I have a bad feminist confession. Sometimes, I’m really quite jealous of the way women in Victorian literature were allowed to just completely fall apart when struck down by lovesickness, that most literary of afflictions. For those young, hopelessly romantic girls, who wore too much on their sleeves and fell in love too easily with men from questionable backgrounds, collapsing into this malady from time to time was apparently quite normal. In these novels, a broken heart seemed to be accepted as a proper sort of disease, a forgivable kind of madness.
And sometimes I think, they’re so freaking lucky.
Suffering from lovesickness wasn’t quite the same as being the proverbial madwoman in the attic. Beautiful girls were allowed to temporarily become tragic, feverish creatures, all limp and pale and romantically disheveled. Because in springtime, after the illness had run its natural course, they always got that rosy glow back in their lily-white cheeks, and were ready to flounce back into society and marry the right man this time, and live happily ever after.
I suffered a particularly intense bout of lovesickness about two years ago. My beloved was a charmer all the way from Maryland, which was exotic to the naïve 20-year-old I was. Dark, handsome and softly-spoken, he swept me off my little feet and swore his undying love- only to run off to Scotland, never to be seen again.
In a Victorian novel, whispers of his new blossoming romance a week later might not have even made it across the oceans, but in the age of Facebook, the photos popped up all too soon. And so I became a crazy, weeping mess, falling into a tragically feeble state of distress that took me a good year and a half to fully recover from.
And I can’t help but think- wouldn’t it have been nice to have been allowed to lie in bed and weep for a few months, until the illness had run its natural course? When Marianne Dashwood was screwed over by Willoughby, it was perfectly okay for her to slip into a prolonged, hysterical fever, while everyone tiptoed past the bedroom, whispering about her health and bringing in tea and food and washcloths and caring for her so tenderly.
In a more contemporary novel, like say, Siri Hustvedt’s The Summer Without Men, that sort of carrying on just gets you put in a psych ward. We don’t really believe love can make you sick anymore- and besides, being a strong, independent woman means having to soldier on. Otherwise, you are the madwoman in the attic.
Love is a special kind of crazy and heartbreak is a worse kind. But sometimes I think the kind of madness that comes from weeks or months or even years of struggling to function like a normal, healthy, sane person when you feel least like one, might be worse than letting yourself have a temporary breakdown. If I’d given myself permission to completely fall apart after my heartbreak, just for a little while, maybe I could have recovered sooner, instead of letting it hover around and grow for the next year.
I’m all for soldiering on, for the most part. But just every once in a while, I wish life could be more like a Jane Austen novel. And a little break to a sanatorium in the mountains somewhere to recover from a broken heart sounds kind of nice.