A Heroine No One Could Love

There’s a very good article in The Guardian today about literary heroines who get less notice than their showier counterparts. It leads with a thoughtful and convincing piece about Fanny Price, the heroine of Sense and Sensibility. Sense and Sensibility is a difficult book for modern readers. The plot turns on whether or not home theatricals are appropriate and Fanny herself is so shy and self-effacing as to almost vanish at times. It’s the Austen novel that I reread least. I think, because it’s the darkest of her novels.

Fanny is introduced into the Bertram house as an inferior – a poor relation who is being done a great kindness and must always be “sensible of her uncommon good fortune”, as Mrs Norris puts it. Austen shows how character and circumstance are never completely distinct. Fanny, the only Austen heroine who is seen in childhood, is shaped by the compliance that is forced upon her.

Austen’s own relations and friends perhaps grasped this better than later readers, for they did not seem disappointed to turn from Elizabeth to Fanny. “Fanny is a delightful Character!” thought her brother Francis. “Fond of Fanny,” said her sister Cassandra. For all her reticence and awkwardness (she blushes more often than any other Austen heroine), Fanny has to be as stubborn and resourceful as any Brontë heroine. Beneath a grand veneer of respectability, the main characters in the novel are behaving very badly indeed and she must keep her head. With the arrival of Henry and Mary Crawford, the Bertrams, her adoptive family, descend from aristocratic self-regard into deception, sexual rivalry and mutual cruelty. The family falls apart and only Fanny understands what is happening.[John Mullan]

There’s also a nice wee segment on Lucy, the heroine of Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, a novel which has been almost completely overshadowed by Jane Eyre. I wrote my Master’s thesis about Villette – it’s a brilliantly odd and fevered work dominated by Lucy’s morbid, dramatic self-consciousness. She’s a spectacular creation. And I love the book. But a tidy romance with a happy ending it ain’t.

It isn’t easy to like Lucy Snowe – she doesn’t even want us to like her. She certainly doesn’t want us to think she’s attractive, describing herself as “thin, haggard, and hollow-eyed; like a sitter-up at night, like an overwrought servant, or a placeless person in debt”. The young heroine of Charlotte Brontë’s last novel, Villette, set mostly at a girls’ school in Brussels, is more or less invisible to others: they don’t notice her any more than if she were a serviceable piece of furniture in a room. Lucy only hints at whatever sad family history has left her destitute and friendless and somewhere on the social margins, neither a working-class servant nor a lady. Behind her invisibility, though, passion rages; she’s a fascinating mixture of abjection with appetite. All by herself she travels to the continent, and finds work as a teacher. The novel’s love stories and dramas happen mostly to the pretty, lucky people; Lucy’s interest in them verges on voyeurism. Yet her sheer intensity intrudes all the time into the foreground, insisting we attend to the life of her extraordinary mind, to her visions and longings. The sensibility is so English, so self-righteously Protestant – and yet it is almost Dostoevskian, too, in its tormented obsession. [Tessa Hadley]

The small quotation Hadley includes makes me want to rush off and reread Villette. I just love the extravagant way Bronte uses language in the novel.

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