Saturday, March 16, 2013

Part 3: Stronger and Badder: Gone with the Wind and Vanity Fair

I know my choices for “strong young women” are a bit quirky. Where is Jane Eyre? Where is Elizabeth Bennet? What about Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Nancy Drew, and Lisbeth Salander? Sorry. My choices are based on the characters who, once upon a time, for reasons not always sensible or clear, made a permanent impression on me. Today, I’m writing about a couple of self-absorbed, prideful, duplicitous, not-altogether-admirable characters: Scarlett O’Hara and Becky Sharp. 

Most of us know Vivian Leigh’s version of Scarlett O’Hara from the film version of “Gone with the Wind.” It is a pretty good movie if you can overlook the politics, and remarkably watchable for a film that is nearly eighty years old. (I have not read the book.) We meet Scarlett at age sixteen, and four hours later we take our leave of her at age twenty-eight. The pacing is briskly modern—there are no dead spots. It’s much better in that respect than, say, “The Hobbit.” (Hobbit fans: It’s just my opinion. Don’t hurt me.)

As the story opens, Scarlett comes across as all Vs: vacuous, vain, vivacious, vampish, and venal, and she never really redeems herself, although we come to care about her a great deal. The other main character, Rhett Butler, is a gambling, whoring, hard-drinking rogue. We like him better, but care about him less. We easily forgive Rhett his excesses because he loves Scarlett. But we are in awe of Scarlett.

When I first saw GWTW at age twelve, I was mesmerized by the spectacle and the grandness of the story. Rhett was a charming ne’er-do-well, and I wanted to be him. Scarlett was a force of nature—as beautiful and dangerous as a Bengal tiger. I think that dynamic stuck in my head; I still find echoes of it in my books.

Before Scarlett O’Hara, there was Becky Sharp, the anti-hero of William Makepeace Thackerey’s 1848 novel Vanity Fair. Becky Sharp, after graduating from Miss Pinkerton's Academy for Young Ladies, becomes a thief, a cheat, a bigamist, and eventually a murderess. Her sociopathic personality makes Scarlett look like a slacker. But again, we like her a whole lot better than we do the novel’s heroine, Amelia Sedley, Becky’s best friend—and victim.

I’m not sure why these characters have such appeal, or even why I’m discussing them along with Pippi Longstocking and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Certainly, neither Rebecca nor Pippi could grow up to become a Becky Sharp—they lack the bitterness and narcissism. The commonality of all these characters resides in their determination, optimism, and intelligence. Maybe that’s what appeals to me.

Speaking of strong young women (Commercial Message Alert!), the first three chapters of The Cydonian Pyramid are available as a free download for your ebook. Here are links for Sony, Kindle and Nook. I can’t find it it on iBooks or Smashwords.

Next up: Some Younger, 21st Century Women

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