“You speak like a heroine,” Montoni said contemptuously. “Let us see if you can suffer like one.”
–Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho
At age sixteen, I would sometimes erupt in fits of the song “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” from The Sound of Music. I only recognize in hindsight that this may have been something of a trial for my loved ones. But my father, a musically gifted yet compassionate man, never expressed disappointment at having produced a tone-deaf child. He usually sang along. On one car trip, though, I remember his eyes flickering briefly from the road to meet mine post-recital. Here I should explain, for any readers who do not know every song in The Sound of Music by heart—well, first off, you should; but also, the closing lyrics of “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” are “You are seventeen going on eighteen / I’ll depend on you.” (This from the starry-eyed Austrian sixteen-year-old Liesl to her sweetheart, Rolfe. She later discovers her trust to be misplaced when Rolfe enlists in the Wehrmacht under Hitler.)
Perhaps it was because I had reached Liesl’s age, but this time my tuneless “I’ll depend on you” seemed to strike him as a ripe occasion for parental guidance.
“You know you never need to depend on a man, right?” he said.
“Dad!” I scoffed. It was 2006, for Chrissake. “Of course! It’s just a song.”
He was so embarrassing. We’re not even Austrian. Besides, my mom had beaten him to the punch years ago. “Never rely on a man—they will always disappoint you,” she had said oracularly. It’s not not true, I’ve found, but at least I have been fortunate in that, to my knowledge, none of my beaux went on to fight for the Third Reich.
I have since come to appreciate that my father was right to check in on the state of his teenage daughter’s romantic ideals. He could see that while, yes, it was becoming increasingly out of fashion for Disney princesses to be “saved” by a male hero, young women in the mid-aughts still received troubling cultural messages about gender and power dynamics in romantic relationships.
For me at sixteen, processing the cultural inputs of that time in American history was further complicated by the fact that I had been a devotee of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century fictional heroines.
Those who study bygone centuries recognize that their nuances are often erased in the popular imagination. Many of my students struggle with the female protagonists in non-contemporary literature. Unmoored, people grasp at the black and white. Old-style heroines are passive, submissive, helpless. They are brainwashed and victimized by the uniformly horrific historical past. They are sexually repressed; it’s troubling that they care so much about their “virtue.” The men they fall in love with are very problematic! Or, alternatively, an eighteenth- or nineteenth-century heroine can be understood, in fourth-wave feminist terms, as locked in battle with the uniformly horrific past.
I am not claiming that my feverish adolescent consumption of old books made me any more sophisticated when it came to interpreting the past when I was my students’ age. In fact, at eighteen, I was less sophisticated than the undergraduates I now teach. I arrived at university fresh from a conservative evangelical upbringing in rural East Texas, wide-eyed and utterly innocent of whatever wave of feminism had last swept over the rest of the world. All I knew was that heroines of the past thrilled me to my core.
I really liked how they talked to men.
Jane Eyre: “I am no bird, and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.”
Emily St. Aubert of The Mysteries of Udolpho: “You may find, perhaps, Signor … that the strength of my mind is equal to the justice of my cause.”
Or, stated most succinctly by Rebecca of Ivanhoe to her attempted rapist: “I spit at thee, and I defy thee.” I was drawn to the counterintuitive pairing of such fiery words with such cool, unruffled punctuation—at finding a period where we might expect an exclamation mark.
Such expressions of defiance sit comfortably with modern sensibilities, but other aspects of these heroines do not. Jane, Emily, Rebecca, and countless others assert themselves against men in defense of values that today’s secular progressives find retrograde. Jane stubbornly rejects a relationship with a married man who hides his allegedly insane Creole wife in an attic, not from feminist, antiracist, or anti-imperialist motives, but because adultery is at odds with her religious beliefs. Emily submits to her villainous male persecutor until she realizes that giving up her fortune will disadvantage her fiancé. Rebecca, a Jewish woman, rejects an irreligious admirer while nourishing a passion for the anti-Semitic Ivanhoe, and, when he prefers an Anglo-Saxon bride, Rebecca ultimately chooses celibacy. As a twenty-first century evangelical Christian teenager, their outmoded values did not ruffle me; Rebecca’s affection for a racist was jarring, of course, but her celibacy was not. Now, as a secular progressive myself, I still find my affinity for these heroines unshaken. I know firsthand how inevitably cultural contexts shape one’s values, and I can’t help but admire the strength of these heroines’ commitment to following their moral compasses—however pointless or perverse these principles may seem now.
Perhaps it was my acceptance of these heroines, on their own terms, that left me sensitive to the failings of their male counterparts, who are likewise locked in prisons of their own making. While the heroines, in their cool defiance, earned my admiration, their male counterparts exhibited a fragility and vulnerability that resonated powerfully with my own experience of adolescence.
Take Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice, who, as independent as he seems, has always read as helpless to me. Behind his pride, a traditionally masculine (and thus acceptable) foible, I sensed an unfairly feminized weakness that’s notably absent from Austen’s women: insecurity. While the heroines were ideal, Darcy was flawed in a way I could relate to as a teenager.
