Three Heroines

Three Heroines: An Appreciation

Tom Jones’ Sophia was the most famous avowed heroine in the 18th century. Heroines were equally common in the 19th century, but a creeping realism prevented authors from the term. Though the term does not appear in the stories of Fanny Price (Mansfield Park), Jane Eyre (Jane Eyre), and Esther Summerson (Bleak House), they are heroines in my eyes.

Nineteenth century heroines, unlike Sophia, were not gorgeous and statuesque. Sophia’s “black eyes had a lustre in them, which all her softness could not extinguish. Her nose was exactly regular… Her chin had certainly its share in forming the beauty of her face… Her neck was long and finely turned.”

Our three heroines are rather different. Jane Eyre thinks of herself as plain and little.

It was not my habit to be disregardful of appearance, or careless of the impression I made; on the contrary, I ever wished to look as well as I could, and to please as much as my want of beauty would permit. I sometimes regretted that I was not handsomer: I sometimes wished to have rosy cheeks, a straight nose, and small cherry mouth: I desired to be tall, stately, and finely developed in figure; I felt it a misfortune that I was so little, so pale, and had features so irregular and so marked….”

But it is characteristic of heroines that they don’t succumb to adversity.

However, when I had brushed my hair very smooth, and put on my black frock—which, Quaker-like as it was, at least had the merit of fitting to a nicety—and adjusted my clean white tucker, I thought I should do respectably enough ….

Esther Summerson feels the same. Upon coming into John Jarndyce’s mansion known as Bleak House as the companion for Ada, Jarndyce appointed Esther housekeeper.

Every part of the house was in such order, and everyone was so attentive to me, that I had no trouble with my two bunches of keys: though what with trying to remember the contents of each little storeroom drawer, and cupboard; and what with making notes on a slate about jams, and pickles, and preserves, and bottles, and glass, and china, and a great many other things; and what with being generally a methodical, old-maidish sort of foolish little person….

Fanny Price likewise made herself useful, though she was never in service. She read to her aunt, fetched books, and delivered messages. She also saw herself as a little foolish person. Like the other heroines, she felt inconsequential. Upon hearing she is to move from Mansfield Park to the white house across the park where Aunt Norris lives, she wails that she wishes to remain at Mansfield Park. She could never be important anywhere else because everything “—my situation—my foolishness and awkwardness” would conspire to prevent her happiness. Fanny “thought too lowly of her own situation to imagine she should ever be admitted to …her cousins’ gaieties….”

Yet it must also be admitted that our heroines are lucky. All three of these heroines are orphans whose good luck launched their life and their story. Yet, like Pauline avoiding her perils, heroines have narrow escapes. Jane Eyre narrowly escaped marrying the already married Mr. Rochester; Fanny Price narrowly escaped marrying the unprincipled Henry Crawford, and Esther Summerson luckily does not have to marry her very good guardian.

Good luck is the subject of the first line in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Without luck there would be no story, but, equally, without the heroines personal qualities their stories would have ended too soon. Sir Edward Bertram of Mansfield Park adopted his niece from the deplorable atmosphere of her Portsmouth family. Fanny Price was not to be raised at Mansfield Park to become a wife for the younger son Edward. She knows that. Yet, she also knows what a good person Edward is, and she falls in love with him.

Jane Eyre’s luck gives her an aunt to raise her, an escape from the plague that ravages Lowood School, and a remarkable job as a tutor to Mr. Edward Rochester’s ward. She learns of the reckless unprincipled past life of Mr. Rochester and vows to keep him at a distance. Though she finally agrees to marry him, when his wife is revealed, Jane resolutely rejects Rochester, in spite of his endless avowals of love. Yet, her persistence and good qualities, not to mention a lucky inheritance, give her the opportunity to return and save Mr. Rochester.

Esther Summerson lands in Bleak House, a great mansion owned by her guardian Mr. John Jarndyce. She comes as a servant, but her qualities soon lead her guardian to propose the unthinkable, that he should marry her. She knows better, but she feels her obligation to her truly good guardian outweighs her sentiments, which have turned to a young doctor, Mr. Allan Woodcourt. Mr. Jarndyce, being good himself, sees his error and gives Esther up to the doctor as the book closes.

