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The Tendencies of Power

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"To be a woman," Aunt Emma said, as she came back from the other room with the lamp and set it on the side table, "is to be caught in a war you didn't start, and can't see the end of." She sat down as Mary finished pouring their tea and took her own cup.

Mary longed, more than a little, to pick up her feet and tuck them sideways on the chair, but this was Practice. There were hours of the day devoted to Practice, and then there were hours of the day that were just her own, so she sat properly and straight on the chair, and listen.

Aunt Emma took her tea and sat back in her own chair. The rain outside was very loud, and gave no sign of letting up all day - that was why they would have to use the lamps, because the clouds were so thick and oppressive it almost felt like evening. Part of the reason Mary wanted to pull her legs up was that even in stockings her feet were cold. She had a shawl, tucked around her shoulders, and so did Aunt Emma. Mary's was white; Aunt Emma's was a rich, emerald green.

"Do you know why?" Aunt Emma asked. Mary shook her head. Sometimes she didn't understand all of what Aunt Emma meant, when she spoke like this, but she listened all the same. Sometimes Aunt Emma would tell her that it would only make sense when Mary was older, but that she needed to learn it now, so that she would know when the time came. "All men would be tyrants if they could."

"Abigail Adams," Mary answered promptly, remembering the book of letters. Aunt Emma smiled in a brief way that didn't reach her eyes.

"Yes. And it is quite true, though I think it is true of men and women both. But as things stand, it is men who can, and women who can't. The law and custom of a thousand years or more make it so that even the man of least power amongst his fellows may still by law exercise his tyranny over his sister, daughter, and his wife." She sipped her tea, and then said, her eyes fixing on Mary, "The ugly truth of most of humankind is that once we have power over one another, we are very loath to give it up. We fear, I think, that those we have wronged will turn on us if we give them half a chance. You can see it in how the conquered are treated by the conqueror, the slaves by their masters, the poor by the rich and comfortable - and women, by men. Where we are happy, it is because we have the sheerest luck that our own tyrants are benevolent."

"Like Papa," Mary said, a little daring, because she wasn't sure she liked what Aunt Emma was saying. This time the smile was a little sad.

"Yes," she agreed, to Mary's surprise. "Precisely like your papa. I do not mean that all men are evil, Mary. I mean only that Lord Acton's dictum applies to far wider circles than the Roman pontiff."

Mary remembered that one, too. "Power tends to corrupt," she quoted, "and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

"Precisely," Aunt Emma replied. She poured herself more tea, though not very much more - perhaps, Mary thought, to warm her cup rather than to refill it, because the chill of the room stole the heat from the liquid. "And though I love my brother dearly, and esteem his moral character if not his great wit, it remains that the law grants him great power, and custom even more - and no human being is fit to have so much power over another, Mary. Even with the best of intentions, we may misuse it greatly by mistake, or because that day, in that place, we are too tired or too peevish or too angry to stop it. And once power has been used for ill, guilt prompts us to cover it up, and to justify our actions: my child was disrespectful, my servant was disorderly, my wife needed chastising." She said these like a litany of sin, and Mary winced. Not at those words, but because she could see their pattern, even in herself.

"So that is the war we are born into, every one of our sex," her aunt went on, in a sad voice. "Degree and circumstance will change the battlefields, the casualties, the weapons and the theatre of that war, and some will sit in the middle of the carnage with their hands over their ears, insisting that it's a lovely day as long as it doesn't rain, but the war continues all the same, and we fight it as best we can. Sometimes it's hard to tell who our enemies are, and who our allies. Sometimes, we find we have become our own enemies. It is not a happy war."

Mary tried to think about that, to encompass it, and thought she mostly failed: it turned the road of her life, stretching forward in front of her, into a rather terrifying track out of the worst sort of fairy-tale. And she at once had difficulty seeing Papa as a tyrant - and had a traitorous memory, stuffed away in her mind because she did not want to remember it, of a quarrel between her parents that had ended when her father said I will hear no more, in a voice of command.

And what he had wished, had happened. That was when they had moved to London. London, which Mary's mother hated.

It was . . . difficult, and uncomfortable in its shape, this thought in her mind. And Aunt Emma let her wrestle with it in silence for some time, before Mary finally found the words to ask, "If that's true, Aunt, how do we fight it?"

"The war?" her aunt replied. "With the gifts and weapons we have. Intelligence and cleverness, the influence we can amass. Deception, sadly, sometimes. Despite the difficulty, we collect those who might be allies, fair-weather or not, and make use of them when they can be convinced to fight. Mostly, like any people trapped on the field of war, we try to make what happiness and rest we can, when we can." Her lips thinned for a moment, and then she said, "I have friends who have great hopes for the enlightenment of the age, and a push for our emancipation. Maybe you will know, before your life is over, whether they were right."

On impulse, Mary got up and went to her aunt, putting her arms around her aunt's neck: there was something in Aunt Emma's thoughtful expression that was so empty and hollow that it was greatly disturbing. "It will be all right, in the end," she said, and Aunt Emma squeezed her arm gently, the other wrapped around her back.

"I hope you're right, dear," she said, and Mary had a second thought.

"Well, in the very end, our Lord and Saviour will return to reign over Heaven on Earth," she said, "and since St Paul says there isn't any male or female in Christ - or any other kind of difference - it will have to be all right then, won't it?"

She was not at all sure why that made Aunt Emma laugh quite so much or for so long, but the laughter sounded happy, and Aunt Emma was less bleak when she was done, so Mary simply put it away as another thing that would only make sense when she was older.

The next day, Aunt Emma gave her two books in old French by Christine de Pizan to read.