Sunday, September 26, 2010

Top Ten Romantically Flawed Heroines

*This article is written by Thunder Fist, who gets his name from C.S. Lewis' The Horse and His Boy both in reality and on the web. If that's not enough of a recommendation, I will further mention that he also has the best taste of any man I know**

Although the Supreme Arbitress of Taste asked me to do another Top Ten Romantic Ladies article, simply for the novelty of another point of view alongside Alex Binz’s excellent article, I have come up with another list: the top ten appealing ladies who, for one reason or another, are more romantically flawed than ideally romantic.

Mary Crawford captivates Edmund
with her harp playing (illustration by
C.E. Brock, the best Austen illustrator 
Number Ten is Mary Crawford from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park

She is the lowest on the list because, though her appeal is genuine, it is wholly superficial. I can’t help but be attracted to her humor, her wit, the way she picks apart Edmund and even Fanny at times. I admit, part of her appeal comes from my distaste for the humorless hero and heroine of the novel, who are certainly her moral superiors but whose company I find hard to bear. I think it was Anthony Burgess who wrote that Edmund and Fanny are admirable, but not the kind of company one wants to have for dinner. The opposite of this is where I stand with Mary Crawford: I wouldn’t want to pursue a romantic relationship with her, but I would probably enjoy her conversation at a party—and I would probably have to stop myself from falling in love with her, too. It wouldn’t be hard: once I delved into her deeper nature (of which there doesn’t seem to be much), love would be dead.

Number Nine is Lara from Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

She is also low on the list for being deeply and morally flawed. Namely, she has a long love affair with the married Zhivago (she is also married herself). The film is set in the period of revolutionary Russia. Lara is a beautiful, intelligent and spiritual woman; Zhivago is understandably entranced with her when they are thrown together during the worst days of the revolution and subsequent civil war. In a book (and film) that manages to avoid cliché romanticism, she does indeed become the center of Zhivago’s poetry and the real heart and soul of the story. Though she is unarguably an adulteress, she expresses regret over what she knows is a damaging situation, and is both respectful and deferential to Zhivago’s wife, even naming her second child after her. Her own husband left her long before her affair with Zhivago commenced, and the affair, after being broken off willingly on both sides, only recommences when Zhivago returns after being missing a year during the civil war, only to find his wife and family have fled the country. While this doesn’t excuse their infidelity, their illicit relationship becomes an allegory of what intimacy means in the horrors of Russia’s new society. In Communist Russia personal relationships matter so little that they are always threatened and must be preserved. Lara dies “a nameless number on a list that was afterwards mislaid,” but her essence is salvaged in Zhivago’s words.

Olivia De Havilland captures both the
strength and innocence of Melanie Wilkes
in the 1939 classic adaptation
Number Eight is Melanie Wilkes from Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind

Often underrated and patronized, Melanie is a humble, loving, and gentle woman. True, she does not have the flashing eyes and sparkling strength of Scarlett, but then, when I think of Scarlett I think of the ultimate high maintenance woman. Melanie, by contrast, is the ultimate low-maintenance woman. She has a strength comparable to Scarlett’s without selfishness: after all, in the film she drags a sword down the stairs with her when she hears the Yankee enter the house. In the book she helps Scarlett beat out a housefire and rescues Scarlett after she goes unconscious. People may argue that she is stupid in ignoring Scarlett’s passion for her husband, but Melanie is actually quite intelligent. There is nothing to indicate she doesn’t know; there’s also nothing to indicate that she thinks there is anything of substance behind it. Ashley obviously loves Melanie and does not really love Scarlett, and nobody would know that better than Melanie herself. Her actions speak of a woman who is willing to sacrifice her pride and even her security for those she loves. This leaves her at something of a disadvantage: indeed she spends a great deal of time cleaning up other people’s messes. Melanie and Scarlett are both strong women, but Scarlett’s tendency is towards avarice where Melanie’s is towards altruism. Melanie is on this list not because she is deeply flawed but because one of her strengths is to be of greatest use outside of the spotlight.

