Why do we torture ourselves with novels? It is a self-inflicted wound of the most grievous nature, for it is entirely avoidable, is it not? It’s emotional cutting, toying with the idea of perfection in stark contrast with reality. I recently became enamoured with Northanger Abbey, particularly the film adaptation with JJ Feild as Mr. Tilney–his expression when he delivers his line “I must give you one smirk, and then we may be rational again” is beyond perfection. (Pictured above.)
I identify so strongly with the character of Catherine Morland, a young woman enraptured by novels–particularly those of Mrs. Radcliffe. (I am now determined to read The Mysteries of Udolpho. I simply must see what all the fuss is about.) Though at times, Catherine’s imaginations is, shall we say, overactive, I completely understand her inclination to mix the fictional with reality. I identify with how her novel-induced fantasies can lead to a more skewed idea of reality and, indirectly, love.
I often question how healthy my infatuation with novels is. The level of excitement that jolts through me as I finish the last few pages of a novel is quite unlike anything I’ve experienced in other parts of life–for there is no greater joy in life than the completion of a novel or the first screening of an Austen adaptation.
My infatuation with novels has in fact affected my social life over the years, as much as I’d love to be able to say it hasn’t. I believe middle school is a hard time for many, but I found it especially difficult. I switched districts between elementary and middle school, so I knew not a soul when I began sixth grade. Until the last day of seventh grade, I did not do anything outside of school with a single person. Did I have a social life? I had a fictional social life, for I sought solace in books.
The summer between sixth and seventh grade was a happy one–I completed 21 novels in one month. (To this day, this is still one of my proudest accomplishments.) I devoured anything and everything; I visited the library constantly. In fact, I fear I still have a few outstanding late fees–oops.
Another of my crowning literary achievements includes a cover-to-cover reading of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. (Even my teacher at the time admitted to skipping chapters–something I still cannot understand. How does one know which chapters to skip?)
So you see, my obsession with a fictional reality developed long before my discovery of Austen and the ever-elusive idea of Mr. Darcy. I remember reading a great deal of Nicholas Sparks during the month-of-21-novels. I can conclude that even from the beginning of my love affair with novels, some author or another nurtured my fictional love affairs with fictional men. As I’ve grown older, I never questioned just how unrealistic my expectations just may be.
I would not give back that month of 21 novels for anything in the world, for novels helped mold me into the person I am today. As Mr. Darcy rightly pointed out, if a woman wishes to become accomplished, she must persist in the cultivation of her mind through extensive reading. I’m convinced that all those hours spent with my nose buried in a book were not a waste of time–with each new literary conquest, I learned to read, to write, and, eventually, to love.
Yes. You read that correctly: to love. It is through the mistakes of heroines that I learned of the failings of the heart, as well as its successes. I learned of the fickleness of both women and men; the consequences of dishonesty; the daring that can arise from a passionate heart; the heartbreak behind unrequited love. Novels taught me lessons that I could never have learned in my safe and sheltered upbringing in Omaha, Nebraska.
And as Austen so eloquently writes in Sense & Sensibility, “The more I know of the world, the more I am convinced I shall never see a man whom I can really love. I require so much!” As I love most ardently through characters, a fictional man is better than no man at all, right?
Further more, a fictional man can be depended upon. He won’t ever leave the toilet seat up, or track in dirt from his boots, or leave clean laundry in a pile on the bedroom floor. A fictional man allows us to feel (all the feels) of a relationship, without having to go through the effort of contouring your face and squeezing into a dress that really should be classified as a shirt. A fictional man loves you just as you are–no makeup, sweatpants, and orange Cheetos fingers from a marathon of Downton Abbey.
I conclude by acknowledging all the pros to a fictional relationship with a make-believe man, particularly Mr. Darcy or Mr. Tilney (because Matthew Macfayden and JJ Feild). I myself have done this for years, because interacting with my imagination is a whole lot easier than lacing up my boots and facing reality.
The strikingly obvious con is that these fictional great men, these perfect spousal candidates, are just that: fictional. With this in mind, I actuallyconclude by encouraging all to brave through the social convention that is modern dating to find a man that fits into your ideal fictional man.
He may not fit the part to a T. No one is perfect; I’m certainly not. The point is to look for someone who accepts your flaws, and in turn, you accept theirs. Contrary to what I would love to believe, Mr. Darcy was not a perfect man. So why do I expect real men to measure up to a level of perfection that my most perfect idea of a man doesn’t even meet?