Day 25: In her shoes

Last March, at the annual meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies in Williamsburg, Virginia, I delivered a paper in which I coined a phrase. The phrase was “‘in her shoes’ thinking.” It was a simple appropriation of the late British philosopher Peter Goldie’s phrase “in his shoes” thinking, which was his shorthand for a type of thinking in which you project yourself into a person’s situation while retaining elements of your own character. I changed the pronoun without thinking twice about it. But when it came time to read the paper out loud, I realized that switching the gender of the pronoun changed the phrase’s meaning in ways I hadn’t anticipated.

Ours was the first panel of the first day, the dreaded 8am slot. We had, accordingly, a small audience: a small audience, but a high-quality one. Slipping into a seat in the second row was a colleague who is admired not only for her brilliance but also for the stylish figure she cuts. It was upon spotting this striking figure in the second row, just minutes before delivering my paper, that I began to deliberate upon the significance of changing the pronoun in the phrase.

Because, you see, “in his shoes” thinking is one thing. “In her shoes” thinking is quite another. Think “in his shoes” and an array of roles come to mind; tinker, tailor, soldier, spy; best man; gigolo; patsy; thief. Think “in her shoes” and the taxonomy is quite different: stacked heel, stiletto, sandal, ballet flat; court shoe, ankle boot, platform, wedge. I don’t usually make off-the-cuff remarks when delivering papers, but the presence of my exquisitely dressed (and shod) colleague prompted me to make a version of this observation, noting that “‘in her shoes’ thinking” suggested not simply what one might think in someone else’s situation but the more whimsical fantasy of how it might feel to walk the world in the oh-so-so-chic shoes favored by a fashionable colleague.

Eight months later, I found myself re-enacting this scene in a manner that made me think again about what it meant to think oneself “in her shoes.” The duck-rabbit was at yet another conference, this time the North American Conference for British Studies meeting in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Another conference; another panel; another paper. Except: no: so over-extended was the duck-rabbit that it did not have time to write a new paper and, for the first time ever, found itself, to its embarrassment, in the position of giving the same paper again. I comforted myself with the thought that there was not a high likelihood that any members of the slender audience who had attended the Williamsburg panel would also be present at the Minneapolis one, which also seemed destined to draw a small crowd, scheduled as it was, in the final slot on the final day.

The audience for the panel in Minneapolis was indeed small, in number matching the number of speakers on the panel (not so rare an occurrence at academic meetings). The first three people who sat down were strangers, but the last woman looked familiar, although her name escaped me. She greeted me by name and when she spoke I immediately recognized her as one of the other speakers from the Williamsburg panel. “Hello!” I returned and then I paused, realizing that the jig was up. “But … I’m sorry,” I continued, slowly, abashed. “I’m …. I’m afraid that you’ve heard this before …” “Now, don’t go chasing away a quarter of our audience!” the panel chair mock-chided me.

It was a strange sensation, when the duck-rabbit finally walked over to the podium to deliver its talk. A different room but the same talk; one of the same listeners; and I was even wearing the same dress as I had last time. But the shoes were different. I was wearing different shoes, different boots, to be precise.

I had bought the boots the previous day in downtown Minneapolis. The idea had been formed on the flight from L.A. to Minneapolis. Em, my traveling companion, had told me about a recent discussion thread on facebook that involved the very same fashionable scholar who had attended my Williamsburg panel. The subject of the thread was boots, sparked by a fetching picture that someone had posted of their chicly shod feet. The boots were Fluevogs, and, soon, Emily explained, the chorus grew, as dix-huitièmistes from far and wide chimed in to sing the praises of their Fluevogs.

“Have you heard of them?” Em asked.

I had not.

I lived, at that moment, in a Fluevogless universe. When we landed in Minneapolis, Em quizzed Jessica, our elegant and gracious hostess. Had she heard of Fluevogs? By way of reply, she rushed upstairs and returned bearing a very large white cardboard box, from which she produced her very own Fluevogs, pristine and unworn. We oohed and ahhed. There was in fact, Jessica mentioned, a Fluevog store in Minneapolis. A plan was hatched.

