Stepping Heavenward: A Year’s Probation

Stepping Heavenward: A Year’s Probation September 27, 2019

Stepping Heavenward, chapter III part 2 and chapter IV part 1

And I’m back with the ongoing saga of Katy’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad mother!

As you may remember from last week, 17-year-old Katy has been much thrown together with her friend Jane Underhill’s brother, Charley. Meanwhile, her mother has been distracted with caring for the poor, and with continuing to mourn Katy’s late father. But alas! Katy’s days of peaceful romping with the romantic and dashing Charlie have come to an end.

Katy’s mother has forbidden her from attending the little “lessons” and her friends had set up, under the tutelage of the dashing cad Charlie. Some of my readers speculated that perhaps Charley was not monied or set up in business enough to marry, making it none of his business to toy with the hearts of girls like Katy. Charley, though, stands to inherit his wealthy grandfather’s fortune. So while, certainly, he ought to set himself up in business, he does not lack for money. And one gets the feeling that that is rather part of the problem.

On October 1, Katy writes as follows in her journal:

The very day after I wrote that mother had forbidden my going to the class, Charley came to see her, and they had a regular fight together. He has told me about it since. Then, as he could not prevail, his uncle wrote, told her it would be the making of Charley to be settled down on one young lady instead of hovering from flower to flower, as he was doing now.

I get the feeling Charley’s grandfather did not have a particularly good reason Katy’s mother, because what he basically told her is that Charley is indeed the cad she thinks him. I don’t think Katy’s mother is going to buy the idea that all Charley’s needs is a good woman to settle him down, and frankly, I don’t either.

Then Jenny came with her pretty ways, and cried, and told mother what a darling brother Charley was. She made a good deal, too, out of his having lost both father and mother, and needing my affection so much.

Yeah, that’s not going to work either.

Katy’s mother doesn’t just throw them all out on their heads, though. Instead, after shutting herself in her room to pray, she comes out and renders Katy the following decision:

At last she said she would put us on one year’s probation. Charley might spend one evening here every two weeks, when she should always be present. We were never to be seen together in public, nor would she allow us to correspond. If, at the end of the year, we were both as eager for it as we are now, she would consent to our engagement.

I would say “who said anything about engagement,” except for when this book is set. It would be considered unseemly, during this period, for a young man to pay his attentions to a girl unless his intentions were marriage. So, yes, engagement is the natural place to go, here.

I’m reminded of a book set over a century before this, The Witch of Blackbird Pond. In that book, when a young man begins courting a girl, he comes to her house one night each week to sit with the family and visit. It’s … awkward … but that’s partly because of all the hijinks involved in who courts who in that book. But Katy’s mother’s solution is also different: Katy and Charley are never to be seen together in public. That was certainly never a stipulation in The Witch of Blackbird Pond. What happens if they’re both invited to the same party?

I’m reminded of other things I’d rather not think about. When I began seeing my husband, my parents tried very hard to break us up. It’s a long story. One thing they told us is that if we would break up and promise to never speak to each other or have anything to do with each other for two years, at the end of those two years we would have their blessing to marry.

We said no.

Of course, this isn’t quite the same as that, either. Still, I get the feeling that the intent is the same. Katy’s mother doesn’t think Charley will stick this out. She’s trying to get rid of him.

Charley is not at all pleased with mother’s terms, but no one would guess it from his manner to her. His coming is always the signal for her trotting down stairs; he goes to meet her and offers her a chair, as if he was delighted to see her. We go on with the lessons, as this gives us a chance to sit pretty close together, and when I am writing my exercises and he corrects them, I rather think a few little things get on to the paper that sound nicely to us, but would not strike mother very agreeably. For instance, last night Charley wrote:

“Is your mother never sick? A nice little headache or two would be so convenient to us!”

And I wrote back.

“You dear old horrid thing How can you be so selfish?”

That’s … lovely. Just lovely.

Katy leaves off writing in her journal for three months, setting her next entry to paper on her 18th birthday, January 15, 1833.

I have been trying to think whether I am any happier today than I was at this time a year ago. If I am not, I suppose it is the tantalizing way in which I am placed in regard to Charley. We have so much to say to each other that we can’t say before mother, and that we cannot say in writing, because a correspondence is one of the forbidden things.

Well, yes, this is the problem with a courtship that is constantly chaperoned. At least Sally Anne, in Love Comes Softly, was allowed to walk out on the fields with her boyfriend, provided they stayed in sight of the house, giving them the freedom to talk uninhibited, and without being overheard. Not so, here.

He says he entered into no contract not to write, and keeps slipping little notes into my hand; but I don’t think that quite right. Mother hears us arguing and disputing about it, though she does not know the subject under discussion, and to-day she said to me:

“I would not argue with him, if I were you. He never will yield.”

“But it is a case of conscience,” I said, “and he ought to yield.”

