Stepping Heavenward: The Saga of Lucy

Stepping Heavenward: The Saga of Lucy November 1, 2019

Stepping Heavenward, chapter VIII, part 1

Welcome back. Last week, Dr. Elliot abruptly fell in love with and awkwardly professed his love to Katie. Several readers noted similarities between this storyline and Elizabeth Bennet’s early interactions with Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. There are indeed some serious similarities!

I did note a pretty serious difference though. In Austen’s work, Mr. Darcy draws attention to Elizabeth’s family’s faults, and then proposes to her. In Prentiss’ telling, Dr. Elliot draws attention to Katy’s faults, and then proposes to her. In each case, of course, the suit is rejected.

So, here we are. Once again I’m going to speed through.

Katie hears that Dr. Cabot is recovering from his ailment, and she immediately makes plans to return home, so that she will be out of New York City when Dr. Elliot gets back. “Nothing would tempt me to encounter those black eyes again,” she writes. Of course, Aunty notices Katy’s haste, and gets the full story of Dr. Elliot’s proposal out of her. Aunty is not impressed.

“I don’t know which of you has behaved most ridiculously. It would relieve me to give you each a good shaking.”

“I think Dr. Elliot has behaved ridiculously,” I said, “and he has made me most unhappy.”

“Unhappy!” she repeated. “I don’t wonder you are unhappy. You have pained and wounded one of the noblest men that walks the earth.”

What. 

“It is not my fault. I never tried to make him like me.”

“Yes, you did. You were perfectly bewitching whenever he came here. No mortal man could help being fascinated.”

Lord.

I said earlier that I liked Aunty, but this? This is getting weird. Aunty is obsessed with Dr. Elliot, calling him “one of the noblest men that walks the earth.” Aunty, by the way, is currently married, to Uncle Albert, so she’s not available. But I almost feel like lobbing “so marry him yourself!” as a retort.

And I realize we’re not talking about sexual assault here, but this whole “it’s your fault he likes you, you laid out a hook” bit just feels off. Katy tells Aunty that Dr. Elliot’s proposal upset her, that she was not interested in him and that she told him so, and that she’s leaving the city so that she doesn’t have to have contact with him again because this has so upset her … and Aunty responds by informing her that Dr. Elliot is only obsessed with her because she intentionally set her hat for him.

Katie is taken aback. And upset.

“If I wanted to ‘fascinate’ or ‘bewitch’ a man,” I cried, “I should not choose one old enough to be my father, nor one who was as uninteresting, awkward and stiff as Dr. Elliott. Besides, how should I know he was not married? If I thought anything about it at all, I certainly thought of him as a middle-aged man, settled down with a wife, long ago.

“In the first place he is not old, or even middle aged. He is not more than twenty-seven or eight. As to his being uninteresting, perhaps he is to you, who don’t know him. And if he were a married man, what business had he to come here to see as he has done?”

What?! Dr. Elliot came to Aunty’s house because her children all had scarlet fever. Does Aunty mean to suggest that Dr. Elliot visited more times than he needed to, because he was paying court to Katy, even though she had no idea he was doing so, and had never been consented about it?

If a doctor started scheduling extraneous appointments for a patient, telling her she had to come in more often than she medically needed to, because he had a thing for her and wanted to see her—without ever telling her this—well, let’s just say I’m fairly certain he could lose his license if this came out. And he should lose his license. But Aunty doesn’t see a thing wrong with what she’s suggesting.

Katie does, though. Katie is angry.

“I did not know he came to see me; he never spoke to me. And I always said I would never marry a doctor.”

“We all say scores of things we live to repent,” she replied. “But I must own that the doctor acted quite out of character when he expected you to take a fancy to him on such short notice, you romantic little thing. Of course knowing him as little as you do, and only seeing him in sick-rooms, you could not have done otherwise than as you did.”

“Thank you, Aunty,” I said, running and throwing my arms around her; “thank you with all my heart. And now won’t you take back what you said about my trying to fascinate him?”

“I suppose I must, you dear child,” she said. “I was not half in earnest.”

Lord. This whole conversation.

But we’re not done. Just when Aunty seems to be becoming more reasonable about this—admitting that Dr. Elliot went about this badly and taking back her claim that Katie was purposefully trying to fascinate him—things go off the rails.

“The truth is I am so fond of you both that the idea of your misunderstanding each other annoys me extremely. Why, you were made for each other. He would tone you down and keep you straight, and you would stimulate him and keep him awake.”

Oh my dear readers, a number of you expressed concern in the comment section about the possibility of just such a result. Your concern was not unmerited. Katie can be surprising, though. Sometimes she says things that are just plain spot-on.

“I don’t want to be toned down or kept straight,” I remonstrated. “I hate prigs who keep their wives in leading-strings. I do not mean to marry any one, but if I should be left to such a piece of folly, it must be to one who will take me for better for worse; just as I am, and not as a wild plant for him to prune till he has got it into a shape to suit him.”

Damn. 

And remember, these words were written in 1868.

Some readers have noted that I haven’t yet addressed why this book is in favor within a certain subset of modern evangelicals—the same sort of women who read books by Elisabeth Elliot. Here may be a good place to note that I don’t think this book is as much in favor among more fundamentalist evangelicals, the sort who make Michael Pearl their guru—or Lori Alexander.

To be sure, over time, Katie does end up mellowing. But I will tell you this—no matter how much some people in her life try to tone her down, they never completely succeed. She doesn’t give up her sense of self, her agency, her independent decision-making. Katie is an icon for a subset of evangelical women who believe women play a central role in the home and in childrearing, but who also aspire for something more—a mission field, a sphere of influence, and of action and agency.

