The Bront? Project
It is painful to be dependent on the small stimulus letters give.--Charlotte Bronte, to Ellen Nussey, 1850
Fate affords some lovers only one opportunity to meet. Others it allows endless opportunities, so that their coupling seems more like the work of fate's fair-haired cousin, serendipity. Whatever the circumstances, any number of preconditions must gather around this fortuitous event. In the case of Sara and Paul it was the combination of a graduate seminar on the modern British novel, a boring holiday party, Anglophilia in general, and Paul's vague resemblance to a young Laurence Olivier in particular. They had so capitalized on their good fortune that six years after the fact they stood side by side, surveying the crowd, both eyeing the door and drinking a cheap merlot from plastic cups.
Even in the most generous accounting, fate has a lot to answer for. Romeo and Juliet met on a Sunday and were dead by Thursday. This was a fact Sara had picked up at an academic seminar, "Shakespeare's Love and Time: Counting Our Days"-something like that-wedged between lectures on Ophelia's eating disorders and Macbeth's compulsive gambling. Someone had actually taken it upon himself to count the days in that play, a ludicrous venture Sara had thought at the time. But it was an instructive fact, one that stayed with her. This was the true lesson of Romeo and Juliet: The course of destiny was hard and swift. That stranger you met on Sunday could be the corpse of your true love draped artfully over your own cadaver on Thursday. You just never knew.
Sara remembered this fact as she watched Paul chatting joylessly with the Vice Dean, the cheap merlot coating the back of her throat like syrup. The wine was actually very expensive, she thought. Not that the wine was any good, but it's a particular brand of wine that a particular brand of people will stand around in bright rooms drinking out of plastic cups, people who must believe this activity will bring them some advantage. In terms of lost time, dignity, and energy, the wine actually came at a very steep price. Sara had time to think of this as she set down her cup and approached the cheese platter, realizing the same theory applied to cheese.
"The wine's actually pretty expensive, if you think about it," Sara whispered to Paul. They were in need of the quiet intimacy of a shared joke.
"Sorry, what?" Paul asked, distracted.
"The wine. It's expensive. If you factor in the lost time and . . . dignity . . ." Sara said, faltering. It was less amusing out loud and Paul gave her the indulgent smile of a joke unrealized.
"Then let's go," Paul said.
It happened every year in late August, the old faculty welcoming the new. It seemed a strange custom to celebrate newness by offering up the same old: bad wine, bad cheese, new teachers, welcome. Paul was ready to leave and find a proper drink elsewhere. He'd learned there wasn't much advantage to be found here while Sara still hadn't, and it was creating a rift. Paul didn't need these events like Sara did. He'd already published-at twenty-seven, no less-and wrote about sexy topics like language and power that attracted grants and the attention of Vice Deans.
Sara was not so lucky in her research, which concerned letters and, more specifically, lost letters. She was looking for Bronte letters. The Brontes were famously avid correspondents and scrupulous destroyers of their own work. Such was the Victorian horror of private revelation that few of these personal missives survived. The bulk of her research consisted of dead-end correspondences with cranky old ladies in Belgium and England who may or may not have lost Bronte letters languishing in their attics. They had gotten to be an occupational hazard, these lonely widows who would tease out Sara's interest in their forgotten archives. They would tell her of their cat's indigestion, their lost pension checks, visits to the doctor, cataloging in minute detail their various physical complaints. They would describe the boorishness of neighbors, the ingratitude of children, the sad, failing light on their kitchen's windowsill before getting down to Sara's real purpose in writing them. Invariably the investigations ended in disappointment.
Sara would probably never find an authentic letter, and she had to admit during quieter moments that perhaps this search was simply an attempt to delay the inevitable: writing her thesis. There was a long list of missing Bronte letters and writings, but by now most people assumed they'd been destroyed, and who really cared? Not Sara's thesis adviser.
"D'you think there might've been some sexual abuse in there?" her adviser once asked hopefully.
