Saturday, June 28, 2014

Nine notable unsung heroines

Fanny Price, the heroine of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, has been unfairly dismissed by readers and critics, says the Guardian. So to mark the novel's 200th anniversary, the paper collected nine writers' celebrations of "literary leading ladies who have been overshadowed by their showier sisters," including:
Tessa Hadley on Lucy Snowe
Villette by Charlotte Brontë

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.

Would this clumsy, extravagant, eccentric and magnificent novel ever have been published, I wonder, if it hadn't been for the success of Jane Eyre? Jane Eyre had seemed to hold out a hope of happiness to the thousands of invisible women ground small in mid-Victorian England by gentility, poverty and exclusion; if there is one spark of hope in Villette, then it is snuffed out on the last page. Brontë was writing after the early deaths of all her siblings. Lucy is brutally realistic about her own prospects – the worst will probably happen. She's my heroine because she won't resign herself to it, or be at peace.
Read about the other entries on the list. 

Villette also appears on Mullan's lists of ten of the best cases of seasickness in literature, ten of the best teachers in literature, and ten of the best priests in fiction.

--Marshal Zeringue