It seemed to the duck-rabbit, you see, at this particular juncture in its life, that the purchase of a pair of kickass Fluevogs was a necessary course of action. The date of the department’s vote on the duck-rabbit’s tenure case had been pushed back, yet again. The duck-rabbit’s book had just been published. It felt like a moment for zipping up and buckling up; for swishing and swashbuckling; for rebooting and booting up. It was moment in which the duck-rabbit felt itself thinking that it needed to be strapped in very tightly or else all hell might break loose.

The very next morning, at the Fluevog store, the bespectacled Fluevogologist (yes; she gave me her card, and that is her job description) unsolicited, presented the duck-rabbit with a pair of boots. They were tall. They were black. They had a sturdy heel, and a long zipper. Most importantly of all, each boot had its own “harness” (this was the Fluevogologist’s term), a little loop of leather that went under the arch and buckled across the outer ankle bone. The Fluevogologist harnessed me in. I stood up and strode around the store. I felt tall. I felt trussed and fastened in just the right way. I felt ready to ride off into the sunset, dance all night, and duel at dawn. I felt ready to take down the Dread Pirate Roberts, or maybe moonlight as him for a while.

The boots were called “Luna,” the Fluevogologist explained. Luna: I liked that. My book cover (what a thrill it is to begin a sentence that way!) features an image of the character Baron Munchausen hanging from a rope attached to the moon. As I say in the book’s introduction, he has harnessed the moon but he has not disenchanted it. I like the image because of the tension it captures. Munchausen has captured the moon, but he’s also flailing wildly, about to fall, and possibly—as the elder flopsy-duckit pointed out, with concern—meet a grizzly end at the mouths of the two bears who nuzzle on the ground beneath him. Just who is ensnared here, and by whom?

As I delivered my talk, my boots felt stiff, as if they were holding me upright, steady on my feet. I told the audience of four how Sir Walter Scott describes his own prose style in Waverley by contrast to a flimsy, flighty, flying carpet. His prose is a good old English post-chaise, he insists, with four wheels firmly on the ground. And yet, I argued, Scott has it both ways, performing a sleight of hand whereby his very disavowal of narrative enchantment permits him to get away with a more subtle yet equally audacious feat of illusionism. Scott’s is a harnessed form of enchantment, I decided. He takes (explicitly, in fact), the Arabian Nights as a model for what he wants to do, but he grounds it, the flying tapestry becoming the galloping post-chaise careening along the English highway.[1]

After the three speakers had given our talks, our panel chair made gracious comments upon our papers. When it came to my talk, he seized upon my coinage, ‘“in her shoes” thinking’ and joked “Size 7 Jimmy Choos?”

“Actually, size 7 and a half Fluevogs,” I replied, in a whisper audible only to Em.

It felt necessary to verbally affirm my ownership, because those badass, rugged boots still felt—still do feel—like someone else’s shoes, like they belong to someone tougher and altogether more heroic than a nose-twitching, ear-quivering duck-rabbit. It was good to remind myself that this, right here, this was me standing in my own shoes. I was harnessed but not yet disenchanted.

My fluevogs, taking a well-deserved rest on the floor of the Minneapolis airport.

My fluevogs, taking a well-deserved rest on the floor of the Minneapolis airport.


[1] In his remarks in Ivanhoe on historical fiction, Scott identifies Galland’s Arabian Nights as exemplifying the effect at which his historical fiction aims, in which unfamiliar “manners and style” are “in some degree familiarized to the feelings and habits of the Western reader.”


2 thoughts on “Day 25: In her shoes

  1. After receiving some notes from my stylishly shod male friends, I feel that I have to apologize for implying that the shoeness, as it were, of in-one’s-shoe’s thinking, is only foregrounded when flagged as in-her-shoes thinking. As Eric wrote to me, with justified indignation, “If you’d seen the brown Cole Haans with the orange soles I’m wearing right now, you would have thought ‘shoes’ with ‘in-his-shoes.'”

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