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

PRECIOUS BANE,

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.

Lord of the Flies : Books in the Blood # 12

Image: Pixabay

Image: Pixabay

The Romans believed that human beings were not born properly formed, that they need shaping to enable them to grow into decent citizens. This is why they beat their children as a matter of course – how on earth were you supposed to breed effective conquerors and Empire builders if you didn’t punch all the softness out during the formative years?

In the Middle Ages, people thought bear cubs were born as a formless lump and the reason their parents licked them so much was that they had to be pushed into the right shape – imagine a blob of furry modelling clay and you’ve got the idea. Hence the expression ‘licked into shape’.

‘Where are you going with this?’ I hear you cry, and by the way I do wish you wouldn’t do that – it’s like having a virtual Greek Chorus following me across the webby-sphere. Stick with me – a point will be made.

I can see where these ancient thinkers were coming from. Maybe not with the bears, but to be fair they probably just made that up – I’m sure you could count the number of Medieval thinkers who got close to a bear cub and lived on one hand. Not one of their hands, of course, because presumably they’d come away without digits to do any counting on. But I digress.

But the Romans had a point, because human’s are born only partly formed. We lack in experience and knowledge, of course, as anyone who’s ever watched a toddler try and do almost anything can testify. They fall over,  bump into furniture, burst into tears seemingly without reason, burble nonsense then start throwing things when you can’t understand them … They are my Uncle Stan after a Payday Friday visit to the Squint and Spyglass pub.

And emotionally, small children are bit … Odd. This may be controversial (and completely unproven), but it seems  to me children are born without empathy – it’s something they learn with experience. Ever seen a toddler fall and hurt itself whilst surrounded by other toddlers? The rest of the crowd carry on pushing building bricks up their noses and eating the contents of the sandpit.  I’m not really suggesting that we’re all born sociopaths and that it’s only with experience and example that we learn to care for others … Or am I?

Which brings me onto today’s Books in the Blood,

Lord of the Flies by William Golding.

Now, this is another Secondary School set book that many of you will have read. I already know from previous conversations online that some of you  REALLY didn’t like this book. And who can blame you? To be honest, I’d be a little worried for anyone who read this book time and time again. If this is your go-to book when you’re feeling low, when you want to snuggle up in your onesy, a big mug of Horlicks in hand … You should be wearing that rather fetching jacket with the fastenings at the back – you know the one with the long sleeves and the buckle motif.

This is a book to admire, but is it one to love?

It’s very well written – remember the scene on the beach at night, the description of the light on the waves, of the bright fish swimming around a body?

But the bodies, of course are one of the problems. Because Golding creates a world devoid of adults, stuffed with young boys and once they’ve shrugged of any semblance of civilisation, they revert to that primal state the Romans were so worried about. The world the boys create is nasty and brutish, where there’s no room for the soft, the sensitive or the weak. It’s an unjust world where those with a sense of decency won’t survive long. (I can hear you students of history shouting ‘But that’s what Roman society was all about.’ A discussion for another time, friends).

I suppose it’s many people’s first introduction to dystopian fiction and there’s little out there that’s more dystopian. Have you heard anyone criticise the plots of The Hunger Games and other YA books for being too violent for the young, as if this is a recent phenomenon, a symptom of the modern era’s degradation? Just remind them of this book and the fact it was school that made us read it.

I remember finding it creepy, disturbing, genuinely depressing, making me want to flee back to the reassuring comforts of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five. If this was what ‘adult reading’ was all about, give me the Beano.

I’ve said this before on Word Shamble, remember Golding taught at a boys’ school – if anyone knew about how heartless children can be, it was him.

A sobering thought.