Some virtues are prized by pretty well all societies and cultures. Courage, for example. Perseverance. Gentleness – not so much. In fact, it is prone to being considered a weakness. Even in cultures that do place a value on gentleness, it’s often only valued in certain people – women and girls, for the most part. With guys, the word “gentle” is generally only used when followed by the word “giant” – it seems that it’s ok to be gentle only as long as you’re huge enough that everyone knows it’s a choice.

Jumbo and Matthew ScottThis is wrong on two levels. First, the idea that it’s good to not be gentle. This suggests that it is good to be the opposite of gentle: aggressive, harsh and demanding; strident. I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of a single person I like, admire or respect who demonstrates those qualities. The second mistake is to think that gentleness is the same thing as weakness – the puny of this world making a virtue of necessity.

Gentleness and its twin, meekness, though often mistaken for weakness, can only exist in the presence of strength, whether strength of muscles, mind, heart, voice or anything else. Meekness is strength not wielded. The weak cannot be gentle, only feeble. Those who don’t possess any strength don’t need to be gentle, because they can’t do any damage if they try. It is the strong who must be gentle with the weak, not vice versa.

Of course, there is more than one kind of strength. A person whose body is weak, but whose tongue is a weapon of mass destruction is not gentle, regardless of how feeble they present themselves as being. A coward is not truly gentle, because they don’t have the guts to be anything else: there is no strength which they are holding in check.

Kober Anna Jagiellon as a widow (detail) 01
Gentleness is not weakness. It is a form of strength. “€œOh! that gentleness! how far more potent is it than force!” wrote Charlotte Brontë in Jane Eyre. Of course, like so many virtues, it can be misused – the above quote comes from the passage where (spoilers!) St. John Rivers is attempting to persuade (one might almost say blackmail) Jane into marrying him – not because he loves her, but because he thinks she’ll be useful. (It was this that earned him a spot on the list of People I’d Like to Smack Upside the Head.)

But Jane is both gentle and indomitable – the two are not mutually exclusive, but complementary. Like Fanny Price, Jane would face down an army if she had to. Gentleness is not weakness. It may not push its agenda with force, but that doesn’t mean it will give way, either. Gentleness can charmingly, politely, say no – and keep saying it. “Now for the hitch in Jane’s character,” Rochester says when she won’t give way to him. “Now for vexation, and exasperation, and endless trouble!” She is gentle, but inexorable, and she carries her point. As he himself points out, he could kill her – he has the strength for it – but he can’t make her do what he wants. And fortunately for her, his love for her makes him keep his strength in check: it gentles him.

P422bGentleness doesn’t always get you what you want, though – if it did, it would just be a means of manipulating others. A gentle answer proverbially deflects anger, “but in desperate hours gentleness may be repaid with death,” Denethor warns his unloved second son. ‘”So be it,” said Faramir.’

That is the essence of gentleness: doing what you believe to be right with every courtesy and consideration towards others. Gentleness is a difficult opponent to beat, because it won’t fight. It is true that gentleness can be repaid with violence, or even death, but the antagonist will always be seen to be in the wrong. And the gentle will not yield.


People I'd Like to Smack Upside the Head

la gifle / the slap

Fictional people, of course. *cough*

First on the list (but not necessarily most smack-worthy), Catherine from Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. “Nelly, I am Heathcliff.” Right. So you married the pusillanimous twit next door instead. Why, exactly? Not that Edgar’s any worse, but hey, I’m not the one who says she’s in love with Heathcliff.

Top Withens Moorland Panorama

Next up is Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger. Apparently Catcher in the Rye is one of those love-it-or-hate-it books? Well, I don’t love it. I believe I’ve mentioned this before.
Holden may have a genuine point about everyone being phoney, but when he’s compulsively lying to everyone he meets, his repeated claims that phoniness makes him sick ring a little hollow.

