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From Phyllida's Desk

Rears and Vices

In the last JASNA-NY (Jane Austen Society of North America, New York region) discussion group, the topic was deceptively simple: What character do you identify with? Only Elizabeth Bennet was off limits, considered too obvious a choice--unnecessarily as it turned out.

The runaway favorite was Anne Eliot, the heroine of Austen's last completed novel, Persuasion. Modest, emotionally mature, unappreciated by her self-absorbed and shallow father and sisters, Anne is a good person without being cloying, perhaps Austen's most sympathetic heroine. People cited her competence and her quiet, keep-calm-and-carry-on attitude in expressing their sense of sisterhood.

One person chose Elinor Dashwood, the "sense" of Sense and Sensibility, but identifications with heroines were otherwise rare; as the discussion wore on, there were some imaginative selections of minor characters: Mrs. Reynolds, the housekeeper of Pemberley; Mrs. Croft, the ship-going, well-traveled wife of Admiral Croft in Persuasion; Mrs. Gardiner, Elizabeth Bennet's pretty and fashionable aunt, married to her merchant uncle; and Mrs. Weston, "poor Miss Taylor" that was, Emma's former governess.

My choice? Mary Crawford, the anti-heroine of Mansfield Park. Mary speaks Austen's raciest line: "Certainly, my home at my uncle's brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. Of Rears, and Vices, I saw enough." Anyone who knows me or my writing will understand the camaraderie I feel with such a character.

As many of the JASNA members questioned my (to them) odd choice, I struggled to put into words what had seemed to me a no-brainer. People wondered whether she is a "sympathetic" character, a quality I hadn't seriously considered. "Is the question who we 'like,' " I asked, "or who we identify with?" For non-writers, it seems, the two are synonymous.

Mary is much closer to a modern woman than most of Austen's characters. Independently wealthy, her parents dead, with only a charming brother and a disreputable uncle for family, Mary enjoys a freedom unusual for women two hundred years ago. A city girl, she's a more sophisticated version of Elizabeth Bennet, witty and irreverent, qualities that are as defining and ineradicable to my sense of myself as more conventional virtues are for other people. Mary is also pretty and sexy and flirtatious, as I wished to be when I was younger, although stifled by my inability to come to terms with my disabling deformities.

It reminded me of a slightly similar discussion I'd had earlier in the week at my other book group, for which we'd read Meg Wolitzer's novel The Interestings." Although we enjoyed the book itself, which was well-written and engrossing, most people did not care for the main character. Jules (originally Julie) Jacobson is an outsider among the six young people who become friends during a summer at an arts camp: a scholarship student from the suburbs, not especially talented, she doesn't quite measure up to the gifted New York City kids from wealthy families. And even as she is accepted by the others for her smart conversation, and as the teenagers become adults, she is overwhelmed with envy of the one who makes it big, while she and her husband struggle to get by.

Unlike my fellow group members, I felt a sense of kinship with Jules, if for different reasons than with Mary Crawford. I, too, was a scholarship student in a high school populated mostly by kids from wealthy families, and I often wondered if I was as intelligent and gifted as my peers. Like me, although thirty-five years earlier, Jules has a slight success as a performer, and, in a way that was not possible for me, pursues the hopeless quest of an acting career before eventually settling for social work instead.

Mary and Jules have one positive trait in common: kindness. Mary, while wealthy and attractive, is nothing like today's mean girls. She defends Fanny from her bullying cousins when she objects to the play they insist on performing; even Mary's encouragement of her rakish brother's attentions to Fanny is well-meaning, a hope that the shy, neglected girl can enjoy a bit of "romance." For Jules, kindness takes the form of empathy, bringing her success and fulfillment in her eventual career as a psychotherapist.

In both book groups, it seems, to be "likable," fictional characters must embody conventional virtues with none of the flaws that make us human. I don't mean we are all monsters of depravity. But few of us are as uncomplaining and self-sacrificing as Anne Eliot, and most of us commit at least one of the seven deadly occasionally, if not necessarily envy. Both Jules and Mary are sympathetic only if, like me, you identify more with flawed characters who have one or two redeeming qualities, rather than with near-perfect heroines.

"Characters don't have to be likable, just interesting." It's one of the most frequent pieces of writing advice, after the ones about showing, not telling, and avoiding adverbs. And as I wrestle with my next novel, trying to create a protagonist much closer to the real me than Phyllida or Amalie (the heroine of my e-book series), I can't help worrying about the likability factor.

Novelists tend to look at everything critically, including ourselves. Assuming Jules resembles her creator, it takes courage to portray oneself so honestly, although when you think about it, isn't the opposite approach even more outrageous, writing oneself as a noble, perfect heroine? I suspect that Wolitzer has more virtues, conventional and otherwise, than her protagonist, just as I have more virtues than Mary Crawford's wit and sensuality. Give me a week and I may even be able to think of one.
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