Stepping Heavenward: Exit Charley (in a Flurry of Letters)

Stepping Heavenward: Exit Charley (in a Flurry of Letters) October 4, 2019

Stepping Heavenward, chapter IV part 2

As we’ve been working through the Charley storyline, I’ve been rereading the parts of Little Women that deal with Laurie’s sojourn in Europe.

For those who haven’t read Little Women, Laurie, like Charley, is an orphan, and the heir of his very wealthy grandfather. After Jo tells Laurie that she won’t marry him, Laurie goes to Europe and spends his time (and money) so poorly that when he runs into Amy, she tells him that she despises him, because “with every chance for being good, useful, and happy, you are faulty, lazy, and miserable.”

I said, when we first met, that you had improved. Now I take it all back, for I don’t think you half so nice as when I left you at home. You have grown abominably lazy; you like gossip, and waste time on frivolous things; you are contented to be petted and admired by silly people, instead of being loved and respected by wise ones. With money, talent, position, health, and beauty,—ah, you like that, Old Vanity! but it’s the truth, so I can’t help saying it,—with all these splendid things to use and enjoy, you can find nothing to do but dawdle; and, instead of being the man you might and ought to be, you are only—” There she stopped, with a look that had both pain and pity in it.

Laurie pretends not to be affected, but he is so shaken by Amy’s lecture that he returns to his grandfather and, with a few more shakes and starts, settles and applies himself to business. It is only later that he realizes that Amy has affected him in other ways as well, and returns to her in France (where she is studying art) to woo and marry her. There is no talk of Amy having been “the making of Laurie” or being the one to settle him.

We really aren’t told what it is Charley is doing during this year of his courtship with Amy. Is he in college? Is he in business, perhaps with his grandfather? If he is simply enjoying himself, what is it he was doing in the two weeks between each visit to Katy’s house? And he is quite a bit younger than Laurie, who had finished four years of college before retiring to Europe to drown the disappointment of Jo’s rejection in pleasures.

Although I should note that even then he was ostensibly studying music, playing the role of a wealthy dilettante.

Do you know what else was published in 1868? Elsie Dinsmore. Early on in that series, Elsie enters into an engagement with Herbert, a close friend of hers who is sickly. Elsie’s father soon puts a stop to this, though, and however much Herbert’s family begs, he refuses to approve of an engagement, because the two are so young—they are 15 or 16. Charley and Katy are somewhat older—he is 19 and she 18—but given that it’s unclear what Charley is about—university? business?—the situation feels vaguely similar.

But enough of the literary comparisons! Katy, you see, has a cold.

Oct. 12.-Charley says he did not know that I was subject to a cough, and that he hopes I am not consumptive, because his father and mother died of consumption, and it makes him nervous to hear people cough. I nearly strangled myself all the evening trying not to annoy him with mine.

All is not perfect in paradise.

Nov. 2.-I really think I am sick and going to die. Last night I raised a little blood. I dare not tell mother, it would distress her so, but I am sure it came from my lungs. Charley said last week he really must stay away till I got better, for my cough sounded like his mother’s. I have been very lonely, and have shed some tears, but most of the time have been too sorrowful to cry. If we were married, and I had a cough, would he go and leave me, I wonder?

Did Katy not get sick once the entire past winter? She was sick and out of school for months the winter before. Has she been perfectly healthy for the entire year of their probation? How perfectly convenient—for Prentiss.

The narrative point here seems to be to demonstrate that Charley is shallow, that he cares only for himself and not actually for Katy. The point Prentiss wants to make is that when it comes down to it, Charley will drop Katy like a hot cake the moment she’s not all fun and games. This point confuses me for two reasons.

First, having Charley stick around for a year of seeing Katy only once every two weeks, carefully chaperoned, seems rather counter to the idea that he’s only around for fun and games (especially when Prentiss had to engineer it so that Katy, who suffers from chronic ill health was never sick that whole year).

Second, I could honestly see someone so scarred by watching their parents die of consumption that they react the way Charley does. Not a great reaction, to be sure, but it’s not as though there’s a therapist he can see. (Or is there?) I’m fairly certain, though, that we’re meant to see this as Charley making up some sort of excuse.

Is Charley upset that Katy won’t be any fun if she gets sick a lot, or is he genuinely terrified of being married to someone who has the disease that killed his parents? If Charley truly is in love with Katy already, of course, that shouldn’t be an issue. If he cares about her—and not only about how she can make him happy—his concern ought to be for Katy, and not for his own feelings. But perhaps PTSD can do weird things to a person?

