Having posted about the seven ‘heroes’ I personally find most obnoxious in famous books by deceased authors, it only seems fair to list the seven female leads I thought most annoying, too.
The problem here, as I said on that earlier post, was that I generally found these female leads provoking because the woman tended to lose most of her separate identity entirely once she got together with the hero, merging her personality with his and so losing ANY character traits of her own, obnoxious or otherwise. Either that, or she began and ended as a Mary Sue, like Richardson’s Pamela and Fanny Burney’s Evelina.
As an extreme example of a Mary Sue who submerges her identity into that of her man, there’s Lucie from ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. I couldn’t dislike her because she doesn’t have any personality at all. She’s just Charles Darnay’s wife and mother to his child. I did however, find the vacuum that she represents dismal.
This being so, it’s difficult to remember all the separate examples of books where thr heroine does this; however, reverting to my previous Annoying Hero list, I try to remember their female counterparts. Were they masochists, Mary Sues, or what?
Number One Annoying Hero on my list was the Marquis Vidal in Georgette Heyer’s ‘Devil’s Cub’. Mary Challoner, I seem to remember (but I’m relying on the sad remains of a once good memory here) was quite witty, not at all vain, sensible, practical and resourceful. True, she did have to do daft things to fit in with the mechanisms of the plot, though, such as running off with the rebarbative Vidal to save her sister. Apart from her terrible taste in falling for a would-be rapist bully, she’s very likable. Far-fetched as Heyer’s escapism is, a woman with a lot going for her throwing herself away on an abusive man is true to life, I’m sorry to say…
Number Two of the Annoying Hero’s was Theseus in Mary Renault’s books ‘The King Must Die’ and ‘The Bull from the Sea’. I said then what I thought of the Apostate Amazon heroine of ‘The Bull from the Sea’, Hippoylata, and her extended case of Stockholm Syndrome once she becomes Theseus’ captive and joins him in spreading his patriarchal rule.
The book is, like the first, told from Theseus’ point of view and he sees her as being above criticism. The author who only reveals a character through the eyes of a besotted admirer runs the risk of making that character unsympathetic through such a biased viewpoint. I suppose it could be done with irony, that wasn’t my impression here. If this story of her betrayal of the Goddess had been told by Hippoylata herself, perhaps she would have come across as more likable, despising herself, perhaps, for her passion for this enemy of female power, but as it is, I found her highly unsympathetic.
Number Three was Heathcliff, whom I’m sure everyone knows from ‘Wuthering Heights’ and whom I’m equally sure Emily Bronte didn’t intend as a hero at all, Byronic or otherwise. I didn’t find Cathy wonderfully sympathetic, but she clearly was the only woman about seemingly savage and sadistic enough to stand up to Heathcliff’s bullying ways. Sadly, having failed to move either of the two men she wants to accept each other, she sinks into a decline altogether feminine. She is decidedly selfish, but given her dismal background, with her mother dying very early and her father turning against her for her high spirits, plus her brother Hindley’s wild antics, it’s not surprising that she isn’t exactly gentle. She did seem to feel for Heathcliff when Hindley forced him to be a servant.
I was interested in an article I saw mentioned, written by Patsy Stoneman, about Cathy’s wanting to have a ‘non possessive’ relationship of the sort for which Shelley yearned (and which, to be fair to those who advocate a set-up seemingly doomed to failure, probably can’t be properly envisaged or enacted within the narrow confines of our current society, anyway). A friend of mine on Goodreads was trying to trace this article, but hasn’t got back to me, but it does throw an intriguing new light on Cathy and her apparent selfishness in wanting two men at once. To be fair to her, too, she doesn’t show any jealousy when she thinks Heathcliff might desire Isabella, though we might think she is much too blasé about such a savage man when she says words to the effect of; – ‘If you like her you shall have her – but I’m sure you don’t!”
