On Heroines

Lately I have been reading the Game of Thrones series, with a break to canvass Ron Rash’s Serena, and now I find myself hankering after more feminine characters.

“All Game of Thrones has is fucking and fighting,” I complained to a bloke.

“What’s wrong with that?” he replied.

Ahem. The clashes and cavorting aside, the series is brilliantly plotted, with jabs of wit and good characterisation in parts, which is why I read the first volume in three days over New Year and am hankering for time to finish the next one. However the representation of the female characters is getting a little tiring. There are maidens who love knights and jousting, mothers who try to guide their sons as they grow into kings, whores aplenty, and tomboys. It is the latter who are the only ones who seem to have any autonomy; the others are caught within the conventional power structures of Medieval culture to which the writer hearkens back. And yet, even these tomboys seem to be no more than female versions of men. The only woman who seems realistic in the whole text is Daenerys, who is forced, by circumstance and the land with which she interacts, to change from a timid girl dominated by her brother into a woman who is sexually confident, resourceful, and loyal to her lover.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives the definition of “heroine” as “a female hero”, the word being the feminine version of the Latin hero. The role of the heroine, then, is automatically shackled by its relationship to a man, and a woman becomes valorous, and validated, by engaging in actions that have traditionally brought acclaim to men, viz., poking someone off their horse during a tournament. Given this, how can a woman be admired outside of such an equation, particularly given the long history of dismissal of areas in which women have excelled, such as crafts and cooking? This is something that I think about as I work out the sequel to A Curious Intimacy, which I’ll write two novels down the track: how can I create a character who retains her sense of femininity, yet is physically and mentally strong at the same time, in a harsh environment?

Rosa Praed managed it, to a degree, with Fugitive Anne (1902), in which the protagonist Anne, escaping into the desert from her violent husband, collapses near the conveniently placed camp of the explorer Eric Hansen, who has amorous (and of course noble) designs upon her. He revives her by wiping her brow with a silk handkerchief so that Anne, in a state of extreme sensory deprivation, ‘was filled with delight at the touch of this fine material to which she had for so long been a stranger’ (117). Anne then rallies around and sturdily follows Eric on his explorations, despite being a small woman who seems to wear out easily.

Anne’s character works because Praed imagines how a woman would respond in extreme conditions. For a woman, even if she gallivants around the countryside sticking her sword into things, is still not going to think in the same way as a man. She would see the world differently – there would be more attention to the details of things, for example, or she might occasionally want a brush for her hair, or she might get stroppy or nostalgic when she was menstruating. You can’t just put a woman in coat of armour and expect readers to believe in her.

This is why I was troubled by Serena (2008) as well. The novel pivots on the character of Serena Pemberton, a woman who marries George Pemberton and moves to the North Carolina mountains to build their timber cutting empire. Stepping — far too efficiently to be believed — into the rural world of the 1930s, she establishes her authority over the timber cutters by winning a bet with a man who spits at her feet. Thereafter, her acquisition of an eagle to kill the rattlesnakes and her ruthless murder of opponents via a sidekick whose life she saves, lends her a mythical air among the workers. She carries out her tasks with elegance and serenity, as her name declares, not even showing much emotion when she miscarries her child of eight months. When she attempts to have Pemberton’s bastard child killed, it is suggested that her motivations for doing this are not so much maternal grief, as a reaction to Pemberton’s disloyalty, demonstrated through his partiality to the boy. If she does feel grief, it is submerged by throwing herself completely into her plans to expand to timber cutting in Brazil. Serena acts too much like a man to be believed.

Part of the reason for this sense of distance is that we are not privy to her voice or her internal thoughts, as opposed to the focalisation of the character of Rachel Harmon, who bears Pemberton’s bastard child and who interacts beautifully — and realistically — with the natural world. I expect the writer was using this technique to create a woman who would impress his readers through her loftiness, but the effect, for me, was one of estrangement.

I think the reason for my attraction to the figure of a female botanist and explorer is because I can create a strong woman who still retains a sense of femininity through her delight in the flowers she collects. I never felt like I achieved this in A Curious Intimacy, because so much of the novel had a domestic focus. I also found, whenever I gave readings of the book, that the scene I always turned to was when Ingrid went into the desert to collect flowers. I realised that, even after changing the point of view three times and cutting out a third of the novel, this was the book I should have written – one that followed Ingrid on her explorations between Adelaide and Busselton while she thought about the lover she’d left behind. The sequel, then, will follow Ingrid’s journey back into the bush as she collects flowers and recalls the women she has loved, and Ellyn as she sets up a life in Sydney.

I wish that there was a new word altogether to describe these kinds of women – not just the female version of a brave man, but a woman whose sensibility renders a world that is imbued with femininity, even if that world might be perilous. Until then, we’re stuck with the prosaic heroine, to wave around like Adam’s rib.

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