I am no expert on what nursing sick parents for years only to have them die a slow and painful death can do to a person, as a child. But I don’t think that is a point Prentiss is interested in exploring. She seems to treat Charley’s death more as a sob story Jane invented, and an excuse Charley uses to dump Katy as soon ass she isn’t fun.

Sunday, Nov 18-Poor mother is dreadfully anxious about me. But I don’t see how she can love me so, after the way I have behaved. I wonder if, after all, mothers are not the best friends there are! I keep her awake with my cough all night, and am mopy and cross all day, but she is just as kind and affectionate as she can be.

I think we’re meant to see Jesus’ love here. Katy can be rude and disrespectful and angry, but her mother’s love is constant. Unlike Charley, her mother would never leave her.

(Of course, this is ignoring her mothers’ whole impossible standards bit, and the constantly telling her how awful she is, and the talking at her rather than with her.)

We come to November 25th, and Katy is still in bed, hacking and coughing and miserable. She begins to wonder “if I was really in consumption, the very disease Charley dreaded most of all.” I looked this up, and it sounds like “consumption” meant technically tuberculosis. Katy has fragile health and takes ill at the drop of the hat, but, as far as we know, she doesn’t actually have tuberculosis.

Katy works herself into a state, though, and decides to let Charley go, as an act of sacrifice on her part, so that he won’t be saddled with a consumptive wife.

Then I prayed-yes, I am sure I really prayed as I had not done for more than a year, the idea of self-sacrifice grew every moment more beautiful in my eyes, till at last I felt an almost joyful triumph in writing to poor Charley, and tell him what I had resolved to do.

So she writes a letter.

My Dear, Dear Charley -I dare not tell you what it costs me to say what I am about to do; but I am sure you know me well enough by this time [to] believe that it is only because your happiness is far more precious to me than my own, that I have decided to write you this letter. When you first told me that you loved me, you said, and you have often said so since then, that it was my “brightness and gayety” that attracted you. I knew there was something underneath my gayety better worth your love, and was glad I could give you more than you asked for. I knew I was not a mere thoughtless, laughing girl, but that I had a heart as wide as the ocean to give you-as wide and as deep.

But now my “brightness and gayety” have gone; I am sick and perhaps am going to die. If this is so, it would be very sweet to have your love go with me to the very gates of death, and beautify and glorify my path thither. But what a weary task this would be to you, my poor Charley! And so, if you think it best, and it would relieve you of any care and pain, I will release you from our engagement and set you free. Your Little Katy.

Charley writes back.

Dear Kate: -What a generous, self-sacrificing little thing you are! I always thought so, but now you have given me a noble proof of it. I will own that I have been disappointed to find your constitution so poor, and that it has been very dull sitting and hearing you cough, especially as I was reminded of the long and tedious illness through which poor Jenny and myself had to nurse our mother. I vowed then never to marry a consumptive woman, and I thank you for making it so easy for me to bring our engagement to an end. My bright hopes are blighted, and it will be long before I shall find another to fill your place. I need not say how much I sympathize with you in this disappointment. I hope the consolations of religion will now be yours. Your notes, the lock of your hair, etc., I return with this now. I will not reproach you for the pain you have cost me; I know it is not your fault that your health has become so frail. I remain your sincere friend, Charles Underhill

I’m reminded that these really are children, here. Katy is still 17, and Charley has just turned 19. They haven’t learned how to relationship very well yet, and it’s showing.

And Katy, well—Katy is angry.

Mr. Underhill Sir -The scales have fallen from my eyes, and I see you at last just as you are. Since my note to you on Sunday last, I have had a consultation of physicians, and they all agree that my disease is not of an alarming character, and that I shall soon recover. But I thank God that before it was too late, you have been revealed to me just as you are-a heartless, selfish, shallow creature, unworthy the love of a true-hearted woman, unworthy even of your own self-respect. I gave you an opportunity to withdraw from our engagement in full faith, loving you so truly that I was ready to go trembling to my grave alone if you shrank from sustaining me to it. But I see now that I did not dream for one moment that you would take me at my word and leave me to my fate. I thought I loved a man, and could lean on him when strength failed me; I know now that I loved a mere creature of my imagination. Take back your letters; loathe the sight of them. Take back the ring, and find, if you can, a woman who will never be sick, never out of spirits, and who never will die. Thank heaven it is not Katherine Mortimer.

Oh, ouch. Charley writes back.

“Thank God it is not Kate Mortimer. I want an angel for my wife, not a vixen. C. U.”

Well that escalated quickly.

