One Way Literature Can Help

When I was in college, many years ago, there was this girl. I can’t remember exactly what the circumstances were, but one night I was trying to get or stay on intimate terms with her and said something that was really dumb (foolish, pathetic, etc.). The gist of it was that no one else would ever be as important to me, but what I said was even more melodramatic than that. Her appropriate response was something like “are you kidding?”. As you can tell, I’m still embarrassed more than 40 years later. 

Well, I’ve been reading Thomas Hardy’s novel Far from the Madding Crowd, first published in 1874. The heroine, Bathsheba Everdene (quite a handle, as people used to say), has given the local gentleman farmer, Mr. Boldwood, the mistaken impression that she might marry him. It all started when, on a whim, she sent him a valentine. Then she encouraged him some more. He’s never had any experience with women and has fallen in love with her. Meanwhile, she’s fallen in love with a dashing but unreliable young soldier. Miss Everdene tries to let Mr. Boldwood down easy, but he doesn’t take the news very well. Some excerpts:

Oh, Bathsheba, have pity on me! … I am come to that low, lowest stage – to ask a woman for pity! … I am beyond myself about this and am mad… I wish you knew what is in me of devotion to you; but it is impossible … In bare human mercy to a lonely man, don’t throw me off now! There was a time when you turned to me, before I thought of you! … I took for earnest what you insist was jest [that damned valentine!], and now this that I pray to be jest you say is awful, wretched earnest… I wish your feeling was more like mine, or my feeling more like yours! Oh, could I have foreseen the torture that trifling trick was going to lead me into, how I should have cursed you; but only having been able to see it since, I cannot do that, for I love you too well! … Bathsheba, you are the first woman of any shade or nature that I have ever looked at to love, and it is the having been so near claiming you for my own that makes this denial so hard to bear. How nearly you promised me! … Where are your pleasant words all gone – your earnest hope to be able to love me? Where is your firm conviction that you would get to care for me very much? Really forgotten? Really? … Would to God you had never taken me up, since it was only to throw me down! … I tell you all this, but what do you care! You don’t care….Dearest, dearest, I am wavering even now between the two opposites of recklessly renouncing you and labouring humbly for you again. Forget that you have said No, and let it be as it was!

I know it’s only fiction, but what I said to that young woman a long time ago doesn’t embarrass me as much now.

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