Mrs Jellyby and the tracksuit bottoms of the mind

This is an old post, but one I’ve been thinking a lot about since spending more time offline.

Every night, as soon as I decently can, I get changed out of my everyday clothes and put on my scruffs. Being at home all day with three children aged 6 and under, it’s not that my everyday clothes include heels, or suspenders, or uncomfortably restrictive blouses, but there’s something about pulling on a pair of tracksuit bottoms and a hoodie which signifies: I’m done with the outside world for the day.

That’s the thing about comfortable clothes. I don’t have to make an effort. There’s nothing digging in or riding up; nothing to remind me to stand up straight, or keep my knees together, or perhaps leave that last biscuit uneaten in order to be able to fasten my waistband. Sometimes, though, I’ll look down at myself slumped on the sofa with soup stains on my lap and wonder if a little less comfort might occasionally be a good thing.

I think that’s one of the reasons why I like Twitter. My fear is that by living in my nice house, with my lovely family, in my comfortable village, my mind will get a bit flabby around the edges. It’s very easy just to focus on what’s immediately around me; the dramas and intrigues of a small community; the personal challenges and triumphs of raising children and participating in village life (which is a new thing for me). I don’t think I’m unique in this, by any means. On Facebook, in conversation, there is an awful lot of people explicitly rejecting any interest in politics or current affairs other than as they impact directly on their lives (and sometimes not even then). There’s a tendency to treat such factors as one would the weather or acts of God: there in the background, but impervious to influence by any mere mortal. Twitter, to me at least, is a way of resisting this impulse. It’s a digital version of the mortification of the senses: a pebble in my shoe, an itch beneath my shirt, a nagging unease which stops me entirely relaxing and forgetting about the outside world.

And yet, and yet. Who benefits by this unease? Is the world a better place for my worrying? Would any of the problems which keep me awake at night be any more intractable if I was unaware of them? Alongside immediacy, Twitter confers an illusion of influence which is largely just that – illusory. Yes, it’s great for motivating large groups of people to sign epetitions or spread the word about campaigns, but is online agitation any more than background noise to those who have the power really to change things? Does it prompt a response in them any more than a neighbour’s car alarm does in me – annoyance, but rarely the urge to investigate?

In pondering these things, I have in my mind the image of Mrs Jellyby from Bleak House. Leaving aside Dickens’ questionable attitude to women, the rather loathsome caricature of a woman who “devoted herself to an extensive variety of public subjects, at various times” to the extent that she fails to notice what is happening to her own children under her nose (as they fall down stairs, go unfed and – eventually – elope), is a chastening one. If Mrs Jellyby had had access to an iPhone she would probably have looked a lot like me at times, bathed in a ghostly fluorescent uplight, with rather less than half an ear on the children around me. Of course they would be better off if I just put the damn thing down, rather than being sucked into the endless need to know and to care which feeds insatiably on “refresh”. That’s my own fault for having no will-power, though, rather than Twitter’s incessant chatter.

No-one wants to be considered a busybody or a hypocrite. That is why Mrs Jellyby stings, and, perhaps, why she lives on. The bland domestic heroines of Dickens’ novels would be scorned alongside her today, but it is the whisper of her ghost that I read in lots of writing about women, particularly if they are mothers too. It seems that there are people who want women neither to have their cupcake nor eat it. Retreat into a fragranced world of domesticity, they’re mocked for being shallow; speak out on issues which matter to them, and they’re amateur rent-a-rants, flitting from one cause to the next with no real commitment or conviction, and neglecting the suddenly-sacred sphere of home and hearth.

I think that the truth (and the reality) lies somewhere between the two. Awareness and engagement may not result in visible change, but surely they’re a better alternative than turning a blind eye altogether? I have a voice, albeit a small one, and it can only be right that I should raise it in defence of those who don’t, or joined with others to make as much noise as possible about things that matter. Trust me to keep an eye on my children in the meantime. They’re too young to elope anyway.


4 thoughts on “Mrs Jellyby and the tracksuit bottoms of the mind

  1. I’m with you … that moment when I realise that I no longer have to venture in to the outside world … on the pjs go! I have a love/hate relationship with twitter. Somedays, I refresh every 5 minutes, but then I can do for a week without a single glance. For me, it’s great for filling those moments of homesickness … it’s a connection with life in the UK that I really miss.

    1. Thanks for commenting!

      I think it’s the chance of adult conversation and ideas which appeals most – I do spend very long periods of my time without seeing another grownup, and it’s a bit of a life raft. I am addicted to it, though *shamefaced*

  2. Just saw this when you reshared, on my first visit to twitter for a few days. You have taken the thoughts straight from my head and put them more articulately than I could. I feel exactly the same about keeping in touch with a more diverse, more challenging world than the one I currently inhabit, which feels like a type of parochial sedation at times. Now and again its great to feel that I can contribute a little here and there, at other times like I’m some kind of guilt-tourist. But many of the things I read about (and occasionally RT) are things which have affected a former me, and I don’t think it’s wise or fair to forget things which used to be more difficult. Not least because they return or develop with changes to life’s cycles. Not sure where this is going, but I thought of your comments about giving it up for lent when I stopped tweeting a while back and agree, while I’m not religious, it does bring a sudden calm to ‘switch off’. I suspect that you won’t ever fully switch off anyway if that’s what’s worrying you!

    1. No, I think permanently switching off is low down my list of worries! Thanks for your comment. I know that we’re in similar-ish situations. It’s hard framing it in a non-personal way: fighting that sedation, while keeping a sense of self.

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