Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Female characters: What is strong?

So, another year rolls round, and there is another best-selling book, read mainly by women, that we are getting told off for enjoying1. The reasons we are given are plentiful, but familiar:  poor writing, slushy plot and a weak female lead. You know, a silly little bimbo who lets herself get pushed around, subscribes to a totally self-sacrificing ideal of love and ends up...

Actually, this is just far too boring. Go and look on any one of a million websites and you'll get some version of this diatribe in full. In fact, we heard it all last time anyway. I, for one, can't be bothered. Not getting involved, not interested. The reason I'm standing well back from it this time round can be traced to two female protagonists from books that are both acknowledged Classics2 and can therefore be safely discussed without anyone getting too vehement.3

So, two names: Jane Eyre and Fanny Price.

Let's start with the confession, but please, don't shoot:

I hate Jane Eyre. It is not only the single set text from an academic course that I have never actually finished4, I failed to finish it on two separate occasions and once even pulled a sickie to get out having to discuss it in a seminar. It's not that I can't handle 19th Century fiction (I love 19th Century fiction) it's that it's a turgid, repressive and oppressive wish fulfilment fantasy related by a main character with the pizazz and inner strength of an over-boiled turnip. I first studied it at an all girl's school, and our gushing teacher burbled incessantly about how virtuous, how committed, how inspirational a main character was dear, sweet Jane. I could just see them force feeding us this stuff, trying to get us to toe the line, behave in the acceptable way. I called b/s. I'll admit it, I ranted, and I swore  to anyone who would listen and I dissected that novel to prove my point. I did exactly the kind of thing that this blog post is complaining about, because it got right under my skin.

Then, a couple of year later, this happened:

I gave myself a holiday treat by reading all of Austen's novels, and was just about to start Mansfield Park. My mum, the consummate Austen fan5, looked at it and smirked. “Have you started reading that yet?” She asked.
No,” I responded, all innocence.
Oh, you are going to love Fanny Price.”

And I'll tell you something. I did. I liked Fanny,6 I respected Fanny, I was glad7 Fanny got her man. Okay, she wasn't so much fun as Austen's other heroines, but she was sincere, committed, and determined. No matter what might happen, she would not compromise herself, her beliefs, or her limits; even under pressure, even when there was no hope. What's more, she got what she wanted. Okay, she could have done better, but, hey, what's so great about giving up what we actually want based upon some arbitrary value system concerning life choices?

Good for Fanny Price! Three cheers! An inspiration!

Then I started reading some literary criticism.

Oh dear.

Turns out people were saying of Fanny the same things that I had been saying about Jane8. Oppressive. Wish fulfilment. Pizazz and inner strength of an over-boiled turnip (okay, not in those exact words...) These people, they had quotes too; they too had dissected the novel, pulled out bits and pieces to support themselves (“Out of context!” I cried.) Some of them even compared Fanny negatively to Jane, for Jane is liberated, has strength of mind, makes her own way in the world, does not compromise... I'll admit at times, I started to wonder if there had been some kind of bizarre mix-up in the heads of these people, and they had got the names the wrong way round.

But then I started talking to other readers, and reading articles about books and found that people I respect were saying Jane Eyre had moved them, had driven them, solaced them. People, women, were saying that Jane had been, on some level, their liberator – or at least a friend in their struggle. So I tried to read it again and could still see nothing more than a narrator incapable of either ducking or dissembling when a man is about to hurt her9. Then, reader, she marries him – you know, the repulsive, broke one who kept his last wife in an attic for years.

That was when the realisation came to me: this is literary criticism, darlings. We can all be right.

That's not to say all opinions are equally correct, some after all are patently wrong. This, though, is usually based upon a misunderstanding . An example of this might be a misapprehension regarding the word 'ejaculate' in that lovey dovey scene between Jane and Rochester in the garden. Such an interpretation of that scene would be... interesting... but not exactly worthy of serious attention. Others, while valid and interesting, take a certain perverse inspiration and a degree of stubbornness. One is reminded of the four hours I spent arguing that the events of Dracula are a collective delusion, and the essay where I stated that the thing of the Count's that Mina is sucking? It's not blood. Yes, it was enormously good fun, especially that last one, but really? No, neither of those are what happen in the novel.

Still, with an honest reading of something, when we respond naturally to the characters and get involved with the plot, there is actually no wrong response. So, something in me didn't get on with Jane Eyre and still doesn't. Other people can't stand Fanny Price. So what? We each bring to a book our own set of experiences and values, so that certain things trigger us in certain ways – certain aversions, certain sympathies. We all take away something from a book which shapes us and our future actions.

In Fanny Price, I saw a young woman who knew what she wanted, however unobtainable, and would not be swayed from that course by the glamour of something 'better'. Sometimes, when I face certain people and decisions, I look to Miss Price10 for her strength and resolution. In Jane Eyre, though, I saw a young woman who faced bullies and let them hurt her, let them break her. That will not be me.

Other people, I appreciate now, feel that should be the other way around. Fair enough - that's their response. I have not changed my mind, but I have stopped hurling the insults. A character is strong in the strength she confers and the characters from whom we draw strength are our own business. If one11 shy, lonely, unhappy teenage girl looks at Bella Swan and thinks, “It's okay. Adolescence ends. The things that scare me won't be scary forever,” then surely, for all the problems you personally see in the book, it can't be all bad.

I'm not saying don't argue about interpretations of books– for Gods' sakes, that's the fun of lit crit – what I'm saying is put down the pitchforks.
1No. I've not read it. I'm not going to. If I want erotica, I have Lost Girls and the works of Angela Carter.
2Whatever that means.
3Lights blue touch paper, retires.
4Okay, there is ONE other, but it was by the same author and had more or less the same main character and plot. (again, the bit about the blue touch paper)
5No, seriously, she's treasurer for the local branch of the Jane Austen Society.
6UK readers especially, please imagine an immature laugh at the end of each clause in this sentence.
7Double laugh .
8Nope. Can't help it. Smirk.
9At least in the first bit of the book there's an element of defiance to this, but... Jesus Christ. It doesn't get any better once she's been tamed, does it?
10Ha! Avoided it.
11Oh, god, here I go. For all the good it will do me.

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