Cross-Gender Writing Part II: Eleanor Harding Bold

IMG_20150415_133204You know how last time, I was saying that I hadn’t ever run across a well-written fictional woman from the pen of a male Victorian writer? Well, now I have! The lady in question is Eleanor Harding Bold, from Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers.

Actually, I had alrady met her several years ago during a course in Victorian lit.; I just forgot. But then last week, I took the DVD of the miniseries out of the library because I wanted to watch Alan Rickman play the marvellously slimy Mr Slope (or marvellously play the slimy Mr Slope, either way. It was his breakout role, from 1982; he’s so young there! Actually, he is what he should have been as Snape; I read somewhere that J. K. Rowling envisioned Rickman when she was writing Snape, and I’m sure if that’s true, it was him as Obadiah Slope she had in mind. The name alone suggests it – Slope/Snape). Anyway, so I was watching The Barchester Chronicles, and found myself thoroughly enjoying the characters, especially Eleanor.

From what I remember of the books, the film adaptation is reasonably close to Trollope’s original, definitely in plot line – so this is not the case of a late-20th-century feminist rewriting of the character, but comes straight from Trollope’s own imagination, ca. 1853. In both the books that make up the plot of the miniseries, The Warden and Barchester Towers, Eleanor features prominently as a key character around whom much of the action revolves, but it is in Barchester Towers (episodes 3-7 of the series) that she really takes on depth.

Very briefly, Eleanor Harding is the 20-something daughter of Mr Septimus Harding, a clergyman around whom the action of The Warden and quite a lot of Barchester Towers revolves. At the end of TW she marries Dr John Bold, only to have him die on her in the space between TW and BT, thus freeing her up to be the motivating love interest in yet another book (Trollope can get away with that – it’s totally believeable that a doctor in Victorian times would catch a fever from one of his patients and die before he is even thirty). So there she is, dripping, as they say, black lace and bombazine, and looking oh-so-desirable in her charming widow’s cap (one I enjoy about the miniseries is the accuracy of the costuming – lovely. That cap clearly demonstrates where the term “widow’s peak” for a particular hairline comes from). Slimy Mr Slope is all over her, sucking up to her very oiliy – not only is she pretty, she’s got money. Then there is the very amusing but shallow Bertie Stanhope, who is also after her money (but at least admits it freely), and last but not at all least the serious, steady and studious Mr Arabin, another clergyman, who isn’t sucking up to Eleanor at all because he doesn’t think she could ever be interested in him “in that way”, pretty and charming as she is. Trollope being a comedic writer, not a tragedian, you can probably figure out how it ends.

One of the interesting things about Trollope is that in these stories, he writes several characters of great depth – and they come in either gender. Mr Harding, Eleanor’s father, is the key figure, and he is a thoroughly good man, caught up in trials and tribulations of circumstance – but also of his own making: it is his innate honesty and integrity that cause him the greatest difficulties. If he was only willing to take a bit, to exploit some people and enjoy a little ill-gotten gains, he would have no troubles at all, and The Warden would have no plot. In Barchester Towers, it is in part Eleanor’s character which causes some of her own problems. In her case, it’s not so much her integrity and unwillingness to compromise her principles which cause her troubles, but like her father, in her sweet and gentle way she is unwilling to let others boss her around, tell her what to think, and dictate her life to her.

Mr Slope, as I mentioned before, sucks up to Eleanor, but he is a man who is thoroughly disliked by her family, for good reasons. Eleanor can’t really stand Mr Slope herself, but she is willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, and when her brother-in-law tries to interfere and tells her to stop associating with Mr Slope, she gets absolutely furious and refuses to promise any such thing – not because she has any intention of marrying Mr Slope (eew!) but because she hates being bossed around. She almost messes up her relationship with Mr Arabin because she thinks he’s on her brother-in-law’s side, telling him off in no uncertain terms for his supposed impertinence in trying to tell her what to do (which gives him an admirable opportunity to prove himself a good guy by admitting that she is right). However, when Mr Slope tries to propose to her and won’t take “no” for an answer (shades of Austen’s Mr Collins!) she resorts to a resounding “box on the ear” (slap across the face), which finally gets rid of him. Eleanor is capable of giggling with girlfriends over people’s silliness, of a deeply loving relationship with her father without falling into Dickens-style saccharine tones, and of being thoroughly conflicted about how to deal with what life throws at her (a conflict which, in fact, makes up a great lot of the plot of the story). Eleanor Harding Bold, in other words, comes across as real.

And that, folks, is my discovery of a well-written female character by a male Victorian writer’s hand. They do, apparently, exist – I’m glad.

Life, the Universe, and Cross-Gender Writing. Check out Eleanor Bold – I think you’d like her.

Cross-Gender Writing

As I mentioned last time, reading Thursday Next: First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde got me thinking about what I’ll call, for lack of a better word, cross-gender writing: when an author writes a character who is of the opposite gender from their own.

