Writing about romance is a tired trope in confessional essays – there’s too much public vulnerability. There’s a chance your story might come off as cringe-worthy. So I’ve straddled the fence when it comes to being honest in writing. When I was younger, like many women, I took to blogs like Livejournal and Dreamwidth. But I also knew that everything I wrote would one day vanish into the shadowy abyss of the internet. There was no pressure to disguise my emotions because the avalanche of content would bury it all. I didn’t consider these as acts of bravery.
But the fear of being “caught” being too intense, emotional or too earnest is still ever present. Especially in public spaces, especially online. I’ve avoided it to distance myself from other female writers. I’ve looked to other women to tell me how to act, to give me that permission to be myself. For this reason, I’ve always come back to Zelda Fitzgerald.
I’ve always been in love with the portrait of Zelda: whimsical, waggish and yet sophisticated. She painted a vision of the Roaring Twenties as a rowdy party, rather than the contentious cultural and societal mess that it was. And her relationship with her husband, F. Scott Fitzgerald, was the stuff that sixteen-year-olds like me fantasised about. I liked her especially for her intensity. In her letters to Fitzgerald, she came across as devoted, passionate and crazy in love. But she was also jealous, vulnerable to the point of pity. According to several biographies, she spent long periods in hospitals for mental illness (which at that time meant being locked up in a room and treated with electrotherapy).
‘She was a woman who adored and hated her husband, who adored and oppressed and victimised her,’ wrote biographer Sally Cline in Zelda Fitzgerald: Her Voice in Paradise. Fitzgerald prevented his wife from writing about her mental health, her life and their marriage. Any autobiographical elements from their life he recycled for himself in his novels Tender is the Night and The Beautiful and Damned. In the latter, he (allegedly) based the character of Gloria Gilbert on Zelda herself.
The Beautiful and Damned explores the life of a troubled couple, where a disproportionate reflection on their past prevents them from having a fulfilling present. Yet that’s what I’ve been unlearning for years, how to disregard my youthful impressions of romance. I romanticised Zelda’s relationship with Fitzgerald. I loved her unabashed displays of public vulnerability. I taught myself not to fear that vulnerability, nor to ever let someone else shame me for my feelings. ‘Excuse me for being so intellectual’, Zelda wrote to her husband. ‘I know you would prefer something nice and feminine and affectionate’. Don’t apologise, Zelda. I, too, do not subscribe to the Cool Girl mentality. I refuse to pretend that I don’t have feelings.
Another female character whom I mythologised was Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind. She taught me how to reproach men if I was dissatisfied. She demonstrated how to be manipulative, to justify egotistical attention-seeking.
I may have been open with my emotions but no role model ever taught me how to use those emotions responsibly. Instead, I put women like Zelda and Scarlett on pedestals when most of them were not in very good relationships. Zelda’s marriage to F. Scott was competitive. He was not comfortable with her achieving any success close to his. He suffered (as did she) from alcoholism and became famous for his writing, yet allegedly plagiarised her work.
Selfishness taught me so much – it taught me to get what I wanted, and if I didn’t, how to leave. If something wasn’t easy to achieve, I lost interest. I broke up with a boy because he didn’t comfort me when I cried. I broke up with another because he asked me to cook him dinner occasionally. I was content living a life of selfishness. In moments of doubt, I thought I was demanding too much. That my expectations had to adjust to the relationships. In hindsight, I’ve crucified myself for relationships. In failed relationships it’s never a simple process of allocating blame. Nowadays, I don’t think I thought wrong at all. Thinking I was uncharitable helped justify my ruthless pursuit of romance. It turns out I wasn’t relentless, I just didn’t know how to use those emotions in a fruitful and constructive way.
Here is one of the text messages my partner once sent me: ‘I’ll be Butler, you Scarlett’, in reference to one of my favourite movies. Gone With The Wind was a history lesson, a dramatised depiction of residential turmoil of the South post-Civil War. It was not a guide for a functional relationship. And my partner’s efforts to woo me by using that allegory showed me that he knew me better than most. Rhett Butler eventually leaves Scarlett after deciding he won’t be subject to her selfish whims any longer.
I had difficulty understanding why my relationships were tumultuous. Stability seemed boring. It was hard to be trusting. My strange romantic hypnosis spread into my ethics and somehow they damaged the way I worked. Zelda was a woman on whom I modelled my first romances. But more and more, as I read about the reality of her life, there was no substance to her life. She lived a miserable existence. After suffering through terrible relationships, I came to the conclusion that ungoverned emotions do not form good relationships.There must be other women like me, I thought. There must be others who thought they were empowering themselves through their expression of emotion. I knew they were vulnerable to the point of self-destruction. I started to think that I needed to change if I wanted my relationships to work.
Zelda met Fitzgerald in 1918 and married him in 1920. She was eighteen years old. I was younger than eighteen when I fell for the Fitzgerald’s profligate lifestyle. What could poor Zelda have known about relationships? What were her expectations? It’s unfair to criticise her for her folly. She never knew women might look to her for guidance. In her later years, Zelda fought back. She published her own work and separated from F. Scott. But the damage had already been done. She died at age 47, mentally unwell, diagnosed with schizophrenia, having published only one novel, Save Me The Waltz.
As I grew older, I started looking for sentimentality in other literary figures. I have a sentimental attachment to unforgiving, unapologetic women. I still revere the place in my heart I made for Zelda. My early twenties I devoted to female poets. Lang Leav, Vera Pavlova, Nayyirah Waheed, recently Rupi Kaur. These women too taught me not to cower in the face of my emotions. They showed how to use emotions responsibly. I have been greedy, lustful and gluttonous, but never did I deny myself the sanctity of my emotions. I enthroned myself in them.
But I suffer from a selective memory too: I like to think that I was never at the mercy of them, they were always at my behest. Regardless, I never gave myself wholly to those romances with men like Zelda had. ‘I have always been the woman of my dreams,’ wrote Nayyirah Waheed. I too think of myself this way.
Image: Lukas Robertson