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09 April 2010

The Heroine's Journey. Or not?

One of the joys of participating in this blog is that I so often find inspiration in the posts of my fellow hoydens. "Yes," I'll find myself thinking as I read this or that post in the weeks preceding my turn. "Yes, that's true and interesting. But for my purposes, I'd like to look at it this way..."

So, for example, qua Leslie's post about the Duchess of Windsor, her fabulous shoes and horrendous politics, some time I'd like to think more about the roots of today's romance (and mystery) genres in the Tory-ish habits of minds of writers like Georgette Heyer and Dorothy Sayers, even P.G. Wodehouse, during the period between the wars -- the comforts (take that as you like) of class inequality in a period of political instability. For readers and writers of historical romance today, how much of the Regency England we've come to feel so much at home in actually got its polish and perfection during (and in the image of the high life of) 1930s Britain?

But that's a post that'll take more work and reading than I have time for here and now.

And anyway, this week I've been mulling over some thoughts sparked by Tracy's post about unlikeable heroines. Or my response to it, anyway, when I realized with particular emphasis and pathos how very little geographical distance Emma Woodhouse ever covers, and how unusual that is for a romance heroine.

I don't have any statistics here (and of course there are all sorts of variations and exceptions). But still, it seems to me central to the romance genre that its heroines very often embark upon journeys before they (literally and figuratively) find their ways home. In a genre that tells the story of its heroine's quest for her self and simultaneously for her ultimate home in the world, very often that heroine has to leave home, abandon the familiar and the familial in order to see herself (and others, and of course most particularly the hero) outside the accustomed map of understandings she's grown up with.

The first romances (written by second-century AD Greeks during the era when Greece had become the Roman Empire's artsy outpost -- its Tribeca, say, or perhaps its Hollywood) are almost comically clear about their stories' need for voyages, often to the ends of the known world. According to my own summary (in The Edge of Impropriety):
...most of the ancient novels were full of adventures — shipwrecks, slavery, pirate raids, lovers parted under duress. Sometimes the lovers' benighted parents even sent them off to sea — as though to make sure events would have every opportunity to separate them.
Of course the Regency hero quite often has had his war adventures. But in the heroine-centered romance tradition that began, I think, with Richardson and got its turbo charge from Jane Austen, it's the heroine in particular whom we accompany upon her voyage out into the world in order to make her own personal sense of it, herself, and others.

And yet, what does it mean to voyage out in the world? For a protected young woman of the middle classes (unlike, say, Charlotte Bronte's heroines like Lucy Snowe in Villette, who works in a school), where could she go but to someone else's home? The home might be paradisal (like Pemberley) or hellish (like Northanger Abbey), but it always hides and ultimately reveals secrets of human relationships and past suffering -- the unraveling of which is deeply interwoven with the young woman's growth beyond the familiar and familial patterns she started with.

The form, of course, reached a kind of perfection in Pride and Prejudice. The best kind of perfection, I think -- because we have three more Jane Austen novels to explore the theme in fascinating, quirky, and perhaps less romanticized variation: think of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, who journeys back to her childhood home in Portsmouth to find that it isn't home any more. Or Anne Elliot in Persuasion, who (as critic Tony Tanner points out) quite radically rejects the entirety of home and family she grew up with... to find a completely new home and family as far-flung as the British Navy (and Empire) will allow.

And then there's Emma, who never leaves Hartfield (which estate, as Jane Austen points out, is just a little "notch" cut out of Donwell Abbey -- by the end of the book returned to its rightful owner). Emma is a novel of charm and brio, but it's also a story that takes place within a very tight set of limitations (perhaps even tighter than those constraining the sometimes doleful Mansfield Park).

Does a girl whose personal maturation has been so limited by the needs of an inadequate father really get to mature under the tutelage of a husband/father figure she says she will call "my Mr. Knightley"?

Emma has never even seen the sea (no mean feat for a resident of a small island nation whose middle and upper classes delighted in visits to watering places). Yes, she and her Mr. Knightley will finally go there on their honeymoon. But is this an entirely happy ending? Has Emma ever really made the sort of journey we want for our heroines?

What do you think?

And what meanings do you draw from the inner and outer voyages of your favorite romance heroines?

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14 Comments:

Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great, thought-provoking post, Pam! To me Emma does make quite a significant emotional journey to seeing people with a bit more empathy and understanding by the end of the book. And even though Mr. Knightley pushes her, she has to work a lot of it through on her own.

It's interesting how characters can make quite a significant inner journey while staying put. For instance Rachel, in Penelope Williamson's "The Outsider", stays put on her Montana farm, and yet she journeys a huge distance, away from her family and her church. On the other hand, often as you point out the inner and outer journeys parallel each other. I was thinking of the Victorian lovers in A.S. Byatt's "Possession", who literally go on a journey to Yorkshire when they consummate their love affair, a journey which the modern day academic couple then retraces.

