Dear Lizzy Bennet, dear fictional character I have spent much time and energy loving and fretting over,
When I read about you, most of the time, I judge you.
I know, that’s silly and strange, to admit to you right up front that I am judgmental towards you. You are a character with such a story, with so much of what I dream of and imagine myself to be. You and I love books and being outside, are too headstrong sometimes and we think with our hearts and our first impressions for far too long. For a good long while, the things you did I scrutinized with my pen and my imagination and my hope all mixed up. I wrote about you. I wrote against you. I wanted you not to be so stupid about Wickham and to see Mr. Darcy for what he is right away. I wanted you to be fiery but gentler, to appreciate Jane, to see what was in store for Lydia and do something about it.
And I don’t have much by way of good explanation, Lizzy Bennet, other than to tell you that most of it was because I was judging me. For my stupidity over Wickham. For my foolishness. For my inability to see Jane well. For being fiery at all the wrong times. I saw in your story so much of me, and I poured out this judgment on you as a way to explain to myself what it was I thought I was supposed to do, and be. I thought if I analyzed your character enough, understood what was wrong and right with each action, each sentence, then I would be safe from making the same mistakes. I would have mastered, through the reading of a story, all the mysteries of life.
When I finally say it – that I thought I could master life through the pages of a book – it makes me laugh.
Life is only understood as far as it is accepted. Life is only revealed to us as we live it. Knowing that I am like you doesn’t stop me from making the same mistakes and different ones, from missing Mr. Darcy and falling for Mr. Wickham. It doesn’t keep me loving Jane better. It doesn’t mean I protect Lydia. It doesn’t even mean I am a better balance of fiery and gracious, tender and firm.
Actually, it turns out, Lizzy, I only begin to understand your story when I have entered my own. I only begin to see how we are truly alike, you, the character I have cherished alongside the women I imagine you’d befriend – Anne and Jo and Marianne – and I.
Maybe that was what I was missing in high school, when I read how you behaved and thought I could learn completely from the pages of a book. Maybe that’s what is missing every time I fall deeply into a story, leaving my bedroom for the wandering moors of Somerset and for New York and Green Gables and even Gilead, Iowa. That these stories are at their best, echoes of corners of the fuller life. They hint at the life we are already in.
That’s why we love them so much and treasure them and keep them on bookshelves for years and years on a special shelf we’ve marked “the words you must know to know me” in our minds.
So, I just wanted to tell you, Lizzy, that I have a new kind of grace for you. For falling for Wickham and being too headstrong about Darcy and not appreciating Jane or protecting Lydia or loving your parents or for goodness’ sake doing something besides mooning around England (why weren’t you writing a book?). I have a grace for you because as I lean into this story, of 22 and just-after-college I recognize how understandable it is that you do what you do. I get it. I love you a little more for it.
Perhaps this is a beginning of grace for myself.