She comes across as generally insensitive and overbearing, as when she taunts Isabella about her foolish infatuation for Heathcliff, and when she jeers about Edgar’s jealousy over her praise of the returned Heathcliff (she says she isn’t jealous of Edgar’s praise of Isabella’s beauty; but then, that can hardly be intended to be sexual, though in the quasi-incestuous atmosphere that surrounds the story, who knows?). On the whole, if anyone can be said to deserve the fate of being (temporarily) stuck with Heathcliff, she does for valuing the opinion of a man capable of doing such disgusting things. Of course, she’s extremely young; perhaps if she’d lived to maturity, she’d have outlived her strange passion for him.
Number Four Annoying Hero for me was James Bond, so the heroines (if they can be called that; they aren’t allowed to take much initiative) are legion, with him being a compulsive Don Juan. Most of them have slipped my memory. As Mari Biella commented on the post, these women were largely lay figures created to be part of Bond’s male fantasy world of effortless conquest and hardly even meant to be anything other than desirable, worshiping conquests.
There was one called Honeychile Ryder in Dr No, whom I quite liked before she surrendered to Bond, an athletic woman who lived alone supporting herself by fishing. As a young girl, she’d been beaten unconscious, raped and her nose broken by a man whom she later killed by putting a scorpion in his bed. I don’t much like saying a kind word about Bond, but I seem to remember he thought her revenge fair enough. There was a Countess known – of all names – as ‘Tracy’ who had emotional problems. Bond was in the process of sorting ‘em out after marrying her, but she was murdered. I seem to remember she threw an alarm clock at him once, which I thought a waste of a useful object. I don’t remember much about her personality. There was one called Tatiana Romonova from the USSR who didn’t seem to have any personality at all even before she met him, and then there was one called Pussy Galore who was a lesbian. I do remember Bond’s explanation for lesbianism – he put it down to women wearing trousers too often. Presumably if he’d worn a kilt, then the problems of the heroines’ foolish worship would be at an end, and he’d have gone over to men…
Annoying Hero Number Five for me was Charley Kinraid from Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’. I didn’t blame the heroine Sylvia for despising the cousin who tricks her into marriage with him, and I sympathized with her love of being outside and working with animals and her love of the sea and her longing for adventure, so apart for her foolish worship of Kinraid, I found her generally sympathetic. As I said in an article I wrote about the novel for the ‘F word’, if Sylvia had been able to go to sea and have adventures herself, her tragedy would never have happened. As one critic, I think Jane Spenser, comments, it is only through her own lack of opportunities for adventure in her dull role as a woman and home-maker that she becomes so wildly infatuated with the superficial Kinraid (who could have adventures). This also encourages her to feel helpless after her father’s hanging and her mother’s insanity, so that she weakens and accepts Hepburn.
Number Six was Heriot Fayne from Charles Garvice’s ‘The Outcast of the Family Or a Battle Between Love and Pride’. The heroine, Eva, is a perfect example of a Mary Sue, admired by all. The author instructs the reader to ‘fall in love with her at once’ insisting that she is witty and independent minded. Sadly we never see any signs of either quality, as she spends most of the novel fainting, shedding tears over Lord Heriot Fayne for his ‘wasted life’ and sacrificing herself for her father or shrinking from the repulsive touch of the duplicitous Stannard Marshbank.
My Number Seven was the secondary hero from Georgette Heyer’s ‘’The Talisman Ring’ Ludovic Lavenham. He’s remarkably stupid and lacking in common sense. The secondary heroine, Eustacie, is similarly afflicted and undiscerning enough to think him wonderful, and on the whole I found her almost as tiresome as I did him.
So, there’s my list of the Annoying Heroes’ counterparts, and with a couple of honourable exceptions – Sylvia and possibly Cathy, they do seem to surrender their identities readily when they meet the dominant male.
I did actually forget someone who I should have put on my original list, ‘Mr B’ from Pamela. This fellow manages to be a rake and would-be rapist (I don’t believe his insistence that it was all a misunderstanding in Pamela In Her Exulted Condition; I think those to be retrospective excuses by Richardson) yet later lectures sanctimoniously about proper conduct in marriage and a wife’s duties. He gives a long ‘What He Expects’ lecture to Pamela: she must always look attractive, she must rise at five every day, she must entertain all his guests graciously etc, etc. This, presumably, was the bourgois coming out in Richardson incongruously through the voice of his supposed rake, but the sanctimonious tone is highly provoking, given his own history.
