Books feature: The original Plain Jane
Two hundred years after its author's birth, it seems our fascination with Jane Eyre and the Brontës is very much alive
For centuries, the comely character - and the striking muses that often spawned them - were steadfast literary staples. Holding the gaze of men and women alike, their beauty often became their downfall; an instrument of both power and torture. Created mainly by men, literature's first female heroines were idealised versions of the feminine ideal: a prototype of the manic pixie dream girl.
And then, 200 years ago this April, one of the world's first proto-feminists was born and, by extension, one of the feistiest and independent literary heroines. At the age of 31, Charlotte Brontë published her most enduring work, Jane Eyre, under the name Currer Bell. The novel would birth a most "intemperate and unpaved chaste" heroine in the form if its titular character. History would deem the book, which chronicles the emotions and experiences of a women on the cusp of moral and spiritual awakening, as a revolutionary work of fiction. Brontë, in turn, has been called "the first historian of the private consciousness" and a literary fore-sister of the likes of James Joyce and Marcel Proust.
Jane Eyre swims against the tide in a number of ways - after a brutal and loveless childhood, she is principled and sceptical. It also quickly becomes clear that she has not blossomed into a stirring beauty. Initially, she fights for Mr Rochester's affections alongside his fiancee Blanche Ingram, who is beautiful and talented (if unkind) in ways that Jane isn't. Jane's plainness becomes a sizeable obstacle in her life as she is denied compassion, affection and sympathy time and time again. Her lack of beauty keeps her in a lowly place that she needs to fight her way out of. It doesn't take much imagination to look at the portrait of Brontë and see the image of Jane herself, and it's impossible not to see Brontë's own ideas of inner beauty and self-perception peer through.
A few decades prior, Jane Austen wrote of old maids whose bloom of youth had deserted them, most notably in Persuasion (where Anne Elliott, in her mid-20s, was faded and thin) and Pride & Prejudice (where Mary Bennett was 'the only plain one in the family' and, all told, a pitiful creature for it).
The floodgates duly opened, female protagonists of all shapes, sizes and stripes began to emerge. In many cases, being undesirable suited them; the average girl does good. Above all, they are blisteringly human; a rich literary seam to mine.
As American academic Margaret Wolitarsky succinctly put it: "Throughout literature, the ugly woman, as an individual, poses no threat to society. She lacks the beauty to seduce men into sinning, nor as woman, does she have any political or social power. Thus, she is either used to represent what writers fear about life and themselves, or she is a virtuous alternative to the attractive seductress.
The 19th century and early 20th century canons are packed with plain old-maid characters: Sherwood Anderson's Kate Swift in The Teacher, Edith Wharton's Charlotte Lovell, in The Old Maid, Barnes' Clochette, William Faulkner's Emily Grierson in A Rose For Emily, and even Ernest Hemingway's Pilar in For Whom The Bell Tolls.
To this day, however, the beautiful female character is less the exception and more the rule. Yet it doesn't mean that the canon isn't packed with women whose power lurks beneath the surface; women whose compassion, cunning, integrity and persistence are brimful.
Played by the formidable and statuesque Gwendoline Christie, George RR Martin's creation Brienne of Tarth is "almost a beauty" in the right kind of light (read: pitch darkness. Brienne is described as markedly unfeminine, with broad shoulders, intimidating height and crooked teeth.) Arya Stark, also in Martin's A Song Of Ice & Fire, is routinely mistaken for a boy.
More recently, the plain female protagonist has been beset by another less attractive quality; age. The combustion of both qualities often mark her out as a neat counterpoint to a younger, more beautiful character. Case in point: the 60-something spinster in Zoe Heller's Notes From A Scandal who befriends a younger, more elegant teacher, Sheba.
Heller admits that in making Barbara a sexless, affection-starved old woman, she lit the blue-touch paper, with the following passage garnering her dozens of letters from fans: "'People like Sheba think that they know what it's like to be lonely… but about the drip drip of long-haul, no-end-in-sight solitude, they know nothing,' Barbara says of her younger, married colleague. 'They don't know what it is to construct an entire weekend around a visit to the launderette. Or to sit in a darkened flat on Halloween night, because you can't bear to expose your bleak evening to a crowd of jeering trick-or-treaters.
''They don't know what it is to be so chronically untouched that the accidental brush of a bus conductor's hand on your shoulder sends a jolt of longing straight to your groin. I have sat on park benches and trains and schoolroom chairs, feeling the great store of unused, objectless love sitting in my belly like a stone until I was sure I would cry out and fall, flailing, to the ground.'"
Agatha Christie's wily mystery-solver Miss Jane Marple, also old, sensible and frumpy, fares slightly better.
At the outset of The Murder At The Vicarage, for instance, we learn that she is a lady with a past, a woman who loved and lost. Because of her own past, she is well able to understand passion and, by extension, the root cause for several crimes of passion.
But still, youth doesn't make a female heroine impervious to plainness: Hermione Grainger in JK Rowling's Harry Potter series was often depicted as an average looking, bushy-haired young girl. What she lacked in prettiness, she amply made up in smarts and guts. Little wonder that Rowling herself has been moved to comment that Emma Watson, who played Hermione in the book's big-screen adaptations, was too pretty to play the role.
More recently, Claire Messud brought complexity to the plight of the modern-day plain protagonist. A woman who builds dollhouses in her spare time, Messud's Nora is a never-ran, someone who dreamt of life as a travelling sophisticate, but never managed to leave her hometown.
The Shahids move to her town of Cambridge for a year, and Nora promptly falls for all of them, with their relationship taking on a sinister, obsessive bent from the outset. Nora's mix of pitiful, unglamorous and hopeful certainly helps to propel the tale along.
Brontë and Austen may have gone against the tide with heroines that weren't immediately pleasing to the eye, but it quickly becomes clear that there was indeed a method to their madness. Beauty may well be a literary staple as old as the hills, but those with much more lurking beneath the surface will easily last through the ages.