I wrote in my last post that I have difficulty in finding anti-heroines in both classic and modern novels. I must have been reading the wrong books. Surely an anti-heroine is to be found from amongst all those katana wielding, leather clad female warrior leads? However, as I mentioned, I haven’t read that much modern fantasy, and maybe I keep missing them.
I now recall that I have encountered a couple of versions of the anti-heroine in fantasy.
In The Dan Series Book four ‘Into the Fourth Universe there is the heartless siren Rannie. This woman in fact is, in her own totally heartless way, sometimes on the side of right. Besides running a criminal empire, she is partly out to save the universe; it is just that she doesn’t let scruples about anyone, including the bumbling, hirsute space age detective Magus get in the way. However, she underestimates his dogged persistence…
There is an hilarious confrontation between them at one stage at the novel.
‘“You know the first rule of investigation – never accept a drink off a dame ; it always has a Mickey Finn in it.”
“Not this one; I poured it myself. See.” She took a good swig from the glass.
He tasted it suspiciously. “Seems OK. Ta.” He knocked the pint back in one draught. “Any more? This investigating is thirsty work.”
She poured another for him. “Right; now I suppose I owe you an explanation.”…
His vision blurred. The room shimmered. He felt his senses slipping. “What have you done?” he muttered as he felt his legs giving way. “You said the drink wasn’t drugged…”
“The first one no,” said Rannie, lowering him gently onto a couch. “The second one was. You forgot the first rule of investigation; never ever ever accept a drink from a dame.”
There is also another contender for the title of anti-heroine in this hilarious series, though there is the minor fact that she isn’t human. This is the sex android Kara-Tay, another seemingly heartless siren, who spends a great part of the first novel in the series ‘The Adventures of Dan’ trying to kill off Dan Smith, whom she has abducted to join her in a wild adventure across universes.
Kara-Tay was designed by an man as his sex slave; having escaped from her servitude from her creator, she has no high opinion of males. But she has a shameful secret…
Moving on to an anti-heroine who confined her activities to the deep south of the US here is Margaret Mitchell’s Scarlett O’Hara in the 1936 novel ‘Gone with the Wind’. I read it at sixteen, and never forgot the sweeping impact of the story.
This book always struck me as a ‘guillty pleasure’ type of read, with its swaggering anti-hero to Scarlett’s anti-heroine, the sentimental passages, generally good-looking characters (with a few exceptions, such as the supposedly plain Melanie and the sad Frank Kennedy, that is), detailed descriptions of dresses, balls and feasts and the lifestyle of the plantation families (before they are ruined by the war, of course) and also, on the code of behaviour extolled by the Southern gentlefolk.
Scarlett is notoriously vain, flirtatious and is highly unscrupulous, both in her battle to survive and in her pursuit of the golden haired, suave Ashely Wilkes. She is also, as Rhett Butler points out, barbarically ignorant – she thinks that the Borgias are a family from Georgia, and that her father might have been in the siege of Drogheda – but she is endowed with a wonderful zest for live and will to survive as the society in which she has grown up falls about her ears.
But even at an unpolitical sixteen, my pleasure in this classic anti-heroine was spoiled by my dismay at the racism. It is not just a case of an author depicting the institutionalised racism of the plantation culture. The writer herself often seems to suggest that black people were happier as slaves and that the Klu-Klux-Klan was inspired by gallantry.
A less known, but remarkably engaging anti-heroine is the very young and passionate Hélenè in Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘The Blood of Others’ (1945) . A critic described her in this way: ‘Hélène, the little shop girl, wild as a hare with the morality of a pirate…is enchanting’. I found her so too.
She is as determined to have Jean Blomart, the guilt driven intellectual renegade bourgeois turned printer, as Scarlett O’Hara is determined to have Ashley Wilkes. Also, like ‘Gone with the Wind’, the story deals with a desperate war –that fought by the French Resistance in occupied France during World War Two.
