Monday, January 21, 2008

Aspects of Love:

Heroines as Desirers


In his novel "Murther and Walking Spirits" Robertson Davies writes:

“Listen to me. Every marriage involves not two, but four people. There are the two that are seen in the altar, or the city clerk, or whoever links them, but they are attended invisibly by two others, and those invisible ones may prove very soon to be of equal or even greater importance. There is the Woman who is concealed in the man, and there is the Man who is concealed in the woman. That’s the marriage quaternity, and anybody who fails to understand it must be very simple, or bound for trouble”

It’s Hugh, the narrator’s best friend, making this observation. He is also one of the few men who actually recognize and embrace the woman in himself, so much so, that he has avoided marriage because he’s “never met a woman who would have me whom I felt I could trust in the same house and in the same bed with my own woman”.

In my opinion, and I am disposed to be a little biased in favour of women in this matter, women are much more attuned and accepting of the man inside them. The narrator’s wife, Esme, demonstrates how: she “had to call on powers that carried her over a rough patch, and gave her strength to bear what she thought she might not be able to endure”. She was an ambitious woman and had to resort at times to being “coarse and domineering” in order to get the successful career she desired. The self-empowerment in women comes, I think, mainly, from recognizing and taking up those tough, traditionally male, qualities in them, that they have to utilize in order to get ahead in a society that still favours men.This recognition of the Man in the Woman has been suppressed for a long time. Western culture has encouraged women to be feminine, supine and pursued.

We can pose this duality in sexual terms. Women, classically, in literature and culture, have been viewed as the object of desire. Man desires and pursues actively. Woman are supposed to be merely reactive and desired. But women authors, even in the rather sexually repressive nineteenth century, wrote novels about heroines who were desiring subjects.

A famous example is, of course, Jane Eyre. In this novel, we get a full demonstration of the “quaternity” we encountered earlier. Mr. Rochester’s responsiveness and nurturing care for Jane are feminine. Jane’s desperate desire for him, followed by a sturdy resistance to his attempted seduction, is masculine. She desires him fiercely, so that she is no less the pursuer than the pursued in this relationship. It is hardly a wonder that the figure of Jane Eyre created such a dislike for her. Contemporary women described her as coarse and unladylike.

Isn't it strange how this adjective "coarse" keeps inserting itself when desiring women are described in literary texts?

D.H. Lawrence, nearly 8 decades later, hated both Jane and her author for “emasculating Rochester”.

D.H. Lawrence could not accept the “quaternity”. In “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”, the heroine was a helpless, mainly hormonal creature. There was nothing masculine or even energetic about her behavior. Her lover is all male.

Jane Austen created a desiring heroines in her novels. One of them, the finest, really, was Anne Elliot of “Persuasion”. Her object of desire is Wentworth, and one of the first indication that Anne has a Man in her, is her recognizing this in herself. She becomes active in bringing about her own happiness. Such energy and conviction would have been insupportable in women in her own time.


A few days ago I watched the latest BBC production of “Persuasion”. There was some indication that the scriptwriter may have caught on to this vigorous desire in Anne. He tried to translate it into a visual image, when, at the end of the film he has her running from one place to another, in hot pursuit of Wentworth.

As an Austen purist, I was disappointed. This was not quite the way to illustrate Anne’s agency in removing the obstacles and misunderstandings, which had created the alienation between them. It actually achieved the very opposite effect, reducing her to the more conventional breathless, hysterical female fearful that she might miss the boat, again.

The whole point of love in an Austen’s novel is that through its process of self-recognition and maturation, it becomes a solid imperative. A stable reliable force that cannot be dislodged or reversed.

Here is Wentworth's letter:

"I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine. I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would be lost on others. Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice, indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating, in F. W."

"I must go, uncertain of my fate; but I shall return hither, or follow your party, as soon as possible. A word, a look will be enough to decide whether I enter your father's house this evening or never."

Can anybody doubt that at this point there is no more uncertainly? This kind of love could no longer be subject to shifts of fortune, coincidence or lack of social opportunity.


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