Elise Walter | October 12, 2018
I left Washington DC with relief and regret.
Relief to escape the relentless, oppressive landscape of a new political reality, and regret that I was running away from a fight. The rights and dignity of so many people were–are–being stripped away, day by day. I was and remain furious. How could I justify abandoning my work to study literature, when everything else was burning? What good does reading Jane Austen do?
Last week, I read Pride & Prejudice for the first time. My introduction to the story came years ago in the form of an all-night watch party for the 1995 BBC adaptation, featuring the great Jennifer Ehle. Ehle’s Elizabeth Bennet is extraordinarily warm, able to convey multitudes with a glance or an epic eye roll. Ehle’s Lizzy is discreetly proud, composed but accessible. She is winning. On the page, Lizzy is charming and intelligent—and condescending. Proud. Judgmental. I like her.
Like many women I know and love, Lizzy is lively, but circumspect. She chooses her words with extreme care. She listens as much as she speaks. We often come upon Lizzy seated in a corner with a book, taking it all in—watching scenes as described by a distant speaker unfold along with us. That speaker delights in describing Lizzy’s thoughts as they unspool and spill on to the page. Lizzy’s mind is always quietly churning. Sometimes she smiles.
Lizzy deploys her sparkling wit when she has to—to control a renegade sister in the dance hall, or challenge a gentleman who is behaving badly. She is justifiably cutting and confident in the face of cruelty and arrogance. Lizzy loves to spar, but deploys her facility with words deliberately and with purpose. Her judiciousness separates her from those who speak thoughtlessly and suffer the consequences.
In Lizzy’s world—in our world—no woman is safe when her words and speech are twisted by a careless, sometimes vicious, public. Fear of malicious rumors and a ruined reputation are ever-present. Lizzy’s tact reflects that fear.
Not much has changed. As I write this, my hometown is in turmoil because of a woman’s words. In mid-September, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford revealed herself as the anonymous author of a letter accusing Judge Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault more than three decades ago. As I write this, Judge Kavanaugh is poised to step into one of the most powerful positions in American government and society: a Supreme Court Justice.
The world spins faster today than it did when Pride and Prejudice was published—but in this tiny, frozen moment the internet is alive with language about, from, and for this woman in Washington. Among the first words out of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s mouth: I am terrified.
In many ways, Pride and Prejudice is a conservative romantic fantasy. Everyone is safely married and conveniently wealthy at the end. In one of the novel’s final moments, Lizzy and Darcy walk alone, happily retelling their story and creating a narrative to share with the rest of the world. In one telling moment, Lizzy “checks” herself—pulling back from a sharp joke at Darcy’s expense. She stays quiet. Even happy, secure, and safe, Lizzie understands the harm a few misplaced words can do.
Nothing can justify the circumstances that brought Dr. Ford in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, September 27 to testify on her own behalf. Dr. Ford spoke before a rapt audience, ready to weigh and measure every syllable. She had only her voice and her truth to guide her. She chose her words with care–and at times, those words were used to attack her. Still, she spoke–because it mattered. I think Lizzy would have approved of her performance.
I am still angry. Many people are.
So does understanding the gravity and value of what we say—of what we read, and what we hear. It helps to read good stories, written by smart people—particularly smart women. To approach each woman’s choice of words with respect, and appreciate the complexity of experience and humanity that runs underneath them. To understand when they are cautious, and applaud when they speak with clarity and courage.
Speaking with honesty and integrity has always been a difficult and risky business. It requires practice, strength of character, and immense courage.
It requires faith that someone is listening.
Update: At time of publication, Judge Brett Kavanaugh has been confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice of the United States of America, following Dr. Ford’s testimony of sexual assault before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Elise Walter was born in California, and is now based in Washington DC. She has worked as a public affairs and communications professional for five years, most recently on a campaign fighting for women’s reproductive health and rights in the world’s poorest countries. She is pursuing a MSc in Literature & Society at The University of Edinburgh.
Edited by Kiefer Holland and Eva Dieteren.