Can a Woman Be Both Serious & Lighthearted?
By Nancy Huntting
With a consideration of aspects of the life & work of the popular 19th century writer known as Fanny Forester (Emily Chubbuck Judson)
I remember in my late teens feeling that other people’s efforts to be lighthearted were silly. I tended to be sad, even grim, and by my twenties I felt heavy inside—it was an effort to talk, do things, move. At the same time, I felt like a shadow and that other people wouldn’t remember me. I’m very grateful to say that I learned from Aesthetic Realism why I was a painful relation of these opposites—and I have a lightheartedness and also a feeling of solidity now that I once thought impossible.
1. When I Began Losing My Sense of Fun
I did many lively things as a girl in the village of Glendale, Ohio—coasting my bike down Gunny Hill, dancing and singing with my friends to rock ‘n’ roll music, turning cartwheels on our front lawn, running with Chippy, our dog. But by my mid-teens I was already losing my sense of fun. I preferred novels that were tragic. I avoided reading Dickens because I’d gotten the impression he was a humorist.
Our family was economically fortunate, a fact which enabled me to be much more carefree than many children. But as I enjoyed my parents praising me and giving me things I wanted, and I saw them fight, I used what I viewed as their foolishness to think I was smart and very deep.
At 15, my three best friends and I all had a crush on a senior, Taylor Smith*, captain of the swimming team. Our high school didn’t have a girls’ team, so we began one in order to work out with the boys. We didn’t dare to speak to Taylor Smith, but we giggled and whispered in the halls, and wrote “Taylor” on the soles of our sneakers with a magic marker.
What was the relation between my “lighthearted” fun about Taylor and the achingly painful Saturday a few years later when I cried alone the whole day because my boyfriend, Johnny Blair*, broke up with me? I’d had daydreams, imagining ways Johnny might show he loved me—such as following me and appearing at unexpected moments; having a rendevous with me instead of going to his classes; suddenly arriving in a hot-looking car to take me somewhere. These thoughts about Johnny, like the games about Taylor, were void of any actual interest in who the person was or what might strengthen him. My idea of love, I later saw, was that a man should glorify and please me in a world that didn’t deserve my serious consideration.
I didn’t know that a man’s affecting me stood for the world affecting me—and that I couldn’t truly love and feel loved because I disdained the world. At 26, what I considered my consuming passion for the multitalented Pete Tomkins* became despair: as I saw it, he was so energetic and busy elsewhere and I was left waiting, lethargic, and desperate for his company.
In Aesthetic Realism consultations, which I began to have at age 27, I learned a way of seeing the world that is beautifully serious, and that enabled me to be increasingly proud of how I saw people, including men. I learned that my largest desire was to like the world—get pleasure from knowing and seeing meaning in things. Real lightheartedness arises from this purpose. But another self in us wants easier victories through having contempt. We’re seemingly the most important thing in the world, but it’s a fake self, at odds with reality, and makes us deeply heavy and stuck.
My consultants asked me, for instance: “Would you say there is a disposition in you, even as you have to do with people, to be removed and just by yourself?”
Nancy Huntting: Yes.
Consultants: So even when you devote yourself to a person, the other self is working?
This surprised me, but I began to see it was true. When I told my consultants that my father, Donald Huntting’s, manner was more “reserved” than my mother’s, and when she got very angry he just didn’t respond, one thing they asked was: “Did your father tease your mother?”
Consultants: And have you teased the world? Do you think you are too good for the world?
Yes, I did. As I reconsidered that opinion, a certain heaviness and lethargy ended.
Through studying Aesthetic Realism I saw something thrilling: both I, and the men I’d had to do with, were trying to put reality’s opposites together. Being energetic didn’t have to knock a person out, seriousness was not depression! Energy and repose, lightness and heaviness were meant to be in a beautiful relation as they are in music, or a good sentence in a novel.
Then in an Aesthetic Realism class, Mr. Siegel asked as to my relation with Pete Tomkins: “Did you have a problem of being taken too seriously and too lightly? Was there a shrine for the both of you? Did you make each other too heavy?”
That is just what I felt! I had made Pete the most weighty, most important thing in the world: I felt if he worshipped me as I worshipped him, we could put aside the rest of the human race! I was also making light of who he was, by not being interested in his past, his relations to other people, except where they had to do with me.
Mr. Siegel explained:
You and Mr. Tomkins felt that love and respect are two different things. They are like color and outline in art, where respect corresponds to outline, and love corresponds to color. To be interested in who a person really is, is respect. Were you able to be yourself with him?
No, I wasn’t, and I felt relieved to be finding out why! I didn’t like the person I was with him—acting weak, waiting to be doted on. The thrill of being together arose from a triumphant dismissal of things and people.
