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In this novella, Suzanne and Lizzie meet in college, become fast friends, and soon find themselves composing letters to one another in the great literary tradition. They revel in their ability to talk about anything and their encouragement of each other’s writing, but this takes them in a direction they didn't expect. Meanwhile, they team up with fellow English student Josh and—employing a prestigious national literary contest as their battleground—they set out to teach the sexist and sexually-predatory professors at their university a lesson.

Who will be interested in this book? Readers who like classic literature and are familiar with writers like Virginia Woolf, readers who like women's letters, and students who are English majors.

The Chesterfield Stationery Wars

Elizabeth had always been the name she preferred, and most people in her life subscribed to her own version of herself, addressing her by the proper label that she had insisted upon since that day, fifteen years ago, when she had run away from Suzanne. Nowadays Elizabeth had another label as well; her students faithfully called her Professor Hudson, a name that stuck even behind her back, for she was generally well-liked enough that no one saw fit to endorse her with cruel metaphors, the way she and Suzanne once did for Professor Dorset. 

The Gay Misogynist, that’s what the two young women had conspired to call him, after enduring half of the Spring 1985 semester in his company. At first, they had staked out opposite sides of the classroom, Suzanne brazenly in the front, just right of center, and Elizabeth to the left near the windows, second seat back, near enough to hear all, she thought, without being a primary target.

But then there were no escapees in Dorset’s class. It was absurd really. He wasn’t even attractive. Somewhat chunky and usually unshaven with disheveled thinning hair, he dressed in mismatched wrinkled shirts and trousers so baggy that, one day in the middle of a John Donne lecture, they dropped to his ankles in a heap. No one even considered laughing, and he abruptly pulled them up with eyes narrowed against anyone who might dare comment or even exchange glances as he returned to his favorite subject, metaphysical poetry. His complicated courses and tough grading were not for the faint-hearted and he attracted only English majors, but of those he was the self-proclaimed king, for when he spoke, his total oddness melted away, and in its place, there loomed over his disciples a charismatic brilliance that offered no quarter, nor was any ever expected. 

In the cafeteria, he often lunched with students, and one couldn’t help but notice that they were always male. They followed him around like puppies and lapped up his favoritism, which left no welcoming spot for any of the classroom’s women, who couldn’t help their fascination and perhaps resented just a bit that they showed up willingly to lectures in which they were constantly slain. For while Dorset impressed his seminar students by breaking into fluent bouts of Old English and by flaunting brilliant comments as though they were just passing remarks, he never forgot to analyze those facets of the authors which focused most on what a total inferior pain in the ass women were. He made no apology for it either, defending it as the view of the time, but no one missed the exhilaration in his countenance when he latched onto these metaphoric flaws, and the females in the class had to comment twice as intelligently as the males just to get half the attention. It only made them want it more. 

That, in fact, was how Elizabeth got to know Suzanne, for the latter was determined that Dorset would recognize her own brilliance and constantly challenged him. It was embarrassing for the rest of the students, in a way, because not only did Suzanne unnerve her classmates by daring to persist where no one else did, when she threw down the gauntlet in some worthy remark, Dorset’s eyes registered the challenge with such pleasure that the sparks between professor and student seemed almost sexual. And because he thrived so completely in a world encased within his own mind, Suzanne managed to rattle his armor occasionally despite his obvious preference for boys. 

But then Suzanne had that effect on everyone. Elizabeth often found herself smiling into her sweater when Suzanne let Dorset have it, and though she was quieter herself on the surface, privately she gravitated to Suzanne’s flamboyance, because it always contained the pure intoxicant of worthiness to back itself up. Suzanne talked a lot, but she was not all talk. 

“He probably recites his ecstasy in Old English!” Suzanne whispered to Elizabeth one day when leaving class. Together they eyed Dorset and his newest conquest, hero-worshipping over the podium as he simpered out a lame request for information on an assignment.

“If I’d asked that question,” Elizabeth replied, “Dorset would have sternly suggested I consult my syllabus instead of wasting valuable time in asking him to redefine the obvious.”

“When actually,” Suzanne intimated sensually, “he redefines the obvious all the time!”

They burst out laughing then, and finding that they were both heading for the lunchroom, they decided to eat together. 

