In writing this piece, I had to revisit my bookshelves, in search of two particular books. On the one hand, Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native; in the other, Caitlin Moran’s How To Be a Woman. Whilst I hunted for this peculiar pair, I picked up this and that, my eye snagged by the sight of much loved titles, my fingers tips pausing to brush the raised lettering with an odd thrill. This month I had decided to explore a theme and the theme for February must surely be love. So it is, perhaps surprisingly, love which ties together Hardy and Moran.
Let’s begin with Moran. I read How To Be a Woman when it first came out and had the immense satisfaction of finishing it before it decorated every tube station billboard and became the ubiquitous feminist hit it deserved to be. Yes indeed, I got in quick, I read and re-read it voraciously! With delight, I realised my brain seemed to naturally click into this feminist gear: where I couldn’t perceive the status quo my mind leapt around it, above it, pushed through it, until some sort of albeit unconventional explanation was formed. However, put under the honest microscope, most of my ideas and expectations were patched together from reading and television. I may have been an adept critical reader of fiction, less so the nuances of social communication.
For you see, thanks to Hardy, my tender 17 year old heart had taken a darkly wrong turn. I made the terrible mistake of falling in love with the divine, fragile beauty Eustacia Vye, Hardy’s tempestuous heroine about whom he observes:
“To be loved to madness – such was her great desire. Love was to her the one cordial which could drive away the eating loneliness of her days. And she seemed to long for the abstraction called passionate love more than for any particular lover.”
In fact, it was only the first sentence my mind could retain in full … the rest dislodged, lost. But the essence remained: love was intense, love was misery, love was an addiction. That a Victorian novel should exert such an unfortunate influence seems as quaint as it is ridiculous, but in reality, this notion took a steadfast hold. It was a sentiment which reverberated long after I had put aside the novel, passed my exams, slipped through university and graduated. It became the jet black velvet centrepiece at the heart of what I’ve come to view as my crazy quilt of love. This sumptuous sadness, drip by drop, made me expect very little and settle for less. Of course, as I gradually met with experience, of love, of heartbreak – all to the background music of undiagnosed, clamouring anxiety - I stitched together only more blacks and greys.
Then, there was Moran; whose words did the job of a psychological quick-unpick, yanking at tight stubborn threads, ripping apart the old yarn.
I have an August-blue petticoat with tiny pink roses, and black suspender straps, that makes me happier than almost anything I own. Not only does it embody the kind of purring, spanky, joyous 1950’s soft-porn postcards I have based most of my wardrobe/sexuality on, but I also look dead thin in it too.
All of a sudden, in a passage dedicated to the delight of lingerie, I found a way to slip free from Eustacia’s corset and imagine a world which was sensuous and feel-good, that told me love was happy not sad, that lovers should make me feel content not mad.
It had never before occurred to me to question the idea that our sexualities are something which are shaped, informed, created; it is not even really Moran’s point. It’s hard to explain how much that well-crafted paragraph, piled among many, so deceptively light-of-touch (“purring, spanky, joyous”!) could so truly upend, subvert, shake, my sense of self. But it did. And I owe you, Caitlin, I truly do. The drinks are on me.
And so it is, I carried on, aware that my crazy quilt required some adjustments. Returning to fiction, I found Jane Austen’s wise words “Know your own happiness” gave me a clear and purposeful mission in a life which had felt relentlessly chaotic. I started to unpick unhelpful notions and memories and replace them with my own August blue, rosebuds and suspenders.
Through the process of questioning and unpicking this crazy quilt of mine, I began to reflect upon the rich diversity and complexity of quilting, how they are products of a long history of traditional patterns and skills. The crazy quilt occupies a unique corner, for it defies conventions by sampling eclectic fabrics and favours arrangements according to colour and texture. Like ourselves, our identities are built of many layers and influences, a patchwork of experience and unintentional design… In ripping out my blacks and greys, in delicately stitching small sunny scraps, I was able to remain myself and yet … be happier. With that one critical notion – “I have based most of my (…) sexuality on…” I had begun to understand that I could start over, one small stitch at a time.
On a final note, this time of year lures us all towards the trap of expectation… Of performing love, rather than truly connecting with our feelings and offering that to someone who will care for us in return. As we all explore this world with our unique perspectives, we must honour and respect one another’s different ways of expressing love. It can be truly hard to communicate even our deepest feelings for those we genuinely care for and it is important, that with gentle courage, we reach out and do so, letting not only your lovers and partners know you care, but also your family and precious friends.
Zoe Vail Smith
Zoe is Mainspring Arts' resident monthly blogger. She hails from London and was diagnosed with Asperger's in 2014.