I am going to be spending about a week in the Adirondacks, starting tomorrow, so my normal posting schedule shall be moot. I'm therefore also putting up my non-essay post early. It comes from the brilliant and neglected novel Gaudy Night, a mystery by Dorothy Sayers, who was a friend of C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams. It was written, and is set, in the 1930s, and concerns a fictional Oxford women's college. Its fascinating insight into the problems of intellectual and emotional integrity has made it one of the most engaging and enriching books I've ever read.
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"'I quite agree with you,' said Miss de Vine, 'about the difficulty of combining intellectual and emotional interests. I don't think it affects women only; it affects men as well. But when men put their public lives before their private lives, it causes less outcry than when a woman does the same thing, because women put up with neglect better than men, having been brought up to expect it.'
'But suppose one doesn't quite know which one wants to put first. Suppose,' said Harriet, falling back on words which were not her own, 'suppose one is cursed with both a heart and a brain?'
'You can usually tell,' said Miss de Vine, 'by seeing what kind of mistakes you make. I'm quite sure than one never makes fundamental mistakes about the thing one really wants to do. Fundamental mistakes arise out of a lack of genuine interest. In my opinion, that is.'
'I made a very big mistake once,' said Harriet, 'as I expect you know. I don't think that arose out of a lack of interest. It seemed at the time the most important thing in the world.'
'And yet you made the mistake. Were you really giving all your mind to it, do you think? Your mind? Were you really being as cautious and exacting about it as you would be about writing a passage of fine prose?'
'That's rather a difficult sort of comparison. One can't, surely, deal with emotional excitements in that detached spirit.'
'Isn't the writing of good prose an emotional excitement?'
'Yes, of course it is. At least, when you get the thing dead right and know it's dead right, there's no excitement like it. It makes you feel like God on the Seventh Day -- for a bit, anyhow.'
'Well, that's what I mean. You expend the trouble and you don't make any mistakes -- and then you experience the ecstasy. But if there's any subject in which you're content with the second rate, then it isn't really your subject.'
'You're dead right,' said Harriet after a pause. 'If one's genuinely interested one knows how to be patient, and let time pass, as Queen Elizabeth said. Perhaps that's the meaning of the phrase about genius being eternal patience, which I always thought rather absurd. If you truly want a thing, you don't snatch; if you snatch, you don't really want it. Do you suppose that, if you find yourself taking pains about a thing, it's a proof of its importance to you?'
'I think it is, to a large extent. But the big proof is that the thing comes right, without those fundamental errors. One always makes surface errors, of course. But a fundamental error is a sure sign of not caring. I wish one could teach people nowadays that the doctrine of snatching what one thinks one wants is unsound.'
'I say six plays this winter in London,' said Harriet, 'all preaching the doctrine of snatch. I agree that they left me with the feeling that none of the characters knew what they wanted.'
'No,' said Miss de Vine. 'If you are once sure what you do want, you find that everything else goes down before it like grass under a roller -- all other interests, your own and other people's. Miss Lydgate wouldn't like my saying that, but it's as true of her as of anybody else. She's the kindest soul in the world, in things she's indifferent about, like the peculations of Jukes. But she hasn't the slightest mercy on the prosodical theories of Mr. Elkbottom. She wouldn't countenance those to save Mr. Elkbottom from hanging. She'd say she couldn't. And she couldn't, of course. If she actually saw Mr. Elkbottom writhing in humiliation, she'd be sorry, but she wouldn't alter a paragraph. That would be treason. One can't be pitiful where one's own job is concerned. You'd lie cheerfully, I expect, about anything except -- what?'
'Oh, anything!' said Harriet, laughing. 'Except saying that somebody's beastly book is good when it isn't. I can't do that. It makes me a lot of enemies, but I can't do it.'
'No, one can't,' said Miss de Vine. 'However painful it is, there's always one thing one has to deal with sincerely, if there's any root to one's mind at all. Of course, the one thing may be an emotional thing; I don't say it mayn't. One may commit all the sins in the calendar, and still be faithful and honest towards one person. If so, then that one person is probably one's appointed job. I'm not despising that kind of loyalty; it doesn't happen to be mine, that is all.'
'Did you discover that by making a fundamental mistake?' asked Harriet, a little nervously.
'Yes,' said Miss de Vine. 'I once got engaged to somebody. But I found I was always blundering -- hurting his feelings, doing stupid things, making quite elementary mistakes about him. In the end I realized I simply wasn't taking as much trouble with him as I should have done over a disputed reading. So I decided he wasn't my job.' She smiled. 'For all that, I was fonder of him than he was of me. He married an excellent woman who is devoted to him and does make him her job. I should think he was a full-time job. He is a painter and usually on the verge of bankruptcy; but he paints very well.'"