My mom's and my first Regency, "The Widow's Gambit", began with the common trope of the impoverished sisters leaving their country (actually Oxford) home and going to London to find their fortunes. Some of our other heroines didn't travel as far but we're in some way shaken out of their ordinary life (there's the idea of a story starting on "the day that is different). All of my historical romance heroines, now I think about, literally go on journeys--across the Peninsula, around Scotland, to Brussels and Paris, from Edinburgh to London. Charles and Mélanie have journey a great distance together (emotionally and geographically actually) before the first book I wrote about them. Journeys which I'm now exploring as I write their backstory.

10:12 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Generally, for something worth writing about to happen you have to remove a character’s safety net in some way. There’s a reason why the protagonists in all those Disney films are either actual orphans or effectively orphaned (separated from their parents). I think this is why so many of heroines often don’t have big happy families and large groups of supportive friends. If you have that kind of network to fall back on, the risks are simply smaller, the problems easier to overcome. When you do see a heroine with a big family (as in, say, Julia Quinn’s books) the family itself is presented as one of the problems to be overcome (big, overprotective brothers, etc.). The heroine’s journey is partially about separating herself from them and finding her own two feet.

Maybe this is why Emma is my least favorite Austen novel? I’d never thought of it quite this way before, but it really does sort of sum up what I’ve always found a bit, well, flat about that book. Emma has virtually noting on the line. If Mr. Knightly had never come up to scratch, she’d have been a happy, dotty old maid, queening it over her poor village like a despotic version of Mrs. Bates.

I think Jane Fairfax would have had a much more interesting book (and look, lots of travel!).

I’m trying to think of a single book I love where the people don’t really move around, and I’m drawing a blank . . . surely there must be at least one?

12:39 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Actually, Kalen, I think Emma would have had a bad time if she hadn't married Mr. Knightley. There would have been more slights for Mrs. Cole -- and just suppose Mrs. Elton had been able to pull more strings... (because if you read the text carefully, it turns out that most residents of Highbury like Mrs. E just fine, and don't find her as obnoxious as we and Emma and Mr. Knightley do).

It's a very tough-minded book, very mindful of people's illusions about their own importance. Other people in Highbury will coddle you if you coddle them, but you have to play the game, and that would have been difficult for Emma. The question for me is whether she gets beyond the game at the end or not, and I think there's a trace of ambivalence there. Making it less a romance.

Pretty much all my romance heroines are travelers, too, Tracy. Which is why I think about this a lot.

1:56 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I barely even remember who Mrs. Cole was, so threat doesn't seem to have left much of an impression on me. *shrug*

My take is that had she not married Mr. Knightly (also assuming that she wasn’t stuck with unrequited love for her) , Highbury would have been just a bit of Cranford.

3:51 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Emma is certainly not my favorite Austen novel,and yet many people think it's her best crafted one. I suppose I don't find her relatable, although my heart always goes out to Marianne and Elinor, Lizzy and Jane.

You make a strong case for a romance heroine taking a physical journey in order to find her spiritual/emotional self. Yet Austen was proud of her "two inch wide bit of ivory" (that exceptionally tiny plot of literary land) in which she set her various novels and Emma is certainly the most geographically constrained. I'm sure she was making a point of her own by deliberately keeping Emma's field of vision so narrow.

4:41 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I don't know if any of you guys know this excerpt from W. H. Auden's poem "Letter to Lord Byron," but I think it's a doozie. (And true.)

You could not shock her more than she shocks me;
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle class
Describe the amorous effect of "brass",
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.

6:22 PM  
Blogger librarypat said...

Most stories are a voyage, whether it be a physical voyage, a metaphysical voyage, or a mental voyage. I expect the characters to grow in some way. It could be the development of a relationship. It could be developing an understanding or maturity. It could be an adventure or a mystery solved. It could be just a fun romp. If the characters don't grow, develop, or move beyond what they are, there really isn't a story.

7:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

But isn't Emma's journey akin to Oedipus' and thus of greater significance than, for example, travelling to Tynemouth?

8:21 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

@Anonymous: ???

3:38 PM  
Anonymous Sharon said...

