Books as mirrors
Ianthe Broome, the protagonist of Barbara Pym’s 1982 novel An Unsuitable Attachment, is a quiet, self-effacing woman. "She saw herself perhaps as an Elizabeth Bowen heroine -- for one did not openly identify oneself with Jane Austen's heroines," Pym writes. Well, Ianthe, those days are over.
On the heels of January’s BBC America “Which Jane Austen heroine are you?” personality quiz -- Henry Tilney would have called it “intolerably stupid,” and he would have been right. And I don’t say this only because I got Fanny Price -- comes this piece in Bustle: “What Your Favorite Jane Austen Heroine Says About You.” It’s predictable stuff. If you like Emma Woodhouse, it’s because “you exude confidence and hate owning up to your mistakes.” Pick Anne Elliot, and that means “you’re quiet and pensive.” Yes, it’s pretty poor Austen criticism (does Marianne Dashwood really “never regret[ ] being impulsive”? Does Elizabeth Bennet in fact “love being the center of attention”?), reducing three-dimensional characters to cliches worthy of fortune cookies or horoscope columns. But I’m more interested in the underlying assumption: that your favorite Austen character must be the character you believe you most resemble. This view of literature is familiar. It holds that we want our books to serve as mirrors, reflecting back idealized versions of the people we think we are and offering reassurance that everything will turn out fine for such people. From this view springs the idea that novels must have “relatable” characters, and that it’s inherently unpleasant to read a book filled with unlikeable ones. (A book like, say, Wuthering Heights.) Not that there’s anything wrong with that! The more readers in the world, the better, whatever their motivations. Of course we all read in part to understand ourselves better, and I would by no means suspend any pleasure of yours. But isn’t it possible to admire the artistry that went into creating a character who seems not at all like yourself? To marvel at how a writer can make you care intensely about the fate of fictional people who inhabit a world utterly unlike your own? To enjoy reading about individuals who are not at all likeable but who happen to be interesting? (I’m looking at you, Heathcliff.) Can't books be windows, as well as mirrors? My favorite Jane Austen heroine is Elizabeth Bennet. But no – that doesn’t mean that I think I’m “charming, witty and vivacious” or “have a heart of gold.” It just means that I think Jane Austen got it exactly right when she called Elizabeth “as delightful a character as ever appeared in print.” I’m actually more of an Elinor Dashwood, since you ask. But so what? I’m not (only) looking for myself when I read. I like to meet some strangers along the way.