So-Called Civility

When in ennui, read or write, Lady Johanna Ewing once believed. That was before she realized that the creams she thought could remove calluses in a blink of an eye actually took a month or so before giving the desired effect. That was also before she found out that reading-or rather squinting as she has the habit of doing—would ultimately result to fine lines around her eyes. Oh she was certainly more scholarly than the average lady, but her vanity was truly a hindrance to her pursuits. But it was in her resolute belief—or imagining as her daughter would term it be—that had she cared more for her mind's enlightenment, she would be nowhere near "growing gracefully" with rough hands and wrinkled eyes. She was growing gracefully, much to her pleasure, but unfortunately, remaining stagnant in her level of thinking.

She tried to influence her children in such a way that they too, in a fight of intelligence against vanity, would choose the latter. She failed.

London, 1819

Surveying the room, Elaine had a hard time believing what she was seeing. Shelves upon shelves were multicolored spines of books she had no faint idea on what titles they bore. The shelves surrounded the room, leaving only the door leading to the hall and the French doors opening to the balcony free, as well as display cases at the far end of the room. The smell was rather…erudite. There was the scent of paper, aging paper to be more precise. What was the girl doing in here? The room was absolutely incoherent with her preferences, which bordered on soft pastel flowers and silk curtains with lace trimmings. But she would give consideration to the lily carelessly put on a crystal vase. At least she tried.

"Pleasure you can accompany this afternoon, Elaine."

Elaine froze for a second then frantically survey the room for an inhabitant. But what was there to find when all that was needed to be seen was right in front of her? There were only bookshelves behind her, and the vast expanse of the room did not offer a hiding place. A phantom…that would be a frightening possibility. No one was in the room with her, only books upon books, shelves with no spaces between them, and a large mahogany table in the middle. Other than the cat lying on its side, there was no other living being with her in the room.

"Why, good afternoon Lara it is also my pleasure to have you as my company today," the voice said sarcastically. Now that her wits had straightened themselves out, the voice was quite familiar.

Elaine bit her lip. "Where are you?"

"Oh silly. The problem with so many people today is that they expect every thing to be in front of them," Lara laughed. "You simply must think outside the boundaries of your conformities and look above."

She was too afraid to do so. But when she did…she swore she could have lost her consciousness immediately. There was Lara Ewing, youngest daughter of a rather prominent noble, sitting at the top of a stepladder. It would have been less shocking if the stepladder had the height of say…less than ten feet. It was apparent to Elaine that such a height did not summon any sort of fright into Lara. She seemed quite happy actually, much to her increasing discomfort.

"Please don't display unto me such a face of alarm, Elaine. I do think I might just swoon and fall flat on my behind if you continue doing so. You wouldn't want your cousin to suffer such a horrible fate, am I right?"

Elaine frowned. "If I were I man, Lara, I swear on my mother's grave that I will personally climb up those steps and drag you down. And if I were any more violent, I would clobber you as well." Her arms crossed over her chest and her feet tapped on the floor. This was the daughter of Aunt Johanna who was the most feminine female she had ever heard of…and this was also the girl she would be sharing her first Season with. Apprehension was inevitable. Worse was that Lara was one of those few people who could unleash the unladylike qualities in the usually demure Elaine. Such idle threats should not be borne, oh the shame of it all!

"Fortunately for me you are a born a female, and a very gentle one at that. Were you a man or a bloody Amazonian…dear me I would have prayed for my own soul right this very moment."

Having her to go down was going to be impossible! So it seemed. "What are you contemplating about when you climbed up the steps and stayed there?"

"I needed to find this book Papa had before…it was suppose to be somewhere in the higher shelves as it hasn't been read in a while. I say it is rather interesting to as I do have a fondness for books not of our time. It would be more satisfying to study, having known that it has passed through so many hands, so many minds, before coming to this very room, sitting on my very lap." She smiled wistfully and turned herself back to searching.

"Do you even know what you are looking for?" Elaine asked with exasperation. With just the tone of Lara's voice she knew unquestionably that her cousin would not go down with a coax or a bribe. No…it would have to supersede her obsessive love of books and scholarly pursuit. Yes, yes…something with that much gravity could be able to persuade her. But that was even enshrouded in uncertainty. Elaine had absolutely no idea how her proposal would ever get her cousin down…away from her books.

"Certainly! I wouldn't put myself in such peril to simply browse now would I?"

"Lara you have every tendency to do just that. Remember the time you rode all by yourself to almost the ends of the surrounding environs of London just so you could purchase Homer's Aenead, which I would like to add had paper the condition that bore all traces of tragedy?"

Her cousin had the nerve to chuckle. "But you seem to miss the fact that that bound copy of Virgil's Aenead dates back to almost two centuries ago! And it was at a bargain price. Just a few thousand pounds! If you care to look at it, it would be in one of the cases. You might say it is unladylike of me, but I do love to boast about such a marvelous find. "

Elaine sighed and sat on one of the chairs. She glanced around the room, and stared blankly at the display cases. From her position she could see the numerous shelves that resembled the bookshelves only that it was made entirely out of glass. Inside—divided by more glass—were individual books with their own designated places. There was a small desk nearest to the display cases, as well as a lone chair.

"It wouldn't hurt to put those cases where there is ample sunlight. Then you wouldn't have such a hard time reading them. The dim candle, which is situated quite far, is still insufficient."

"So many factors could damage those books," Lara replied. "Exposing them to the sunlight would ramify them into further deterioration. And I have heard that exposure to air—especially with the pollution here in London—could result to stains and what have you. Simply put, I do not want to take any chances with my books. It would be too much of heartbreak if all I have worked for would amount to nothing."

