Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Book Review: Advice to a Young Wife from an old Mistress

'This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called woman because she was taken out of man.' (Gen2:23) In this way the man...manifests for the first time joy and even exaltation, for which he had no reason before, owing to the lack of a being like himself. Joy in the other human being, in the second 'self,' dominates in the words spoken by the man...on seeing the woman....All that helps to establish the full meaning of original unity. the words are few, but each one is of great weight.

--Pope John Paul II, Original Unity of Man and Woman

Michael Drury’s Advice to a Young Wife from an old Mistress (Random House, 1993) is not a Catholic book, and yet it reads with more modesty and restraint than many books on the theology of the body. It speaks of the beauty of what married love should be, told by someone from the outside looking in the window. “Michael Drury” is the pen name for the author, who edited the musings of an anonymous “old mistress.” According to the Mistress:

I have said that I am old-fashioned, and it gratifies my late Victorian up-bringing to think that it is so. It also, I admit, amuses my late twentieth century sense of comic justice. I find it funny that I, who for almost thirty years was mistress to an eminent man and no little scandal, should now be the outraged and proper one, upholder of the old order. Funny and yet sad, for what shocks me is the dehumanization of love by young and wholly legal wives who chop and nail down and reduce that powerful force to a technique no different from driving a car or mastering the methods of good grooming. I am appalled by their consumer approach, their concern with management, their ineffectuality as women - - sexless, competitive, anxiety-ridden. (p.11)

She views modern “sex education” with distaste. In my opinion, her comments are some of the best descriptions I have come across of what is wrong, on a natural level, with violating the modesty of young people in such a manner.

I am opposed to sex education as such. It so fatuously confuses vocabulary with vocation. We are not minds or bodies or sex urges or case histories any more than we are mechanisms for breathing or digesting: we are persons…. By all means, let us have the biological facts, but not as if they were the whole truth, and not, in heaven’s name, in classrooms and groups….Sex education inevitably becomes sex theory, how one “should” feel, react, think, care….A knowledge of averages and generalities creates an anxiety to prove oneself….Nothing could be more puritanical and proscriptive. No wonder modern marriage is afflicted with inward weeping. (pp.76-77)

The point is made that too often married people think that matrimony affords them the liberty to say whatever they want to their spouse.

Have a care for the loose talk inside your head. It reflects in a hundred subtle ways: tone of voice, a glance, a gesture, the things you choose to laugh at, the quickness or slowness of response. All this in turn governs the quality and amount of love you will allow, and thus the kind you get.
(p. 32)

(I think Saint John of the Cross said something similar: “Bridle your tongue and your thoughts very much, direct your affection habitually toward God, and your spirit will be divinely enkindled.”)

The Mistress encourages wives to keep an aura of mystery, to avoid self-pity like the plague, and to cultivate talents and interests, in order to maintain the dynamism, the give-and-take of the relationship.

The only people worth loving are those who are determined to find life good whether you love them or not. The bubble belief that dumping one’s happiness on another enhances affection is merely shirking. Emerson said that God offers to every mind the option between truth and repose, but not both. The same choice has to be made between love and laziness.

In the nature of things, we meet and marry long before we are full-scale identities, but that is no excuse for staying incomplete. We love most those who make us fulfill whatever greatness lies in us, not those who induce us to resign it. Remember how it was at first, how you went around pouring out; and refill your reservoir from the same springs as before you met, for that is what brought love to your door.
(pp. 52-53)

How vital it is for a marriage to keep a sense of adventure, spontaneity and fun, amid the monotony that often becomes part of building a life and a home.

Spontaneity coexists with a love affair, but marriage does not have to be a rigidly planned economy. A young widow struggling to make ends meet said to me, ‘I’m glad for all the reckless things we did. If we had waited until we could afford them, now it would be too late.’

….Love endures not in a perpetual day, but in the reality of having seen and touched and known, an alchemy that changes forever one’s relationship to time. Love will never hold back the dark, but it is so blazing a truth that it compensates for transcience. Married lovers would do well to remember that….

Part of falling in love is the heady blend of familiarity and strangeness. Here is someone at once so like you that you have come home, and yet so different he opens a thousand windows on the universe. Love needs both aspects to endure….” (pp.42-43)

Some of the final comments about love are really beautiful.

Intellectual bankruptcy is no more attractive than any other kind of poverty. Intelligence is necessary for oneself first, and after that for love to come alive in. Any man who is drawn solely to surfaces and youthful charm is eventually not going to be enough of a man for the woman you shall have become, if you grow at all. It is just that simple. Love is vastly more than sex and family life, a social unit, an economic cog.…Love is a wealth…where mind, body, and spirit meet and dissolve, to gather again in new dimensions and forms. (p107)

Spousal love is meant to reflect the love of Christ for His Church. Man and woman are destined to find Heaven together, even as they journey towards the New Jerusalem. Love as sacrifice and sacrament is an integral part of the Christian life, and this book so eloquently expresses so many sublime truths while dealing with practicalities. I found it to be an inspiring tool for the ascent.


Anonymous said...

What a good post, EMV! When I read this book (upon reading your own recommendation of it) I thought this "mistress" amazingly (and ironically) echoed teh wisdom of the Saints in many ways, particularly in regard to self-control, self-sufficiency and regard towards others. Much of the advice is great for anyone, and wives surely can benefit from her relationship advice!

elena maria vidal said...

Thanks, Georgette, I totally agree that ironically this book was very spiritual and helpful in a practical way about building a beautiful marriage.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post!

From a young adult...
I found the section on sex education an interesting read. There is so much controversy surrounding what should or should not be taught. I had sex education in my junior high religion classes while at my K-8 Catholic school. Besides studying the differences between girls and boys, we also looked at other topics from a catholic perspective.
While you have to study about the human body in a biology or other related classes, it should be done in an objective and manner.
I wish young people heard about how important it is to remain chaste too. Saying no can spare you many wounds and regrets despite whatever you hear from others about it. I once read purity doesn't know regrets.

elena maria vidal said...

Yes, dear, I agree that such matters must be taught in light of the sanctity of love and the sacredness of the human person, preferably by the parents. Thank you for your beautiful words about purity.

Anonymous said...

This sounds like something every bride should read. Thanks, elena.