Black-hearted heroes and why women fall for them

Yes, literature is full of them, isn't it - those black-hearted men, those anti-heroes that female characters and women readers find irresistible. They don't have to be murderers like my own personal teenage favourite, Maxim de Winter in Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca.

And they don't have to be sadists like Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, or control freaks with a dark secret, like Rochester in Jane Eyre - what did those Bronte sisters think of men, really, one always wonders. They can just be cold and sneering like Darcy in Pride and Prejudice (and incidentally, Laurence Olivier played three of these four roles in his lifetime, making him pretty much the go-to guy for smouldering sadism). They can even be comically nasty like Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of....and there we are, raiding bookshops by the crowd, screaming with lust for them all.

It's amazing that that's all they need to be to have women swooning over them. A touch of the unapproachable; a reinforced shell that can never be penetrated. With a hint of nastiness - hanging a pet dog, for instance (which for me would out-do anything the feeble Christian Grey could come up with). What they also have in common, though, and this is crucial, is a lack of an interior life. We know these men only through the women cast opposite them. It's the girl in Rebecca who depicts Max for us; we see Heathcliff as he appears to others (we don't even know what kind of life he had as a child before the Earnshaws took him into their home, although countless stories have speculated on it). Rochester is viewed only ever through Jane's eyes, and the same goes for Darcy with Elizabeth Bennett. The staple rule for a romance hero is that his inner life must never be revealed. You might suggest an inner life at the absolute most, but you better not reveal it.

Why should this formula work so well? Angel Clare in Tess of the d'Urbervilles has an inner life - most of Hardy's 'heroes' have them. And guess what - we don't rate Angel as a hero at all, he's judged scarcely better in the end than the rapist Alec d'Urberville. Women readers don't swoon over Swann in Proust, and they don't cry out for Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment either. Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome doesn't provoke sighs of desire, and neither does David Copperfield. What they all keeping us from them is an inner life, of course - we get to see what they're thinking, how they're feeling. It's not a question of seeing their vulnerabilities - Heathcliff has those by the bucket-load, and so does Rochester. It's more a matter of being inside their heads. Access to the inner life, it would seem, thoroughly spoils romance.

Which is quite a problem for an author if he or she wants to depict a male character who isn't one-dimensionally good or bad, but who wants the reader to connect, possibly even romantically but certainly emotionally, with that individual. Modernism didn't help us much - nobody wants to 'be' Leopold Bloom, far less connect with him romantically; maybe Mellors in Lady Chatterley's Lover had a chance but then, we don't get inside his head for him to be the fully three-dimensional character we need him to be. And when it does come to three-dimensional - well, Tetjiens in Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End fits the latter bill certainly. But though we might feel sympathy for him, even frustration at times, as a romantic hero, he falls far short. we just see too much inside his head. Contemporary 'heroes' are even worse - we're forever inside their heads and what we see there is usually pretty undesirable.

So is desire at an end with the contemporary literary 'hero'/'anti-hero', relegated only to one-dimensional romances or historical novels that can gaze back at a glamorous and more unknowable past?   I was pondering this because I faced the dilemma with my own male lead in Unfashioned Creatures. Alexander Balfour wants to make his name in the new 'science' of psychiatry but he's from a troubled background himself. He's selfish and manipulative, he lies and he corrupts people, especially women. So far so good in the 'black-hearted hero' stakes. But I wanted him to be someone that readers could emotionally connect with, and whose inner life they had access to as well - is such a thing possible? I've been racking my brains trying to find a 'hero' in literature who might appeal to me, for all his evil ways, and whose inner life I feel I know. It's not easy to find, and it's even harder to create - the two impulses war against each other. the best I could do was to make my highly fallible anti-hero a hero on two occasions, when he rescues one young girl from a fire she has set herself (thank you, Jane Eyre), and my heroine from the clutches of another man. Balfour is highly flawed but he is capable of moments of heroism - will that be enough to make readers care about him?

I don't know. I do know that as I've gotten older, the need for a 'hero' in my reading has lessened, and the desire for a sympathetic figure whose inner life I have access to has increased. But sometimes, I do occasionally miss those inaccessible brutes who were capable, nevertheless, of making us love them, however misguidedly.               



  1. I seriously wonder about the inner life of anyone these days - their outer ones are so busy and pressed for time. Men seem especially vacant interiorly as their outer lives are filled with making money at absolutely unimportant things, all connected with commerce, defense or buttons or such. I am 73 and have lived with at least 5 men and had dozens of lovers - most of whom were well educated and successful. None had an interior life IMHO that could hold a candle to mine. Just my thoughts --


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