Katie affirms a longing for something more.

“Now, Aunty, promise me one thing. Never mention Dr. Elliott’s name to me again.”

“I shall make no such promise,” she replied, laughing. “I like him, and I like to talk about him and the more you hate and despise him the more I shall love and admire him. I only wish my Lucy were old enough to be his wife, and that he could fancy her; but he never could!”

“On the contrary I should think that little model of propriety would just suit him,” I exclaimed.

“Don’t make fun of Lucy,” Aunty said, shaking her head. “She is a dear good child, after all.”

Ugh, Aunty. What would be so hard about not mentioning Dr. Elliot around Katy?! Katy has said she isn’t interested in him, so drop it. Boundaries, woman!

But what about the reference to Aunty’s Lucy? Well. Katie follows this reference with a long section about Lucy, who is almost 14. Lucy is one of Aunty’s two adopted children. Lucy was born two days after her father’s death, and because of that, Katie writes, she was a perfect, model baby—because she knew she had to be.

She entered the family at a most inauspicious moment, two days after this accident. From the outset she comprehended the situation and took the ground that a character of irreproachable dignity and propriety became an infant coming at such a time. She never cried, never put improper objects into her mouth, never bumped her head, or scratched herself. Once put to bed at night, you knew nothing more of her till such time next day as you found it convenient to attend to her. If you forgot her existence, as was not seldom the case under the circumstances, she vegetated on, unmoved.

What. The. Hell.

This poor child. This poor, poor child. Her early childhood was a time of such stress for her family that it affected her even as an invent. The bit about not crying could easily have run in reverse—if babies learn through trial and error that crying doesn’t do anything, they stop trying. It’s not a good thing. 

There’s a lot that can be read through the lines here, but some things are explicit—Katy writes that Lucy’s family often forgot existence, ignoring her completely. It goes without saying that this is not a healthy environment for a baby. Neglect is incredibly harmful, particularly during early development.

Katy, though, is fixated on how seemingly perfect Lucy has always been—how by the book. Katy began her soliloquy by dismissively calling Lucy a “little model of propriety,” remember.

She got her teeth in the order laid down in ‘Dewees on Children’; her measles came out on the appointed day like well-behaved measles as they were and retired decently and in order, as measles should. Her whooping-cough had a well-bred, methodical air, and left her conqueror of the field.

(As a quick aside, it’s super interesting to see diseases we have nearly eradicated laid out as common childhood milestones in this way.)

She was a model child, as she had been a model baby. No slamming of doors, no litter of carpets, no pattering of noisy feet on the stairs, no headless dolls, no soiled or torn books indicated her presence. Her dolls were subject to a methodical training, not unlike her own.

What I’m including here are just small snippets—Katy goes on and on and on. Lucy, Katy writes, is perfect and orderly and has never, ever, given anyone a moment of trouble. Katy dislikes Lucy because of how different Lucy is from her. Lucy is devoid of the passion that drives Katy. “Don’t expect a gush of enthusiasm that would crumple your collar,” Katy writes, “she would as soon strangle herself as run headlong to embrace you.”

If she has any passions or emotions, they are kept under; but who asks for passion in blanc-mange, or seeks emotion in a comfortable apple-pudding?

Damn. This just feels mean.

You know what’s so uncomfortable about Katy’s clear dislike for Lucy, as it shines through in this section? It’s not just that Lucy may have been substantially impacted by her father’s death two days before her birth, which—reading between the lines—appears to have thrown a pall over her household and to have triggered some level of maternal neglect. It’s that the trauma Lucy experienced didn’t end there.

Lucy’s father may have died two days before she was born, but she still had her mother. Aunty didn’t adopt her because she was an orphan. No. The situation was somewhat different.

When her father had been dead a year, her mother married a man with a large family of children and a very small purse. Lucy had a hard time of it, especially as her step-father, a quick, impulsive man, took a dislike to her. Aunty had no difficulty persuading them to give the child to her.

Once again reading between the lines, it sounds like poor little Lucy was abused by her stepfather. Aunty was able to pursued Lucy’s mother to give her up to protect her from her stepfather. Whether her stepfather’s abuse was merely emotional (merely is the wrong word) or also physical, it cost Lucy her mother.

Katie isn’t particularly moved.

[Aunty] took from the purest motives, and it does seem as if she ought to have more reward than she gets.

Girl does not like Lucy.

For all we know, Lucy may have become what Katy describes dismissively as a “little model of propriety” as a coping mechanism to deal with her childhood trauma. And frankly, if many other people hold Katy’s view that Lucy owes something to Aunty for taking her in, is it any wonder Lucy has always carefully followed every rule, working as hard as she can to be quiet, small, and good—even invisible?

Katy isn’t the only character in this book who could benefit from some therapy. Lucy could use some too.

I really had meant to go on and run through this chapter, and maybe the next, and resolve the situation with Dr. Elliot, but I think I’m actually going to cut this post short here, so that Lucy’s story isn’t lost in the noise. I’ll leave you with Katy, who suddenly realizes that she’s running on about Lucy to a rather absurd degree:

 

But what am I writing all this for? Why, to escape my own thoughts, which are anything but agreeable companions, and to put off answering the question which must be answered, “Have I really made a mistake in refusing Dr. Elliott? Could I not, in time, have come to love a man who has so honored me?”

Katy did not need one more thing to worry herself about, throwing herself into pangs of doubt and guilt and questioning. And yet here we are. Aunty’s insistence that Katy and Dr. Elliot are perfect for each other has shaken and unsettled Katy, and she is now wondering whether she made a mistake.

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