2. Fanny Forester: A Woman Heavy & Light
I speak now about a short story by Fanny Forester, (1817 to 1854), whose real name was Emily Chubbuck Judson. “She was noted for the gaiety of her writing,” Eli Siegel said of her in a lecture he gave in 1966. Her stories were published in the eminent magazines of the day—Graham’s, the Columbian, the Knickerbocker. The lecture was titled What Is the Light?—in which Mr. Siegel said, with his vast, careful knowledge of humanity, history, and literature:
I found [Emily Judson] presented the best example I know of a woman heavy and light, burdened and glad….This question goes on today. It has tormented people—they can be so sorrowful while they want to be so [cheerful] and joyous.
At the height of Fanny Forester’s literary success in her 20’s, she married the most famous missionary in American history, Adoniram Judson, for whom Judson Memorial Church (NYC) is named, and went with him to Burma.
Tragically, within 5 years, Judson died of illness contracted there. She returned to her home in Madison County, New York, and died herself only a few years later at 37. I’m immensely grateful for Mr. Siegel’s justice to a woman who would otherwise be so little known now, that through her he’s enabling us to better understand these crucial opposites!
Her short story which Mr. Siegel said was her “best as art” is “The Young Dream.” He said it dealt with what writers of the 20th century like Mary McCarthy and Katherine Ann Porter would deal with, which he described this way:
What makes a woman, even when things seems to be going well with a man, be displeased, moody, dissatisfied, or mean, bitter, melancholy? It’s one thing that relates women of the 1850s, 1866, and 1966….
“Have you seen Miss Follansbe, the elegant Miss Catharine Follansbe, belle and beauty?,” the story begins, its narrator speaking to the reader in an ever-so lighthearted manner:
A genuine star is she, not of the first magnitude, perhaps, though requiring but the reputation of being an heiress, and a little less personal dignity and haughty reserve, to rank above the most brilliant.
So she has a little too much “dignity and haughty reserve to rank above the most brilliant.” “She has shone at Washington, too”—it’s whispered that several powerful men are courting her.
“How that may be I know not,” the narrator continues, “but I do know all about Miss Follansbe’s first lover.” Ms. Forester is playing on the often cruel way that women can talk about other women.
But we are about to learn, through a prose style both sparkling and earnest, why the beautiful Catherine Follansbe changed from a light-hearted girl to a bitter and haughty woman of society.
Ten years earlier, Forester writes, she was very different, she was “only little Katy Follansbe, or ‘Lily Katy,’ as she was generally called,” and her father was having a hard time providing for his family.
At 15, Lily Katy determines to help her father by becoming a school teacher—something Emily Judson herself did at a similar age, for the same reason. Katy’s so lovely and good with her young pupils that the whole community is smitten with her—including a young man named Arthur Truesdail, home from college. But it is Arthur’s brother that arrests Lily Katy’s “sunny eyes.” The story continues:
The school-mistress had only time to hear, “My brother Philip,” and to smile and shake her curls toward a very serious-looking face, before she was…led away to the group awaiting her….”I wonder what makes him so melancholy-like this gay morning,” thought Katy, as her eye turned for a moment on Philip Truesdail…It was strange; and Katy, being too young to believe seriousness quite compatible with happiness, began to feel very kindly toward him….
I think Katy feels she is too light, and is drawn to Philip’s seriousness, and also feels she can make him happier. The two start taking walks and reading poetry together; Philip, a farmer, has studied agriculture and also read many philosophic books, but it was “seldom that he mingled with human beings, for there was something in their rude tones that jarred upon the refined harmony of his spirit.” And Forester writes:
Good and gentle as Katy was, there was a single vein of coquetry (innocent, pleasing coquetry to anybody but Philip Truesdail) about her, which originated many a shadow.
Is the author describing, delicately, contempt in both Philip and Katy—making for a mix-up of heaviness and lightness in each of them? Mr. Siegel explained:
‘Light’ has two meanings in English: not heavy physically—as a cloud is not heavy, or thistledown; also, giving light, or radiance. The opposites are dark, and heavy…. Sunlight and shadow are all through the work of Miss Forester.
He gave this important description of something that Lily Katy and women now sincerely want—and is necessary for true lightheartedness:
Every person is trying to be good-natured, and every person hasn’t succeeded. Good nature is the courage to feel that in being pleased fully with something, we’re taking care of ourselves. That feeling, that being pleased is prudent, is the essential element.
As Philip and Katy please each other, things happen which women right now will recognize. A man shows he’s affected by us, and we have a “flirtatious” response—that’s actually mean:
He had platted a wreath, and she stood smilingly… while he adjusted it among her light, silken curls; but when he picked…a rose-bud, and, touching it to his lips, was about adding it to the fragrant tiara, she shook it gayly from her head and placed her foot upon it.
“Nay, nay, cousin Phil,” (Katy always used the convenient prefix,) “you will spoil my head-dress with these heavy additions; and I dare say you have made me look like a fright now—haven’t you?”
