Anti-Heroines, Likability, & the Double Standard
There were a couple of fascinating posts and follow-up discussions on Dear Author in the last couple of weeks. The first was a post by Robin on Loving the Unlikeable Heroine, particularly interesting to me as I love to write and read about characters who are at least potentially unlikable. Especially heroines, I think because I love characters who are rule-breakers and heroines, at least in historical fiction, tend to face many more rules than heroes. Which leads to the follow-up post Jane wrote after Robin’s piece about whether there’s a double standard in the romance genre for what readers consider “allowable” behavior in heroines versus heroes and why.
Both of these posts took me back to a blog I wrote a a couple of years ago on my own website about anti-heroines. I got the idea for the blog when Sarah, a poster on my website, wrote to me because she was reading The Three Musketeers and getting to know the fascinating Milady de Winter. Sarah wrote, “I know I tend to prefer heroines who use their ‘feminine wiles’ – or sexuality – to achieve their own way, instead of resorting to the cliched ‘PC’ approach of typically male methods, such as physical violence, and Milady is the perfect example of a strong woman.”
As with so many classics, my first introduction to The Three Musketeers was my mom reading it out loud to me when I was quite small. I remember her describing the book before we read it and saying “It has a fascinating heroine–I mean villainess.” That’s a perfect way to describe Milady, because while she’s definitely an antagonist to d’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, she’s a compelling, fascinating character. As Sarah said, Milady “was actually wronged as well as in the wrong, and yet was punished for her ambition and desire.” Sarah compared Milady to the Scarlet Pimerpnel's nemeiss. “Milady reminds me a lot of Chauvelin, actually – the sympathetic villain, the ‘anti-hero’.”
Anti-heroine seems an appropriate description of Milady and, I think, sums up the contradictions of her character. Milady is an agent of Cardinal Richlieu which pits her against the musketeer heroes in the complex intrigues of the novel. She also, it is later revealed, has a connection to Athos. Athos (the most tormented of the musketeers) was once married. He was madly in love with his wife until he realized she bore a brand which meant she had been in prison. Enraged that she had deceived about her identity and past, he killed her. Or thought he did. It turns out she escaped, and she and Milady de Winter are one in the same. From the time I first read the book, I was far more sympathetic to Milady than to Athos (a view my mother reinforced). Sarah had the same response. As she wrote, “I think Milady won my sympathy in comparison with the men in the story, particularly when her ‘crime’ is held up against her husband’s. Imagine if Percy [the Scarlet Pimerpnel] had flown so violently and absolutely off the handle when he learned that Marguerite had kept her past from him!”
I hadn’t thought of this comparison until Sarah brought it up, but it’s very apt. Athos trying to kill Milady is much as if Percy tried to kill Marguerite. Or if Charles tried to kill Mélanie when he learns about her past in Secrets of a Lady. As much as I’ve thought of alternative ways the revelation of Mélanie’s past might have played out, that’s one scenario that never occurred to me. And yet, Charles would have had a “better” justification than Athos, because Mélanie was using him when she married him. Milady lied about her past to Athos, but as far as I recall she wasn’t spying on him or otherwise betraying him at that time.
What makes an anti-heroine? Are they the opposite of a heroine? Or of what we expect of a heroine? As with an anti-hero, I think the term encompasses a wide range of characters. I wouldn't I’d call Marguerite Blakeney an anti-heroine. She has some interesting flaws, but for the most part she is a caught in a fiendish dilemma and trying to do the right thing (at considerable personal cost). Mélanie may be an anti-heroine. Her actions are certainly food for debate, she elicits a wide range of responses from readers. I always knew that Milady de Winter influenced Mélanie a bit, but until I wrote this post, I didn’t realize quite how much .JMM pointed out in the discussion on my website that "Historically, women have always had the odds stacked against them.... That’s why I enjoy seeing heroines who 'play the game' in historical romances/mysteries. Honestly, I think these women are often punished merely for *surviving* in a world which gave them little choice."
Sharon added "There’s another trait that I think many anti-heroines share: they are ahead of their times. In another time and place, they would be perfectly admirable women. For me there are differences between an anti-heroine and a villainess. The 'crimes' of an anti-heroine are against societal stricture, not humanity. She has a conscience and would suffer from remorse if she committed a crime against humanity. In this regard, I think Milady starts out as an anti-heroine and ends up a villainess.
"By the way, I think what is pure-and-sweet depends on one’s definition. I saw the movie although I never read The Age of Innocence. At the end, I think the countess purer and sweeter than the Winona Ryder character. Now who are the heroine, the anti-heroine, and the villainess?"The Age of Innocence is a fascinating example in this context. I’ve seen the movie (several times) and read the book. Ellen, the countess (the Michelle Pfeiffer character), starts off with a lot of the trappings of the anti-heroine–sophisticated, glamorous, a bit jaded, mysterious, possessed of a past. Whereas May (the Winona Ryder character) is innocent and pure and starry-eyed and very much a conventional heroine. Yet in the end, it is May who manipulates the situation (I think Winona Ryder is brilliant in those scenes) and Ellen who makes a choice based on what she thinks is right. I don’t think the story has a villainess, but I think I’d call Ellen the heroine and May the anti-heroine.