“There is no obstinacy like that of a f—,” she and stopped short.

Okay, wow.

“Oh, you may as well finish it!” I cried. “I know you think him a fool.”

I can think of other words that begin with F, but sure, we’ll go with fool. I am rather curious, though. This whole section reads as though Katy’s mother has been bottling all of this up, to say it all at once. Does Katy’s mother never just talk to her? Or for that matter, listen to her? Do they have a relationship that consists of something other than judgement and lecturing, and ranting and weeping?

Then mother burst out,

“Oh, my child,” she said, “before it is too late, do be persuaded by me to give up this whole thing. I shrink from paining or offending you, but it is my duty, as your mother, to warn you against a marriage that will make shipwreck of your happiness.”‘

“Marriage!” I fairly shrieked out. That is the last thing I have ever thought of. I felt a chill creep over me. All I had wanted was to have Charley come here every day, take me out now and then, and care for nobody else.

Oh, but this is trippy. What, was it normal to jump straight to engagement, but not necessarily marriage? Engagement could certainly be a safe point to pause. It means the relationship is sanctioned, but the couple is not yet settled with the responsibilities of marriage and setting up a home. I can see that being appealing.

“Yes, marriage!” mother repeated. “For what is the meaning of an engagement if marriage is not to follow? How can you fail to see, what I see, oh! so plainly, that Charley Underhill can never, never meet the requirements of your soul.”

This seems like an odd thing for her mother to judge and determine in such a settled manner. When I was experiencing conflict with my parents over my relationship with my husband, I often felt like the me my parents thought they knew was a fictional me, and that they didn’t care about knowing who I actually was.

Katy’s mother continues:

“You are captivated by what girls of your age call beauty, regular features, a fair complexion and soft eyes. His flatteries delude, and his professions of affection gratify you. You do not see that he is shallow, and conceited, and selfish and-”

“Oh mother! How can you be so unjust? His whole study seems to be to please others.”

“Seems to be–that is true,” she replied. “His ruling passion is love of admiration; the little pleasing acts that attract you are so many traps set to catch the attention and the favorable opinion of those about him. He has not one honest desire to please because it is right to be pleasing. Oh, my precious child, what a fatal mistake you are making in relying on your own judgment in this, the most important important of earthly decisions!”

But wait. I thought that was Katy’s problem, too? That she loves above all things to be admired? In that sense, it sounds like the two might well be made for each other. They both like to be the center of a party, and to show themselves off well, and, fortunately, Charley has the money to make that happen.

I don’t think Katy’s mother is operating on her understanding of who Katy actually is. Instead, I think she’s operating on her understanding of who she wants Katy to be. It’s true that Charley isn’t right for who Katy’s mother wants Katy to be. He could be right, though, for who Katy currently is—or who Katy wants to be.

Once again, Katy’s journal skips several months. A lot of months, actually. It’s as though Prentiss didn’t want to put anything else in the journal before she finished this particular storyline—and she wanted to hurry up and end it. And so, in that fashion, we miss most of Katy’s experiences at age 18. Conveniently, we don’t have to learn how Katy and Charley were expected to handle parties they were both invited to, if they were not allowed to be seen together in public.

Oct. 1.-The year of probation is over, and I have nothing to do now but to be happy. But being engaged is not half so nice as I expected it would be. I suppose it is owing to my being obliged to defy mother’s judgment in order to gratify my own.

Oh lord.

Let me see if I can unpack this. Having to defy my parents to continue my relationship with my husband did take some of the happiness out of it. Although, it didn’t really dampen my relationship. I was very happy, and very sure in what I had with him. But my parents—seeing how upset they were, always feeling on edge around them, like I had to tip toe—that sucked.

But I’m wondering if we’re to think that Katy feels the way she does in part because she’s not completely confident that she is right. Is she feeling guilty? Is she unsure of herself? She follows the above with this, after all:

People say she has great insight into character, and sees, at a glance, what others only learn after much study.

She doesn’t refute the assertion. She just states it. Poor Katy. Perhaps she’s also confused over what it is she actually wants. Having pushed for this thing so hard, now having it, she wonders whether it really is what she thought it would be.

Can I just stay, though, that I am super impressed that Charley lasted this long? The fact that he didn’t up and go after some other girl whose parents were less restrictive—Amelia, say—is really quite surprising, when you think about it. He is the heir to a large fortune. He is handsome, and dashing. He really put all of that charm on hold, to sit every two weeks in Katy’s parlor under her mother’s watchful eye?

If I were Katy’s mother, I’d have spent that time asking around and keeping my eyes open, to see if Charley is going around with some other girl on the sly. I wouldn’t have expected someone like Charley to stick around, keep his nose clean, and put up with Katy’s mother’s extraordinarily restrictive requirements for a full year. Unless perhaps he truly cares for Katy, on some level?

We’ll soon find out what Prentiss thinks of that.

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