Pamela herself is also conceded to be annoying as the original Mary Sue, not just by me, but by many critics, and for an author to have made so many people dislike a servant girl imprisoned by a lascivious master is quite an achievement – but he succeeds. To be fair to Richardson, novel writing being in its infancy, and Pamela being largely told through her own letters, her apparent vanity in solemnly recounting one compliment after another is probably just clumsiness on the author’s part, but the effect, as in the later Evelina, isn’t attractive.
In fact, I can think of one ‘heroine’ – more of an anti-heroine – who does have a very independent character, and whom I didn’t like much anyway, and that’s Thackeray’s Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair. She is certainly tough, resourceful, dismissive of conventional morality and incapable of forgetting her own self-interest in her relations with men – but then, perhaps that’s not so surprising; Vanity Fair being a ‘novel without a hero.’ Still, I hardly think she’d do anything but exploit Vidal, Theseus, James Bond, Charley Kinraid, Lord Fayne or Ludovic Lavenham anyway – and Heathcliff she would not consider worth noticing, having no wish to live in a draughty farmhouse on the moors.
I can hardly blame her for exploiting the weaknesses of people of higher rank, with no talent, but the money and power denied to her by birth, yet I don’t agree with critics like Seymour Betsky that ‘part of Becky’s superiority to others lies in the absence of ill-humor, meaness, or savage intensity in her self-interest.’ In her encouraging Rawden Crawley to get the foolish George Osborne to gamble away the few thousand pounds left to him after his father has disinherited him for marrying Amelia, she shows all of these qualities. She has a grudge against him because he prevented her marriage to Amelia’s brother Jos as he didn’t want a low born sister-in-law. You might think as that leads to her getting a baronet’s son for a husband, she might be almost grateful to him, but she does indeed show a good deal of savage vengefulness here. If she ruins George by seducing him to play with the cheating Rawden Crawley, she ruins his wife too, and Amelia has been up to that point her only staunch friend, but Becky doesn’t seem to worry about that. Instead she lures George to the gaming table by making him infatuated with her and so ruining the few weeks that he and Amelia have together before he’s killed at Waterloo.
Years later, she shows Amelia the letter George has written to her asking her to elope with him – presumably, she’s unaware that just before the Battle of Waterloo he repents of this and says he hopes if he’s killed Amelia never hears of it, but probablyn she wouldn’t care if she did know that – and her having kept this note for years, which can hardly do her any good with George dead, seems to indicate a startlingly vindictive streak.
Fate pays Rawden Crawley back for his part in this piece of shabbiness, when he’s in turn betrayed and humiliated by Becky when she tries to get him out of the way so she can have a shockingly private meeting with the Marquis of Steyne. Steyne is a man so physically repulsive, with his white face, yellow teeth and dyed red hair, that Becky surely deserves an award for being able to endure physical intimacy with him. Well, this being a Victorian novel, we are never quite sure that she is physically intimate with him – but his words, ‘Every jewel on her body has been paid for by me’ might, if inverted, give the answer.
So, I found Becky Sharp equally, if not more, unsympathetic than some of those Identity Shedding heroines. Amelia Sedley, interestingly, I didn’t dislike, though she is very much a Victorian heroine, and portrayed as such by the author. I didn’t feel impatient with her as I did most of the others, perhaps because the poor girl’s infatuation with George Osborn turns out so dismally for her.
With the exception of Sylvia, Cathy and Countess Tracy, all the other heroines, even the idiotic Eustacie in Heyer’s ‘The Talisman Ring’, are saved from the consequences their stupid actions by plot devices (and those heroes) but poor Amelia Sedley is made to suffer years of attrition. But then these are a mixed selection of books, with more serious works jostling with light romances, and in Thackeray only the unscrupulous generally thrive in Vanity Fair. We leave Becky flourishing.