Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Books with female protagonists

I HAVE read a number of memorable novels that feature female protagonists. Anne Elliot in Persuasion comes to mind, as well as Anna Karenina (although it could be argued that Kitty and Levin are just as crucial in this novel), and Emily Elder in Conditions of Faith, Eilis Lacey in Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, and so on and so on.

Of late I have read a few more novels that feature strong central female characters, all interesting and unique in their own right. I found The Member of the Wedding to be up there with my favourite reads. Frankie is a misfit teenager who would like to be older than she is. There are a number of memorable passages that show her restlessness and naivety, especially in connection with her soldier boy acquaintance who tries to take advantage of her. In her meanderings and uncertainties she reminded me of a girl in another Southern story- As I Lay Dying (one of my favourite novels), a girl called Dewey Dell from memory. Carson McCullers other great book is The Heart is a Lonely Hunter which I tried to describe elsewhere.  I didn’t enjoy Reflections of a Golden Eye, or The Ballad of the Sad CafĂ© nearly as much as these other two. However, in all four of her important novels she has created memorable outsiders, both male and female; all seemingly unusual and complex people that struggle to fit in with those around them, but with the same needs and desires as the rest of us. They remind me of the type of characters that attracted Montgomery Clift when he searched for film roles. He almost played in the film version of Reflections of a Golden Eye as a matter of fact, however death got in the way (in 1966) and Marlon Brando took over. Tennessee Williams, also from the South, writes about people like this too, Blanche being the obvious example.

Then when I finished with McCullers, I somehow came across Muriel Spark on the library bookshelves. The Driver’s Seat was intriguing. I read it twice, which I don’t normally do, just so I could pick up a few more subtleties that exist in the storyline. Muriel Spark’s writing is a little avant garde. The Driver’s Seat is about an eccentric woman named Lise who is desperate to get to Italy for a holiday. The reader thinks she is looking for male company for a relationship, however it soon becomes apparent that she is looking for someone who will be able to kill her because she wishes to die what she sees as the perfect death. We find this out during the course of the novel- in fact, very early on we discover that she is going to eventually die- which is an interesting aspect of Spark’s narrative style- this kind of flash forward. In the end I didn’t really care for Lise’s eccentricities, and the book left me quickly.

Another book of hers that features this ‘flash forward’ style is The Prime of Jean Brodie. Jean Brodie is a school teacher who cultivates a young group of impressionable girls that are heavily influenced by her and become known as ‘the Brodie set.’ The Headmistress doesn’t approve of Jean Brodie’s unorthodox methods and is looking for an excuse to be able to dismiss her. The girls, however,  are loyal to her for a long time. Instead of teaching the regular curriculum, she is secretly talking to them about art, literature, the imagination, and controversially (it is slightly pre- WW2), Mussolini and the Blackshirts. Jean Brodie favours the Italian Fascists, and this will be the trigger to have her removed, when one of her girls eventually decides to become disloyal. Jean Brodie is amusingly and refreshingly different, non-comformist and rebellious in a lot of ways. In other ways she is self-indulgent, reckless and egotistical, so I had a very ambivalent attitude towards her. When she is being dogmatic and supercilious she is very aggravating. She keeps telling the girls she is in the ‘prime of her life’ which is doubtful anyway. Once again Spark offers ‘flash forwards’, so we find out the fate of the ‘Brodie set’ early on- Mary will die in a hotel fire in a certain year for example, etc, etc and Jean Brodie will be dismissed from her school. One thing that we do have to wait a long time to find out is ‘which one of her set will become the disloyal one?’ And, as in the case of a good Agatha Christie novel, it is quite difficult to predict.

Judging by these two stories, Muriel Spark is a clever writer but not a magical one for me. The writing didn’t enthral me like the writing of someone like Carson McCullers. And yet, in the book ‘1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die’, Muriel Spark has four entries, and Carson McCullers has none! Give me Carson McCuller’s anytime, with her fascinating people and their utterly convincing flaws and predicaments.

Carson McCullers lived in the February House

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