A while ago through my research around my studies, I came across this article on The Guardian whilst doing some essay research for my Austen and Brontes module. It reviews Samantha Ellis’s biblio-autobiographical How to Be A Heroine:
I found the article very provoking in terms of the ideals that heroines present to their readers in novels. The classic for me is Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. I have always maintained I would have loved to have lived in the romantic Recency era of courtship and gentlemenly pursuits,where morals and behaviour were paramount to a persons’ reputation. Then I received the sudden jolt that comes with being absolutely deceived in any previous misconceptions I had about love. I always knew that gentlemanly chivalry was severely lacking in the 21st-century and I thought I’d re-discovered it when I immersed myself in reading Pride and Prejudice year after year. However, like the classic deceit of the Disney princesses who make young girls believe the first man they meet will be their ‘Prince Charming’, the more I read Elizabeth Bennet’s story, the more I felt like she was letting me down.
Ellis describes a similar moment of anagnorisis when her friend suggests Jane Eyre is a more suitable role model and heroine than Cathy Earnshaw. Although the discovery devastated Ellis’s illusions of true love in Wuthering Heights, I can’t help but feel that Jane Eyre simply plops herself into the same ‘disappointing-heroine’ boat as Elizabeth.
I read Wuthuring Heights at the height of my cynicism about love and relationships and I can only describe myself as incredibly satisfied that what had been described to me as “the greatest love story”, was actually a realistic depiction of the lies and betrayal that occur in a relationship. In my bitter misanthropy I felt pleased that Cathy and Heathcliff never had their chance at real true love together, that both the characters either through marriage or death experienced the loss of each other and the full impact of their mistakes.
On the other hand, we have my complete disillusionment with Elizabeth Bennet, when, after her strong-minded independence and rejection of two marriage proposals despite them being in her best interest, she then proceeds to turn her morals on their heads and live happily ever after. Her complete subversion of everything a 19th-century woman should be is what makes her such an appealing and identifiable character, paving the way for early feminism and the ‘new woman’ ideals.
Then she marries him.
As does Jane Eyre to Mr. Rochester.
Why is it necessary to remove all the values of a heroine which made them so initially lovable to the reader?
As Ellis relates in her book, she hated Dickens for killing Nancy in Oliver Twist. Why? Because she was the female character embodying independence and wit, which made her so lovable to the reader and audiences. So why kill her? Because she didn’t fit that Victorian gender norm? Because her unconventional character would disrupt the ‘natural’ progression and ending of the story.
The reinstatement of conventional behaviour in both Elizabeth and Jane are simply plot devices allowing Austen and Bronte to reconcile their novels to the 19th-century readership. Ultimately, readers could take from characters what they wished. I could chose to take the stories of the Disney princesses as true and realistic. But they aren’t. I can choose to take the character of Elizabeth Bennet pre-marriage OR post-marriage as my role model. But the fact is that the two sides of her character cannot be reconciled in our time. A time when a female becoming their husband’s ‘possession’ is quite frankly a ridiculous idea.
Time and era is essentially what it comes down to then. I choose to take the pre-marriage Elizabeth Bennet as my role model, whilst the Regency era would have chosen the post-marriage Elizabeth as theirs, as an image of prevailing hope for any girl who can’t find a suitable match.
And that is why I think Cathy Earnshaw is a better heroine. Not because of what she does; she still gets married and has children as is expected of her. I think she is a better depiction of a heroine because she doesn’t gain the fulfillment that the reader expects her to ultimately – she never gets to marry Heathcliff and her death renders any chance of that impossible. Subversion of readers’ expectations is what I think ultimately makes a great heroine.
But maybe that’s just my cynicism. What does everyone else think?