One of the most popular book-related questions has got to be that old favourite, “which literary character do you most identify with?” So far, in all my conversations and virtual travels around the blogosphere, I haven’t come across a single person who’s given the answer I would give. Not for me the determined Elizabeth Bennet, the boozing Bridget Jones or the charismatic Madame Bovary. My fictional counterpart is the epitome of the shrinking violet, who doesn’t so much make an entrance as creep reluctantly into her own story. She has, her creator describes, “no glow of complexion, nor any other striking beauty” and although gentle in demeanour there is nothing especially appealing about her character; at first glance, and in comparison to the strong personalities that surround her, she is almost invisible. This girl is Fanny Price from “Mansfield Park”, arguably the least popular of Jane Austen’s leading ladies.
But hang on, why exactly do some people take against her or simply forget her in the way that they do? I’ve heard her dismissed in very unkind terms, from “boring” to “pathetic” to “stuck-up”. Yet Austen, whose authority on her characters could never be doubted, tells us quite clearly that the diminutive Miss Price has “an affectionate heart and a strong desire of doing right”. What more could you want in a heroine, in the character for whom we’re meant to root? Well, quite a lot it seems – and it’s at this point that I start, in spite of my best efforts, to get a little rankled.
The language of book reviews and dust jacket blurbs reinforces time and again what we have come to expect of our female leads. So often the word heroine is preceded by a description such as gutsy, ballsy or feisty, so much so that the woman herself has become synonymous with an outspoken, forceful, even brash personality type. Outside of literature little is different: our media, popular culture and even our workplaces are a continuous celebration of the loud and bullish. To me, describing someone as “in your face” would be an insult – for many, it would be considered almost a compliment. Do I want all my literary heroines to follow this model, with their level of worth as a character symbolized by their level of feistiness? I think you can probably guess my answer to that question.
But just maybe, before I go off on a rant about how things were so much better in the good old days when Jane Austen was bringing Fanny Price to life on the page, I should stop and consider whether ideas as regards the ideal personality type were really all that different. Strangely, I think that “Mansfield Park” explores some of the same frustrations I’ve just been talking about. Fanny is, in the end, undoubtedly the heroine of the book, but not before she’s encountered her polar opposite, Mary Crawford. Mary is everything Fanny isn’t: vivacious, fun-loving, daring and always the centre of attention. For much of the novel Mary is the character who excites our interest. Eventually though, she is revealed as being completely bereft of a sense of propriety or shame, and ignorant of other people’s feelings; she has the wit, the spirit and the confidence, but not the moral or emotional depth. I think the author knew very well how the fearless and yes, feisty, people of the world can easily end up holding sway, in real life but also in fiction. From the books I’ve read I would say this is definitely still true. So I’m flying the flag today for more heroines like Fanny Price, the ones who win the day through emotional intelligence, quiet resilience and astute judgement. Let’s find some new adjectives to put on our book jackets; let’s celebrate a different kind of heroine.