I’ve just finished a rather obscure book, Helen, by the Anglo-Irish author Maria Edgeworth. It was Edgeworth’s last novel, published in 1834, and no longer in print. Politically advanced for her time, Edgeworth believed in the education of women, the granting of citizenship to Catholics, and the acceptance of Jews. With her father, she published Practical Education (1798), which appeared the same year as Wordsworth and Coleridge’s revolutionary Lyrical Ballads. Practical Education was not a radically romantic book, but rather a how-to primer that could be used in any school, reducing the role of memorization, eliminating religious instruction, and introducing geography and chemistry.
Helen may be said to be a novel of education—the education of Helen and her best friend Lady Cecilia. Helen is an orphan who is brought to live under the care of Lady Ceclia’s mother, the brilliant Lady Davenant, who has quietly exerted her power in politics. Lady Davenant has brought Helen to her house because she has loved her since she was a child and to help her save Lady Cecilia. For while Lady Cecilia is beautiful, charming, and wants to make everyone happy, she is quite willing to trim the truth and allow false impressions if that what’s needed to bring about easy relations.
For example, she tells her husband that he is the only man she has ever loved, which is narrowly true, but she has failed to tell him that she had a wild, childish flirtation with a handsome roué, an infatuation that never became sexual or claimed her “attachment,” to use that Victorian term. In a court of law, Lady Cecilia would be right. She loved no man before her husband, but she was giddily attracted to another.
When the roué dies, Lady Davenant’s enemies are happy not only to publish Lady Cecilia’s letters, but to rewrite them to make them even more scandalous. To protect herself, Lady Cecilia induces Helen to allow others to surmise that Helene is the author of the letters, and in so doing, Helen ruins any chance of entering polite society or forming a respectable marriage.
And here is where Edgeworth’s novel is important to us now. Lady Davenant has always suspected her daughter of moral weakness. And she has brought Helen into her house to correct her daughter’s weakness, but Lady Davenant has one misgiving: she is sure whether Helen has the necessary “mental strength.”
It is an odd term. By “mental strength,” Edgeworth does not mean the ability to solve complex equations or analyze esoteric books of philosophy or law. She means the ability to stand up for what you know is right even if it displeases others. It is the essence of integrity. We often know what is right, but very few will stand up for it against the crowd or even against our own family. We hear others say racist, homophobic things, but we don’t insist on confronting those people even in private. Uncle Buzz will always be that way, we tell ourselves, and he will be as long as no one confronts his prejudices.
Mental strength is needed to stand up against the crowd for what we know is true. Lady Cecilia weasels around the truth to her husband because he has told her he will not marry her if she has had an earlier attachment. Fearing the dissolution of her engagement and then her marriage, she has told less than the truth.
Mental strength is different from stubbornness. People stick to their guns by being deaf to the opposite viewpoint. That’s hardly strength of mind. But Cecilia’s lie is not about policy, or aesthetics or about something that admits to differences of opinion. She lies to hide what she knows is true. She lies to avoid the consequences of the truth, and worse still, she uses the weakness of those she loves to conceal her lies.
I do not know Elizabeth Cheney, and what I have learned of her politics, I would oppose her. But she appears to have what her party seems to lack—“mental strength.” By passively accepting the Big Lie, that Donald Trump had the election stolen from his grunny hands, they exhibit a mental weakness that is unsurpassed in American history. The justification for this absence of mental strength is the same one Lady Cecilia uses—to please the people who are of importance to her. Her friend, Helen, out of love, timidly goes along. In the end of the novel, events blow up in their faces. The people they were trying to please are the ones who set off to destroy them and published false letter to impugn their integrity.
By buckling under the weight of the Trumpites, Republicans will not be sewing lasting unity in their party or in the nation. At some point, a large portion of Republics who even now vow allegiance to Trump will awaken from their conspiracy theories and feel that they have been taken advantage of. That they have been lied to by those they trusted. That they have been made fools of by those who never had their best interests at heart. It may take a while, but those letters, those emails, those recordings will come to light, and I doubt there will be the happy ending the Edgeworth engineers for Helen.
This post is republished on Medium.
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