How Melanie trumped Scarlett: The rise of the 'nice' girl in today's fiction

Melanie Wilkes was, of course, the self-sacrificing wife of flawed Southern gentleman Ashley in Margaret Mitchell's 1936 Pulitzer prize-winning bestseller, Gone with the Wind. Scarlett O'Hara, the selfish, scheming one who fancied herself in love with Ashley, was a great anti-heroine, full of bile and self-confidence. Everybody I know prefers naughty Scarlett. Nobody likes virtuous Melanie.

Before the 1960s, of course, the 'nice' girl in literature was exactly that - virtuous. It began with the 'father' of the novel, Samuel Richardson, in 1740, when he published Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded, the story of a serving maid pursued by her master. She rejected his advances repeatedly, resisting until he married her. Henry Fielding was so appalled by what he saw as the hypocrisy of her supposed 'virtue' that he wrote a rejoinder: Shamela ("An Apology for the life of Mrs Shamela Andrews. In which the many notorious falsehoods and misrepresentations of a book called Pamela are exposed and refuted..."). It didn't deter Richardson, though - in 1847 he wrote Clarissa, Or the History of a Young Lady, where Clarissa is less fortunate than Pamela in repelling her 'suitor' and dies after he rapes her. Both were best sellers.

Virtuous girls carried on in the form of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, where Fanny refuses the marriage offer of rake Henry Crawfurd (one Goodreads fan asks plaintively, 'why does everyone hate Fanny Price?':; saintly, beautiful Laura Fairlie in Collins' The Woman in White, about to marry a villain; Agnes in Dickens' David Copperfield, who waits till pathetic little Dora dies before she can marry her hero. Probably only Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, where Jane refuses to live as Rochester's mistress and leaves him, is the only really popular 'virtuous girl' with readers today, but she's also many other things.

These virtuous women can be plain or beautiful, they can be assertive or they can be dependent. But what they all have in common is that they are virtuous. That went out of fashion at the beginning of the twentieth century, the dawn of a new age of women's rights, and the 1960s' sexual revolution saw the end of the 'virtuous' heroine as the 'nice' girl, for good. But over the last couple of years, I've noticed a different kind of 'nice' girl creeping into a good deal of the literary fiction I've been reviewing, especially in literary fiction by women (I don't cover enough 'genre' fiction like crime or romance, to speak with any authority here). Publishers are ever keen for sympathetic heroines, it seems to me - they want women with whom female readers can identify. Understandably so, perhaps - the more people like a character, the more they're likely to recommend the book she appears in to a friend, and the greater the chance of that all-essential best-seller. Those of you who have ever had a publisher reject you because they didn't 'love' the cnetral character enough might have felt justifiably confused (do they have to 'love' her? Isn't good writing, a strong story and interesting characters enough to be able to sell a book?).

But what makes for such a 'sympathetic' heroine today, one with whom we can all identify? Sympathy increasingly means a new kind of 'nice', it seems. And that also means unambitious or psychologically straightforward or lacking in confidence or vulnerable or 'sweet'. These 'nice' heroines apologise for taking up so much space in the world, or giggle, embarrassed, as someone puts them down. They are fluffy and kind and gentle, or they are put-upon and sensitive. They almost always think themselves plain or unremarkable and yes, just like Melanie Wilkes, they are often self-sacrificing too. I shudder to think what a publisher today would say to Margaret Mitchell about Scarlett O'Hara. "Can't you make her a bit more...sympathetic?" perhaps....

Is this a bad thing? Is it bad for women to swamped with images of harmless, 'sympathetic', sweet girls? Even those who have a hint of naughtiness and rebellion about them seem to have been sweetened up by the end, or had their rebellion firmly corrected in other ways. There's something disingenuous about them, I can't help feeling, something not quite honest. I'm not saying that every published writer is a ball-breaking, Alpha-female but it takes some confidence and nerve to write in the first place, and to offer it to agents and publishers, never mind promote it and make it a success. So why portray a type of woman that you're not? Why portray an unambitious, simple sweet girl as your heroine, when you yourself are loaded down with awards or qualifications or life experience that suggest the opposite?

Perhaps it is all market forces, but I hope more of us can resist the Melanies and seek out the Scarletts instead, keep a bit of colour and difficulty and unlikeability in the world. One of my favourite literary heroines is the rather hirsute but always complex Marian Halcombe, of Wilkie Collins Woman in White. "...never was the fair promise of a lovely figure more strangely and startlingly belied by the face and head that crowned it. The lady's complexion was almost swarthy, and the dark down on her upper lip was almost a moustache. She had a large, firm, masculine mouth and jaw; prominent, piercing, resolute brown eyes; and thick, coal-black hair, growing unusually low down on her forehead. Her expression - bright, frank and intelligent - appeared..." Sympathetic? Not so much. Fascinating? Definitely!      


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