JI is currently doing a series on Mormon teen literature and what it tells us about the history of Mormon girls. So far, the series has looked Johnny Lingo and Jack Weyland and has considered ideas about the body. I am excited to present the next post in this series, in which Susanna Morrill, a professor at Lewis and Clark College, explores Shirley Sealy’s “Beyond This Moment.” Susanna received her PhD from the University of Chicago in Religious Studies and “White Roses on the Floor of Heaven: Mormon Women’s Popular Theology, 1880 – 1920.”
I’m a newcomer to modern Mormon romance literature, but am excited to expand my horizons a bit. I decided to read Shirley Sealy’s Beyond This Moment (Provo: Seventy’s Mission Bookstore, 1977). Amanda began the series talking about what young adult books had taught her about her body. So, when I finished Sealy’s book, I asked myself the same question: What did the book want to teach a young Mormon woman in the 1970s about her body and, more broadly, her physical existence in the world? A lot, as it turned out!
The book charts the journey of a young Mormon woman, Jane, as she moves from Utah to live with her Aunt Julia (an inactive Mormon) and Uncle Lawrence (a good, but non-Mormon man) in Connecticut and to work as a secretary in her uncle’s building company. She’s trying to recover from losing her fiancé, Kip, who was killed three days before the wedding. Along the way Jane falls for Kelly, an ambitious young man who works for her uncle; who acts like a Mormon, but actually isn’t one; and who hates women in an obvious and ostentatious way, being given to say such things as: “You’re a woman and women never think” (4) and “I don’t know why women do any of the dumb things they do” (6). By the end, of course, Kelly converts and wedding plans are under way, but not until he’s lost the ability to walk due to a fall suffered when he was trying to save Jane’s alcoholic cousin, Cam, from tumbling off of a half-made house. I could go on…
The book preaches messages that are clearly part of the contentious conversations in the Church in the 1970s about proper gender roles: Don’t marry outside the church, don’t be too bossy and overbearing with your husband, keep going to church because that’s the key to having a healthy family. Yet, for all this obvious push against feminism, Jane is presented as a character who is sure of herself and her convictions and who seems comfortable in her body—not exactly a wilting violet (she’s compared to an apple blossom at one point), but not your typical, liberated Mary Tyler Moore, either. A Mormon Mary Tyler Moore, perhaps. She stands absolutely firm in her beliefs. As a pivot point after which their romance begins, she gives Kelly quite an earful about his misogyny, physically pushing him down in a chair several times, in striking contrast to the way she typically interacts with men, usually allowing them to take her arm and guide her through crowds, help her into cars, and even carry her over rough ground. She surrenders her physical direction to men who are worthy to guide her—not very subtle symbolism reinforcing the larger themes of the book. Still, Jane is quite physically active and strong. She spontaneously makes a long and difficult trek with Kelly to see a building spot,ruining her hair, clothes, and shoes and getting scratched up along the way. She loves boating and swimming and dancing and rarely seems physically unwell. Most of the time, she is the caretaker of others’ bodies—her relatives’ certainly, but also her patients. She is training to be a nurse and, at the end of the book, spends time taking care of children in a hospital in Utah
Not surprisingly, the book condemns sex outside of marriage. Jane assures Kelly she is pure and that she will only marry a pure man. Jane is physically attracted to Kelly and frequently dreams about him and wishes he would embrace her, but when she is in his embraces and he proposes pre-marital sex, she feels physically repulsed and breaks away from him: “An incredible conception was forming in my mind, a feeling of fear and degradation beneath anything I’d ever imagined before. I felt faint. I stepped back a little and waited for control before I spoke” (99). Her body loses control not because she is in Kelly’s arms, but when she intellectually realizes his proposition. Good women, this episode suggests, will know in their bodies that pre-marital sex is not right, the clarity of the book reinforcing in the readers’ minds a reality that might not be so physically clear to them in a similar moment in their real lives. Jane provides the reader a roadmap for correct behavior, of course, but she also dictates what they should be feeling in their body in a moment when they might be feeling, in fact, the exact opposite of the ideal. Reading becomes a kind of private, ritual reinforcement of what the reader may well have been hearing in church, in her community, her family. (I could call on Foucault and Bourdieu here, but will refrain.)
Indeed, Jane’s experiences consistently connect bodily, physical reality with intellectual and spiritual knowledge. For instance, Jane visits the Sacred Grove during a rain shower. As she is leaving, the rain stops and for a moment sunlight streams through the trees and she experiences a moment of “unspeakable joy,” one that revives her testimony and is echoed in the last sentence of the book when, finally reunited with the now converted Kelly, they embrace and she feels the right combination of physical and emotional responses: “He took me in his arms, and the room filled with light as if the sun had burst through a cloud to brighten our path to a tomorrow of unspeakable joy” (206). It’s tempting to point to the oft-highlighted connection in Mormonism between spiritual and material reality to explain the way Jane experiences nature, her body, and spiritual truth.
I wondered if I saw this spiritual-material connection in one of the sub-textual lessons of the book: That through self-sacrifice, caring for others, and living one’s faith humbly, you will become the center of people’s lives, and this will have great material benefit for you—a simultaneous self-effacing and self-aggrandizement that’s not unusual in U.S. women’s literature of any era. Everybody loves Jane. Even Aunt Julia’s non-Mormon, but good Christian housekeeper, Mary, recognizes her as something special: “Miss Jane pulls the best out of all of use. She has that winning way with us all” (148). While Jane’s “winning ways” produce, ultimately, better family relations for her relatives, they also make her the center of attention in their lives, a reality from which she reaps many material benefits: jaded Aunt Julia buys her clothes and takes her on trips; her cousin Roy takes her out to dinner and makes sure she has fun and excitement in her life, even buying a boat so he can take her out on the lake; her uncle makes her his private secretary and allows her to take off whenever she wants. Self-sacrifice, obedience, faithfulness creates a kind of irresistible aura of attraction around Jane and she gets to have a lot of fun and enjoyment as a result. I’d say this is more about the shift to a consumer mentality in late-nineteenth-century America (that Leigh Eric Schmidt and others have
documented) than about the Mormon material-spiritual connection, but perhaps that connection makes the lesson even stronger.
Like Jane who experiences an assurance of her testimony, I came away from the book with assurance of what I already knew—that popular literature is a treasure trove for cultural history, particularly cultural history about women and gender. But I also came away with some healthy doubts. On the blank page opposite the last page of the book someone had carefully written in lavender ink in the loopy cursive of a teenage girl “Leesa-n-Brad.” I had spent time uncovering what I thought the book taught, but what, if anything, had Leesa learned from it? Had she even read it? Did her inscription show that she was reading her relationship (real or wished for) with Brad through the model of Jane and Kelly? Had she written this as a statement of protest, a way of establishing the legitimacy of a relationship that looked nothing like the ideal one in the book? I’ll probably never know, but that inscription reminded me to be humble and circumspect in my scholarly conclusions.