Sunday, May 01, 2005

A plain gal can be a heroine too


Q. D. Leavis, in the "Introduction" to the Penguin Classics 1986 edition of Jane Eyre, explains that one of Charlotte Brontë's intentions with this novel was to show "that a heroine could be interesting without being beautiful" (11).*

Oh, yes, Jane Eyre is interesting, but how close to real life is this kind of romance?

Other heroines have not been strikingly beautiful, plain Janes (pun intended), ugly ducklings, or pretty or handsome (but not described as beautiful) girls---with incredible beauty of character and personality and passion for living: Anne from Austen's Persuasion, Fosca from Stephen Sondheim's musical adaptation of the Italian novel Passion, Molly Gibson from Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters, and Melanie Hamilton Wilkes from Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind (although Melly is not the novel's central heroine, she is of more good character than Scarlett!)---just to name a few.

Anne gets her man in the end, after having refused him the first time because she was persuaded to do so by an family friend/mentor/confidante. She is in her late 20s when Naval Captain Frederick Wentworth reappears in her life, and she fears that because the bloom of her youth is fading, his interest in her will not return. But she demonstrates her affability, her kindness, her loyalty, her integrity, and he reveals that his heart has always been and forever will be hers.

Fosca, an ugly invalid, becomes obsessed with a young officer in the Italian army stationed in her town and living in her home. (Her cousin is in the same unit.) Giorgio shares books with Fosca and talks with her about truth and beauty and life. The intellectual stimulation is a treasure to her, and she finds herself bonding quickly with him. Giorgio is in love with Clara, a beauty married to another man. He and Clara exchange letters, which infuriates Fosca, who has become obsessed with Giorgio. Their discussions intensify: he tries to explain real love to her and she refuses to relent. She keeps loving him and claims that it is the reason she has for living now. Eventually, Giorgio gives up Clara, refusing a love that is "convenient" and scheduled in favor of Fosca's brave love that is "implacable as stone...a love that like a knife has cut into a life [he] wanted left alone."

Orphaned Molly Gibson is pretty and good. She takes care of her father, becomes an almost-adopted daughter of the local squire and his wife, learns about insects from the squire's son Roger, and defends the honor of her new stepsister Cynthia. She is passionate and intelligent and not afraid to speak up for those she loves or for herself, but she also has grace and restraint. Roger's infatuation with Cynthia fades and he discovers Molly's true value (it is she who shares his love of learning---and appreciates the wasp's nest he brings to her as a present) and asks her to marry him.

Melanie Wilkes refuses to believe ill of anyone. She defends Scarlett and does not listen to the idle tongues of her sister-in-law India and the other women of Atlanta. She keeps seeing the good in each person. She tries to get through to Rhett, to see that Scarlett really loves him. Melly delights in pleasing her husband---gives him her brightest smiles, her trust, her hopes. This woman is so good, so resilient! She's not perfect---she is willing to cover up her husband's involvement in what was the predecessor of the KKK and willing to drag a Civil War scaber and attempt to kill an intruder with it.

These women prove that their inner qualities shining through transform any outer plainness or ugliness into something much more. What I want to know is where are the stories of real women, real plain Janes who are held to be beautiful, not for their looks (although they may actually be attractive on the outside) but for their virtues?

Obviously, this is a topic to which a blog entry does not do justice. The issue begs an essay or a research paper. (And watch someone else steal the idea...)

Well, this entry just holds the place for the idea... So much of "literary stuff" has been churning in my head of late, I needed a place to dump it all.

* Q. D. Leavis, "Introduction," Jane Eyre, New York and England: Viking Penguin/Penguin Books, 1986, 11.

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