Working on THE KITCHEN MISTRESS has led me to more fully develop Katherine and Aleksey’s fall into the deep, lasting love that readers see in the 1905 threads in both THE LAST LETTER and THE ROAD HOME. I don’t want to give a lot away about how Katherine and Aleksey come to meet and fall in love after not seeing each other for three years (you’ll see that journey in TKM). But I thought it would be interesting to revisit Jeanie and Frank’s (my great, great grandparents whose courtship and marriage inspired TLL) courtship in contrast to modern love while in the process of writing.
THE KITCHEN MISTRESS is not a romance novel, but Katherine and Aleksey’s love story is at its heart. Part of me thinks (the part that sees the way popular culture portrays the past) love in the past—courtship anyway—was so different than it is today. But once I dug into the matter, a measly century or so might not have changed things much at all. I wrote this article years ago when THE LAST LETTER was just launching into the world but I thought the ideas in it and the people I interviewed offer an important avenue to explore modern love and the olden kind that might be actually still be alive and well in 2016.
Think history is so last century? Think there’s nothing you can learn about modern love and marriage from times past? Perhaps that’s because you haven’t read any Herstory lately. Turns out, we’ve still got a long way to go, baby.
Back in 1883 Jeanie Arthur wrote precious love speeches to her intended, Frank. Sweet letters, penned in gently rolling script were spiked with lines like, “when soft winds blow and gently kiss your cheeks think that they bear to you the fond kisses of the one you love.”
Contrasting such sugary notions were chunks of text bearing witness to Jeanie’s startling intelligence. She explains to Frank why raising in sheep on prairie land would lead to foot rot (and the loss of all their money), how the structure of a home should depend not only on the “length of one’s purse,” but how to ensure the correct air-flow inside the home and how to decide where to buy a home in the first place—better build on an established railroad line, not guess where the railroad is going next as her Frank suggested.
Ahh, how lovely—a relationship of equals.
Not so fast. That was 1883, after all. Unfortunately Jeanie came to find out Frank much preferred her love words to her acumen. Without fail each letter that followed one that demonstrated Jeanie’s prowess would be spent retracting her advice or reshaping it so that it fit his ego, his world view, his need to feel as though he were her king. She would come to her senses and reassure Frank that her job was to “chase your dull cares away and make you forget there is such a thing as sorrow and trouble in the world.”
Jeanie’s letters evoke images of a tightrope walker over a city block on a windy day, making endless missteps then wildly overcorrecting to the peril of the feat itself. Jeanie’s words do just that as she tries to convince Frank that she was capable, so she’d be useful out on the prairie, but no so accomplished that she would outshine him in any way.
As I marveled at my great grandmother’s hard work at subverting herself for her betrothed with lines like, “You might see my name in the papers lecturing for Greenbackism. What politics do you hold Frank? You are a Republican are you not? If you are so am I,” I was left wondering if women have changed that much since Jeanie wrote those jarring words.
Sharon, a successful business owner, has repeatedly undermined, hidden, or played up her strengths all in the name of relationships, of men, she thought were healthy and loving.
“When my ex-husband came on the scene,
I fell deeply into love and into his world. I took up rock-climbing and peppered my wardrobe with Patagonia and cleated tennis shoes.”
It’s not that meeting someone isn’t a good way to explore new interests, but when a woman doesn’t know herself well enough, when she situates the man as the central feature in their budding relationship, she begins to forget what it is she wants from life.
Sharon continues, “It wasn’t until my friend Michelle said, ‘You’re Julia Roberts in The Runaway Bride, you like the same eggs of whomever it is you’re with. You have no idea who you are.’ That really pissed me off. But after I was done being mad, I saw she was right.” And so until recently, Sharon has immersed herself in wrong relationship after wrong, not realizing it until she’d sacrificed and lost herself to her partner’s goals and wishes.