Interestingly enough, both of Fforde’s series I’ve read so far, the Thursday Next novels and the Last Dragonslayer ones, feature a female protagonist. They’re great books – don’t get me wrong: I’ve thoroughly enjoyed them (in fact, I’m still thoroughly enjoying them, as I haven’t finished reading either series). But one thing that stuck out to me about the Thursday in First Among Sequels is that she is, pretty much, a tough chick. Oh, she’s a loving mother and wife, very much so. But there is a certain kind of – I just have to say it – manliness about her. She’s a kick-butt leather-wearing gun-toting girl (who, at age 52 and after two pregnancies, still has a “devastatingly good figure and boobs to die for” [p. 346 of FAS]). Thursday’s calling in life is to go adventuring in the BookWorld; regularly pulling a gun with an EraserHead is all in a day’s work. Thursday is a man’s woman.

Now, one of the things that got me started on this train of thought quite some time ago was a post by Christopher Bunn on this very matter from the opposite angle. He’d noticed that a lot of male protagonists written by female writers are, kind of, women’s men, particularly when they appear in romance stories. (He then set out to write his “Sleeping Beauty” adaptation, Rosamunde, in part as an exercise in doing a female voice. Go read it and decide for yourself whether you think he succeeded; it’s a great little book overall, well worth reading.)

So when Christopher said that about female writers creating men in their own image, I started mentally sifting through some of my favourite literary characters, and I have to admit he is right. Many of my favourite literary males were written by women, and perhaps the reason they’re my favourites is that they’re idealised women’s men. Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey is one – he is eminently swoon-worthy, and never more so than in his romantic pursuit of Harriet Vane. Lord Peter is by no stretch of the imagination girly – but he is sensitive, cultured, caring, yet strong and intelligent… everything a woman wants a man to be, with none of those inconvenient traits like not wanting a woman to depend on him or being more concerned with the task at hand than with the woman’s feelings at the moment.

On the flip side, quite a few of the manly women written by male writers are, pretty much, what a man wants a woman to be (or so I imagine): tough, independent, beautiful/sexy (see “devastatingly good figure and boobs…” above), with none of those inconvenient traits like wanting a man to listen to her feelings or having physical issues like getting cramps once a month or morning sickness resulting from some passionate bouts of lovemaking.

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Steve and Horatio – a Bear’s Bear and a Tiger’s Tiger

This “writing characters in the image of one’s own gender” even extends down to children. Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching is one of the best characters he created (and he created many) – and she is one tough little girl, with an utterly unsentimental attitude to life (the very first time we meet her, she takes out one of the baddies with a cast iron frying pan. Bam!). Come to think of it, she is a childhood incarnation of another brilliant Pratchett character, Granny Weatherwax. You couldn’t imagine either of them cooing over babies or kittens (Granny has a couple of feeble cooing episodes in the first book in which she appears, but that flaw was speedily expunged from her personality). In fact, Granny’s friend Nanny Ogg, who is yet another tough broad, does coo over her pet cat Greebo – but he’s the roughest, meanest, nastiest specimen of feline you could imagine, so it’s a big joke. All of these women are far more likely to slap a crying person upside the head and tell her to pull herself together than to give her emotional support and a warm hug. They’re loving and care deeply about people, but it’s tough love – more the kind that is (stereotypically) doled out by fathers than by mothers.

Cooing, cuddling, and anything resembling emotional softness or sentiment, on the other hand, are castigated by both Pratchett and Fforde as “wet” or “soppy” – the girls (and it is always girls) who are prone to such exhibits are mercilessly made fun of. Yes, they do exist in the books – in Pratchett’s “Witches” series it’s Magrat Garlick, in “Thursday Next” it’s Thursday5, and in both cases they’re described as New Age hippie types who like to weave floral wreaths, wear unbleached cotton, and are annoyingly fond of hugging and emotional encounter groups; part of their character growth consists in getting over their emotionality – to become, in short, more of a manly woman.

A while ago I promised you a post on Charles Dickens, which I have yet to make good on. However, for now, here’s one of the points I wanted to make about Dickens: he can’t write female characters – they’re either perfect angels of light or corrupt, demonic slatterns. Dickens is in good company among his fellow Victorians in that; in fact, I have yet to read a male Victorian writer who could write a good woman. Sickly sweet, or evilly corrupt, those seemed to be the only two registers male Victorians had at their disposal for writing females; all the believable literary women were created by woman writers. (That’s not to say there aren’t well-written women that sprang from the pen of a male writer in the 19th century – just that I haven’t run across them. I’ve yet to read Tess of the d’Urbervilles – perhaps she meets the requirements? But then, she dies. I’m not sure that qualifies her for well-written – if you can’t be believable and live, well…)

I can’t really speak much to the issue of the believability of males written by females – I’ll have to take Christopher’s word for it that many of them don’t quite read true. But I think I know what he means, because I can see it in the mirror image of the female written by the male.

However, none of this means that I have a problem with those literary heroines. I love identifying with Tiffany Aching’s frying pan prowess or Thursday Next’s accuracy with an eraser gun (which reduces bad guys down to their phonemes). BAM! POW!

But it’s something to keep in mind, particularly as a writer – do I create my characters in my image, even just the image of my gender or of what I wish the opposite gender was like? Perhaps, to a certain extent, it can’t be avoided. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing – maybe in reading about and identifying with what an author of the opposite gender imagines or wishes a character of ours to be like, we can come to a deeper understanding of their perspective. Perhaps in having characters of one gender created in the image of the opposite one the gap between the genders can, in one spot or another, be bridged.

Life, the Universe, Manly Women and Womanly Men. Pass the frying pan.