I always wanted to be a writer, but I became a scientist instead because it is a lot easier. Here’s the story of exactly how I made that choice. I was a sophomore in college at the University of Minnesota and it was, well, the Eighties. I told this story once when I was on a panel meant to explain to undergrads how their professors had chosen their majors. I was never invited back.
While growing up in America you are taught that everything worth reading was written in England a long time ago. I developed the expectation that after I’d spent four years in college exploring just how incredibly goddam true that was, I could then be a Writer, having absorbed all that Great Writing and understanding the Symbolism and Context, et cetera. So I became what used to be called an “English Major” using this thing called a “scholarship” that used to exist. I gave it a try — I really did — but it still didn’t work out the way I expected it to. Here’s what happened.
The lectures for my English classes were downright bizarre. It became clear to me early on that the students who showed up having even scanned the assigned texts comprised a pale minority, and that we weren’t meant to criticize or question what everyone had decided fifty years ago was a Great Work. This made for predictable and tedious discussion sections perversely enforced on behalf of some cosmic curricular calendar.
We read Bram Stoker’s Dracula which contains a “Memorandum Left by Lucy Westenra” describing how a wolf jumped on Lucy and her mother causing the latter to die instantly of fright, while the former hung on bravely for a number of pages, but ultimately also proved mortally wounded by the aforementioned canine barbarity. The scene affected me deeply in that I thought it utterly asinine, and during class I said so and furthermore postulated that Stoker had either never met a big dog or a full-grown woman, nor possibly both. The professor countered with a short speech describing the widespread incidence of tuberculosis throughout the eighteen-hundreds. I pushed my luck by describing how the bacteria guilty of causing TB, for all their sins, couldn’t rationally be accused of preferring female lungs over male ones, and that in Stoker’s follow-up short story Dracula’s Guest a wolf actually gets into the bed of an unnamed Englishman while he is sleeping and then French kisses him for a while, after which the Englishman goes on with his life not more worse for wear. My soliloquy left me energized but my professor appeared depleted and my classmates only looked bored.
“Women in those days couldn’t breathe properly,” she explained patiently, and I marveled that she was serious. “They were constricted by corsets,” she elaborated.
“Not all of them,” I contradicted, “The women in my family would have knocked that thing cold with a cast-iron skillet, drug it into the yard, poured lard on it and set it on fire to keep other wolves from getting ideas.”
“I think you are missing the point of the story,” she said in the tone that teachers employ when they’ve deemed it time for you to shut up, “This is an ancillary scene around a subordinate character.”
I slumped down in my chair and seethed for a moment, then looked around me and began to appreciate the comedy of the situation. Maybe Victorian literature should just be left alone, I reasoned: if the only student who had actually read the book had also missed its point then even Bram Stoker and Henry James put together probably couldn’t save my woeful generation. I waxed philosophical and reflected upon how the words “ancillary” and “subordinate” effectively summed up ninety-nine-point-nine-nine percent of the female characters depicted on paper during the nineteenth century. I had enrolled in a class named “Great Novels of the Victorian Era” figuring that I’d encounter at least one book that I’d want to read twice. I learned that there must be something wrong with me because I dutifully read and re-read the same passages that had charmed and inspired generations of intellectuals and was plagued by what I saw as their repeated demonstrations of insufferable insipidity.
