endless possibilities for reimagining her in a thousand different situations. I do not listen to critics who find the Regency era contemptible because of its great flaws. Every era, and nearly every person in it, is enormously flawed. Hers is a search for self—not perfection—that I find as relevant in 2020 as it was when first published in 1813.
2020, of course, is a chaotic mess, but I find comfort in heroines who can see their way through messes. I’m not ashamed of that. Times are dark, with no end in sight and yet...I might have a little Elizabeth in me, too.
Can’t have what I want? I can want what I have. Today a bad day? Tomorrow is still unwritten. Life uncertain, unsure, even unkind? I have survived other hard times, and can power through. Tempt Me’s Elizabeth can—and does—because triumph over darkness is the best part of a happy ending.
Finding the light in that darkness is finding my inner Elizabeth, so I’ll keep searching. And if I can’t find it today, I can at least immerse myself in her world for a while, as a respite from my own. Even if I drag a vampire or two along with me.