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Hard Times for Heroines

by Steven Utley

Not that she didn’t have legitimate complaints, but Sue Kaufman’s Mad Housewife was lucky enough to be merely much-put-upon by Life in a 20th-century novel. Being a heroine in a 19th-century novel was a really dicey proposition, and there was no predicting the dictates of Fate. Just for starters, you could find yourself in a novel written by one of the Brontë girls — surrounded by dysfunctional characters and necessarily rather nuts yourself — or in really outré works such as Frankenstein and Dracula. Never mind that it wasn’t Mina Harker’s fault if she almost disobliged her family by becoming a bride of the undead. Victorian society was no more forgiving of women who only gave the appearance of impropriety than of those who actually committed improprieties. Properly brought-up young ladies simply did not consort with vampires.

If you had been Bad, like Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina — passionate, sensitive women married to tiresome husbands whom they betrayed — you were liable to despair of your own Badness in the fullness of time, and take poison or throw yourself under a train. If, like the beautiful and dissolute Nana, you were so irredeemably Bad as to lack the moral fibre to succumb to despair and do the only decent thing, you stood a chance of succumbing to the consequences of your high-risk life-style.

If you weren’t too terribly Bad, like Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair or the more impetuous ingénues in Jane Austen’s novels, you could possibly get off with not marrying well and having to live on your wits, such as they might be in the case of Austen’s ingénues.

Strictly speaking, of course, Becky isn’t Vanity Fair’s heroine; William Thackeray embodied the heroinely virtues in Amelia Sedley, whom The Reader’s Encyclopedic Dictionary (1948, edited by William Rose Benét) quite adequately sums up as “gentle, affectionate but not too clever.” Becky is an attractive, amiable, amoral schemer who first sets her cap for Amelia’s wealthy, witless brother, then secretly marries her employer’s son, lives beyond her means, and figures in a scandal involving a lord. When everything goes smash, she is forced into impecunious exile on the Continent. Okay, so Becky is what we today would call “high-maintenance,” among other things; the point is, whereas Amelia supposedly excites our admiration, Becky just excites us, period.

Even if you were Good, however — whether only reasonably Good like the “strikingly, admirably pretty” but unsophisticated Daisy Miller of Schenectady, who defies Old World Conventions, or very Very Good like Beth March or Little Nell — you stood a fair chance of dying tragically young, which only goes to show that you might as well have been Bad and had your fun first.

Now, here is what I meant about the unpredictability of Fate. Maggie Tulliver, in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, is

a creature full of eager, passionate longings for all that was beautiful and glad; thirsty for all knowledge; with an ear straining after dreamy music that died away and would not come near to her; with a blind unconscious yearning for something that would link together the wonderful impressions of this mysterious life, and give her soul a sense of home in it.

Maggie goes so far as to run off with her cousin’s fiancé but returns home Before It Is Too Late. Not that her stick-in-the-mud brother believes it for a second; as far as he’s concerned, running off with somebody’s fiancé is even worse than consorting with vampires (not that Maggie ever goes that far). Estrangement, general unhappiness, and boating accidents follow. Maggie isn’t really in Becky Sharp’s class when it comes to impropriety, but she pays a heavier price.

Nineteenth-century literature’s routine agencies of untimely decease were many and varied in that unhygienic age, and included the peculiar affliction known as decline, which The Consolidated-Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary (1957) defined as “a popular name for almost all chronic disease in which the strength and plumpness of the body gradually decrease, until the patient dies.” Modern medical science has made such strides that this meaning of decline is no longer popular — is, in fact, nearly lost.

Time was, though, when decline was a major killer of young ladies who were too good for this world, and whole shelves of 19th-century novels depict its victims lingering and languishing at the threshold of A Better World for page upon sentiment-humid page before quietus can be said actually to occur, at which point it is usually considered to be a merciful end, especially by the reader.

Copyright © 2006 by Steven Utley

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