Romantic Heroines: Is It Finally Time To Say Goodbye to Eustacia Vye?

When I was 17 years old, a very willful year in the life of B, I had already decided how the next 60 years of my life would look, being the Type A personality that I am. The idea was that I'd work in international development, preferably at the United Nations. I hadn't the slightest what a UN officials did but I was attracted to the idea of doing good while living a glamorous life of international travel and intrigue. Cue the spy music!

What I really wanted to be, though, was a romantic heroine. I recognize that this is not such an uncommon wish, just that it takes a multitude of forms. Urban fantasy buffs might dream about being a tough chick in leather who meets her match in a burly non-human. Chick lit-lovers might covet a no-nonsense bloke who would lay a finger over the lips of their worries and draw them into a life of love, security and acceptance. Indie lit lovers might dream of the perfect tortured romance filled with poetic nuance or maybe just a really great conversation about a mix tape.

My brand of romantic heroine is decidedly old-school, though. We're talking Thomas Hardy here, we're definitely talking D.H. Lawrence. The Hardy/Lawrence heroine is practically a mystical being with one willful foot in the heavens and one very capricious foot on the ground. Said heroine likely possesses heartbreaking beauty, speaks or thinks eloquently on the subject of love (and rarely any other) and is prone to rash action (this heroine likes nothing better than martyring herself to an idealized form of romantic love). Oh and societal convention? Pffffffffft.
One of my favourite descriptions of such a heroine comes from chapter seven of Hardy's The Return of the Native. His heroine, Eustacia Vye, remains burned into my mind to this day. This is what he says of her in the chapter opener:
Eustacia Vye was the raw material of a divinity. On Olympus she would have done well with a little preparation. She had the passions and instincts which make a model goddess, that is, those which make not quite a model woman.
At the beginning of the novel, Eustacia Vye, trapped in rural Egdon, England and hating every dull moment of it, is toying with her sometimes-lover Wildeve. A better opportunity in the form of Clym, a diamond merchant, presents itself and Eustacia attaches herself to him, with disastrous results.
This all sounds piteously pie in the sky until you consider what's at stake, as stated in Lawrence's Women in Love:
...the reality of that which can never be known, vital, sensual reality that can never be transmuted into mind content, but remains outside, living body of darkness and silence and subtlety, the mystic body of reality. She had her desire fulfilled. He had his desire fulfilled. For she was to him what he was to her, the immemorial magnificence of mystic, palpable, real otherness.
The object of the old-school romantic heroine is to feel as much as possible, without restraint or care for societal norms. I'm sure that you know that it is easy to become inured to life's ups and downs, to function, and just to function. Love, if obtained, becomes routine or conversely, if love is absent, this state becomes routine as well. Hardy writes that for Eustacia, "A blaze of love, and extinction, was better than lantern's glimmer of the same which should long last years." The attraction of this statement is unavoidable.

Yet are the inflated ideals of these heroines useful or merely poisonously delusional? Is being a heroine anti-feminist? Is trying to live your life like it's a Jane Austen novel crazy stupid?? More on this topic tomorrow...


miaherrera said...

Bronwyn, I really enjoyed this post. When I was younger, I also wanted to be an old-school, Jane Austen heroine (and sometimes I still want to be one!). Can't wait to see your take on this topic.

B.Kienapple said...

Thanks Mia! I'm starting to think that loving these old school romances is a a bit backwards but hoping to convince myself that they still have significance for the modern woman! Hey, well love never goes out of style...


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