Vivien Leigh Gone Wind Restaured

Then there’s Scarlett O’Hara (from Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell). Again with the being in love with one man and marrying another! Or in this case, a number of others.
A friend of mine, once called upon to summarise Gone With The Wind, described it as “there’s this woman who marries three different guys”. The American Civil War didn’t even rate a mention…

I watched the film version with another friend, and we took a walk in the intermission – just after “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again”.
All sounds very stirring and heroic, but out in the fresh air you realise she’s basically saying “I’m going to look out for number one, regardless of what it costs anyone else.” And to think Margaret Mitchell originally planned to call her Pansy…

Bust of a young Newman

Just for a change, a man who loves one woman but tries to marry another. St John Rivers is the cousin of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. The man’s stone cold, and not in a tinsel-faced vampire kind of a way. The one love he has he ruthlessly extinguishes, and then, having told his new-found cousin that he will be her brother, he tries spiritual blackmail to get her to marry him. Not because he loves her but because he thinks she’d be useful: “You were formed for labour, not for love.”

A verse from the Good Book for you, Mr. Missionary: “If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” Perfectly played by Andrew Bicknell in the 1983 miniseries, in my opinion.

Looking back, I see I am railing against the separation of love and marriage. Well, horse and carriage, people…

Bride arriving on carriage - A quick shot from today's wedding. - Litchfield Plantation

What do you think? Is Scarlett your heart’s darling? Or do you think Holden is merely misunderstood? Who are the characters that bug you – that you’d like to slap upside the head (or even rewrite out altogether)? All opinions welcomed!

Living the Story

Well, after Thursday’s dramatic line in the sand, reality turns out to be not so heroic.

After a few days (nights) of reduced sleep, I struggled on Friday morning. The weather forecast was unexpectedly nasty. I had to replan the multiple layers of my wardrobe for the day, and in the end I didn’t get any writing done at all.

Bundled up 7897

But I did get up. I thought about piking out and sleeping in, but I didn’t.

It makes me wonder: how much of what I do is because that’s part of the narrative I have determined I will live? How much is that helping, and how much hindering?

Surely, I can’t be the only person who weaves narratives around themselves to ameliorate the mundanity of their life?
Anyone? Anyone at all?

Away with The Fairies Part2

Having cast myself as the dedicated but struggling writer, I can’t very well turn round and sleep in past seven. It ruins the story. And living the story helps me keep going.

Of course, this can turn against you (no, I mustn’t have the heater on! the starving garret-writer wouldn’t have that!) but for the most part, it helps.

Being true to the rôle is more fun than following the schedule or the regulations. It’s more creative. It’s more like play.

On the spotlight

So, now that I’ve put my internal child quivering in the spotlight for playing make-believe at the age when other people are doing Serious Adult Things like having mortgages and career aspirations – who wants to join me?

We can be prisoners of war, plotting escape (thank you, Professor Tolkien); knights under siege (merci, Monsieur Buhet); or a misunderstood girl on a heroic quest (thank you Terry Jones).

Medieval woman defending her castle

Sometimes it even helps to pretend things are worse than they are. Sara Crewe may have pretended to be a princess to escape the drudgeries of domestic servitude, but how many people since have pretended to be Sara Crewe?

girl and cat

I don’t mean to suggest that I spend my days thinking I’m someone else – I have grown up a bit, after all. But when I find myself in adverse or tiresome circumstances, it can be enlivening to think: what characters (fictional or otherwise) have been this way before me? What would they do? What did they do? What if -? (And incidentally, would it not be very cool if I was a superhero?)

I can be efficiently domestic with Lucy Eyelesbarrow (this is more productive when at home), persist to the bitter end with Cazaril, or be quietly indomitable with Jane Eyre.


So what narrative eases the flow of your days? “Stories etch grooves deep enough for people to follow.” Or do you do it the hard way, scratching the beginnings of a new groove with each succeeding day?

Is it just me?