Missing In Action – 20th Century Iconic Romantic Heroine

Kathleen Woodiwiss's The Flame and the Flower
Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been wracking my brain to come up with an Iconic Romantic Heroine for the 20th century.  Soliciting advice from others, more often than not, I received the suggestion of Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind.   She’s an iconic character no doubt, but of the Anti-Heroine variety.  While Scarlett’s embedded in our cultural psyche, ultimately she’s a tragic figure.  The ending to Gone with the Wind was intentionally vague and certainly not in the “happy” category.  So, I quickly dismissed Scarlett and continued my search.

Next I considered Lucy Honeycutt from Room with a View by E.M. Forster.  This was an early 1900’s novel published during the narrow era of the Edwardian age.  She was a heroine who exemplified the transition for women coming out of the rigors of Victorianism but before the full effect of the 20th century took hold.  She was more transitional than iconic, so I moved on.

Finally, I had to realize that the suffrage movement, which culminated in the USA with the passage of the 19th amendment, was a distinct pivot point that changed the way women viewed their place in society. A new perspective challenged the notion of dependency on men for a woman’s sense of happiness and fulfillment.  Not surprisingly, within ten years of women getting the right to vote, there was a new heroine on the block – Nancy Drew.  Ostensibly written by a female author, Carolyn Keene, the books were actually written by a collection of ghostwriters, both male and female, working under the tight strictures of a single editor.  Nancy Drew became the strongest female role model for young girls in that large swath of the middle to late twentieth century.  Her original persona was a spunky, independent young woman with a boyfriend comfortably in the background.  She was updated in the fifties to offer a less threatening, more submissive role model.  Her character make-over is a prime example of the pendulum that swings with the conflicting desires of  the female audience.  Ultimately, Nancy Drew is a heroine but with no romance, so she too fails the test for the iconic romantic heroine.

In the seventies a new subgenre emerged in the historical romance trade.  The realities of the sexual revolution with reliable, female controlled pregnancy prevention and the opening up of higher education to woman produced a new need to fill – how to romance a woman who wasn’t supposed to rely on a man to fulfill her destiny.  The answer was one of the biggest ironies of feminism – the glorification of rape fantasies and unwanted pregnancy.  The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen Woodiwiss was one of the first in describing sex with intimate detail.  Soft porn became the essential ingredient for a successful historic romance novel in the ‘70’s.  The modern romantic heroine now needed to be skillful between the sheets and willing to tell all about it.

In the nineties there was Bridget Jones as the bumbling, ditzy, slightly slutty heroine.  She may endure as an iconic heroine but more than likely she’ll be one of the countless characters that sparkle for a few years and then pass into oblivion when the next new swing of the pendulum comes round.

There was another heroine that came close – Joan Wilder in Romancing the Stone.  She was pure and modest, and had the perfect job for a modern woman – romance writer.  It was an entertaining story, but it too falls into the transient category.

I finally came to the conclusion that the Iconic Romantic Heroine may have met her demise in the 20th century, or at the very least she’s still Missing in Action.   If there is a 20th century iconic heroine out there, who gets her man and a happy ending, I’d love to know.  Please tell me if you think of one.

Enhanced by Zemanta

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.

Enhanced by Zemanta