You cannot immerse yourself in the world of Louisa May Alcott without becoming a bit meditative and given to deep pondering. It is better to just give in and give yourself over to the potential for moral improvement.
I was already contemplating both Abigail Alcott’s and Mrs. March’s emphasis on knowing yourself when I came across this quote by Margret Fuller in reference to her book Woman in The Nineteenth Century “I had put a good deal of my true self in it, as if, I suppose I went away now, the measure of my footprint would be left on earth.”
This is not the original Australian celebrity chef but the journalist, abolitionist, feminist, transcendentalist, friend of the Alcott’s and role model to Louisa. She was an all-round remarkable woman. But I digress. It was her use of the expression “my true self” that caught my attention. The true self is a recurring theme throughout L. M. Alcott’s work, not only in her books for children but even in her sensational stories for adults.
It may be that this was the particular focus of transcendentalists but it was not unique to them. Is not Jane Eyre’s entire identity, her determination and strength wrapped up in her knowledge of her true self? Is not Catherine’s downfall ultimately cause by her refusal to deny her true self? And is not Little Dorrit’s determination to be her true self in the face of ridicule and the ridiculous what endeared her to readers?
Please note that this is an opinion piece, a return to my soap box if you you will.
The True Self
This is ‘the secret person of the heart’, who you aspire to be, principles on which you found your life and decisions. It includes both your strengths and your weaknesses. It is fundamentally who you are.
A recurring theme in Victorian literature is the knowing or revealing of the true self either for good in the heroine or for evil in the antagonist. It also features prominently in the intellectual conversations of the age. Artist, writers, poets, musicians, moralists sought to pour into their work their true self.
Be True to yourself
This is the modern phrasing. It can be used when speaking about the above heroine’s both fictional and real but I find it ultimately unsatisfactory. Here’s why.
‘Be true to yourself’ is usually used in reference to wants, desires, the acquisition of things and power. It goes along with ‘follow your dreams’ and ‘you deserve it’, ‘your worth it’. All of these without reference to morals, ethics or principles.
your true self vs. Be true to yourself
Your true self is the core of your being, knowing who you are at heart, warts and all. It is based on knowledge of your personal strengths and weakness. And a knowledge of where you stand in relation to morals, belief and ethics. Whereas ‘be true to yourself’ is based on emotion, what ‘feels right’ separate and apart from the faculty of reason.
Both have a bearing on self-expression. The person intent on knowing her true self is also interested in shaping that self so that her decisions, her art and her treatment of others is a reflection of that true self. Hence the true self shapes self-expression. To be true to yourself does refer to big decisions such as what career to choose but more often it is applied to how you cut your hair, what clothes you wear, the diet you choose. Or maybe I just read too much advertising.
How many today base their opinions and their actions on what is momentarily popular, changing themselves according to the zeitgeist, like ships without rudders or anchors in the winds of change.
I do not mean for a moment that a person should anchor herself to something out of sheer stubbornness, nor set herself on an unalterable course. Remember what happened when the Titanic refused to change course for the sake of an iceberg? Not good.
The way I read it, by comparing popular literature and commentary of our age with the Victorian age, if you know your true self, you know what you believe in, why you believe it and have the conviction to stand by it. The true self matures and evolves with knowledge and experience outside of ‘the self’. It is a steadying and helpful thing to know and gives meaning to our art.
To be true to yourself means to do what you want, when you want, how you want, with whom you want; see it’s about wanting while the Victorian outlook is about being and becoming.
Which one would you prefer?