We talk an awful lot about romantic heroes in romance blogs. But we don’t say a huge amount about the heroines, except maybe the ones who are Too Stupid to Live. Well, that’s another column. I got to thinking about romance heroines who made a big impression, and why. Of course what first came to mind were the classic 19th century romance novels, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and Wuthering Heights. Each established a memorable scenario that has been the basis for many romance novels since then. (I’m assuming you’ve read all of them, so I’ll be mentioning plot points that are spoilers.)
In Pride and Prejudice, the heroine is intelligent, observant, and underneath much polite and humorous behavior, outraged by the maneuverings that other women perform or society forces them to perform in order to get husbands. Elizabeth Bennet is angry at seeing her best friend sell out by marrying a nincompoop. She’s even angrier that her sister suffers because of the machinations of her rivals for the hand of another, only slightly more bearable nincompoop (yes, Bingley is amiable, but he’s still notably light on brains). So when Darcy has the gall to act as if he is doing her a favor by confessing his love, Elizabeth lets him have it. And we all adore her for it, though eventually she and we realize that Darcy is actually ah heroic fellow and worthy of her love. Elizabeth Bennet may be a woman of her times, but her intelligence and honesty speak to all times. It’s a simple story, but by the end the reader is sure that the heroine has found her perfect man. This is the romance as comedy of manners with some high emotion thrown in.
In Jane Eyre, Jane’s lonely and friendless state lures her into obsessing over her boss, who promptly tries to get her into a bigamous marriage. We all probably have had our experiences with hopeless crushes, emotionally unavailable boyfriends, married men at the office, and the like. But Jane’s romantic daydream comes true, only to turn into a nightmare. Author Charlotte Bronte warns the reader with plenty of negative imagery even before the famous “Stop the wedding!” scene. And what a melodrama that is. The priest asks if anyone knows of an impediment and a bride’s worst nightmare occurs: someone does, and it’s a doozy, the original Mad Wife in the Attic. Even a fantasizing governess can’t talk her way past her intended husband’s rank attempt at ignoring the law, so she flees. But then to show the reader how bloodless and unappealing the flip side of passion is, Charlotte Bronte has Jane find her cousins, among whom is a most handsome and godly fellow who wants to marry her. But he does not love her. He makes it clear that he has no passion for Jane, just for his religious missionary work. Signing on with him would be lifelong toil with no personal reward, and Jane very sensibly declines the honor. On the whole, she’d prefer the tormented scoundrel with the mad wife, a man who actually wanted Jane enough to defy morality to have her. (Taken that way, it’s a huge compliment, isn’t it?) Conveniently, by the time Jane returns to her beloved, his wife has died and he has suffered grievous bodily harm sufficient to punish him for his attempted sin. It’s not a perfect happy ending, because an attempted bigamist doesn’t deserve perfection. But it comes darn close. At the end she’s marrying the real man, not the moody, emotionally distant employer who fascinated her. One could call this the original Gothic romance. (Yes, there were previous Gothic novels, but this one caught the imagination of readers in its time and has held it for an astonishing 160 years.)
And then there’s Wuthering Heights, the fan favorite of people who like lovers completely above moral law. Personally, I have never thought of Heathcliff and Cathy as heroes, and all those wild meetings on the moors did not catch my imagination. Except in the Laurence Olivier–Merle Oberon movie. The sheer beauty of these two actors and of the moor setting imbued the characters with a nobility that their author, Emily Bronte, did not. But back to the book, which is really all about cruelty and revenge, carried out into the third generation. Cathy is no angel, but she dies early on, and Healthcliff, previously the butt of other people’s cruelty—including hers—turns into a monster. So Cathy’s influence as a heroine is to incite Healthcliff to a soul-deep rage that nothing on earth can satisfy. Because Cathy is dead. Hmm…this book is actually weirder than I remembered. It’s a revenge tragedy. Like Hamlet.
Unlike the movie’s dumbed-down plotline that’s all about marrying for money, the SparkNotes synopsis of Wuthering Heights reminds me that Heathcliff spends the years after Cathy’s death getting revenge on everyone who ever crossed him, and some who didn’t. His cruelty and his grasping for property and money turn him into a thorough villain, a villain whom the grown children finally outwit. That’s not how romance readers remember Heathcliff, though, is it?
What I took away from Wuthering Heights on reading it as a teenager was that here were two very selfish people who wanted each other desperately but instead chose other people and then tormented them and each other. Yes, Heathcliff and Cathy may have fallen in love as teenagers, but each of them marries someone else of their own free will, yet as adults they keep right on having a version of their adolescent affair. I understand that They Are Rebels. They have feelings that their stultifying society does not want them to have. But their feelings do not ennoble them. Still, I’m guessing that their continued appeal lies in their rebelliousness, their refusal to conform not just physically but emotionally to their cutural norms. As for me, I always wanted Heathcliff’s poor downtrodden wife, Isabella, to outsmart him and turn his filthy bachelor dorm household and his equally unpleasant male companions into a model home with cleaned-up family members all being polite to each other at the dinner table. Now that’s a fantasy!
Of these three historically important romance heroines, Elizabeth Bennet comes across as the most clear-eyed and rational, despite the pride and prejudice to which she eventually admits. (Okay, she admits to one of them. Prejudice, I think it was. But it could have been pride. If I dip into my copy of the book to check, I’ll be lost in Jane Austen’s world for the rest of the day. So just correct me if I have listed the wrong attribute.) Cathy is the most passionate and mercurial, but not a nice person at all, and she wouldn’t have your back, either. She represents sheer emotion unleavened by common decency or common sense. And Jane Eyre is something in between. She starts off naive and ruled by her emotions but she ends up knowing herself and others, too, while still believing in true love. Of course all three heroines share this belief, that true love exists, and that being with the right man will result in a lifetime—or maybe an eternity—of happiness. I guess what makes them so memorable is that all three were conjured up in a society that expected women to marry for a comfortable home, or for status, or just because some man picked them. So maybe even though we remember Heathcliff better than we remember Cathy, and even though I myself do not like her, the point is that the uncompromising nature of her wild emotions is an inspiration to believe in true love despite every daily message to the contrary, whether in the 19th century or in the 21st century.