I love it when a character who’s been presented as mean, tactless, heartless, or downright cruel reveals that he or she sees the main character with perfect and loving clarity.
This often happens in historical romance novels, particularly between noble sons and their cold, distant fathers. I’m a sucker for it every time. And it happened in the mystery I finished yesterday.
In Alan Bradley’s novel series, Flavia de Luce is an 11-year-old chemistry buff and poisons expert living in a big pile of a house in 1950s rural England with her father and two older sisters. In the second book, The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag, her father’s sister comes to visit. Aunt Felicity is a blowhard of the first order. Every word out of her mouth is an insult to someone, especially to her brother about his house, his finances, and how he’s raising his daughters. She’s bossy, controlling, and Always Right.
But one day, she makes Flavia carry her painting equipment to the island of the ornamental lake behind the house so she can paint the folly (fake Roman ruins). Once there, she tells Flavia tales of her own childhood at that house, playing with Flavia’s mother. Harriet had died the year after Flavia was born, and her older sisters had always told her that she had, through being so disappointing that she’d driven their mother to go all the way to Tibet to escape her, killed their mother. And her father is constantly present, yet too absent to correct this impression.
So Aunt Felicity’s words change Flavia’s beliefs about herself in a heartbeat. “Good heavens, child! If you want to see your mother, you have no more than to look in the glass. If you want to know her character, look inside yourself. You’re so much like her, it gives me the willies.”
Aunt Felicity goes into detail, particularly about their mutual love for chemistry. But then she, who is presented as aggressively conventional, talks to Flavia about her passion for ferreting out information, particularly about murders. Because, really, what good would it be to be an under-supervised 11-year-old poisons expert if you couldn’t run around the village solving murders.
“You must listen to your inspiration. You must let your inner vision be your Pole Star…. You must never be deflected by unpleasantness…. Although it may not be apparent to others, your duty will become as clear to you as if it were a white line painted down the middle of the road. You much follow it, Flavia…. Even when it leads to murder.”
And then this, which is amazing advice to anyone: “If you remember nothing else, remember this: Inspiration from outside one’s self is like the heat in an oven. It makes passable Bath buns. But inspiration from within is like a volcano: It changes the face of the world.”
Stuff like that gets me every time. It does in love songs, too. The chorus of Alanis Morisette’s “Everything” sums up why:
“You see everything, you see every part
You see all my light and you love my dark
You dig everything of which I’m ashamed
There’s not anything to which you can’t relate
And you’re still here”
So it isn’t just the moment of being seen, it’s being seen and also loved, appreciated, embraced.
That changes a person, gives them courage to be who they always wanted to be, but were afraid of what others would think. So even though the moments are just that, momentary — Aunt Felicity goes back to being a bossy blowhard. Spouses drift around each other. Friends take each other for granted. We repeat lines in the liturgy unthinkingly — what we believe about ourselves has been changed. And hopefully our actions will follow.
That moment of being seen can be pretty momentous. And now I’m getting as sappy as if I’d just read one of those scenes.