Of all the stupid characters, the female ones were the stupidest, and damned if it wasn’t female authors that had cooked up the worst ones. The four Little Women and their four hundred Little Problems didn’t much move me and I suspected it was because I didn’t really care which one ended up genetically replicating Laurie throughout her reproductive years, except that it seemed the only way for any of us to escape the tedious sermons that Reverend Marmee dispatched with chapteric frequency. These characters can’t even die assertively, I thought when I finally got to page 456, smiled through my tears, and thanked God that Beth was dead at last. All those acerbically witty Jane Austen characters never got around to discussing anything important because their life stories ended on the same day that they got engaged. I even had to admit that the Dickens characters who had burrowed like chiggers into my heart were obviously too good to be anywhere near real, and I was aghast at his heroines who didn’t start out virtuous but mysteriously evolved into their better selves upon extended exposure to matrimonial brutality. Why the hell hadn’t the mother and sisters of these characters already in-lawed the asshole husbands into a shallow grave by the time he administered his tenth beating? Where were the granddaughters of the Viking women warriors who brought down war on your head for looking at them wrong, and could be killed only by an epic battle after which they marched straight into hell and told the entire afterlife to f*ck off? Where were the granddaughters of the Greek heroines who revenged themselves even by murdering innocent children when wronged, giving terrible shape to the infinite injustice that they presumed attended any harm to themselves? Had every single one of their descendants died of tuberculosis on Old Vicky’s coronation day?
Catherine Linton née Earnshaw was attractive because she had so effectively harnessed her God-given talents towards sadism, but I was disappointed to find that she never made it off the farm and instead spent her best years stomping around the bogs and caterwauling into the darkness. Her sister-by-another-mother Jane Eyre used her formidable strength to stagger down a moral high road only to win the prized pile-of-cinders heart of a secretive and mutilated old buzzard, the moral of that story being Be Careful What You Wish For. About the time that I pompously declared the English language fundamentally inadequate to the description of true womanhood, I noted that Charlotte Brontë had dedicated Jane Eyre to William Makepeace Thackeray and decided to read Vanity Fair in order to see what the hubbub was about.
I was immediately enraptured by Rebecca Sharp: without friends, connections or money she went more places and saw more things than all the other characters in the book combined, while forced to rely on her wits alone. Becky didn’t have any love for the world that didn’t love her, though she could heartily pretend it if her survival required. This was the role model that I’d been searching for, I decided, and she signed on as an indifferent and shadowy travelling companion for the years ahead. I was further convinced of my evaluation when searching the voluminous canon purported to interpret Vanity Fair turned up no authoritative analysis of Becky’s multidimensional character. The back cover of my filthy and frayed Penguin Classics copy described Becky as “free-wheeling,” and thus came closer than anything else I could find. I decided that Becky was different because she was the only one of all these characters that was truly free: free from definition by others and so free to define herself, her marginality furnished an accidental means towards liberation. Perhaps if you transplanted a Visigoth princess into Modern history, stuffed her into a corset and a complex social code, what you got was Becky Sharp.
Becky’s life wasn’t easy, and it didn’t end particularly well, although I suspected that she didn’t give a shit what the reader thought. Plenty of literary analysts stared down their post-Industrial noses and judged her as “amoral”, but it rang hollow to fault her for rejecting a career as The Little Matchstick Girl in favor of hanging out in Bath and Brussels bedizened in silk shantung. Becky’s abject deficiency as a mother was not lost on me: she couldn’t take care of her son and she hadn’t really tried, and if this failure at all pained her, the reader sure hadn’t heard anything about it. You might scan chapter after chapter curious to see whom Amelia would end up with, but you didn’t worry about Becky. She could take care of herself.
Having discovered far more value in a book that wasn’t assigned than in all the books that had been, I tapered off of the English courses and commandeered my own literary education. I filled the daytime void with science courses that liked me back even more than I liked them. There my curiosity and questions fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold (chemistry), some sixtyfold (biology), and some thirtyfold (physics). I was astounded to find that diligent combat against my lack of preparation during high-school made me a precious “B-plus” sheep that when found and returned to the fold, they verily rejoiceth more of than of the ninety and nine which had easily earned an “A”. Ironically, it was science that regarded my ability to write correctly to be nothing short of a divine harbinger of success.
I wasn’t ready and I wasn’t special. I knew damn well that I wasn’t smart enough to be a scientist, and I was certainly not noble enough to deserve to be one. I was merely audacious enough to want Science, and the more I learned, the more I wanted. I decided that like Becky, I would take something that wasn’t meant for me, and I’d never apologize for my theft. Like her, I’d just have to make it up as I went along.
I also love Marie Curie. Or at least I think I do. You can read more about that here.