Wednesday, September 8, 2010

My 10 Most Desirable Ladies of Page and Screen

**Special Note from the Supreme Arbitress: Since I am unqualified to comment on the attractiveness of women because I am a heterosexual woman, I asked a heterosexual man to take on the task for me.  Fortunately my good friend Publius is a blogger who fits the qualification, and I am proud to present his article to you now. Publius reviews current movies, books, and television on his blog Worthy of Note, a resource I use regularly for my forays into contemporary media.  I think you will find that his comments denote a lot of deep thought and consideration, and for that he has my most heartfelt respect.**

The greatest challenge about this post was not writing each entry; it was selecting the ten ladies to be memorialized. Those characters who enjoy "happily ever after" endings are often so one-dimensional that it is hard to view them as real or compelling. On the other hand, those who are compelling are so often laden with baggage that life with them would be exceedingly difficult, and not something I would jump into lightly. Each choice thus came down to balancing between these two qualities.

I received from my friends a number of recommendations for this list, but I was not able to include a number of these female characters simply due to my ignorance of them. These include Harriet Vane of the Peter Wimsey novels, Ellen Olenska of The Age of Innocence, and Sophie from Howl's Moving Castle.

I must also make honorable mention of every heroine crafted by Jane Austen. They are uniformly delightful, and while only two appear on this list, those who did not make it deserve some recognition. I should also note the many ladies of Shakespeare's plays, some of whom are absolutely detestable, but many of whom deserve a good deal of credit. Isabella (from Measure for Measure) and Portia (from The Merchant of Venice) are compelling and multidimensional characters, who make reading a pleasure. Whether they would do the same for married life... who can really know?

Yvaine (Claire Danes) and Tristan Thorn (Charlie Cox)
escape from the witches' lair in the 2007 film Stardust.
10. Yvaine, Stardust

Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors, but he does not create many characters with whom I would willingly spend a life. His books seem to contain every emotion but joy, while his characters are more likely to "live in interesting times" than to live "happily ever after." In Stardust, Yvaine is an evening star, thrown from the heavens by a collision with the royal gemstone. She is an archetypal damsel in distress, but demonstrates her mettle and loyalty to her friends over the course of the novel. Yvaine is played in the film adaptation of Stardust by Claire Danes, one of my favorite actresses, who captures both her independence and affectionate nature. She maintains a constant stream of insults at Tristan Thorn (the poor man), but they only cover for the subtle movements of her perception of him, from disgust to genuine affection. The best insults are always the ones that mask true love.

Suzanne tries on her hat in this engraving from
the opening scene of The Marriage of Figaro.
Bonus points if you can guess what Figaro is doing!
9. Suzanne, The Marriage of Figaro

The Marriage of Figaro is the second in a trilogy of plays by Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, a watchmaker-spy-playwright of the court of Louis XV. The play was an instant classic: Napoleon later said that the first public performance of The Marriage of Figaro marked the true beginning of the French Revolution. Suzanne is the beloved bride of Figaro and confidante of her lady the Countess, even while her favors are sought by the unfaithful Count. Figaro may be fleet of foot and word, but Suzanne has captured his heart with a wit and vivacity of her own. She even tricks Figaro in the course of the play -- the only one in the trilogy to trick the charming trickster himself. Suzanne is loyal to her love and to her mistress, and one of the most delightful female characters in French literature.

Olga Budina plays Aglaia in the massive 8-hour
Russian mini-series, The Idiot (2003)
8. Aglaia Epanchin, The Idiot

This was a hard one. Prince Myshkin (the eponymous Idiot) is one of the most sympathetic characters ever created by Dostoevsky, but he is unfortunately a guy. He is torn between his romantic love for Aglaia and his divine love for the courtesan Nastasya. Though Aglaia initially mocked the innocent Myshkin, she comes to appreciate the depth of his humility and charity, and associates him with Pushkin's famous poem, "The Poor Knight." Alas, Aglaia is torn by jealousy, and cannot stand the mockery of Nastasya (who seeks to exploit Myshkin's pity to bind him to her). Her fatal flaw is jealousy, and it ultimately consumes her. Yet while the novel lasts she is an immensely attractive and deeply compelling character, perhaps even worthy of the Christ-like Myshkin.

Aravis in storyteller pose, from
an engraving in A Horse and His Boy
7. Aravis Tarkheena, A Horse and His Boy

Aravis was probably my first literary crush. She is a Calormene princess trying to escape an arranged marriage with the detestable Grand Vizier, who falls in with the boy Shasta in his flight to Archenland. A Horse and His Boy is essentially a story about stories, and Aravis fits this mold perfectly, for she is one of the great storytellers in the whole series. Her fatal flaw is hubris, rather befitting a spoiled princess and certainly befitting a representative of the mercurial temperament that Lewis sought to portray. But, thanks to the deep stripes given to her by Aslan, she overcomes that natural vice, and ultimately takes her place as Queen of Archenland.

Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) waiting  in a Death Star
holding cell in the original 1977 Star Wars.
6. Leia Organa, Star Wars

Our family used to call her "Princess Bagel-Head" after her unusual hair-style in the original Star Wars, but that doesn't do justice to this character. Leia epitomizes so many cliches -- a child of riches fighting the system, a rebel with a heart of gold -- but she defies categorization. She wields a gun, fixes the hyper-drive, and drives Han Solo so crazy with conflicting emotions that he doesn't know what to do with himself. After a brief stint in a metal bra, she also became the first person to successfully assassinate Jabba the Hutt. Yes, there were a few disconcerting moments with her brother, but for those I blame the caprice of George Lucas, not of Leia herself.

Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn and Miranda Otto as Éowyn in
Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings film trilogy.
5. Éowyn, The Lord of the Rings

To quote the Supreme Arbitress of Taste, Éowyn "had the good taste to fall in love with the two noblest men in the book" -- both Aragorn and Faramir. A princess of Rohan, she is told to remain at home while the men ride to Minas Tirith for war. But her flaw is obstinacy, so she disguises herself as a warrior, and rides among the men under the name Dernhelm. This could easily imperil the kingdom, as she was to act as regent and as Queen if the men failed to turn back the tide of Mordor. But "all's well that ends well," for she is the only one on the battlefield able to slay the Witch King of Angmar, and thus it is her presence that turns the tide of battle. Her time recovering from her injuries in the House of Healing also allows her to meet Faramir, who redeems her from her tragic love of Aragorn. She recovers not only from her wounds, but also from her misplaced martial spirit, and by the end of the trilogy she becomes a healer herself.

Jennifer Ehle is the definitive Lizzie in the
landmark 1995 BBC miniseries Pride and Prejudice.
4. Elizabeth Bennett, Pride and Prejudice

This was perhaps an obvious choice: the only question is why she does not rank higher. She is witty, charming, kind, and beautiful. Alas, like Emma from Jane Austen's other well-regarded novel, Lizzie has a degree of pride that is best suited for a similarly strong personality. Perhaps this is why both characters find such perfectly matched husbands: Mr. Darcy and Mr. Knightly are flawed, but their flaws are in a sense parallel to those of their wives.

Avital Dicker plays Sonia in the 2002
film adaptation of Crime and Punishment.
3. Sonya Marmeladova , Crime and Punishment

Sonya (alternately called Sofya and Sonechka) can be read and dismissed as a typical Victorian "angel of the house" who redeems the misanthropic Raskolnikov. I cannot deny that interpretation. But I read her as a much deeper character, daughter of the town drunk whose patience is borne out of suffering and whose hope is quickened by faith. She is the female equivalent of Prince Myshkin, and that is as great a compliment as can be fathomed. Her virtue preserves the last vestiges of virtue within Raskolnikov, a man as far removed from humanity as can be conceived. She triumphs over death and despair by her acts of love; she is no passive angel.

Tilney (J.J. Feild) and Morland (Felicity Jones) ride to
  Beecham Cliff in the 2007 miniseries Northanger Abbey
2. Catherine Morland, Northanger Abbey

Notwithstanding the Supreme Arbitress' distaste for Catherine, I find her as attractive as the best of Austen's heroines. After all, she captures the heart of Henry Tilney, the most charming of all Austen's men, and the one who can pull that off deserves all the praise she receives. Catherine begins the novel a young and impressionable woman, innocent of the world and free from the sort of self-satisfaction that is the flaw of so many of Austen's heroines. Her innocence seems like naïveté, but her words demonstrate a keen awareness of others. She is well-read and (more importantly) eager to learn, a quality supremely attractive to a man like Henry Tilney.

Victoria Smurfit plays Rowena in the
1997 BBC miniseries Ivanhoe
1. Lady Rowena, Ivahoe

I really struggled in deciding between Rowena and Rebecca. Wilfred of Ivanhoe is one of the greatest of literary heroes, and I cannot imagine how he must have been torn between these two noble ladies throwing themselves at him. Rebecca is probably the first unequivocally positive Jewish character in modern literature, and survives with her virtue intact through more trials than faced by any other character in the book. But it should be noted that Rowena was separated from her love for many years prior to the book, but without falling prey to the depressive mood that befits Rebecca's status as a tragic heroine. Rowena is mild-mannered, but demonstrates a considerable backbone to her father in opposing the arranged marriage to Athlestane. More broadly, she is exceedingly fair, pure, loyal to Ivanhoe, and one of the most captivating heroines of literature.

**This is a guest post by Publius, who publishes reviews of books, film and television at the Worthy of Note blog. He loves stories, classical music, and theology (he maintains a theology blog, Orthodox Reflections). He also does graduate work in economics, and is an aspiring lawyer.**

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