Wow, this sounds so 1883! Jeanie needed to secure a man for survival. But, women in 2016 are independent, free, progressive, aren’t we? Well, an interview with Nancy Poitou, M.A., M.F.T., C.T.S. shows us that although those assumptions are true—a woman today does have unprecedented access and means to craft a life that fits who she is, yet we in fact don’t spend enough time deciding who it is we are. We are not capitalizing on the conditions there for the taking.
Though Poitou doesn’t think modern women are as overt in their subversion of self as Jeanie from 1883 was, she believes women are still saying to potential partners, “You love motocross racing? Well, then so do I, damn-it, even though I’ve never heard of that before, I’m sure I do love that…please, tell me what to think, what to like, post haste, please.”
Why are women engaging in this type of self-manipulation when we all know better? Poitou says, “On a first date what often happens is that a man will talk about himself a lot. Finally he will ask his date “so tell me about you” and she will tell him what she thinks he wants to hear. But years later the truth surfaces and they are not as compatible as she led him to believe.”
Poitou believes we are acting on a collection of standards, ideas, expectations and habits that have been customary for two millennia.
“If you go back beyond the last 2,000 years the Goddess was worshiped and many cultures were matriarchal, although the divisions of labor were usually along the gender lines. But, back then women had worth and influence because of a spiritual or intellectual nature. What our gender brought to the table was valued and although not the same [as the men in the group], we had equal value. Somehow over the last 2,000 years we have lost touch with those ideas.”
What this means is you don’t have to take to wallstreet or abandon your domestic side just to be an equal in a relationship. What you need to know is which of those things is important to who you are.
Poitou works with women in this vein. “I stress the importance of being able to live alone and be happy as a way to insulate oneself against making bad choices in partners. I feel you are less likely to make poor decisions about the men you choose because you are not making a decision because you need to be paired up to be happy. To be paired up out of a need you are not only more likely to make bad choices, but also mold yourself to the man. To know ourselves and be ourselves in the dating process makes more sense.”
So, how can women do this? Poitou says, “One of the best ways is to live alone. Pursue knowledge, self-development, and surround yourself with role models.”
- Try new activities, challenge yourself.
- Read about courageous women.
- Work on yourself physically, intellectually and emotionally.
- Find out what you believe spiritually and start a spiritual practice.
- Spend time with yourself. Keep a journal. Be curious about yourself and take an interest in why you feel what you feel.
- Spend time with other women. Go hiking or learn to fly. Go to a concert, take dance lessons, learn a language, etc. Be curious about what you are capable of.
- Learn to be assertive, you’ll need it in a relationship.
- Seek to be independent.
How can a woman step back from attraction and objectively look at the man she’s interested in?
- Maintain distance with time to be separate, to retain objectivity. Getting into a relationship needs to slow way down. Don’t see the man everyday from day one.
- Take at least 3-6 months or more before becoming sexually involved. Bonding hormones that are a part of a sexual relationship encourage the development of feelings for the man that blur the vision of the man after that.
- Believe what you see. A potential partner’s words are his sales pitch. See how he deals with problems and disappointments over time. Say no or disagree when you do. How does the man handle it? Be mindful and take mental notes. If he is a father and has nothing to do with his kids, discern why that is so.
- Listen closely. If he describes former girlfriends as psycho-bitches, hmmm? That’s gonna be you next. Don’t kid yourself and think you will be any different. He’s never worked a job longer than six months, hmmm. He has no friends or relatives, double hmmmm.
- Don’t tip your hand by telling him too much about what you want and how you want your future to play out and influence him so that he can tell you exactly what you want to hear about him.
Poitou adds this advice to anyone searching for that perfect someone. “Be yourself and constantly ask yourself if you could be more honest than you are right now with yourself? With him? If you aren’t, why is that? If you are both being yourselves then things will fall into place and if not that’s OK, too.” What great advice, a true path to being yourself…if only 1883 Jeanie could have had what we do now. Boy, what a woman she would have been, what true love she could have found.