I found myself taking Rebecca off the bookshelf. Not to re-read it, which I’ve done a number of times over the years. I’d been thinking about how to handle someone was not answering my phone calls or emails about an important matter, and how personally I should take this, when all of a sudden I thought of Max de Winter, impassively tolerating Mrs. Van Hopper and her vulgar questions.
Strange, isn’t it? Max de Winter. Why on earth should I think of him and Mrs. Van Hopper? I read Rebecca when I was in my teens. I remember finding Max attractive, for a middle-aged—his face “arresting, sensitive, medieval….” I understood why the naive young narrator married him (not that she had much choice—staying with Mrs. Van Hopper was a no go).
Reading again those early pages in which the narrator and Max meet, I now see that Max wasn’t much of a role model, at all. In his future wife’s eyes (and my teen-aged ones), his manners are irreproachable, and if he is distant, it’s because he has to be, to keep the Van Hoppers of the world at bay. But really, as we learn later, his aloofness is a form of self-protection. He’s riddled with guilt. Taking a broader view, he’s a terrible husband to his young second wife. We know he has his reasons—and he shapes up, sort of—but he’s no kind of role model.
If we’re talking strictly about how to handle difficult people, I would try to learn from Elizabeth Bennet, my favorite Jane Austen character. She refuses to sugarcoat the truth, but manages to express it with uncommon adroitness. Think of how she handles her first marriage proposal, from Mr. Collins. She tells him “no” three times, and he still refuses to believe she’s not simply being coy in the way of “elegant” females. She cries, “I do assure you, Sir, that I have no pretension whatsoever to that kind of elegance which consists in tormenting a respectable man. I would rather be paid the compliment of being believed.” One of my favorite scenes in Pride and Prejudice is when Lady Catherine de Bourgh tries to bully Elizabeth into rejecting an offer of marriage that she has heard—erroneously—that her nephew Darcy has made. Elizabeth coolly holds her own against the snobbish old woman, telling her whether or not she marries Darcy is her own business. “How far your nephew might approve of your interference in his affairs, I cannot tell; but you certainly have no right to concern yourself in mine. I must beg, therefore, to be importuned no farther on the subject.”
Oh, to have a reason to use that last line!
So what would Elizabeth do, faced with my dilemma, a person who refuses to engage? She isn’t one to shy away from a challenge. I’m guessing she would, in all good humor, continue to call until she reached him. And that is what I will do.