I think we have been affected most deeply by the tantalizing, misleading illusion of the self perfected through a resolution...


BECOMING A HEROINE: Reading About Women in Novels

I think we have been affected most deeply by the tantalizing, misleading illusion of the self perfected through a resolution of the female destiny--by the idea of becoming a heroine. The novels I discuss simultaneously embrace and anatomize this illusion."" Thus Brownstein (Brooklyn College) introduces this dense study, which mixes a few autobiographical reminiscences with a great deal of close-textual-analysis (only some of it firmly relevant) as it tries to illuminate the author/character/reader dynamics involved in British fiction's development of the notorious ""marriage plot."" Not surprisingly, Brownstein begins with Richardson's Clarissa, ""the spinach of heroines. . . served up for our own good"": she is an Exemplar who dies ""in order to assert the capacity and dispose"" the Self--thus ""becoming a heroine."" The Jane Austen discussion focuses most on Elizabeth of Pride and Prejudice, who, despite her mocking, is a traditional heroine: her ""marriage is the long-promised end to a perfectly made story, art not life."" Charlotte Bronte's Lucy in Villette, however, is a genuine reaction against the becoming-a-heroine ideal. (""To take a dim view of the heroine's body. . . is to begin to imagine a radically new kind of novel."") And Brownstein reads Meredith's The Egoist--with its heroine-like male lead--as a send-up/variation on the genre. So far, so good. But the use of the heroine imagery becomes strained as Brownstein moves into the more textured work of Eliot (Daniel Deronda), James (Isabel Archer is a heroine because ""she makes others experience her as one""), and Woolf (Mrs. Dalloway is ""a semisatirical self-portrait of the novelist as hostess and heroine""). And the chunks of purely academic analysis crop up more frequently here. Finally, though, Brownstein's central point (""The fiction of the heroine encourages aspiration and imposes limits"") emerges stylishly and emphatically, however ivory-tower-bound. (The nature of more broadly read heroine fiction is not addressed.) And knowledgeable, academically seasoned readers will be able to extract the fresher, more pointed critiques here from the stretches of fairly routine (occasionally belabored) close-textual analysis.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1982


Page Count: -

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1982