From The Little Mermaid and Anna Karenina to Holly Golightly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Samantha Ellis examines the heroines written by men
Can men write good heroines? Most of the heroines I write about in my book How to Be a Heroine are written by women. And most of the heroines I find most problematic are written by men. It's very troubling to go back to Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid and find that it's a story about a mermaid who gives up her voice for legs to get a man. And even as a girl, I was furious with Charles Dickens for letting Nancy get bludgeoned in Oliver Twist and, later, outraged that Samuel Richardson heaped pain and indignity on Clarissa and called her "an Exemplar to her sex" as though learning to suffer well made us exemplary.
It's particularly distressing to see how male writers have punished their heroines for being sexually adventurous. Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina throws herself under a train; Gustave Flaubert makes Emma Bovary pathetic even before she poisons herself. It's striking that when Erica Jong wrote about an adulteress in Fear of Flying, she gave her a happy ending, in which she is reborn in a hotel bathtub, and summons her adoring husband back.
But men can write wonderful heroines. Shakespeare's Juliet is both bold and brilliant. She defies her parents, deceives her nurse, marries in secret, sleeps with Romeo, plots an ingenious escape and isn't even fazed by death – all this and she's only 14. It's just a shame that Shakespeare didn't give her a hero worthy of her – it's fickle Romeo's ineptitude that gets Juliet killed. But I still love her, and I'd go to the wall for the unruly, cross-dressing heroines of Shakespeare's comedies.
Henrik Ibsen's Nora inspired many women to smash down the walls of their own dolls' houses. Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders is a shrewd, bawdy wonder. I have a lot of time for JD Salinger's restless, questioning Franny Glass. And Buffy the Vampire Slayer should prove, definitively, that men can write not just heroines but superheroines – famously, when asked why he writes strong female characters, Joss Whedon shot back "Because you're still asking me that question."
As for the much-maligned Tess, I think Thomas Hardy tied himself in knots trying to show the plight of a poor Victorian woman while also making her feisty enough to be interesting. The crucial scene in The Chase went through three drafts – in the first, Alec tricks Tess into a sham marriage, and consummates it. In the second, he drugs and rapes her. But in the final draft Tess isn't duped or drugged or raped, she's seduced. She's complicit. And she faces the consequences bravely. She could hide her past from Angel, the man she falls in love with, but she wants to be honest. And Hardy paints him as a weak hypocrite for not respecting that candour. At the end of the novel, when she stabs Alec to death, Hardy makes his loyalty even clearer; he calls the bloodstain she creates "a gigantic ace of hearts". He's saying she's a winner. The winner of the novel. He rewards her with a few pages' grace, as she and a repentant Angel have the honeymoon they never had, and at the end she goes to the men who arrest her like a goddess.
I'm less keen on Henry James's Isabel Archer. She says so many inspiring things about liberty and independence, and I love the idea of a woman "affronting her destiny", as James so memorably put it, but why does she end up so trapped and miserable? Why, after she wonderfully says she wants to know "the things one shouldn't do" not in order to do them but "So as to choose", do we never see her make a positive choice? We see her say no to two men who might have made her happy, but we never see her say yes – not to horrid Osmond, not to anything. When I read the bits where she seems terrified of sex, of any overwhelming experience, I wonder if James just wasn't comfortable with writing a heroine who says yes to life. My favourite heroine in The Portrait of a Lady is the decidedly unladylike Henrietta Stackpole.
The most satisfying heroines I've read, by men or women, come from writers who pour their hopes and dreams into them, who refuse to sell them short. Truman Capote put so much of himself into Holly Golightly – his memories of growing up dirt poor, and of his mother having to charm (and sleep with) men for money, his experience of never quite belonging in glamorous high society, and, most of all, the way he had to reinvent himself to survive.
EM Forster wrote heroines who could do what he couldn't: while he was stuck in the closet, his intrepid heroines put love first. He could only dream of pursuing a relationship with an Italian hunk, as middle-aged widow Lilia does in Where Angels Fear to Tread. And he longed to be honest about his affections, as Lucy Honeychurch is, eventually, in A Room with a View. Instead, like Lucy's awkward cousin Charlotte Bartlett, he looked set to remain perpetually loveless. But at the end of that novel, Charlotte does something amazing: she sees that Lucy is on course to become a miserable spinster like her, and she heroically intervenes to reunite her with the man she loves. And perhaps writing Charlotte inspired Forster to seize the day when, at 51, he met the love of his life.
If we say men can't write heroines, aren't we saying men can't understand women? And if men don't at least attempt the radical empathy of putting themselves in our shoes, and trying to understand what it is like to be a woman, then how are we ever going to get equality? And anyway, I'd hate to be told I couldn't write heroes.
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