"Good God, no," Sara replied.
"Oh, well, can't hurt to look, can it?" the adviser suggested merrily.
With most English Ph.D. candidates scrambling for the last crumbs of employment, Sara knew she was poorly situated. For the time being, the department would plug her into Lit. 101 courses, sopping up the excess of unlettered freshmen. Her research grant, which provided the bulk of her living expenses, was due for renewal soon and she was becoming keenly aware that unless she did something vaguely fashionable, something vaguely sexy as Paul had, her days were numbered.
"Let's go," Paul whispered again.
"We're celebrating newness," Sara reminded.
"Oh, right," Paul sighed.
Something always compelled her to believe that five more minutes would rectify a brief academic career distinguished mostly by its silence. Even this pathetic celebration of newness gave her hope. She knew Paul was mostly there for her benefit this year and he was eager to leave at the first opportunity. Then there was a collective rustling in the room. Sara looked up to see that Claire Vigee, the bestselling Princess Diana scholar and the faculty's most dazzling new addition, had arrived.
"Excuse me, everyone," Claire began.
The crowd turned to face Claire, who was dressed like a cross between Rita Hayworth and a seventeenth-century courtesan and was flanked by two very buff black men dressed entirely in leather. This was new.
"These are Derek and Lester, my bodyguards," Claire announced in a lilting accent that sounded to Sara like an indefinable mix of French, British, and pretentiousness. "There have been some death threats. Anyway, they're passing out directions to the launch party tonight for my new book, which you probably all know about. I'm afraid I have to be off, but I just want you all to know how much I look forward to teaching here this year and learning from all of you and all that. Thanks."
Something about the way Claire had thanked them provoked the crowd to give her a round of applause, as though they had just given her an award. The book party was being sponsored by the journal Claire edited, Labia, and Sara overheard Ed Grimes, the drunken medievalist, snicker triumphantly about never turning down an invitation from "labia" as bodyguard Derek thrust an invitation into her hands. General merriment erupted as the crowd that had lowered its sights to Free Bad Wine learned that it was now being treated to an Open Bar. Sara was about to toss her invitation away when she caught Paul's eye and realized that, of course, they were going.
Sara already knew Claire and knew she hated her. She had mistakenly sat on a panel Claire conducted a couple of years ago. Mistakenly, because Sara had written an article about the Brontes an editor had unfortunately titled "Sister Power," and for a full year after that, Sara had been invited to speak at symposia of all kind to discuss her role at the forefront of the gender wars. Sara had no desire to be at the forefront of any war, much less one so indeterminate, but she had accepted Claire's invitation before realizing she'd been mistakenly dubbed a campus firebrand. Modern readings of the classics were generally pretty indulgent affairs, Sara thought. She realized her attitude was unfashionable, but what could she do? She sat on Claire's panel (to decline after accepting would have aroused speculation) in stony silence. After an hour of tepid debate among the other panelists about quilting and women murderers, Claire turned to Sara and asked if she was giving a demonstration of "Victorian feminine silence." Sara mumbled something incoherent about corsets and wished she were dead. Or Claire were dead.
Luckily, a woman on the panel, Toi from Syracuse, who'd been spoiling for a fight ever since Claire dismissed her life's work as "that whole Otherness thing," redirected the debate toward her sphere of inquiry: "It's always about some white lady gettin' laid-that's all those books are. Why doesn't she step aside and let some of her Latina and African-American sisters get some of the action?" The audience cheered. Sara thought perhaps she should point out that in the "gettin' laid" category the Brontes were notable failures with the exception of Charlotte, who possibly got some action during her six-month marriage before dropping dead at thirty-eight. But then perhaps she'd misunderstood Toi's point.
But that was two years ago. Sara was sure Claire wouldn't remember her.
"The silent Victorian! I wondered what darkened corner you'd receded into!" And in fact Sara did look around for a darkened corner, but she could feel Paul tugging her toward Claire.
