After a vigorous discussion on Emotional Labor, prompted by this MetaFilter discussion, I found myself wanting to reread Persuasion by Jane Austen. Now that I’m halfway through it, I realize why my subconscious made the connection.
I love Persuasion. I love that it hasn’t been co-opted by Hollywood. I love that it’s about a woman who was disappointed in love eight years ago and has had to fully accept the consequences of making a decision that ended all hope of happiness for her.
In all of her novels, but especially this one, Jane Austen does a fantastic job of describing the thoughts and feelings that grease social interactions. Now that I’ve learned my new vocabulary words: “emotional labor” I can’t stop applying that lens to everything I observe. Anne Elliott, in Persuasion, feels the burden of unseen emotional labor. She doesn’t even realize it’s a burden, most of the time. She considers it her responsibility to account for the feelings and desires of the (often selfish) people around her, to smooth their way without acknowledgment for her effort.
Books do shape us and I wonder if my love for Jane Austen gave me the wrong tools for modern social life. There was a Facebook group called “Jane Austen gave me unrealistic expectations of men” and now I think I should belong to a group called “Jane Austen gave me outdated expectations of myself.” I’m reading about Anne making herself amiable and disinterested and realize that I have tried doing that when around my own family. In the past couple years, I realized that being so passive around my family was boring! I would go stay with my grandmother and kill vacation days not doing much of anything. I thought I was doing it to be easy on my grandmother, but I’ve slowly come to realize, that maybe she wouldn’t mind if I showed initiative and desire to go out and do things. While we’re at it, why was I using my precious time off to just hang out instead of go to awesome places? I have a friend living in Alaska that I’ve been wanting to visit, but never have time or money after my family trips. I’ve been operating under these false obligations that a single woman has to put her family first– when I don’t think my family would have their feelings hurt if I decided to do something else.
I’m a bit worried that my new perspective on emotional labor might make me dislike Jane Austen. That would be terrible! But I have to say, while reading Persuasion, I’m a bit frustrated with Anne. I want her to speak up, claim what she wants, and stop caring about what her selfish family wants. I know what happens in the story, but now I’m reading it with whole new eyes– is that what happens? Does she grow into a self-determined woman, or does chance and circumstance lead her to a happy ending?
I thought that if I was considerate, good, self-sufficient, then all my dreams would come true. Where did I get that idea? Austen? Disney? church? Well, I’ve been waiting for years for things to fall in my lap, because I was considerate, good, and self-sufficient. But the good things that have happened were a result of me identifying a goal and working toward the goal, claiming the reward. It was not sitting back and waiting for someone to notice me. Anne Elliott is waiting for someone to notice her. While some decent people do (and some indecent people), it doesn’t lead to her happiness.