Number Seven is Natasha Rostova from Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace

A Russian aristocrat born into a happy Moscow family during the years of Napoleon, she is an enchanting but very flawed young woman. High-spirited and humorous, she nonetheless has a mind capable of great seriousness and depth. She grows up spoiled by her complacent parents, yearning for a person or cause to spend all the passion of her nature on. At one moment she is enjoying the beauty of a hunt, dancing a spectacular Russian peasant dance in a lodge, and adoring the stars on a night-time sleigh ride; but then, only a few pages later, she is under the spell of decadent high society and throwing herself into the arms of a cad. Natasha is an example of a girl with a great deal of promise and no real guidance. She suffers a great deal, losing her fiancé, watching her family slide into ruin, and with each of these challenges she rises to the occasion, nursing wounded soldiers and turning to her faith for sustenance through her struggles. The only reason Natasha is low on the list is because, after she has undergone all these trials, she loses a bit of the old sparkle that made her so lovable in the first place. Tolstoy was radically conservative about women and marriage, and after Natasha is married to the novel’s hero, she becomes a paragon of motherhood and wifeliness in which her old charm is needlessly lost.

Number Six is Viola from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night

The gender-reversal in the play not only highlights Viola’s dynamic play-acting abilities, but also allows her to give vent to her thoughts and feelings in unusual ways. She speaks very eloquently of love both as a “man” and as a woman; Count Orsino’s confidences blend with Viola’s in a way that complements her own views. It is not so much an issue of masculine/feminine as a comparison between a person who simply wants his appetites met and another person, far less spoiled, who knows it is a very rare thing to be loved for who “he”/she is. The beauty of Viola’s language is entrancing, and makes me wish a woman of her stamp would woo me in a backwards courtship, simply so I can enjoy her eloquence. Viola never really loses her femininity: she simply has a fully developed personality with both masculine and feminine traits, and can understand both sexes remarkably well while remaining very much herself. The only negative thing about her is her choice of men: for all her sensitivity and understanding, she chooses a jerk like Count Orsino. I hope she has a good, strong temper. She’ll need it.

Jane Seymour with Anthony Andrews
as Sir Percy and Marguerite Blakney
in the wildly popular 1982 movie.
Number Five is Marguerite Blakeney from The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy.

Originally, Marguerite was on my Top Romantic Ladies list. Actually, she still is, but after discussing her with the Supreme Arbitress of Taste, she enjoys the honor of being on both of them. Marguerite is basically most men’s dream woman: beautiful, intelligent, sensitive and loyal. The only question is: why was she ever with Chauvelin, the rather sinister, unattractive, and controlling agent of Robespierre? Let’s chalk it up to youth and inexperience. Even back in the days when their revolutionary ideals matched, Chauvelin probably couldn’t tie a proper cravat. Marguerite is perceptive enough to know that the dashing and comic Sir Percy has far more depth and nobility to him than his frippery implies. She shows exquisite taste by choosing him over Chauvelin (whatever were you thinking, m’dear?) and throwing over her revolutionary principles (Egad!, but the Revolution at that point was a humorless bore). Marguerite is naturally a woman of refinement and principles. The Supreme Arbitress’ trouble with Marguerite is her dedication to her husband after Percy, without even speaking to her on the subject, ostracizes her for her supposed denunciation of an aristocratic family. Marguerite loves her husband and doesn’t quite know what’s wrong, and when the misunderstanding with Percy eventually lands her in a great deal of trouble, she behaves with bravery and ingenuity. She is flawed, of course: Chauvelin manipulates her into being his accomplice, but then it all stems from her love for her brother and husband. If Marguerite is flawed, it is simply that she loves the men in her life too much.