Katy did not note the expression—half of chagrin, half of involuntary pain—with which her companion turned to another topic; and neither did he note her hand soon after creeping down among the grass, to recover the rejected symbol of what had never been spoken.
As summer is ending, Philip expresses his worry that she will go back to her work and other friends and forget him; she’ll “perhaps laugh at the rude farmer that has dared to—to call you cousin, Katy.” He presses her to say she will love him always; she says she’s too young, and puts him off. Then, seeing his disappointment, she relents, and they kiss for the first time. The “for” and “against” of man and woman for centuries is here. Forester writes: “[T]hey sat down on the mossed bank together, and spent two golden hours as hours were never spent by them before.”
The next morning, when Katy awakes, she has two feelings:
That she was happy could not be denied; but with her sense of happiness came the mortifying suspicion that she had been won too easily….
Mr. Siegel commented:
The trouble is exactly the trouble that goes on now. ‘What happened to me when my body did that?’ Me and body are still not the same…. This question of—‘What made us happy? How did we get to be happy?’
Katy, in her 19th century way, is like women now, feeling: “I had pleasure, but did I lessen myself?”—and getting angry with the man. She determines that Philip “ought to be punished for leading her into such folly. How dignified she would be when she next met him!” And, when they do meet, she is bright and cool.
Forester writes quite keenly—observing they are not honest with each other, and showing how a woman can go for a false lightness when she’s deeply affected, and how much injury is done by it:
Five minutes of entire confidence on both sides would have set all right; but a word unspoken often causes a life-estrangement.
And so, is it strange that Philip Truesdail and Lily Katy parted that night forever? “Forever—forever!” sobbed the poor girl, as she flung herself on the sofa, even before the echo of her light, merry laugh had died on the air.
It was years before that mocking laugh died in the ears of Philip Truesdail.
“Because they talk in this way, things are over,” Mr. Siegel commented, “Affection and mockery went on in the 1840s in America.”
3. The Fight Is Serious—& the Education about It Makes for Real Lightness of Heart!
Women don’t know they have this very serious fight going on inside: How much should the outside world affect us? Do we want to be changed, deeply stirred, criticized, shaken up by the world in the form of a man—or do we want to be superior, protect ourselves, conquer the world, get away from it?
Toni Whittaker* is a kindergarten teacher who has telephone consultations from Massachusetts. She had a sunny energy in her voice and told us she loved the out of doors—tennis, biking, boating. In her second consultation she said that a relationship of more than seven years with a man, Seth Brady, was breaking down. Two years ago she’d discovered that Professor Brady, distinguished in physics, was seeing another woman. Seth told her it was because he was lonely—she hadn’t enough time for him. She was devastated, and then got consolation, she said, by being with another man.
She and Seth had gotten back together for almost a year. She told us he was too possessive, and now he’d broken up with her. “I must be doing something wrong,” she admitted. But she had another feeling we recognized: why doesn’t he appreciate how wonderful I am and shape up?
We asked, “Does he have suspicion of you? “He’s very suspicious of me,” she said.
We told her what Mr. Siegel once said to a woman in a class: “The greatest suspicion men have is that, in some way they don’t see, a woman is making them weaker.” And we asked: “Have you wanted Seth Brady to be stronger, in a better relation to the world? Has that been your purpose?”
Toni Whittaker. I don’t know.
Consultants. Could he feel, “This woman wants my adoration, but does she want to know me and want me stronger? She wants me to be around, but does she want me to like the world?”
TW. Yes, he could.
Consultants. Are you in a terrific fight about whether you want to possess a man or have good will for him?
TW. I think so.
Men, of course, can have ill will, and we were not justifying Seth Brady. But as a means of having Ms. Whittaker understand him and herself, we asked what specific criticism of her he had expressed.
TW. He said that when he was there, I didn’t give him enough attention.
Consultants. You feel he’s possessive, and he may be. Meanwhile, do you think you are capable of dismissing a person?
TW. He definitely felt dismissed.
Consultants. Do you act like it’s a minor matter?
TW. Right. I don’t think it’s minor.
Eli Siegel defined seriousness as “the taking by a mind of what a thing wholly is, and what that thing means.” We said, “We’re asking you to be serious. If you’re serious, you’ll really be happy.”
We suggested Toni Whittaker read the novel on which Mr. Siegel gave his lecture titled Jane Eyre; or, This Girl Had Good Will. In her next consultation she told us she loved the Charlotte Brontë novel, and she had some important observations about Jane:
TW. She didn’t take the opportunities to flirt with Mr. Rochester, like I would have. She’s so humble, too, in a good way.
Consultants. Is she also proud?
TW. Oh, yes! I’ve been asking myself, “What would Jane Eyre do?” I’ve spent my time in a better way.
So much heaviness and pain will end when men and women can study the real purpose of love: for two people, with the utmost seriousness, to encourage each other’s deepest desire—to see meaning and wonder and form in the world; to like it!