Neither luck nor appearance make a heroine. “Self-knowledge, generosity, and humility” make a heroine. To these Austen added elsewhere insight, persistence and energy. Happily for us the readers, if not for the heroines, an inadmissible desire alloys their good qualities. They are heroines because they are able to manage their desires. This is a result of their understanding of power and their clear thinking.

            Heroines are experienced in the use of power, a skill once too little acknowledged by the male sex. Jane Eyre mocks Rochester as he attempts to seduce her by ignoring her feelings. But she does not fall for his badinage, she asserts that she will not “coax and entreat …for the sake of a mere essay of my power….” Soon after Rochester proposes a shopping trip to Millcote for her new wedding clothes. His grim determination to make the trip over Jane’s objections lead her to worry that she had “half lost the sense of power over him.” Yet, Jane’s different power is revealed in the climactic scene between Rochester and Jane the day after the failed wedding. Rochester has just heard of Jane’s proposed departure. He goes into a frenzy. Jane writes, “But I was not afraid: not in the least. I felt an inward power; a sense of influence, which supported me.” She then maneuvered as befits the weaker sex, speaking soothingly, and then finally letting her tears fall, because she knew it would irritate or repulse Rochester. After “he was subdued…I, in my turn, became calm.” Rochester then posed the false antithesis to Jane. She, by rejecting him, has condemned him to a life of sin and folly, to which she coolly replies, “Mr. Rochester, I no more assign this fate to you than I grasp at it for myself. We were born to strive and endure—you as well as I: do so.”

Jane Eyre is tough. She has felt an obligation to visit her dying hateful aunt. The aunt’s two daughters likewise suffer from mental imbalances. The ailment of one was laziness. As Jane is preparing Georgiana’s trunks for shipping to London, she murmurs to herself:

If you and I were destined to live always together, cousin, we would commence matters on a different footing. I should not settle tamely down into being the forbearing party; I should assign you your share of labour, and compel you to accomplish it, or else it should be left undone: I should insist, also, on your keeping some of those drawling, half-insincere complaints hushed in your own breast. It is only because our connexion happens to be very transitory, and comes at a peculiarly mournful season, that I consent thus to render it so patient and compliant on my part.

Surprisingly, the term “power” raises its head in Mansfield Park.           

Now Fanny could not bring herself to speak, and Miss Crawford was disappointed; for she had hoped to hear some pleasant assurance of her power from one who she thought must know, and her spirits were clouded again.

Full well could Fanny guess where his thoughts were now: Miss Crawford's power was all returning. He had been speaking of her cheerfully from the hour of his coming home. His avoiding her was quite at an end. He had dined at the Parsonage only the preceding day.

Why, Fanny, you are absolutely in a reverie. Thinking, I hope, of one who is always thinking of you. Oh! that I could transport you for a short time into our circle in town, that you might understand how your power over Henry is thought of there! 

The term “power,” as in the power of a woman over a man, does not appear in Bleak House. Esther was never faced with romantic opposition. Yet, of course, Esther must exercise power. When guardian Jahndyce proposes to make her the mistress of Bleak House, she steps back and says she will write him a response next week. She was not to be rushed into anything. Though Mr. Woodcourt keeps popping up, it is clear that Esther manipulates to have him on the scene.

I have forgotten to mention—at least I have not mentioned—that Mr. Woodcourt was the same dark young surgeon whom we had met at Mr. Badger's.  Or that Mr. Jarndyce invited him to dinner that day.  Or that he came.  Or that when they were all gone and I said to Ada, "Now, my darling, let us have a little talk about Richard!"  Ada laughed and said—

But I don't think it matters what my darling said.  She was always merry.

Later a shortage of income forces Mr. Woodcourt to embark for India, a trip Esther repeatedly refers to as a long, long trip. But as he departs he left behind a bouquet for Esther.

Let the pretty little things lie here," said Caddy, adjusting them with a careful hand, "because I was present myself, and I shouldn't wonder if somebody left them on purpose!"

