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.

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To Kill a Mockingbird: Books in the Blood # 11

Image: Pixabay

Image: Pixabay

* TINY SPOILER ALERT. If you haven’t heard ANYTHING about Go Set a Watchman and don’t want to – read no further.

What books did you read at school? Books on the syllabus, books you were made to read.

The last Books in the Blood (The Diary of Anne Frank) was one such book for me and for thousands of kids.

Now, a few of the books we were set to read for our O Levels (yes, I am well old enough to remember pre GCSEs) some of my fellow students found a little dry. There was not much rejoicing over Shakespeare, I’m afraid to say, although we studied a few of the more action-packed examples of the Bard’s work: who wouldn’t want to read about political assassination, ghosts, insanity, inter-family feuds and teenage suicide with a big dollop of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder thrown in for good measure? And all in blank verse iambic pentametre – perfect.

Yeah, Lady Macbeth, we know ‘Out damned spot.’ (Don’t you think she would’ve been a happier woman if she’d been able to employ her murderous machinations today? Bit of Swarfega to clean those hands and Vanish on any random blood splatterage would’ve put her mind at ease.)

Macbeth is certainly a better choice for young people than the Shakespeare ‘comedies’ – I can just imagine my peers’ snorts of derision at Malvolio’s yellow stockings in Twelfth Night, or any kind of girls dressed in men’s clothing gender confusion.

Catch them in the wrong mood and you’re hard pressed to get a teenager to laugh at something that‘s funny today,  let alone something that hasn’t really been funny in four hundred years.

Being the weirdy, booky, swotty nerd I was between smoking fags in the girl’s loo, I enjoyed most of our set books. I think the exam boards did a pretty good job of choosing works with plenty of violence and conflict (a must for developing minds, I’m sure you’d agree) that also had literary merit.

And they did something else clever too – they chose at least a handful of books that heavily featured children as the protagonist.

In an early draft of my YA book, I had a few chapters written from the viewpoint of the main character’s Mum, trying to show hard it was for her being a single parent, how much she worried about her teenage daughter when she vanished off on adventures for days on end.

Quite honestly, this is laughable, unpublishable and such a ‘middle-aged-parent’ approach, it’s rather an embarrassing thing to admit. The last thing a teenager wants to read is page after page about how tough it is to be a parent – they want to read how tough it is to be a teenager.

Understanding an adult’s world view is not what being a teenager is all about.

They’ll be plenty of occasions in the future when they’ll feel that slow, creeping realisation that maybe they didn’t know everything about everything when they were sixteen, that their Dad was right about that boy – he really was trouble – and that staying out until two o’clock in the morning downing Jägerbombs is probably not the best way to prepare for a Trigonometry resit.

Apart from dear Anne Frank, another – this time fictional – heroine  I got to know quite well during my O Levels was Scout from

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

It’s a book that’s a truly hot topic at the moment. It certainly is a phenomenon – how many other writers have become so deeply ingrained in culture after only publishing one novel? Actually there are a handful: J. D. Salinger did it with The Cather in the Rye: Emily Brontë with Wuthering Heights: Margaret Mitchell with Gone with the Wind. But most writers have to bang out a library full of best sellers before they reach these levels of fame.

Being on the curriculum helped spread the ubiquity of Mockingbird, with entire generations of children having to read the book. It was an ideal choice for inclusion ‒ aside from being well written, having a gripping plot and unforgettable characters, its themes of moral strength and racism are great jumping off points for class discussion, for exercising young minds.

This may not be the case in the future – at least in the UK – after changes were made to the exam syllabus, forcing teachers to choose more books from British writers such as Dickens. I wonder what the thinking is here, because there’s no greater way to put a child off 19th century literature than making them read Great Expectations when they’re fourteen and filled with hormones. A more inward-looking, regressive step I’ve never heard. Oh, well done Michael Gove.

And as for the sequel / prequel to MockingbirdGo Set a Watchman ‒ I haven’t read it yet and I’m not sure I ever will. Quite apart from the controversy over whether the book should have been released at all – hidden classic revealed to a grateful world or money making ploy by manipulative publishers? – having read some reviews, I don’t think I can face it.

Who wants to have their literary idol – the wonderful, moral powerhouse that is Atticus Finch – dismantled piece by white supremacist piece?

I’d rather stay in Mockingbird’s world, with my hero defiantly intact, thank you.