Unlikable Heroines (Or Maddy Timms vs. Jane Eyre)

As I revise my two finished novels, I’m realizing that my heroines will not be universally loved. In fact, some people might be very irritated by them.

They might just be…Unlikable Heroines.

I’m quite fine with this. All of my favorite heroines in romance are prickly, difficult…flawed. One of my most favorite heroines, Scarlett O’Hara, would likely win the award for the Ur-Unlikable Heroine. I recognize that in many ways Scarlett is an awful human being, but I am endlessly fascinated by her. (And honestly, if you had a sister like Suellen, wouldn’t you want to smack her?)

So I spent the weekend pondering the Unlikable Heroine. I also re-read Flowers from the Storm, which I thought was unrelated, until I found that some people consider Maddy to be an unlikable heroine.

Maddy? Unlikable? But I love her!

Admittedly, some of things I love about her are her faults. She’s often holier-than-thou and she’s a pinchpenny. I myself may indulge in those same traits more than I should. (Although it will take a lot of convincing to make me believe that thrift is a fault rather than one of the highest virtues. Hmm, that sounded a bit holier-than-thou, didn’t it?)

I must also admit that I find Christian to be something of an Unlikable Hero. I find the character of Richard Gill to be more compelling, more romantic. When Mr. Gill sees Maddy in the garden and tells her she should come away with him and he wants to ask the Meeting if he might marry her, even now? So deeply romantic to me.

Christian is always saying to Maddy, “You come.” Mr. Gill says to Maddy, “You choose.” He treats her as an equal, which Christian, for all that he loves her, never really does.

In the end, Maddy chooses Christian. Which got me to thinking about choices in romance.

And then it hit me. Flowers from the Storm is Jane Eyre, if only all the choices Jane makes took a left turn rather than a right.

Jane and Maddy are both grave, given to being more than a little self righteous, and are “Quakerish”. Mr. Rochester offers Jane many of the same temptations that Christian does to Maddy, but Jane’s response is very different from Maddy’s.

Mr. Rochester buys Jane a fine carriage that she initially spurns and only reluctantly rides in. Christian buys Maddy two sets of carriage teams. Maddy makes the comment “as if she would ever use them”, but you can hear the hint of her capitulation there. Give Maddy time and she’ll succumb.

Mr. Rochester offers Jane jewels, which she refuses as unnatural and strange for her. Maddy takes a fine pearl necklace and a tiara, with some protest, yes, but not an outright refusal.

When the truth is revealed, Jane only has one chance to run and she takes it. Maddy is given chance after chance to run and she doesn’t.

Maddy is what Jane would have become had she taken Mr. Rochester offer to become his mistress and run away to the continent with him. Jane refuses him, holding to her sense of what is right and proper. Maddy leaves behind everything she’s known–her church, her community, to be with Christian. I hurt for Maddy, for the sacrifice she makes, but I cheer for Jane’s.

I see Christian as a Mr. Rochester unhumbled by fire and disfigurement, still holding to the notion that anything he does is justified, because he is in love. For Christian, even after the stroke, it’s still all about him. In the end, he goes to retrieve Maddy, not the other way round. But Jane is the one to seek out Mr. Rochester at the end. (You could argue that Mr. Rochester is no shape to seek her out, but let’s not interrupt the flow of my argument here.)

In the end, I love both books–they are both great forces of literature, deeply romantic, highly evocative, And now I see them as two sides of the same coin, with neither side being vastly superior to the other. (With apologies to Maddy, nothing can quite match Jane in my heart, though.)

(Full disclosure: There is no St. John that I can see in Flowers from the Storm, which I think is for the best. All of this is only my opinion and I’m probably not the first person to have it.)

12 responses to “Unlikable Heroines (Or Maddy Timms vs. Jane Eyre)

  1. I really love Flowers from the Storm. I think it’s smart and experimental; any romance novel as interested in representing subjectivity as FFTS has my attention. However, I absolutely hate the way Christian manipulates Maddy into marrying him. It gives me rage tremors. I don’t think you can love someone if you don’t respect her, and in lying to Maddy, Christian indicates that he doesn’t trust her decision-making. (He also marries her for selfish reasons, because he doesn’t think he can function without her. It’s been a while I since I read it, but I got the distinct impression that he didn’t love her at the time he married her, making his actions completely indefensible.)