"Do they look like that sort of thing?" said Ada, coming laughingly behind me and clasping me merrily round the waist.  "Oh, yes, indeed they do, Dame Durden!  They look very, very like that sort of thing.  Oh, very like it indeed, my dear!"

So others see Esther’s power at work, even if Esther is unwilling to acknowledge it.

            Yet the real interest in this comparison is the similarity in tone amongst the heroines. They speak in crystalline and concise phrases that betray that inner quality of mind that so enchants their patrons, and ultimately their lovers.

It is a pity, cried Fanny, that the custom [of daily chapel] should have been discontinued. It was a valuable part of former times. There is something in a chapel and chaplain so much in character with a great house, with one's ideas of what such a household should be! A whole family assembling regularly for the purpose of prayer is fine!

The intrinsic quality of this profession is its sincerity and its disregard for the common opinion of whatever group she may be part of. The heroine explodes with words when the truth is called for.

Oh! shame, shame! But never mind it, William (her own cheeks in a glow of indignation as she spoke). It is not worth minding. It is no reflection on you; it is no more than what the greatest admirals have all experienced, more or less, in their time. You must think of that, you must try to make up your mind to it as one of the hardships which fall to every sailor's share, like bad weather and hard living, only with this advantage, that there will be an end to it, that there will come a time when you will have nothing of that sort to endure. When you are a lieutenant! only think, William, when you are a lieutenant, how little you will care for any nonsense of this kind.

The same tone pervades Esther Summerson’s language. One of the comedic characters in the novel is Prince’s father, old Mr. Turveydrop, the model of Deportment. Esther lapses into mild sarcasm describing the father who “presently passed us on the other side of the street, on his way to the aristocratic part of the town, where he was going to show himself among the few other gentlemen left.” Esther later notes, a propos of the French maid approaching Esther for a job, “No excuse is necessary…if you wish to speak to me.” A heroine is always democratic.

As we have already seen, Jane Eyre is also a blunt and clear speaker. She explained to St. John that he does love Miss Oliver. St. John was surprised that a woman would speak to him in such a way.

He had not imagined that a woman would dare to speak so to a man. For me, I felt at home in this sort of discourse. I could never rest in communication with strong, discreet, and refined minds, whether male or female, till I had passed the outworks of conventional reserve, and crossed the threshold of confidence, and won a place by their heart’s very hearthstone.

The heroine does not operate at the superficial level when in the presence of powerful adversaries. She plunges in to find the inner value of her collocutor.

Heroines keep men at a distance. Passion there is, but only in their hearts, never in their actions. Esther Summerson’s most daring act was to save the bouquet that Allen gave her on his departure for the Far East. Fanny Price kept Henry Crawford at a distance after he fatally compromised himself with the two sisters. All of his arts and allies could not wear her down. Jane Eyre forcefully stood down Rochester. Heroines do not spend a lot of time worrying about love. Fanny Price and Jane Eyre eventually, but only eventually, admit to themselves that they love Edward and Mr. Rochester. Early on Esther Summerson is in love with Dr. Woodcourt, but she suppresses the feeling out of kindness to her guardian who all can see wishes to marry Esther. 

Heroines know that men’s love is mostly very temporary. They think very little of the persistence of love in a man. Jane Eyre writes, “I suppose your love will effervesce in six months or less. I have observed in books written by men, that period assigned as the furthest to which a husband’s ardour extends.” Later in the climactic scene, she tells Rochester, “You will forget me before I forget you.” This language is similar to Anne Eliot’s side of the overheard conversation in Persuasion, “she answered the question, smiling also, ‘Yes. We certainly do not forget you as soon as you forget us.’” Fanny Price recognizes this problem in Henry Crawford and it is his fatal flaw. Esther Summerson coyly avoids the issue in that she never acknowledges or doubts Dr. Woodcourt’s attachment.

Where do the heroines end up? Well, Jane married a baronet, albeit one whose house has been destroyed along with most of his wealth. Fanny married the younger son of a baronet, and lived happily ever after at Mansfield Park. Esther Summerson, the daughter of a baroness, married squarely in the middle class to a doctor with a charming cottage. Good things happen to those who would be heroines.