“Look!” Suzanne exclaimed when they arrived. There, center stage, was Dorset’s favorite table, the sovereign place where he held daily court for pageboys and jesters alike but never acknowledged with even the slightest nod of his head the ladies in waiting who were similarly arriving after his 11:00 class. The table was empty. Usually one of the boys got there first and saved it, but today, thanks to the obsequious youth at the podium, whom the others presumably stayed to keep an eye on, the girls were the first to covet it.

“Let’s!” Suzanne insisted, heading straight for it. Elizabeth followed a moment later, not really liking to be the center of attention yet unable to drift from her friend’s charismatic aura leading a clear path to Dorset’s Court. By the time he arrived ten minutes later, the two girls were comfortably ensconced in his domain, deep in conversation, pretending to be oblivious to the glare that sought them out and weighed their intent. Only Suzanne’s and Elizabeth’s eyes gave away the amusement that twinkled between them, and from that moment on, their commitment to defiance deemed them fast friends.

Whether hunching conspiratorially over coffee mugs in the student lounge, scribbling in ferocious quiet across the table from one another in the library, or scattering squirrels as they strolled arm in arm under the campus oaks, they presented an obvious union, their appearances at such opposite ends of the spectrum that there seemed to hang between them a perfect merging of aura which neither possessed on her own. 

Suzanne’s luxurious wavy black hair and voluptuous five-foot figure starkly contrasted her huge ready smile and direct blue eyes. She consciously challenged everything that she thought warranted it, from professors to literary viewpoints to male assumptions that her sexual magnetism made her easy when it came to luring her from her studies. Make no mistake—she liked men, yet there was something about that fresh spark of an unspoken dare lingering between two sharp minds that was more of an aphrodisiac than flattery or flirting could ever provide. The Gay Misogynist, of course, was a worthy opponent, and even though Suzanne’s challenges did not translate into physical desire, she sought his attentions as a matter of principle, forcing him to recognize that she had become an affront to his sexist presumptions, so that by the end of the semester she had the dubious distinction of his scrawled comment on her blue book essay final that she was the most brilliant female student he’d ever had.

But as for men in general, those whom she didn’t regard as yahoos were on the other hand merely desirable; education was her true pursuit of happiness, and it didn’t take any potential boyfriend long to see where her utmost loyalty lay. Yet her refusal to give up perfecting an assignment in favor of agreeing to rendezvous only rendered her that much more irresistible.

Elizabeth, or Lizzie, as Suzanne persisted in calling her back then, was of entirely different stock. Several inches taller and boyishly slim, she wore her bright blonde hair in a short almost severe style with bangs cut straight over her brow, but when she flashed one of her sudden illuminating smiles, her face burst into a radiant beauty that screamed innocence, though Lizzie was a confirmed feminist and far more informed on women’s issues than Suzanne, who was so used to men’s advances that she sometimes missed their import. Early in the two girls’ friendship, Lizzie mentioned Professor Jeremy Bramble, who was constantly bothering her with after-hours phone calls and invitations to go out for a drink. Outraged at the sexist way he used his position, Lizzie found relief only in describing the advances to Suzanne, for she was far too nice and soft-spoken a person to outright tell the professor to get lost.

Suzanne would have quickly told him where to go when she’d had him the semester before, if she had ever come to realize why he suddenly turned on her and began picking apart her every word, both in class and on paper. It was not until Lizzie’s confession months later that Suzanne recalled Bramble’s after-class invitations and the way she just blew them off without giving them a second thought. And then suddenly his once-doting and supportive literary critiques had turned to vicious unfounded criticisms, while Suzanne spent the rest of the semester agonizing and indignant over his curious treatment. Now she realized fully for the first time that she had been sexually harassed.

Suzanne’s anger over this was twofold. She could not believe how clearly the problem had been plopped in front of her face without her recognition of it, so now it plagued her that she had never told him off. But mostly she was outraged for Lizzie’s sake, for Suzanne was quickly slipping into the role of protector of Lizzie’s psyche, and whenever Lizzie expressed sentiments about her work being inadequate, Suzanne flew to her defense in disbelief that Lizzie could for a moment doubt her own talent. 

The semester after they met, Suzanne and Lizzie enrolled in a short story writing seminar. Suzanne occupied herself with somewhat scathing reality pieces attacking every hypocrisy that had ever pissed her off. Her work made the women laugh, the secure men regard her thoughtfully, and the insecure men hostile. Suzanne didn’t quite get why; perhaps there were more male hits than female ones in her work, but her characters in general were easy targets for their individual defects rather than for the gender they represented.

