Friday, August 18, 2017

The Ethics of Caretaking: Kate Hewitt's MARRY ME AT WILLOUGHBY CLOSE

I've always been intrigued by feminist debates about gender and caretaking, stemming most likely from my college psychology class readings of Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral development and Carol Gilligan's feminist critique of the same. Do women make moral decisions based on their effects on others, while men make such decisions based on abstract principles? And if so, are women by nature better at caring for others than men are? If such gendered differences in fact exist are those differences the result of nature or nurture? What are the downsides, as well as the benefits, of emphasizing caretaking as a distinctly feminine trait? Do our beliefs about the gendered nature of caretaking limit men as well as women? What if I'm a woman and I hate taking care of others? Might personality, rather than gender, be a better determinant of who will be a good caretaker, and who will not? Kate Hewitt's latest contemporary,  Marry Me at Willoughby Close, had me thinking about all of these debates, in fictional terms.

I've never heard of the term "cozy romance," but if it doesn't exist, it should, and Hewitt's story would be a prime example of it. This gentle story is told from the point of view of twenty-two year-old Alice James, a quiet, diffident white English girl who has spent most of her growing up years in and out of foster care. Having just aged out of the shelter in which she was living, one specifically for ex-foster kids, Alice has been lucky to be taken under the wing of kindly Ava Mitchell, who buys her clothes, helps her with her CV, and even gets her the interview for the new job she starts at the opening of the book: taking care of eighty-six-year-old Lady Stokely, a terminal cancer patient who has chosen to forego any further treatment.

Though she's spent the last four years working in a nursing home, this is the first time Alice will be paid for being the sole person responsible for the last days of another. But she's not entirely without experience; at sixteen, Alice nursed her own grandmother through dementia until her death. But Lady Stokely's stuffy, superior, and quarrelsome nephew, thirty-seven year-old investment manager Henry Trent, isn't very impressed by Alice's credentials—"Tell me, Miss James, do you feel you're qualified to assist my aunt?" (Kindle Loc 253)—and tries to intimidate her into leaving. Yet despite Alice's worries that Lady Stokely has hired her "simply because she was young and biddable and easily intimidated. All the things she wanted to change about herself" (143), Alice finds herself sounding "almost bolshy" during Trent's interrogation, her annoyance at the pushy man pricking the bubble of her usual diffidence. And thus Alice ends up keeping her job, in spite of Henry Trent's obvious preference that she leave.

Lady Stokely wishes to keep as much independence during her illness as she possibly can. And so she asks Alice not to move into her home just yet. Instead, she offers Alice one of the small cottages on the nearby Willoughby Close. Alice has never had a place of her own before, and takes deep pleasure in making her temporary cottage feel like a home—taking care of herself by caring for her small set of rooms. Alice's friend Ava, as well as the other cottagers in the Close, offer Alice furniture, kitchenware, and lots of advice—especially about how she should not fall for the attractive if cranky Henry Trent. Surprisingly, Alice discovers that not all types of caretaking are welcome: "I feel like you—and everyone here, really—are coddling me, almost," she tells Ava. "And while it's been lovely, so very wonderful, to be taken care of for what feels like the first time in my life—I don't want to be . . . well, stifled. I've doubted myself for so long and I want a chance to be myself, whatever that means" (1699). Being cared for is lovely, but just as Lady Stokely already understands, Alice is beginning to recognize that too much care can be almost as much of a problem as too little. She's also beginning to realize she doesn't have to be quiet anymore in order to receive the care she does want:

And she'd actually spoken up to Ava, which was a small thing, but made her kind of happy all the same. Because she'd never been good at that. She'd been so quiet for most of her life, staying on the sidelines or in the shadows, never really a part of things, never brave enough to speak up or out. Maybe, like Ava had said, being at Willoughby Close would enable Alice to finally find her voice.  (1705)

Despite all of the difficulties she's experienced during her young life, Alice's personality is generally a happy one; "she was always hoping for the best with people. Expecting it, even, assuming that people were kind, that things would work out, that it would all be okay" (1142). The exact opposite temperament, in fact, to the one held by the easily irritated, lash-out-first Henry Trent. Henry, it turns out, has had almost as little caretaking as a child as Alice; sent away to boarding school at five, rarely visited by his self-involved parents, still grieving from the death of a younger brother. But he's chosen a very different way to deal with not being cared for than Alice's shrinking violet impulse; Henry protects himself from fear or uncertainty with the thrust of anger. "It wasn't pleasant, but it made him slightly easier to deal with . . . and to feel sympathy for," Alice thinks to herself after one particularly fraught encounter with her charge's nephew (1812).

And sympathy, unsurprisingly, leads to more tender feelings, in spite of all her friends' warnings. Because Alice can see hints of a more kind, caring Henry behind the snotty aristocratic front he uses to protect himself. Particularly in the way Henry cares for his ailing aunt. But when feelings lead to amorous actions, Henry immediately backs away. Not only does he apologize for his kiss, but, in a real Pride and Prejudice moment, he points to their class differences (Henry is heir to an earldom) to explain why they are "not compatible...for any kind of real relationship" (2310).

Henry's rejection becomes a defining moment for Alice, a moment when she realizes just how little her choosing to stay in the background and please others has gotten her:

The scales had fallen from her innocent eyes. She'd spent her whole life either trying to fit in or to be invisible, and definitely not to make any waves. She'd tried to please everyone, as if that would make a difference to how she was viewed and treated. She'd also tried to believe the best in people because to accept the worst felt like despair, and that could never lead anywhere good. But she'd been wrong all along. She'd been stupidly na├»ve, and she wasn't going to be anymore. . . . From this moment on she was going to stop looking for acceptance outside herself. . . . Henry Trent didn't think she was good enough for him? Well, he wasn't good enough for her.  (2404-13) 

This newly inspired Alice doesn't betray her personality, or her principles, in the wake of Henry's rejection; she is still, at heart, a caretaker, one who takes pleasure in seeing to the needs of others. But in standing up for her own self-worth, she models for us, and herself, a healthier, feminist ethics of care, one that balances the need for care with the equally important needs for independence and for respect. An ethics of care that can be practiced not only by women, but by men—even, perhaps, by the irascible, but vulnerable, Henry.

Photo credits:
Cozy English dining: Pinterest
I Care: Asmythoughtschange blog
Gilligan's Ethics of Care:

Marry Me at Willoughby Close
Tule Publishing, 2017

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