    On the other hand, I really dislike everything Bronte’s text does to poor Jane Eyre. She can have her man…once he’s been (figuratively) castrated. Jane gets everything she wanted–money, love, family, self-respect–but dear Lord does she suffer for it. And everything only works out due to serendipity and the deus ex machina of the rich relative. I’ll take a little less fairy tale and a little less twisting the knife. (I know, I know: life is nasty, brutish, and short, etc., but every time I read the book, I encourage her to take Rochester up on Italy and the mistress gig.)

    An excellent connection and fascinating post!

    • I don’t know that Christian is ever truly “in love” with Maddy, in the sense of them having a partnership based on mutual respect. He desperately needs her, even when he’s as recovered as he’ll ever be, but I never get the sense that he would have fallen for her before the stroke. There’s a bit near the end, where he sticks a flower in his ear to make her laugh, and he thinks something like “Poor Maddy to laugh at something so foolish and poor him to being reduced to making such foolish jokes”. He still thinks of himself as diminished and any relationship he must have will also be similarly diminished.
      But Kinsale is so darn good, I’m still ugly crying at the end when he makes that wonderfully aphasic declaration of love!

      Re: Jane Eyre, I have the complete opposite reaction to her refusal of his offer to run off to Italy! I think she’s correct when she assumes that after time, he’ll lose respect for her if does yield to him–her lack of yielding is a big part of their interactions before the reveal of the mad wife. And that’s to say nothing of her respect for herself, which is as important to her, if not more important, as her love for him. (That being said, I don’t think I would have turned him down!)

      And I’ve never thought of Mr. Rochester’s injuries as a kind of castration–that’s really interesting. I think you’re right, he does lose some of his male vigor and arrogance at the end. And now I’ll be thinking of castrations whenever I get to the end of Jane Eyre. πŸ˜‰

  2. I never responded to your first point! I don’t think Maddy is unlikeable. I almost can’t believe anyone thought that, but even if she were, she’d still be interesting and that’s what I demand from characters. If they can be interesting and likeable, that’s ideal, but I choose interesting over likeable any day.

    • Apparently, she’s a religious zealot (?) and of course she doesn’t give Christian everything he wants right when he wants it. And yes, I will take interesting over just about anything–unfortunately, likeability often gets in the way of interesting in heroines.

  3. Hmmm, I’ve been thinking about your post for two? days now; well, on and off, the day job is really interfering with my reading, writing, and responding, most annoying. However, I would like to add my garbled two cents for the fun of it.

    I admit to being a Maddy-disliker (but I dislike Christian equally) and Jane-lover. I agree that they emerge from the same tradition. I think they’re both puritanical. BUT, I think that Jane is a thinker; she is self-directed. Maddy, on the other hand, comes from a tradition that has been inculcated. Her reactions are “pavlovian” and her commitment to Christian is never quite convincing to me. Nor is his to her, for that matter. The miracle of FFTS for me is that I was surprised to dislike hero and heroine and yet think the book great.

    Whereas I love Rochester and Jane, especially Jane … I don’t think he’s been emasculated/castrated in the end, but I do think that he has been humbled and reformed. Because the most interesting detail about him for me is that, when the fire breaks out, he tries to save Bertha (I don’t know that the rakey, amoral Rochester would have, the one who asks Jane to be his mistress) … this indicated to me that he is a good man and has accepted Jane’s decision and is willing to abide by what God/fate/circumstance has dealt him. I always thought his blindness was more of an “Amazing Grace” kind of image. Jane and Rochester are, as Jane would say, “free” human beings making conscious decisions for themselves: Jane’s fortitude and control are forged at Lowell and Rochester’s come much later, after he’s suffered her loss … Christian and Maddy, not thinkers, not self-directed, free beings, not so much, not to me anyway. They feel trapped in their needs, or traditions, or whatever you want to call them, and aren’t self-reflective. Mind you, I’ve only read FFTS once and I’ve read Jane Eyre at least fifteen.

