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Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Frustrated Women–Fussbudgets, Shrews, And Nietzschean Heroes

“Your brother’s wife is a fussbudget”, his mother said. “She can’t sit still, and it drives me crazy”.
A bit harsh, thought Randolph, but true. Emily was always doing something with a fidgety nervousness. She rearranged the glassware, polished the silver, rearranged her desk, and aligned the picture books on the coffee table. In olden days she would have been clacking away at her knitting or crocheting a sampler to avoid the idle hands that might make light the devil’s work; but Emily Potter was no Calvinist, and had not been brought up in the strict Puritanical households of some of her friends.

Eliza James, a friend of the family, had never had more than seven hours of sleep since infancy. All lights were doused as soon as the sun came up on winter mornings, and her mother read by the last feeble light of late afternoon until it was too dark to turn another page. Shoes were to be removed and left by the door.  Sinks, counters, and the kitchen floor all had to be spotless, fleck-free, and as clean and bright as the day they had been put in.  Eliza’s mother had been brought up in a strict Protestant home where the Calvinist principles of work, industry, and austerity were not just abstract concepts (although her father had hung a portrait of Cotton Mather over the mantelpiece), but real, living precepts to be followed rigorously in daily life.

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Eliza’s mother was never still; and if she was not busy with housework, she read the Bible, transcribed special verses for her husband which she laid on his pillow to read before he went to sleep, or sang hymns quietly to herself.  Because of her upbringing, her busyness was understandable, although sad.  She had been born too early, she once told her daughter, and missed out on the advantages young women had many years later.  Although she loved her husband and her children, believed in God, and accepted the simple, dutiful life that had been planned for her, she wished she could have done something with her life. It was not meant to be, and all her energy and intelligence while not completely wasted ebbed away without any purpose, and before she knew it, it was too late too do anything about it.

Randolph’s sister-in-law, Emily, had no such excuses.  She was intelligent, educated, and from a good family; but somewhere along the path to professional success she had gotten distracted. She had graduated from college with a creditable record but with no particular idea what to do with her life.  She went from school to school and job to job without any holding her attention for more than a few months.  She had plenty of energy and, at least at the beginning, enthusiasm; yet she lacked any real sense of purpose or motivation.  She had plenty of drive, but no place to go.

She was lucky to meet Randolph’s brother, Henrik, when she was still quite young. Henrik was uncomplicated, relaxed, and centered.  He wanted very little from his professional life, and was happy enough to work in routine jobs.  He studied accounting and joined one of the last independent banks in Ames, Iowa, where he was told that he had a promising career.  While his classmates headed off to business school and then high-powered investment banking firms in New York and Chicago, Henrik chose to stay close to home.

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His marriage to Emily seemed to many to be a mismatch.  Emily had entered the nervously fidgety stage of her life – ‘aleatory anxiety’ the psychiatrist had called it – during which her remarkable but unchanneled energy spent itself in purposeless activities. “She flutters around like a butterfly”, Randolph’s mother had said. “Never lighting for more than a second on any flower”.  That was the most generous thing the mother had ever said about her daughter-in-law whom she thought irritatingly fussy. How could the patient, almost lethargic Henrik, ever survive a long marriage with such a woman?

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Randolph thought of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew in which Kate has vitality, energy, and intelligence; but is unable to express anything of her personality because of a severe and overbearing father.  Instead, all of her vivaciousness and quick wit turn sour and mean; and when she meets Petruchio, a potential suitor for her beautiful and desirable sister, she is abrasive, shrewish, and impossible.

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Petruchio, however, had spent his younger years in search of a bride who would be his intellectual and emotional equal.  A traditional wife and mother would never do. On their first meeting Petruchio knew immediately that the succubus before him was the exciting, spirited woman for whom he had been looking.

Petruchio understood Kate and sensed that she was not the venomous and misandrous woman she seemed.  Her vileness was a distortion, a convolution of natural expressiveness, good nature, and a loving spirit.

Their marriage was the best that Shakespeare ever crafted. The shrew and the tamer of shrew; both wanting the same thing  - a resolution to their frustrations and a chance to be themselves.

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Emily and Henrik were a perfect match.  Henrik loved to sit in the living room by the fire and hear his wife fidgeting in the kitchen.  He liked to watch her dust, rearrange the family photo album, potter about the yard trimming the petunias and weeding the garden.

Emily was as fidgety as ever but no longer nervously so.  She knew that her husband would never demand anything more from her; never accuse her of wasting her talents and abilities; or of drifting and fluttering.  In his strange but happy lethargy, he had tamed her.

Many smart women not unlike Eliza’s mother were simply born too earl. A secretary at mamor international bank in the 80s was English, the daughter of a milliner and a kindergarten teacher; and because of her working class background could never even consider higher education let alone Oxford or Cambridge.  She went to normal school, emigrated to the United States when she was 25 and managed to get a secretarial post in a minor department of the Bank. 

The work was tedious, monotonous, dull, and led nowhere; so it was no surprise that Barbara used her brains, canniness, and sharp insights to twisted ends.  She kept a dossier on every one of the professionals she served, watched their comings and going, tracked their demeanor, the cast of their clothes, the smell of their breath, and the pace of their gait.  She got something on everyone and let them know it. She was no blackmailer and had no interest in playing the Brits or Pakistanis for personal gain. It was enough to know that she could make life very difficult indeed for all of them.

Hedda Gabler was also a woman born ahead of her time.  She was brilliant, arrogant, self-assured, purposeful, and dominant.  She understood that for a woman of her time and place – Norway in the late 19th century – her only success could be that of her husband; and like the Bank secretary, enjoyed the pure exercise of will. The only validating action in a meaningless world was the expression of individual will, she said, and she wanted not only to control but to shape the destiny of others.  She was a mean, self-centered, Nietzschean hero.

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Laura, the wife of the Captain in Strindberg’s The Father had no philosophical motives for unmanning of her husband.  Sending him to the madhouse to gain sole possession of their only child was purposeful, practical, and heroic.

All these women – Emily, Eliza’s mother, Kate, Hedda Gabler, and Laura – were all fussbudgets.  They had more intelligence, energy, and ambition than the times could accept. They were cast in the same mold as Shakespeare’s comedic heroines – Rosalind, Beatrice, and Portia who run rings round the men who woo them. Most women accepted their lot, and were dutiful, respectful wives. Not so the Nietzschean heroines of literature and life.


Emily and Kate needed only the complementarity of a good sexual relationship to calm their nerves, to set them on an even keel after years of frustration.  Kate loved Petruchio because he loved her excesses and theatricality.  Emily loved Henrik because he was never impatient with her.  She might have been a fussbudget to his mother, but not to him.

Laura and Hedda on the other hand, were Supermen. Unsatisfied with the hand they had been dealt, frustrated but ambitious, they twisted every positive impulse into negative ones. They cared little for the rightness or morality of their actions, only the result.

Men are rarely cast in these roles.  They have always enjoyed status, privilege, and success if only by birth, sex, and lineage.  Women have had to plot, scheme, and manipulate to get what they wanted.  Only some succeeded.  The rest became fussbudgets who could only hope for a Henrik or Petruchio to come to their rescue.

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