"Then why not enclose it with wood? Put it near the windows and have planks of wood surrounding it," Elaine replied cantankerously. She couldn't believe she was talking about book preservation just a few scant days before the Season opener.

"Of course not, silly," her cousin replied with a laugh. "Unsealed wood are prone to termites and decay. Now that would be horrid."

Her tone implied with much obviousness her simpleton tendencies that only a strong amount of female civility stopped Elaine from brutally kicking the stepladder. Oh but the thought was rather delicious.

"Lara, please, just get down from there and give us all a peace of mind. I am in constant worry that you would fall and break you neck."

"Wait a moment, I am still looking."

"What are you looking for exactly?" Elaine demanded.

For a while she didn't get an answer. Lara was simply too preoccupied with scanning the titles of the numerous books to hear her question. She counted to ten before asking her again.

"Aha! I found it!" Lara waved a book as she was going down. It didn't look at all striking…in fact it looked like what Elaine saw in every book: boredom.

"It doesn't look very interesting...what is the title?"

Lara's voice beamed with pride when she recited the title…and many more. "Vindication Of The Rights Of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft. Printed 1791, a companion to her initial Vindication Of The Rights Of Men, which in turn was a rebuke to Doctor Richard Price's sermon, 'On The Love Of Country.'"

Elaine suspected that her expression didn't give much of an encouragement to say more. "Heavens above Lara. I merely asked for the title, not the history of it all," she said dryly.

It didn't seem to affect her at all. "But the history would be very colorful indeed! Mary Wollstonecraft has opened a gateway for women all over the world! Why if we only read this manuscript—"

"We shall all look like men," Elaine interrupted. "I do not think anybody would approve you reading that book. It only encourages you to think as obtusely as men."

"I fear I don't agree with you…because as obtusely our men are thinking, they are still the ones who hold the reins to politics and society. If to be obtuse is to have that, then I will sacrifice myself."

"Lara, do understand that men and women are different. We have roles we should do. Men have responsibilities twice our burdens. Why, we only need to look beautiful and all would be wonderful for us. And the world is balanced as it is. The two sexes work hard. Men do all the technical nitty-gritty, while we work to make it look good."

"Then where is the justice there?" Lara retorted calmly. "We are reduced to creatures who cannot work technicalities, as you so nicely put. We are prevented from proving ourselves as worthy as men. How will they ever respect us if we are not their equals?"

"We are respected. We simply have to bat our eyelashes and they will be all over us. They respect our beauty, our kindness, our grace, our silence..."

Lara shook her head. Hastily, she opened the book and read with a loud voice. "'I wish to persuade women to endeavor to acquire strength, both of mind and body, and to convince them that the soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste, are almost synonymous with epithets of weakness, and that those beings who are only the objects of pity, and that kind of love which has been termed its sister, will soon become objects of contempt.'"

"Clearly there is a mistake in that statement," Elaine replied with a bored tone. "It assumes that they are synonymous with epithets of weakness. So tell me, since when are women considered strong when they aspire to be like men? Our strength is shown because we are not afraid to voice out our emotions. We are empathic. We courageous in that aspect because these are the things men cannot do."

"Since when is courage defined as an ability one can do while others cannot? Never. If we are able to voice out our emotions—sadness, joy, even frailty—aren't we proving to ourselves that we are easily swayed by our emotions? That our decisions are not based on a man's truth but on the way he pleaded his case? And if so, we are able to give out our emotions, but are we able to give out our opinions? So far we are only given the privilege to weep for a man, yet not to fight in the House of Lords for his redemption!"

"You are absurd! Our society is just as fine with men running it and it revolving around women. It is simply the division of tasks. We are not able to work on a man's principles because we are incapable. We are women, for crying out loud our places are in ballrooms and parlors. Certainly not arguing without discretion in public. Would you want our sex to be blamed if the world goes awry? If England falls tomorrow in the hands of…of Russia, then we can blame our men."

"But the knowledge of not being able to do anything remains. Olympe de Gouges said in Le Droits de la Femme published in 1791: Observe le créateur dans sa sagesse; parcours la nature dans toute sa donne-moi, si tu l'oses, l'exemple de cet empire tirannique...cherche, fouille et distingue, si tu le peux, les sexes dans l'administration de la nature. Partout tu les trouveras confondus, partout ils coopèrent avec un ensemble harmonieux à ce chef-d'oeuvre immortel," Lara ranted of in a very rapid French that Elaine was unable to follow.

"I can't seem to follow you."

"'Go back to animals, consult the elements, study plants, finally glance at all the modifications of organic matter, and surrender to the evidence when I offer you the means; search, probe, and distinguish, if you can, the sexes in the administration of nature. Everywhere you will find them mingled; everywhere they cooperate in harmonious togetherness in this immortal masterpiece,'" Lara offered in English that was just as fast. "Oh bloody hell! You don't understand me, Eileen! It is so bloody simple! We women need rights the same as men because that is the natural thing that is the only damning truth!"

"It is more like to be the uncivilized the way!" Eileen almost shouted, but caught a hold of herself. Ladies never shouted. She proceeded with a calmer tone, "You are impossible, Lara. And by further arguing with you, I am only flattering you into thinking you have the capability to be in the House of Lords. My tongue would then commit itself to eternal damnation were I to comply. I am not giving up, if you wish that to be clarified. I am merely stressing on the fact that we should be going now, if you do not wish to disappoint your grandmother with your tardiness once again.

"And take care with that mouth of yours! You do sound verily like a common trollop with that kind of profanity!"

Lara didn't say anything else. Instead, she carefully placed the book on the table, ran out the door, and immediately changed for her appointment with Le Sorcière. She loved the old woman dearly, yet she was quite an Original, with ideas that either amused her or horrified her. What sort of unpleasant or agreeable mechanizations did she have prepared for her?