However, there the resemblance to ‘Gone with the Wind’ stops. This is a sombre and – for all its human warmth and flashes of humour – essentially serious novel. It is all part of the nature of its achievement of a depth of vision that the opportunistic Hélène becomes heroic, and that Jean Blomart, who was thrown out by his factory owner father for being a violent subversive, should come together with him to forward the aims of the French Resistance.
Another heartless siren anti-heroine is Xenia in Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Robber Bride’ (1993). This woman destroys happiness and snaps up and spits out married or committed men like a crocodile and with about as many scruples. The ending is, in line with much of Atwood’s writing, ambiguous. Throughout, Xenia’s viewpoint and understanding of her victims is incomplete; perhaps she has overestimated her power. I believe some readings depict her as a woman who saves two of the female protagonists from unworthy men (the third allows her lover back after Xenia finishes with him). It doesn’t seem to me that either of the women who loses the said unworthy man is any the better for it. They remain heartbroken.
It strikes me that most of these anti-heroines are, in fact, sirens. Their attraction for men is no doubt invaluable for them as they shoulder their way through the world. Hélėne in ‘The Blood of Others’ perhaps the exception; although depicted as very attractive, and although capable of having affairs with men who mean nothing to her, she is not a siren as such; she is too lacking in artifice and finally, hypocrisy. She is too hot blooded.
Many of these sirens come across to the reader as in fact, sexually as well as emotionally cold. Perhaps sexual relations with all men strike them as a tedious chore. This means that they can endure them with gritted teeth with the most unappealing of characters.
In ‘Vanity Fair’ Becky Sharp can apparently endure the thought of marital relations with the rebarbative Sir Pitt Crawley (unfortunately for her his wife dies after she marries his much more physically appealing but untitled youngest son) and is by implication the mistress of the repellent (and possibly diseased) Marquis of Steyne,
Becky Sharp’s appearance is dwelt on very little for a siren; we know she has a slim, curving figure, striking green eyes and sandy hair. Her fascination seem to be in her charm, her playing and singing, her mimicry and her manipulative skill in getting what she wants from men in particular. She has no emotional warmth and one assumes this must be evident to anyone who is either immune to flattery and/or reasonably perceptive.
It would be intriguing to see if there are many other sorts of anti-heroines besides femme fatales, and in fact, there is a wonderful example in the dreadful Miss Bohun in Olivia Manning’s ‘School for Love’ (1951) which I have always regarded as a greatly underestimated minor masterpiece.
That is, I am assuming that Miss Bohun is an anti-heroine rather than an antagonist. She is the main female character. There is a lively, likable and attractive female character, the young widow Mrs Ellis, to whom the bitter Miss Bohun acts as a sort of evil genius and antagonist, but she does not appear until well into the book. Although the final confrontation between Mrs Ellis and Miss Bohun leads to Felix’s final disillusionment with Miss Bohun, this could easly have been effected without her and she is to some exent an interestingly subversive but shadowy presence. Miss Bohun’s malevolent influence is constant.
The story is narrated from the point of view of Felix Latimer, a boy in his early teens and a distant relative of Miss Bohun, who comes to live with her in Jerusalem at the end of World War Two. Gradually, he begins to realise that Miss Bohun is not just sharp tongued and undemonstrative and a member of a religious cult; she is a bitter miser and wholly uncharitable, caring for nobody but herself.
Miss Bohun is no femme fatale, though there are strong hints at the end of the novel that she wil marry for money. In appearance, she reminds Felix of a stick insect, and she is so mean that she only owns two dresses and leaves her house unheated in mid winter. She is small minded, insensitive and not very clever, but sly enough to be able to manipulate matters so that she ends up outwitting most of the more intelligent characters, who are hampered with a sense of honour. She has none, but always somehow avoids taking responsibility for her mean betrayals. Horribly smug,she ascribes her victories to God’s especial favour for her.
It is a comment on how well this book is written that all the grim events in the novel are po9rtrayed with a wonderfully dark humour.
This post is too long and I must stop here. But I would be interested to hear of any other anti-heroines readers of this post have encountered.