Sunday, November 7, 2010

Jane or Cathy? Smart or Naughty? Can a Female Protagonist be Both?

First, the HBO show Mad Men asked women to choose:  were we a Marilyn or a Jackie?

As much as I am devoted to the brilliantly written show, that question didn't sit well with me, smacking of the old "goddess"/"whore" dichotomy of womanhood - in other words, women can be wifely or mistress-like but not both. In either case, our identities are limited, and circumscribed solely in relation to our heterosexual romantic relationships, and not by our autonomous goals, desires, and capabilities.

Now, the Guardian U.K. booksblog re-asks that Jackie/Marilyn question in a slightly more palatable (or at least literary) form: Are you a Jane (Eyre) or a Cathy (Earnshaw.. from Wuthering Heights)?

Well, that's my re-telling anyway. The Guardian booksblog actually puts forth the interesting notion of "The Battle of the Brontes." In other words, that the world can be divided into readers who are  either Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights fans. In the author's opinion, the first category - drawn to the bookish, stalwart Miss Eyre, are "librarians" while (whilst?) the second category - drawn to the tempestuous, sensual Cathy are "rockstars", and that in the end, "you can't be both."

Hm.. By these standards, I am, undoubtedly, a Jane. She was one of the first 'grown up' books I ever read - and the romance between the grey-clad, steely governess and the dark, mysterous Rochester is one of my perennial favorites. Heathcliffe I enjoy in small doses - particularly in the flavor of Laurence Olivier - but the bratty Cathy I'm afraid I can't stand at all (unless she's being sung about by Kate Bush: "Heathcliffe, it's me-e, Cathy-y, let me into your window-o-o-o"). And I've only read Wuthering Heights (shriek!) once, as opposed to the thousands (ok, tens) of visits I've made to Thornfield Hall. So that I suppose that makes me a librarian.

But isn't the Jane/Cathy dichotomy merely a smartened up version of Jackie/Marilyn or goddess/whore feminine dilemma? Sure, we're talking about (both male and female) readers and not women having to embody either Jane or Cathy as people, but to me the question ends up being rather similar.

Which got me thinking - isn't it possible to be both smart and naughty? Shy and daring? A rock n'roll librarian (and not of the 'sexy librarian/school teacher in a sexist music video' variety, thank you very much?)?

And then, I came upon it (thanks to a brilliant tweet by author Meg Cabot) - my favorite heroine who is both smart and naughty, sweet and spicy:  the one and only Miss Harriet Vane of the Dorothy L. Sayers Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries. For those of you who are book lovers - of the MG/YA ilk OR the adult - run out and consume ALL of these novels immediately. And then watch the BBC television versions. And then read them again (Have His Carcase and Gaudy Night are tied as my favorites in this series). Harriet's an Oxford grad, terribly bookish (a bluestocking even), but not above having had a lover in 1920's England - and, well, then, being charged with his murder. Oh, and being the object of the dashing Lord Peter's affections. Oh, and not falling all gooey-ly into his arms right away because, well, the woman's got a spine, dash it. But Lord Peter continues to love her for her brains, wit and charm as they solve grisly murders together...


What other heroines match Harriet's smarts and dash? In the YA world, perhaps Kiki Strike, but most others strike me as either smart or naughty - but not both. (Is this, *gasp* a complicated quality one can only achieve in adulthood? Perhaps... although this list of feminist heroines at Forever YA holds some strong contenders...)

In which case, who are your favorite smart but naughty grown up heroines?

In her tweet, Meg Cabot suggested that Harriet might have stayed with Mr. Rochester after she found out about wifey#1 up in the metaphorical (and actual) attic, because, well, Harriet just rolls like that. (Ms. Cabot didn't actually say it in those words.)

But I have a different interpretation. I might suggest that Harriet (if occupying the literary world of the Bronte sisters) would skip out on dour Rochester altogether, get Heathcliffe the Prozac prescription (and haircut, and shower...) he needs, and maybe take up with, say, dashing old Darcy in Miss Austen's classic. Or, for that matter, just finish her PhD already and then travel around with Lord Peter while she writes a fabulous but academically questionable (though certainly charming and opinionated) blog...


  1. "Gooey-ly" has to be the best word I've read all weekend!

    Have you read Laurie King's novels about Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell? (The first one is called The Beekeeper's Apprentice.) I think Russell would jump on the train with Harriet, ditch stinky Heathcliff and drag Sherlock along for fun! She would dress in her father's wool suit, happily masquerading as a young man while solving grisly crimes.

  2. That's whilst solving grisly crimes... er, I think anyway...
    No haven't read those, must get them! List of to be read longer and longer!
    If you haven't read the Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane books - do so posthaste!