Hi, Ms. Rosenthal, While watching the recent BBC adaptation of Emma on PBS, I told my husband that I had a hard time buying the romance due to the age difference. My husband, who rarely reads fictions and watches these period dramas only because of my monopoly of the TV, replied that he didn’t think Austen wrote Emma as a romance; rather, Emma was Austen’s theological disclosure. Your comment the other day and this post got me thinking of it once again. Perhaps this is one way we could look at Emma, with Mr. Knightly being the God figure: He knew a great deal of what others were unaware of; didn't interfere with the lives of Emma and the others in the village, in general; advised farmer Martin when asked; allowed Emma to do as she pleased but scolded her severely when she was in the wrong, etc. After all, having a rector for a father, Austen must have received her fare share of religious teachings, and it is possible her understandings were reflected in her writings, isn’t it? What do you think of looking at it this way? :)

10:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

@Kalen Hughes:
I sometimes can't figure out how to post except as anonymous.

What I intended to suggest was that Emma's journey was like Oedipus'--an inward journey of self-discovery. In fact, IIRC, Emma even comments that she is seeing herself for the first time.

dick

7:41 AM  
Anonymous RfP said...

(Hope this isn't a duplicate)

This topic seems to connect to Charlotte Bronte's famous criticism that Austen wrote about tiny, confined worlds. For the most part I disagree, or feel that when Austen wrote tiny worlds she did so deliberately and fruitfully. However, Emma and Sense and Sensibility are still my least Austens, for related reasons. In Emma, I appreciate the small world of the book as part of what illustrates Emma's small-mindedness; Emma is aggravating, but the world is constructed to fit her. S&S is the book where I start to agree with Bronte. The Dashwood sisters' lives seem awfully circumscribed, their viewpoints take a long time to shift and I'm not sure whether they change at all or simply respond to circumstances, and I don't think their happy endings are blissful. I'll have to think about the role of travel and the size of social milieu in my reactions to both books.

I did think about travel quite a lot when I first read Sanditon--that is, the completion by "Another Lady" (Marie Dobbs). Charlotte is a sensible country girl who's away from her family for the first time at a seaside town full of other travelers. Sidney's brother remarks on what a gadabout he is, always traveling back and forth to London--and ultimately Sidney and Charlotte plan to live in London. Before the resolution, however, Charlotte is exposed to the perils of travel; her gadabout swain is afraid for her, but she saves herself through luck and common sense.

9:55 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Wow! (Another blessing I sometimes forget to give thanks for is the fascinating comments this blog gets) Where to start?

Or perhaps I should say to RfP that as to Sense and Sensibility, don't get me started, it's such a complicated issue. What a messy book, so many loose ends and incompletenesses, and built around overused threadbare elements about rakes and duels and so forth. It shows the strains of its creation, I think, as an apprentice work of free indirect discourse recast from an older epistolary form.

And yet, for all that, there are things in it as wondrously good as you'll find anywhere. The scene where John Dashwood is persuaded not to give his sisters anything (and to feel quite proud of it) is often and justly cited. I also think the conversations between Elinor and Lucy Steele (cats with their claws not quite fully sheathed) are marvels. Not to speak of the wonderful complexity of the sisters and their virtues and vices -- it's not Sense or, but Sense AND Sensibility -- the hard work is bringing the two aspects of being a heroine together in a complicated world.

I think we're talking about the mysteries of genius here.

Anon -- I agree that Emma's journey is one of self-discovery. And yet I can't help thinking it's an awfully short journey: from falsely believing herself the leading lady of Highbury to truly being such, though largely through her marriage. Not just through her marriage, though: she has genuinely learned noblesse oblige, or charity, or how to "be kind to those less fortunate than ourselves." Or, as J.D. Salinger had it in Franny and Zooey, "love the fat lady" -- which always made me feel pretty squicky there, and also does in Emma. Highbury is a happy village where everyone tolerates each other's illusions about their own self-worth and Mr. Knightley makes a few judicious gifts of apples and turnips when needed, to ward away starvation. An Arcadia (as the literary critic Lionel Trilling had it), but imo a very conservative one (in the Jane Fairfax/Emma retelling I've been working on forever, I see it through Jane's angry eyes -- Frank teases her for being "a little Jacobin").

3:10 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

And Sharon: what a fascinating way to look at it: Mr. Knightley as God. I don't think I agree deep down, but I do feel that Emma and Mansfield Park have more in common than you'd think at first reading, and Mansfield Park is very explicit about having a committed religious figure as its hero -- Edmund Bertram is no Mr. Elton.

And you're absolutely right that Mr. Knightley has the most complete view of a village full of secrets and self-delusions (he doesn't quite guess the truth about Frank and Jane, but he comes close).

My own reading of the novel comes from an essay in a wonderful study called Superintending the Poor, by Beth Fowkes Tobin, which refers to contemporary essays of Austen's time, wherein the hard-working country squire is seen as the closest thing English society of the times has to true aristocracy -- Mr. "knightly," after all. Not exactly a romance, but a highly idealized portrait of a Good England (and a very Tory-ish one).

3:22 PM  

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