Jane Eyre – The Tragic Romantic Heroine

In my memory, Jane Eyre will forever be linked to chocolate ice crème.  I remember spending the better part of a weekend, aged 15 or 16, with the book in my lap and a bowl held up near my chin.  Complementary pleasures — one a fleeting sweetness, the other lingering as a dark engrossing image with a happy ending.

For young girls who love reading, Jane Eyre is a near right-of of-passage.  It’s a blend of Gothic romance, Victorian morals and Fairy Tale sensibility rendered through an austere, some would say stubborn and defiant heroine.  The first few pages peg her as unlikeable, according to her aunt and three cousins.  Jane’s response is a resolve to never be anything other than herself – stoic, smart and judgmental.  The action flows mostly through her decisions to follow her moral convictions, satisfying those persnickety Victorian readers.

A Pair of Stepsisters

Bronte created matching sets of cousins to fill the role of stepsisters.  They were placed in the story like bookends of good and evil.  The first were paternal cousins, Eliza and Georgiana Reed.  Both qualified as unsuitable human beings, destined for unhappiness. Further into the story, at a point where a crisis passes, Bronte introduces two women who later turn out to be cousins on Jane’s mother’s side.  It was a tad too convenient, but the cousins Diana and Mary Rivers served as the idyllic stepsisters to round out the happy ending.

Two Suitors

Charlotte Bronte offered up two suitors as polar opposites.  The hero, Rochester, was more emotionally flawed than any of the Austen heroes.  The second suitor, St. John, was never comical or frivolous.  Jane’s rejection of his heartless, cold offer of marriage was painful and dense, and had not one drop of comedy.  St. John’s character seemed to be a tool to convey Jane’s near perfect understanding of the men in her life.  She deftly intuited how to manipulate Rochester in the engagement period before the wedding.

Gothic Romance

Rochester’s wife being insane and kept in a castle tower of sorts provided the gothic element that readers were accustomed to, although it was not nearly as dark as Wuthering Heights.  Bronte used the orphan archetype with its typical deprivations that lead to bliss.  True to the genre, bliss first appears in the form of a man, Rochester, who intends to marry her.  The irony is that Jane Eyre was more than capable of taking care of herself and Rochester.

Jane Eyre, the tragic heroine who earned her happy ending.

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Elizabeth Bennet: Queen of the Regency Heroines

Pride and Prejudice
Image by elycefeliz via Flickr

Jane Austen‘s life spanned two revolutions (the American and French) as well as Napoleon’s rise to power.  In the romance trade, this era was known as the Regency period.  It was a time of upheaval and uncertainty for the British Empire but when you read Austen’s work, it’s as though she was ignorant of the world beyond her tight little circle. In her novels, she created small, intimate communities where she simultaneously satirized and embraced the hypocrisy of her time, namely the audacity of an entitled, landed gentry who sneered at the merchant class, never bothering to ask or understand where the money came from to pay for their extravagant lifestyles.  In that narrowly prescribed sphere, Austen’s driving theme focused exclusively on the trials and tribulations of young women in their quest to secure a suitable mate.  For that was the sole measure of success for any young woman – the quality of the husband she caught.   

Of all the Austen heroines, who snagged the best man?  Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.  According to the values of the Regency period, the more aristocratic, the more haughty and arrogant, the more desirable the man. Without a doubt, Darcy was the crème de la crème.  He was the wealthiest of the bunch.  Both his parents were dead and therefore couldn’t harass Elizabeth after the marriage, as you just knew Edward’s mother would do to Elinor in the post-wedding world of Sense and Sensibility.  Emma spent more time with Frank Churchill who turned out to be a foil hero with the real husband material, Knightley, relegated to the background for much of the story.  Edmund in Mansfield Park was a sap, easily entrapped by the villainess, Mary Crawford.  Captain Wentworth in Persuasion showed his disloyalty towards Anne when he had a fling with Louisa.

Darcy’s character was crafted with the same technique used for Elizabeth – all his supposed flaws were transformed to virtues by end of the novel.  His awkward arrogance was a masque for intelligence and depth of character.  Colin Firth perfected the look of cool reserve hiding a deep, painfully felt passion beneath. No wonder he was Darcy in Pride and Prejudice and the modern day Prince Charming in Bridget Jones Diary

The other required male archetype of romance novels, the father, was best in Pride and Prejudice, too.  Mr. Bennet may have been a weakling, but at least he wasn’t senile like Emma’s father, or died leaving his wife and daughters nearly destitute as in Sense and Sensibility.  It’s a toss-up for the bottom spot, whether it goes to the pretentious, ignorant snob Sir Elliot of Persuasion or the drunken derelict of Mansfield Park who was rarely seen.

Another element that sets Elizabeth Bennet apart from her peers was the interplay with Darcy.  There’s the famous scene when he first proposes marriage to Elizabeth on the grounds that he’s lowered himself to accept her as the object of his desire.  Naturally, she spurns him, pointing out the insult in his proposal.   However, there was an earlier tête à tête where the relationship actually began. In front of Darcy’s friend, Bingley, they each offered a psychological assessment of Bingley’s personality.  The exchange became a sport with the words flying over Bingley’s head, and took on the intimate tone of intellectual sparring.  Their discourse generated sexual tension without the heroine losing her reputation, unlike Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility.  It made Elizabeth appear smart, lively and independent compared to the others. Emma comes off as conceited and snobbish. Elinor Dashwood was staid and practical, the polar opposite of her sister, the overly emotional and melodramatic Marianne. Anne Elliot was the repressed old maid and Fanny Price was mostly an empty vessel. 

