Books in the Blood #14 : Why do fictional heroines have to be beautiful to be loved?

Image: Pixabay

Image: Pixabay

Now, so far my Books in the Blood have been on the populist side, or at least books many of you will have read. Some of this is due to my featuring so many school set books – To Kill a Mockingbird, The Diary of Anne Frank, Shakespeare plays, Lord of the Flies.

Clearly the curriculum developers know what they’re doing. It’s not meant as an insult when I describe some of these choices as the literary equivalent of a parasitic bug that’s burrowed into your brain – once it’s got its hooks in, it won’t detach.

But with BITB #14 – or Bitby 14 as I’ve suddenly decided to call it – the book choice is one that many of you won’t have heard of, by an author who died almost ninety years ago and I’m suspect is largely unknown.

Now, just as a preamble, I must explain there’s a big part of me that’s always despised romantic fiction.

Before you legions of ladies (and let’s face it, it’ll be mostly ladies) rise up and bludgeon me to death with your nearest weapon – a pair of Manolo Blahnik stilettos, say, or a passing Pomeranian – I admit that (as you can deduce from my sniffy comment) I have a twisted view of the genre.

You see, when I was growing up, the only examples I’d heard of were Barbara Cartland and Miles and Boon and the covers of M & Ball hazily painted swooning females and towering Milk Tray men – were enough to put me off. Remember, I loved mystery and adventure stories most and would soon embark on years of little else but Dean Koontz and Stephen King novels. I was beyond heaving bosoms and being swept up in manly arms.

Then came the BBC adaptation* of Mary Webb’s


with the towering Janet McTeer (literally towering, as she stands at just over 6 feet) in the role of Prue Sarn.

Prue’s my kind of heroine. You see, I’m always mildly irritated by attractive leading ladies. You know the ones – they’re feisty with tousled hair and an untamed beauty and men tend to fight over them at the drop of a tricorn hat.

This seems to me an inherently flawed starting point. Most of us – even in a kind light with a little Vaseline softening the lens – can’t be described in such terms. Most of us are lucky enough to be okay looking, neither drop dead gorgeous nor ‘cover her face’ ugly. But even if we are conventionally unattractive, should it naturally follow that we’re undeserving of love? No, of course it shouldn’t.

So why are many romantic heroes and heroines so stunning? Surely, that alienates the majority of readers, demonstrating to the young and single that the only way any of us will receive passionate, breath taking love is by having a new nose / boobs / chin / cheekbones and industrial strength liposuction.

I adored Prue because she starts the story on the aesthetic back foot. You see, she’s born with a harelip (we’d more generously call it a cleft palate these days) which gives her an unmistakable facial deformity. Not only that, she’s unlucky enough to have been born into a rural society during the nineteenth century, so because of her lip, she’s believed to be cursed and possibly a witch.

Prue’s probably a little retiring for modern tastes – she does have to be rescued by a man at one point – but as the book was first published in 1924, this is hardly surprising. She’s cowed, bullied and put upon by family and friends alike – the assumption being that a ‘hareshot’ girl will never get a lover, and as she can work as hard as most men, she may as well be used as free labour on her brother’s farm.

But Prue is kind hearted, intelligent and brave in her way and she wins her man not by looks alone – but by being a lovely girl. As I was a lumpy, lonely singleton living in a thatched cottage in the broad expanse of the Suffolk countryside when I first encountered this story, you can imagine how it appealed to me.

Along with the romance, there’s a lot of death, a whiff of the supernatural, plenty of superstition and a beautiful snapshot of a lost, rural Shropshire, filled with ‘sineaters’, a wizard called Beguildy and a brooding countryside of meres and mists that is both protector and death bringer to the inhabitants.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read Precious Bane and old cynic that I am, it still weaves a spell over me now.

‘Saddle your dreams before you ride’em.’

*With apologies, this is the only clip I could find for the BBC adaptation – skip through and you’ll find Janet. I gather it’s not available on DVD either. As Sarn Mere, it is lost in the mists.


4 thoughts on “Books in the Blood #14 : Why do fictional heroines have to be beautiful to be loved?

  1. Its a good point. Some of my favorite romances have been ones where there’s something off about the heroine. In probably my favorite romance novel, the heroine has cancer, is described as having a scarred up body, bad hair (from the chemo treatments), overly thin, etc…so its really her personality that carries her. It carries her well. That book can still make me sniffly. (Lover Eternal by JR Ward) Another book that stands out in my head – I can’t remember the physical description of the character, but she had ISSUES. Like deep-set emotional stress issues, and the author didn’t just move her straight past them. She actually had them affect her life and made her deal with them. (Abducted, by TR Ragan)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There are many stories, I’m sure, where the heroine is not conventionally attractive – externally at least. Thanks for flagging up these two. A refreshing antidote to the norm 🙂
      I made a special effort with my own YA novel to make the heroine – if not unattractive – then certainly not initially appealing. She has a crew cut, gappy teeth, a boyish figure with no bust or curves which makes her a bit self conscious. She’s also prickly and sarastic – if funny. And yet … Someone grows to adore her. And this is the truth about love – you don’t have to look like Jessica Alba to find it. Thanks for reading 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think you make a good point. It seems that people tend to stay in their own “league,” though I hate that term, of attractiveness when it comes to dating, but Hollywood only seems interested in making movies about the 9’s and 10’s. I have managed to find many great books featuring characters that are unconventionally beautiful, but not many great films. It would be great to see a movie where two ordinary-looking people have an extraordinary romance. We all have a great love story in us.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, you’re right. You do find books that have a wide range of protagonists, but they don’t always translate to film. I’ve watched a few adaptations where I’m boiling, thinking – they’ve made him/her sooooo much more attractive than they should be. One example is the film ‘Frankie and Johnny’. I love Michelle Pfeiffer, but her character is supposed to be a plain, dowdy, middle aged woman who is astounded when someone finds her attractive – no amount of painted on shadows under the eyes will make Ms Pfeiffer dowdy! Ridiculous.
      I’m not sure why film makers insist on this. It’s very short sighted.

      Liked by 1 person

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