Number Four is Roxane from Cyrano de Bergerac

A “précieuse,” Roxane is one of the few highly educated, cultured and literate women of seventeenth-century Paris. A striking beauty, she is solicited by important men to be either a wife or a mistress, but her ideals and high standards keep her out of their hands, searching for a man who can fulfill her extremely high-blown notions of love. Her only real equal is Cyrano, the one man in Paris whose great words match his great heart. Roxane, however, does not fall in love with him but with Christian, the handsome military man whose desires are more carnal than poetic. Cyrano, despairing over the ugliness of his abnormally large nose, offers to help Christian win Roxane (convinced he can never win her himself), and begins the long task of a masked courtship. Roxane’s main flaw is her obsession with Christian’s looks. She easily believes in his made-up eloquence because it suits her predetermined notions of amour. But the orphaned Roxane is young and has grown up in a complicated world without any real parenting. Throughout the play she begins to mature, rejecting Christian when he simply tries to seduce her physically, and she begins to show unconscious affection for Cyrano: her search, after all, is for real love, and Cyrano’s words are charged with it. She is finally won, only to realize much later that it was Cyrano himself, and not Christian, whose love had truly moved her beyond words. Edmond Rostand, author of this incomparable Romantic play, knew better than to make Roxane a paragon of virtue and purity. Cyrano would not love such a whitewashed woman: only the deeply human and truly poetic Roxane.

Ophelia (Kate Winslet) being told by
Hamlet (Kenneth Branagh) to "Get
thee to a nunnery!"
Number Three is Ophelia from Hamlet

My heart always breaks for her. She is a woman trapped by the pitfalls of her own personality. Her actions and words show that she truly loves Hamlet, that she knows what a noble man he is and yet what a terrible black cloud he is living under; also that she deeply loves her father despite his foolishness and his manipulation of her, and that she truly wishes to do what is right. Her deepest flaw is an inability to defend or speak for herself: unless she is upset or alone or mad, she speaks the words others put in her mouth and does what she is told to do without question. She takes Hamlet’s verbal and emotional abuse, her father’s idiotic cunning, and simply accepts them. No wonder she went mad. Throughout the play we get glimpses of the sad, tender-hearted woman she is, the real emotional center of the story and the true indicator of the malice, greed and hypocrisy of Elsinor—far more telling, in some ways, than Hamlet’s ravings. Whenever I read of Ophelia I want to rescue her, but I doubt she would want to be rescued: her grief over Hamlet and her final descent into madness after the death of her father indicate that she was hopelessly attached to them. A woman with a greater ability to be impartial would have detached herself for her own sake: but Ophelia cannot do this. She has given herself too freely and cannot take back her heart, or, in some interpretations, her virginity. She is one of the most moving of Shakespeare’s heroines, in some senses his very loveliest, but also his saddest.

Helena Bonham Carter as Helen
Schlegel in
Howard's End.
Number Two is Helen Schlegel from E.M. Forster's Howards End

I chose Helen Schlegel and Marianne Dashwood to follow and upstage Ophelia because they are two Ophelia-like characters, and, as this is a personal list, I may as well admit that it is often the tender-hearted women who touch me most deeply. Living with her well-off and well-educated family in London in 1910, Helen is seemingly a “modern girl.” She goes to lectures and discussion groups, boasts a fair degree of both traditional education and self-education, and controls her own finances. However, like Ophelia she gives very free reign to her feelings. Impulsive and romantic, she gets herself into a messy and quickly-broken-off engagement with an unsuitable man; next, she falls in love with a poor, working-class fellow whom she pities and desires to help. Idealistic and easily upset, she comes to hate her sister’s pragmatic and businesslike husband, believing him to be cold-hearted and soulless. Although her methods are overly-emotional and in some cases affronting or immoral, her heart is usually in the right place. Her flaw is an inability to control herself, which does—as her sister warns her—lead to great unhappiness. Like Ophelia, Helen is an example of a woman with too much heart and too few boundaries. Like Roxane, she is an orphan—blessed with an older sister, of course, but without strong parental guidance. Growing up with romantic ideals in the massive post-Victorian London of the early 1900s, she seems set up for misfortune as soon as she leaves her family house. True, she might have learned better self-control, but Helen’s case is really that of a young and passionate woman in a world that always fails to do justice to her powerful feelings.