Sarah wrote that “another literary ‘black hat’ is of course Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair – I couldn’t quite finish that novel, but I did admire her determination and guile!” I would definitely call Becky an anti-heroine. Unlike Milady she is the protagonist of the story rather than the antagonist, but she schemes her way throughout the novel, managing to make her friend Amelia, a more “typical” heroine, look distinctly dull in comparison. Catherine, Robert Goolrick's A Reliable Wife, which Kathrynn wrote such an intriguing blog about, crosses all sorts of moral lines in classic anti-heroine fashion, as do the book's other major characters. Though part of what fascinated me about the book was that I felt a great deal of empathy for her and for her husband and to a lesser extent for the third major character.
Troubled, spoiled Barbara Childe in Georgette Heyer’s An Infamous Army perhaps might also be called an anti-heroine. Certainly her prospective sister-in-law Judith sees her as an undesirable wife for the hero. Judith would prefer him to marry sweet Lucy Devenish, like Amelia more typical heroine material. But Lucy proves to be not precisely what she seems on the surface. And Barbara grows and changes in the course of the novel and ends up with a quite believable happy ending. Scarlet O’Hara also grows and changes in the course of Gone with the Wind, though the end of the novel is more up in the air. And then there’s Emma in Jane Austen’s novel of the same name. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Emma described as an anti-heroine, but a friend said that much as she loved Austen’s novels, she just couldn’t sympathize with Emma. Emma is arguably more flawed than the heroines of Austen’s other novels. Given my fondness for flawed and imperfect characters perhaps it’s not surprising that she’s tied with Elizabeth Bennet as my favorite Austen heroine .
What makes anti-heroines so intriguing? Well, for one thing (as I noticed as a child) they usually get to wear the best clothes (only compare Emma with Jane Fairfax or Becky Sharp with Amelia or Milady with Constance). But more seriously, I think it’s in large part that they often are characters who break rules and defy conventions. That’s part of the appeal of anti-heroes as well, but I think there’s something particularly interesting about women who defy conventions in an historical setting in which there are so many restrictions on a woman’s role. Becky Sharp has nothing but her wits to rely on (unlike Amelia, who is protected by fortune and family, at least in the beginning). I’ve always seen Barbara and Emma both as bright women who have trouble finding an outlet for their intelligence.
As a child of seven, I liked Milady because she got to *do* things, instead of waiting to be rescued. She plays the game with (and against) men and sometimes wins. Going back to the Dear Author post on the the double standard, it always bothered me that such a big deal is made about Milady's adultery, and yet heroic d'Artagnan sleeps with her while supposedly madly in love with Constance. And sweet, pure Constance is in fact involved in an adulterous relationship. She’s betraying her husband, even as Milady betrayed Athos. For that matter, the musketeers spend a large part of the book preventing Queen Anne’s adultery from being revealed to her husband. I have no problem with this in context or with Constance’s relationship with d’Artagnan, but it makes Athos treatment of Milady even more infuriating. Fascinating irony, but from what I can tell from reading the novel, the irony was lost on Dumas.
JMM pointed out on my website that "I think it’s telling that in the Disney 'Three Musketeers', Athos begs Milady’s forgiveness and tries to save her." I would have ended Milady’s story quite differently had I written it. Sarah asked “Is it necessary to believe that an anti-heroine can be ‘redeemed’? In a previous topic, you mentioned that you would have written Milady with a ‘heart’, but what would that mean for her? Should she have spared Constance? …I think this is what intrigues me – the concept that ’strong’ women must be caring and forgiving at heart, or face their own destruction, as ‘independent’ heroines are really only awkward, plain creatures searching for a husband!’”
I certainly don’t think anti-heroines need to be redeemed or even redeemable. I would have written a Milady with a bit more compassion (I wouldn’t have had her kill Constance) because that’s the way my mind works and the sort of story I write. I would have wanted to give her a happy ending with Athos–which would have necessitated changing Athos’s character a great deal (more than Milady’s, I think). That’s me, and the stories I tend to tell. My heroes and heroines (and even a number of my villains) tend to have a fair amount of compassion and empathy (when my mom’s and I attempted to write a hero who began the book as amoral–in A Touch of Scandal–he didn’t turn out nearly as amoral we intended). But I too dislike the idea that heroines or anti-heroines need to give way to softer impulses. Mélanie has her share of compassion (though not as much, I think, as Charles), but she puts her loyalty to her cause before her loyalty to her husband, and if she had to do it again, I don’t think she’d make a different choice.
Do you like anti-heroines or do they simply lose your sympathy? Any thoughts on the characters discussed above or any other anti-heroines to suggest? If you’ve read The Three Musketeers (or seen any of the film versions) what did you think of Milady? Do you think Mélanie is an anti-heroine? What about Ellen Olenska? Or Emma? (I suspect Pam may have something to say here). What makes a character likable or unlikable for you? Do you think your standards differ for female or male characters?