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Victorian Thorns In Today's Modern Love

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A young, smiling woman gazes up at a man playing violin
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I tend to think of my romantic dilemmas as distinctly modern. You know, navigating things like Facebook and text messaging and everything else along that awkward precipice between men and technology.

Recently, though, it's the love life of a 19th century Victorian with which I've been identifying. I began to relate when I first came upon her on the page this summer, and when — two weeks ago — I watched Vicki Kennedy elegantly mourning the terrible if not unexpected loss of her older husband, I thought of her again.

I'm talking about Dorothea.

You know Dorothea. From Middlemarch. What, you didn't finish it? That's OK. The part I'm talking about comes at the beginning. You didn't start? It's OK. I'll tell you.

Dorothea is young — too young for marriage — smart and ambitious. She wants to make the world better. In early 19th century rural England, this means marrying someone who will. She finds her object in Mr. Casaubon, a local religious scholar who is practically elderly and who on first meeting announces that he would benefit from a companion who could read to him aloud, for the sake of his wearying eyes. Despite the shock and dismay that reverberates for miles around, Dorothea is eager to volunteer.

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Elizabeth Tannen recently relocated to Albuquerque, where she is pursuing a Master's of Fine Arts in creative writing at the University of New Mexico. She is relieved to have gotten through Middlemarch before the start of classes. Shaun Mader/Courtesy of Elizabeth Tannen hide caption

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Shaun Mader/Courtesy of Elizabeth Tannen

Based on what I've read, Victoria Anne Reggie made a much more rational decision leading to a much happier marriage. And certainly, Edward Casaubon was no Teddy Kennedy. But bear with me.

When I read Middlemarch, need it be said, as a 25-year-old woman in the 21st century — my reaction to Dorothea's decision was more empathetic than scornful. And that fact troubled me.

As a young woman with ambition and smarts, I struggle with romance. I want someone who will support me as a writer and eventually as a mother, but also someone who challenges me, someone I can learn from — and who isn't put off by my strength. My longest relationship was with someone 16 years my senior, whom I left because my drive exceeded his.

Once, years later and still single, I complained to a colleague about my dating woes. She asked me about the men I'd been seeing, and I told her they were my age, artists or graduate students.

"Elizabeth," she sighed. "That's your problem. You need to date someone older, more successful and more ambitious than you."

I told her I knew she was right. But why? Why shouldn't I be able to date someone younger, or my age and with less professional appetite? Or at least someone who is my equal?

I know that in theory I can date whomever I want; I can marry whomever I want. I can make like Demi or Maude and run off with an adoring man 20 years younger.

But my experience affirms my colleague's wisdom: Most men my age — in addition to being preoccupied with finding themselves, and their careers — are too intimidated, too threatened to successfully be with a woman who might outdo them. And it's not just the underachievers; oftentimes it's the successful ones, too. Instead of being attracted to power — like so many women — they tend toward relationships that give them the upper hand.

In the end, things turn out pretty well for Dorothea. And already, they have for Vicki Kennedy. I would bet they taught their husbands just as much as they learned from them, if not more.

But by the time I have daughters, I'd like to think that the model of a strong and powerful woman doesn't so frequently include marriage to a stronger and more powerful man.