Lizzie privately thought, however, that Suzanne’s penchant for weak male characters had something to do with a weird home life she rarely discussed, one in which the early death of a mother left her with an unprepared father who jet-setted more than he parented. A half-French charmer, he professed love to a daughter he was never there for, and that probably accounted for the way Suzanne’s eyes narrowed in suspicion whenever guys tried to flatter her.

But regardless of Suzanne’s story themes, whether she was assessing the asinine nature of a date’s fascination with remote controlling or contrasting this practiced skill with his sexual oblivion to what women like, fellow students smirked or outright laughed at graphic dialogs which surely Everywoman could identify with. But Suzanne, while knowing her work was technically clean, stylistically interesting, and bracingly cutting, felt she could never achieve in twenty stories the rhythmic symbolism that bathed every single line Lizzie wrote. It tore at her to see Lizzie so unsure of her own work, which emanated more sheer talent than anyone else’s in the class and was so alluring in its powerful imagery that Suzanne could not imagine Lizzie being anything but a writer. Suzanne herself craved little else, and despite her being competitive by nature, the thought of Lizzie’s fabulous ability going to waste totally grated on her. 

It was during that semester of short story critiquing that the two women began writing letters to one another. They started by exchanging story assignments a few days before due dates, each taking the other’s work home for review, Suzanne to her private apartment off campus, Lizzie to the dorm room she shared with a girl who partied so much she was certainly wasting her parent’s money on college but who at least was not around much to disrupt Lizzie’s studies. Reading one another’s stories, the two women found themselves scrawling comments as they read, and noting points to discuss when next they met. Soon these commentaries became outright formatted letters; soon after that they strayed to topics and creations beyond the stories shared in class, until finally each began to compose poems and stories specifically for the other as much as for herself. 

 

Dearest Lizzie, Suzanne wrote upon the occasion of their fourth exchange, it seems sort of absurd to say this to you, but I anticipate receipt of your next letter to the point where I think I look as much forward to IT as I do to actually seeing you. There is something about a well-considered opinion that is so appealing, ultimately, perhaps, because I never stop being enamored of the idea that you are spending some late evening moments after the toils of homework thinking of me as I am always thinking of you. Is it just me, I wonder to myself, or does this new occupation of ours thrill you as much?

I usually don’t offer myself wholly to anyone; you know this about me already. Until taking up with you this semester, I’ve allowed myself no slack for friendships throughout the previous years of study, always afraid that someone would come between me and my desire to spend this time of my life learning as much as possible about my chosen craft. And yes, I know you’re thinking about the guys I sometimes date, but that isn’t really the same thing; none are serious attachments; they present no danger to my goals and therefore do not count in the scheme of things I am getting at. Okay, that was vague; were it to be critiqued in class, it would be stomped on for not getting to the point.

So what is the point, you ask (or rather, I ask for you, whether you want to know or not! Ha-ha)? The point is that a serious friendship, as I think ours has become, is a commitment, as much of a commitment as a regular relationship is. Well, that sounded stupid, didn’t it? Probably an affront to your feminist ideals—which I wholly share but don’t articulate as easily, I suppose. But if you were answering back just now, you would say to me “Why should a friendship between two women NOT be considered a regular relationship?” Wouldn’t you? 

At times, I am not sure of myself here.  And yes, I know you see me as always being the ultra-confident one, but as much as I come across that way most of the time, when anything starts to mean more to me than the average “anything” might, then I begin to give it enough consideration that my confidence wanes. Perhaps my problem is that I just like to over-analyze things, but admitting that, I am simply just not the type of person to leave unsaid that which people might normally leave hanging between them (although I again seem to have lost myself here in some vague pursuit of a point which I could just state bluntly if I felt like it). But you deserve better than bluntness, and if I am beating around a proverbial bush, then it’s because I hope my question is as important to you as your answer is to me.

Does this exchange of letters seem weird to you—when we’re right here in the same town and could save our comments for personal encounters or phone calls? Does it seem nostalgic, echoing some inspiring literary friendship like that of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, the sort of letter-writing relationships that people in this crazy modern world never seem to have time for? I like the idea of this as a sort of noble pursuit based upon a great literary tradition. But make no mistake, this couldn’t happen with just anyone. It is only because of your supremely special talents and flat-out nice personality that I first paid attention to you at all.