Kate Winslet wins our hearts as she
perfectly captures Austen's tempestuous
Helen Schlegel leads directly to Marianne Dashwood of Austen's Sense and Sensibility, the Number One of this list. 

Marianne is very much like Ophelia and Helen. She is entirely at the mercy of her feelings, which often blunts her otherwise sound judgment. Her view of the world, though perceptive and often accurate, is always highly poetic and subjective to her mood. She is certainly not stupid or even truly naive: she falls in love with who Willoughby pretends to be, indeed perhaps who he wishes he could be with her. He truly does love her and she knows that: with her sensitivity she would not have been fooled by anything less. For instance, she sees through the Miss Steeles’ obsequiousness immediately; her only flaw is to leave Elinor to deal with them without a thought, but even this is more of an oversight than a deep selfishness. She is the only one to stand up for Elinor when Mrs. Ferrars and Fanny are being rude; she is truly hopeful that Edward will propose to Elinor despite her mixed feelings towards him, and is grieved for Elinor when his engagement is made known to her. Indeed, as Marianne’s deepest feelings are taxed she becomes less, rather than more, selfish. Like Ophelia and Helen, she cannot separate herself from the dominance of her heart; this is her flaw but also her strength. It is her love for her sister, after all, that helps her to follow Elinor’s example afterwards and to confront her own past carelessness and selfishness. Although literary controversy surrounds Marianne’s marriage to Colonel Brandon, she is at least now capable of a deep love informed by a real regard for others. Let us hope she retains her ability to feel things deeply and to see romance in life: it never ought to be stamped out but only balanced by common sense. Armed with her experiences, Marianne will have a wealth of grace, knowledge and understanding to offer.


  1. Thank you kindly for the list! I greatly enjoyed it, and look forward to seeing your thoughts on the "Romantically Ideal" ladies of fiction. Alas, I must part ways with you in one particular: I must disagree with the inclusion of Mary Crawford.

    The letter to Edmund and the conversation with Fanny both reveal her to be utterly lacking in anything resembling morals or conscience. Having lost the pretense of virtue, she loses in the same moment any kind of attractiveness for me. Her charm, once revealed to be superficial, ceases to be charming, just as parsley ceases to be a garnish when sprinkled over an empty plate.

    Austen's ladies -- as well as her men -- are attractive because they are both virtuous and vivacious, and make delightful matches for that reason. It is easy, in a romantic comedy, to mistake wit for good sense and apparent virtues for deep-seated ones; but it was for that reason that Austen wrote Mansfield Park, as an antidote to the errors that her other works must incline. The character of Fanny was deliberately drawn to show that even a character lacking in the social graces may be happy, so long as they are virtuous; while Mary Crawford is intended to show that a character without virtue will not find a happy end, regardless of other charms.

    Forgive the long digression, but the resuscitation of critical opinion on Mansfield Park (as well as Austen's first novel, Northanger Abbey) is a bit of a pet cause for me. I do not think Edmund or Fanny perfectly virtuous (Edmund lacks wisdom or discernment, while Fanny lacks prudence -- virtue in action) nor totally lacking in grace (or "humorless," by your estimation. To borrow a phrase from Lizzie of Pride & Prejudice, Mansfield Park "deserves neither such praise nor such censure."

  2. So, do you think Marianne loved Brandon when she married him?

  3. I too am deeply interested in reviving the reputation of Mansfield Park. In fact I did a quarter-long independent study trying to answer the question of what to do with Fanny Price. There's no doubt that Austen intended her to be controversial. She even kept a journal to record the different reactions people had to Fanny. The best I can figure out is that Austen intended Fanny as some kind of anti-heroine in the sense that she's a heroine who goes relentlessly against the type. I think that Austen was deeply interested in bucking the norm with her characters, and Catherine Moorland, Fanny Price, and Emma Woodhouse can all be viewed as her attempts in this area, Fanny being the most extreme. I also think that Fanny serves as a biting commentary on social forces because the Bertrams are wholly responsible for Fanny's mousiness. The way they oppress and neglect her pre-determines her to be a failure as a heroine. I'll say no more, lest my post go on forever.