There was lightness to Elizabeth’s character.  She foresaw her sister’s disgrace, and by association, the whole family’s loss of social standing.  Nevertheless, Elizabeth’s attitude didn’t carry the weight of the indiscretion. She was resigned to not finding a husband, but not defeated by it, avoiding the more morose perspective that overshadows Sense and Sensibility.  Elizabeth Bennet managed to rise above the fray at every turn, and by hooking up with Darcy, she redeemed the family’s reputation and fortune. 

It doesn’t get any better than that.

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Cinderella – The Gold Standard of Fairy Tales

Old, Old Fairy Tales:
Image via Wikipedia

The Romance Plot Thread

Enjoy them or despise them, a romantic plot thread, as long as it’s not gratuitous, enhances most stories. Otherwise, Top Gun wouldn’t have had the guy get the girl in the end.  An Officer and A Gentlemen was the same story simply written for a female audience.  

What makes a romance work?  Tension.  Sexual, emotional, or intellectual, in whatever combination the audience demands.  A timeless romance conquers all three.  But, the early fairy tales were largely confined to the emotional sphere, restricted from offering any sexual images, the intellectual reduced to symbolic mysticism.  The tension was by necessity all emotional.

Face Time

In the earliest versions, Cinderella attends three balls, seeing the prince each time.  Afterward she runs home with him chasing her in vain.  In Snow White there was no interaction with the prince until he’s attracted to her when she’s in a glass coffin.  I’d hate to examine the psychological meaning of that symbol.  For Sleeping Beauty, her prince charming was a mercenary lured by the promise of riches, never having set eyes on her.  By comparison, Cinderella’s prince knew who she was and sought after her desperately.  Being desired for who you are is a powerful emotion, and resonates beyond gender definitions.  It’s a more complex concept adding heft to the feelings evoked.  That’s the appeal, and the reason Cinderella has been co-opted as a modern story more often than all the other fairy tales taken together.

Foreground vs. Background

In the original version, Cinderella had no fairy godmother; it was the little critters who helped her.  She worked her tail off for that wicked stepmother.  By contrast Snow White was a silent symbol of purity and submissiveness.  The evil Queen and the amusing dwarfs dominated the stage.  Snow White’s one effort was to eat the poisoned apple and fall into a coma.  It was about the same with Sleeping Beauty.  She pricked her finger and fell asleep.  A comatose heroine isn’t much of a role model, or much of a role.

Cinderella is a cultural icon, an action figure who sets the baseline for feminine aspirations and desires.  That’s why she’s eternal, appearing in one form or another in every generation.

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Zombies: a series – Countdown

In 2 months, 4 days and 12 hours, the dead will walk… onto your TV screen!

Premiering on Halloween night, AMC TV’s presentation of “The Walking Dead“, which long-time readers may remember is my favorite zombie book, has all of the makings of becoming my favorite visual zombie experience as well.  Veteran (and venerable) screenwriter and director Frank Darabont (Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile) is at the helm and the writer for the graphic novels, Robert Kirkman, is heavily involved.

A trailer was premiered last month that the San Diego Comic-Con and the official AMC website has some other great behind the scenes video clips, including a time-lapse of a three and a half hour makeup and prosthetic appliance session shown at sixty times normal speed.  Darabont is well-known for his attention to detail, so I have no doubt that he has gathered a crack team of special effects wizards to bring this story of the limits of human survival to life.

I look forward to re-reading the books, while I wait for this highly anticipated event and I hope the kids that come to the door looking for treats on Halloween night appreciate my homage.

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Gender Bias

Recently, I was reminded of the scene from the film As Good As It Gets where the novelist Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson’s character) is talking to a receptionist. She asks Udall, “How do you write women so well?” and he replies, “I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.”

Is there a distinctly masculine or feminine voice in writing? Is it possible for a man to write a convincing first person narrative from a woman’s point of view—or vice versa? Or will an author’s gender bleed into a story no matter how hard he or she tries?

Let me explain what prompted these questions. I entered a writing contest last spring, and when the winners were posted, I noticed something: There were no male names on the list of finalists—none, zero, zip. I thought this was rather interesting, considering that the lone judge of the writing contest was male.

First of all, it’s important to understand that I’m a rather sore loser. Nevertheless, I also like to give credit where it is due, and if someone outdoes me in something, I believe I have enough good sense and character to acknowledge a job well done. Maybe these women outdid all the males who submitted material to the contest. If so, bravo! Yet I have to wonder what it was about these ladies’ writings that this particular judge found so appealing? Doe he simply have a penchant for feminine voices? Were there gender differences in the writings themselves—either in terms of subject matter or style—to which he unconsciously gravitated?

What about me? Does an author’s gender matter? Both male and female writers are certainly represented on my bookshelves at home, and I like to believe that I judge an author’s writing based on its own merits and not its creator’s sex. However, in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that the male writers do outnumber the females in my library nearly three to one. Am I biased? Because I read Edward Abbey and not Danielle Steel, does this make me an insensitive, misogynistic brute? I’m not sure. You’d probably have to ask my ex-wife.