Well now, wait, perhaps that didn’t come out right. There is more to it than that. And I make myself sound above everyone else. But that’s not what I mean. You know that I was specifically bent on avoiding friendships when I began this one. Yet now I don’t know why I feared the loss of time so much; I guess I never realized that the time would be compensated for by the sheer inspiration of knowing someone special like you.

Fondly,

Suzanne

P.S.  When I compared our letter-writing to that of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, I was referring to the straight friendship and literary inspiration they provided one another. Yes, I know they were occasionally lovers in the physical sense, but I did not intend to imply that we are in such a position. Maybe they loved one another in the way that a man and woman would love one another, but I honestly believe that this is true to at least some degree of any great friendship, even if it is never expressed in physical terms. As for our roles in this, I will have to play the vivacious talkative aggressive Vita, writer of “big dumb” letters, while you play the reserved eloquent quiet Virginia, composer of rhythmic prose.

 

Suzanne hesitated before folding the letter into its envelope; she always had the brief sensation after writing one that she had said too little or too much, or perhaps the wrong thing altogether. With men, whether they were lovers or just friends, she never experienced a moment’s insecurity; they quickly became infatuated and followed her around like a flock of loyal chickens, crowding her in the hope she would toss them a snack. It was always with great relief that she excused herself to study as soon as they began to demand more than she was willing to give. But when it came to friendships with women, they usually never extended beyond a casual acquaintance. She knew she was not on solid ground and yet could never seem to resist taking that next step that might bring Lizzie a little closer. A week or so would elapse between the time she wrote and the arrival of Lizzie’s reply. In the interim, she awaited nervously the answer that she somehow always feared would rebuke her for some breach of acceptability, yet Lizzie seemed totally unaware of Suzanne’s agony over this.

 

Dear Suzanne,

Well, you really are a rat.  It is just like you to have read V&V’s letters; I simply don’t know how you find the time to accomplish so much. Now, of course, I shall have to go and read those letters as well, so I know what you’re talking about. You are good for me, you know. Without even realizing it, you constantly challenge me and keep me on my toes. You do it to the professors as well. If you’ve ever wondered why Colton’s lit class is so quiet, I don’t think it’s because they’re in awe of him—it’s because they’re in awe of YOU. There we all are, glad to have gotten our reading homework done and a few notes made so that we can get through another week of class. And then you open your mouth and put us all to shame with some intensely superb observation that rolls off your tongue so casually that you don’t even realize how incredible it is. I guess it’s simply that what seems totally obvious to you is often over the heads of the rest of us.

 

As for your question about our letter exchanges: No, it doesn’t seem weird. A little amusing, perhaps, that we would choose this mode of expression when we live only fifteen minutes apart, but then we are writers, after all. And maybe it simply has to do with scheduling as well. You mentioned your free moments of thought as being late in the evening, so obviously you are a night bird. I, on the other hand, write to you in the early a.m., choosing to be up at dawn to sit on my crappy dorm balcony with a hot cup of tea as I lose myself in a letter to you before starting the required part of the day. It gives me a reason to get up those mornings, not to mention allowing me to escape the hung-over snoring of my roomie Callie, who staggers in at three a.m. I really don’t understand why the dormitory organizers don’t send out questionnaires before assigning rooms, so that students with compatible goals could be put together—oh well, I think she’ll be gone soon. She confessed to me that she’s flunking all her classes, and I know she’s on financial aid. I swear, she spends all her time spiking her hair (which is purple this week), arranging her shirts so that they show off a dragon tattoo on her left upper breast (ouch!), and schmoozing over something called “slam dancing.” Then she waltzes over to me, reeks last night’s grenadine into my face, and wastes time showing me her bruises when she’s already late for algebra. I don’t know what she’s doing here at all

 

As for your comment on women’s relationships: yes, you have this (and me) pegged. The question you posed for me is exactly the one I would have written myself. Why should a friendship between women not be considered a regular relationship? But the fact that you caught yourself right away on this issue shows that you are aware of the problem within the prevailing attitude.

 

As for me playing Virginia to your Vita, I think you’re far exaggerating my writing potential and can’t in any sense of reality compare myself to her. But if you’ll help me with any personality details you can think of, I’ll play along for fun and see how “Virginia” I can become!

 

So, are you going to enter The Chesterfield Contest? You must, you know. You’re probably the best writer in the whole creative writing program. I’m sure you’ll be among the winners. 

 

Well, time to head for class. Thank you for your great letters, which I look forward to more than you might imagine. I feel honored to be your recipient.

 

Love,

Lizzie Woolf

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