In her letter, Katy effectively admits that she told Charley she would release him from her engagement in bad faith. Which is odd, because she was glorying in her own self-sacrifice when she wrote that letter: “the idea of self-sacrifice grew every moment more beautiful in my eyes, till at last I felt an almost joyful triumph in writing to poor Charley, and tell him what I had resolved to do.” Did she mean it then, but not later?

While Charley’s last response is awful, Katy’s reply to his acceptance of her offer to break off the engagement was pretty harsh itself. What the heck happened here?

Well for one thing, regardless of whether Katy’s first letter was in bad faith, Charley’s response was not great. “I will not reproach you for the pain you have cost me; I know it is not your fault that your health has become so frail.” Who the heck writes like that, and to someone who literally thinks she’s dying? Come the heck on. 

The tone of Charley’s response likely affected the way Katy viewed his acceptance of her offer. The doctor’s statement that Katy was not in fact consumptive probably affected the way she viewed it as well—she may have wondered why Charley did not tell her he would wait for a more definitive diagnosis before deciding. Regardless, her response was pretty clearly written in anger and sent in haste.

This whole exchange feels so very modern—and so very teen love. This whole exchange would translate well to text messages sent in anger and in haste, leading to the breakup of a longstanding relationship in a mere minutes.

I showed my mother the letters. She burst into tears and opened her arms, and I ran into them as a wounded bird flies into the ark. We cried together. Mother never said, never looked, “I told you so.” All she did say was this,

“God has heard my prayers! He is reserving better things for my child!”

Good for Katy’s mother not saying “I told you so,” but she really should have confined her other statements to her head as well. I mean, seriously? “God has heard my prayers!”?! Your daughter is in pain, woman!

We also get this:

Dear mother’s are not the only arms I have flown to. But it does not seem as if God ought to take me in because I am in trouble, when I would not go to him when I was happy in something else. But even in the midst of my greatest felicity I had many and many a misgiving; many a season when my conscience upbraided me for my willfulness towards my dear mother, and my whole soul yearned for something higher and better even than Charley’s love, precious as it was.

Is this justification after the fact? Or was Katy not quite so happy and sure in her direction as she let in, during all the months she fought so hard to be with Charley?

We also get this, in January, shortly after Katy’s 19th birthday:

If I had only had confidence in mother’s judgment I should never have get entangled in this silly engagement. I see now that Charley never could have made me happy, and I know there is a good deal in my heart he never called out. I wish, however, I had not written him when I was in passion. No wonder he is thankful that he free from such a vixen. But, oh the provocation was terrible!

Oh, Katy. It wasn’t your fault. It was Prentiss who so wanted you rid of Charley. You couldn’t have written a nicer letter if you’d tried—she wouldn’t have let you. (But also, this impetuousness seems to be part of Katy’s character, and I kind of like it, in part because it doesn’t feel completely forced—it feels very real.)

Also very real? Katy’s constant resolutions to be a better person.

I have made up my mind never to tell a human soul about this affair. It will be so high- minded and honorable to shield him thus from the contempt he deserves. With all my faults I am glad that there is nothing mean or little about me!

We all know how this is going to go.

Amelia comes over—she had been out of town—and of course Katy finds herself telling her the story. Amelia tells Katy she should have had her lungs examined before she sent that letter releasing Charley. “But you are so impulsive! If you had only waited you would be engaged to Charley still!” Katy declares herself thankful she did not wait.

Amelia defended Charley, and I was thus led on to say every harsh thing of him I could think of.

Amelia adds this:

“I suppose you know,” said she, “that old Mr. Underhill has taken such a fancy to him that he has made him his heir; and he is as rich as a Jew.”


That last comment aside, I find it interesting that Katy did not know that Charley was in line to be extremely wealthy. I’d thought she knew that. She wonders, after Amelia tells her this, whether her mother knew, and so she asks her, and yes, she did: “Mr. Underhill told her his intentions when he urged her consent to the engagement.” She declares her mother both “unworldly” and “unselfish.” But how did Katy not know?

I guess I thought this was common knowledge. Regardless, Amelia knows it, which probably matters in what happens next.

Feb. 4.-The name of Charley Underhill appears on these pages for the last time. He is engaged to Amelia! From this moment she is lost to me forever. How desolate, how mortified, how miserable I am! Who could have thought this of Amelia! She came to see me, radiant with joy. I concealed my disgust until she said that Charley felt now that he had never really loved me, but had preferred her all along. Then I burst out. What I said I do not know, and do not care. The whole thing is so disgraceful that I should be a stock or a stone not to resent it.

So that’s fun.

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