There’s a scene in Pride and Prejudice that captured my feelings as a lonely adolescent better than any lines I had ever read. Playing the piano for a small gathering at Darcy’s aunt’s estate, Elizabeth rebukes Darcy for his unsociability. In the 1995 television adaptation, Colin Firth’s facial expression and body language as he tries to explain himself convey the discomfort and shame that I read between these lines in the novel. Lizzy does not soften to his uncharacteristic vulnerability when he acknowledges his lack of “talent” at entering into conversation with new people. “I do not play this instrument so well as I would wish to,” she says, “but I have always supposed that to be my own fault because I would not take the trouble of practicing.” Touché. The reproof has been amply earned. But Darcy’s attempt to establish common ground with Lizzy, who never shows off her limited musical skill at large parties, struck a chord with me. “We neither of us perform to strangers,” he says.
I could relate. The origin story for Darcy’s former personality that he offers at the end of Pride and Prejudice has never rung true to me. The reductive explanation—that he was merely raised to “think meanly” of everyone “beyond [his] own family circle”—is consistent with gendered expectations for what constitutes a masculine failing, but less consistent with the psychological plausibility I found in Austen’s other characters. I rejected the idea that Darcy just couldn’t be bothered to practice small talk with strangers. The kind of self-segregation he imposes at the first Meryton dance—the self-segregation I imposed every single day of my most awkward years—is fear-based. Arrogance is fear’s alibi.
Like Darcy, I suffered under a lack of talent for making myself the charming gentleman at the ball. But in eighth grade I stumbled unintentionally on the perverse means of survival as a teenage Darcy. At some point, the theater clique became convinced that I must have been avoiding human contact because I actually was too cool for everyone else. My standoffishness presented a novel challenge to them, and they went out of their way to get to know me. I was unspeakably relieved. What would have become of me if I hadn’t been thrown this lifeline? What would have become of Mr. Darcy if not for Lizzy?
The presumption that the men are the ones who save the heroines in historical literatures reminds me of that pawprint bumper sticker that says “Who rescued who?” Yes, Pride and Prejudice opens on a young woman distressed in an obvious, material way. With her father’s estate entailed away from the female line, she will have nowhere to live when he dies and very little inheritance to support her. Given Lizzy’s commitment to marrying a man she can respect, the only event that can save her from the undignified fate of a spinster dependent on friends and relations is a wealthy gentleman who marries her for love. Cue Mr. Darcy. But in Ian Littlewood’s formulation, Elizabeth’s averted fate is only one side of the story. In what he calls “Austen’s version of the Cinderella story,” there are two Cinderellas.
The hero and heroine rescue each other, and what they escape is the fate society ordained for them. There is a shadow novel in Pride and Prejudice whose outlines are revealed in the expectations of the main characters—that Bingley will marry Darcy’s sister, that Darcy will marry his cousin, or possibly Bingley’s sister, that Elizabeth will either take Mr. Collins or be left … to the doubtful pleasures of spinsterhood. This is the story as it would unfold in reality, given the pressures exerted by family, property, and the weight of traditional social arrangements. On one reading, the steps by which Darcy and Elizabeth manage to escape it are part of a romantic fantasy that evades the social realities established so clearly elsewhere in the book.
In the end, Darcy is able to give Elizabeth wealth, status, and a little healthy distance from her exasperating family. What she confers on him, however, is far more profound; Lizzy motivates Darcy to pull the stick out of his ass. None of the fawning women he was expected to marry would have done this for him. By Darcy’s own admission, Elizabeth saved him from a scarcely endurable life. Ditto Jane’s Mr. Rochester: a tortured, brooding Byronic figure before meeting Jane. Ditto Emily’s Valancourt, whose (temporary) loss of Emily drives him to self-destructive gambling. And so on.
As susceptible as I am to romantic tales of mutual salvation, I believe heroines to be far more resilient than their lovers. At the juncture of the romantic tale when it looks like things aren’t going to work out, the man turns into a mess and the woman is fine. Sad, of course, but fine. Jane Eyre has in her own resourcefulness everything she needs for fulfillment. Emily sticks to her principles, managing her pain without looking for escape in harmful vices. Both heroines reject other suitors, as does Lizzy. Put in contemporary terms, these heroines don’t need a man. They know what they want, and they don’t “settle.” Their challenges throughout the course of the novel only strengthen the independence they show from the beginning. Tellingly, Jane and Emily come into their own fortunes at the end of the novels, gaining financial independence that reflects their personal self-sufficiency.
A scene from the BBC’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice elaborates on this theme. Jane and Lizzy are brushing each other’s hair and discussing their precarious position on the marriage market. Presuming that Jane’s beauty will land her a love-match in spite of her poverty, Lizzy jokes that her future lies in teaching Jane’s children how “to embroider cushions and play their instruments very ill!” Lizzy doesn’t flinch at this prospect. She prefers it to a loveless marriage. Her contentment comes from peace with herself and with life’s varied pleasures; for, as she correctly observes, “What are men to rocks and mountains?”
Despite the challenges of interpreting history from the vantage point of the present, there’s a seed of truth in the claim that these heroines of the past are feminists. Like many of my students, I’ve found a through line connecting generations of heroines, and I’ve struggled to articulate it in ways that don’t feel ham-fisted. But undeniably, the lines from Lorde’s fourth-wave feminist anthem “Bravado” could be sung as readily by the heroines I’ve admired as they have been by me. In this track from her 2013 album Pure Heroine, Lorde struggles to overcome her own difficulty performing for strangers:
I can take it from here
I’ll find my own bravado.
Her declaration deviates from those of her foremothers in syntax, but not in spirit.
Bethany Johnsen Creed is a graduate student in the Department of English at UCLA. She is the prolific imagined author of numerous unpublished and unwritten texts.