    (Have you read this cool article about Jane in The Guardian from 2005. Here’s the link: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/mar/25/classics.charlottebronte
    But I don’t know how to link it!! You can copy and paste into the browser. Sorry, I’m showing my doddery age here! πŸ˜‰ )

    • I can see what you mean about Maddy and Christian being “unthinking” (especially Christian), but I do think that Maddy shows quite a bit of spark and thought when she first begins to work with him at the madhouse. Everyone is against it, but she holds to her belief that she has a charge from God. Of course, after that, everything in her is then subsumed to the Will of Jervaulx.

      As for Mr. Rochester, attempting to save Bertha at such cost to himself definitely redeems all of his sins for me. He certainly has achieved a kind of peace at the end, an acceptance of what life has given him that he lacked before Jane left. And I loved that article about Charlotte! I remember when the Ruth Wilson/Toby Stephens version came out a few years back, there was much huffing on the internet that Jane would never roll around on the bed with him like that, and I thought to myself, “Oh yes she would!”

  4. Oh look, it linked anyway. Cool.

  5. You’ve redeemed Maddy a tad for me. I’d of course forgotten about her determination to help him in the madhouse, but again, it’s God telling her to do it. I guess she’ll always remain a little bovine, a little dull, for me, maybe because she’s not as beautifully articulate as Jane.

    Isn’t it a great article? I just loved it and so funny too: “independent mouse mat.” The rolling on the bed was great, yes!; haven’t watched my DVD in a while, but, if I recall correctly, the kiss under the oak was distinctly smushy and unappealing. Then, no version is perfect in light of the original’s perfection!

  6. One more thought: often in these conversations, I feel like the differences between “I don’t like that that character” and “that character is unlikeable” get elided. (Not by you, Gen, but more broadly.) I don’t think those ideas are interchangeable. To call a character unlikeable seems to imply that no one could or should ever like her–that’s she’s flawed in some sort of major way or perhaps to suggest that the reader’s subjective response should be universal held. “I don’t like her” is limited and personal. We all don’t like people for a variety of reasons even when there isn’t anything fundamentally wrong with them. (Or maybe that’s just me; maybe that’s my “unlikeable” trait.)

    In the case of Maddy, I can see how someone would say, “I don’t like her” but I can’t see how someone could call her unlikeable.

    But this is a purely pedantic point: characters should be interesting before blandly nice, etc. etc. etc.

    • I see what you mean about differentiating between “unlikeable” and “I don’t like this character”. I’ve been thinking on it more and it seems to me when the discussion turns to “unlikeable” heroines, we’re talking about heroines that have a kind of hardness. Even today, there’s a ton of societal pressure on women to be polite, pleasant, yielding–“likeable”. So when we put a heroine in the unlikeable category, she’s pushed back against those norms in some way. (And of course, which characters you personally put in that box are totally subjective, as you point out.)

      So some people might find Maddy’s holier-than-thou traits to be too much (you and I don’t), but I think most would agree that her level of religious inflexibility is generally frowned upon, at least in today’s society.

      But yes, I agree that “unlikeable” is a clumsy choice, but I’m not sure what would work better. πŸ™‚

      • Not a clumsy choice! It’s exactly how (some) people talk about it. In my silly pedantic-ness, I wanted to complicate it. I agree that the idea of “unlikeable” almost doesn’t exist for men. I’ve never heard Tony Soprano or Walter White or Don Draper described that way. I’ve heard, “I can’t watch the show because I don’t like him,” but I’ve also heard them called anti-heroes. Who’s the last heroine you’ve heard described that way? Maybe Katniss Everdeen, maybe Scarlett O’Hara, maybe Meredith Grey, but often not.

        In romance, we’ll accept almost anything from a hero, but not from a heroine. It’s such bleepity bleep bleep bleep. But that’s why you’re writing your books. ; )

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