"I'm so glad people from the department are coming. Did you see my bodyguards? They're very sexy but not very attentive." Claire gestured toward Lester and Derek, who were drunkenly flirting with each other in the far corner.
"I'm telling everyone to get bodyguards these days. Even if you don't need them, which I do, they make one feel, how can I say, so valuable?"
Sara tried to exchange a look of disbelief with Paul, who was staring at Claire, disturbingly entranced.
Claire inexplicably flicked the edge of her bustier with her thumb before taking Paul's hand.
"Of course you are, I know. You do Orwell and she does Bronte. It must be reassuring to have professional interests that are so conventionally gendered. Some mornings I wake up and say, Claire, just one day without sexual ambiguity, please, because living with ambiguity is actually very difficult, it requires a very complex mind like mine, which I know scares people, but then most of my friends are very famous and they don't mind. Excuse me."
Claire waved at someone across the room and ran to embrace her. Or him.
"What a freak," Sara muttered under her breath.
"Oh, I don't know," Paul said, gesturing to the bartender for a drink. Sara took a deep, stabilizing breath. Claire was like the anti-Sara: Where Sara was slim-hipped, small-breasted, and quiet, Claire was shapely and loud. Where Sara had straight dark hair, Claire had a shock of coppery red curls. Sara favored the practical and the classic in clothing and colors that, as her mother liked to point out, occurred naturally in bruises-blacks, grays, and blues-while Claire went for the blatantly trendy and expensive. On Claire even black looked red.
She was everything Sara was not, so Paul's passing interest in her bothered Sara. But she and Paul matched, she reassured herself. Hadn't they simultaneously thrown out the bulk of thrift-store clothing that comprised their early-twentysomething wardrobes and jointly acquired tailored, professional clothes, with only the random thrift-store purchase to maintain their prior claim to hipness? Paul would look ridiculous standing next to Claire, doubtless part of her appeal, Sara figured. His closet now bulged with nice suits and sweaters, but an accusation of conventionality could still cut him to the core.
"She called us conventionally gendered," Sara reminded him.
"She called me searingly nihilistic," said Meredith, who joined them. Meredith taught poetry.
"Well, you are," Paul replied.
Meredith was developing a reputation for her ability to recover painful childhood memories and relate them in verse that was invariably described by reviewers as stark, scathing, or searing. Less charitable members of the faculty enjoyed the game of speculating as to what new tragedy Meredith would recall for a sequel.
"Screw you, Paul," Meredith said, waving off one of the toga-clad waitresses.
"Is this a theme party?" Paul asked.
"You're being served a fig tart by a Roman slave-what do you think?"
"You're in a good mood, Meredith," Paul said. Meredith smiled and indicated to the bartender another round, whispering, "This turns into a cash bar in twenty minutes-we better hurry up and get ripped." A woman in a sleek black suit grabbed Meredith's shoulder.
"There you are. There's a promising young filmmaker you might want to meet over there next to the column."
"Doric or Ionic?" Paul asked the young woman. She stared at him, uncomprehending, then ran a hand down the front of her suit.
"This is Maura, Claire's publicist's assistant," Meredith intoned with mock interest. "Paul's also an author." This information produced a calming effect on Maura.
"Where have you published?" she asked.
"Mostly in Hungary and the back of men's magazines."
Maura frowned slightly.
"Right now I'm editing The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing a Complete Idiot's Guide," Paul added.
Maura brightened. "I love those books! I learned all about mutual funds. You'll have to let me know when it comes out. What about you?" Maura wheeled around to Sara.
"I'm working on my thesis," Sara said, carefully avoiding anything that might provoke interest.
"The Bronte sisters."
Maura thought, cross-referencing with speed-dial celerity. "You know, I love all that old Motown stuff." She noticed a young man in baggy trousers and tiny eyeglasses. "That's the one," she told Meredith.
Excerpted from The Bront? Project by Jennifer Vandever Excerpted by permission.
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