|Far From The Maddening Crowd, Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2015|
The Sexy Female Protagonist ProblemIf you read my new book, Maud’s Line, you will probably deduce fairly quickly that I like heroines who take things into their own hands and do whatever has to be done. Scarlett O’Hara shaking her fist as she swears, “God as my witness, I’ll never be hungry again,” is one of my favorite fictional images. Likewise, Lila from Elena Ferrante’s, My Brilliant Friend, has a recklessness defiant attitude that I admire in a heroine. And one the most fully rounded characters of this same brand is Bathsheba Everdene, heroine of Thomas Hardy’s, Far from the Maddening Crowd. Bathsheba is head-strong and independent, or, as we would say if she were a man, fully human and yet admirable.
I don’t think it’s coincidental that all three of these characters, developed by novelists in three different centuries, are alluring to men. Sexuality, in my opinion, is a timeless and necessary ingredient for an interesting protagonist. However, in female characters we sometimes still see this as a flaw, whereas in male characters, unless they have a kinky drive they can’t control, we nearly always see it as a strength. So James Bond can bed whoever he wants, but woe be to a fictional female who enjoys her sexuality and gets away with it. Women, most often, have to pay the price -- even if they are relatively innocent. Think about Tess in the eponymous, Tess of the D’Urbervilles or Hester Prynne in The Scarlett Letter. Think about Fiona Maye in Ian McEwan’s newest novel, The Children Act.
The other alternative for a novelist who wants to write a strong female character who sticks in the imagination is to make her a child. I don’t think it’s by accident that so many of the females who have stood the test of time, particularly in American literature, are children. Think of Jo March in Little Women, Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, Dorothy Gale in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. By creating a girl protagonist, instead of one who is a grown woman, you can avoid the problem of either punishing her for her sexuality or not punishing her for it.
I can speak to this dilemma personally as the creator of Maud in Maud’s Line, a character who some have called a “magnetic,” but who others, in pre-publication reviews, have condemned for her wanton ways. The desire to punish a woman for her sexuality is still as alive and well as it was when Hawthorne made Hester an outcast. Since it is true that in real life women pay more for their sexuality than men pay for theirs, I don’t know that this problem will ever go away. I do hope, though, that novelists will give us more women who know what they want and try their best to get it. I prefer sexy ones, myself. They are more fun to write and, I hope, for most people, more fun to read.
About the book
Margaret Verble is the author of Maud’s Line, a historical novel chronicling the life and loves of a headstrong, earthy, and magnetic heroine (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, July 14). Eastern Oklahoma, 1928. Eighteen-year-old Maud Nail lives with her rogue father and sensitive brother on one of the allotments parceled out by the U.S. Government to the Cherokees when their land was confiscated for Oklahoma’s statehood. Maud’s days are filled with hard work and simple pleasures, but often marked by violence and tragedy, a fact that she accepts with determined practicality. Her prospects for a better life are slim, but when a newcomer with good looks and books rides down her section line, she takes notice. Soon she finds herself facing a series of high-stakes decisions that will determine her future and those of her loved ones. Maud’s Line is accessible, sensuous, and vivid. It will sit on the bookshelf alongside novels by Jim Harrison, Louise Erdrich, Sherman Alexie, and other beloved chroniclers of the American West and its people.
About the author
Margaret Verble is an enrolled and voting citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and a member of a large Cherokee family that has, through generations, made many contributions to the tribe’s history and survival. Although many of her family have remained in Oklahoma to this day, and some still own and farm the land on which the book is set, Margaret was raised in Nashville, Tennessee, and currently lives in Lexington, Kentucky, and Old Windsor, England. Many of the characters of Maud’s Line are based on people Margaret knew as a child and the setting is land she roamed for many years of her life. In part, Margaret wrote this book to keep those people and that land alive in her heart. Margaret has authored many academic publications and television scripts. Her short stories have appeared in various publications, including The Saturday Evening Post and the Arkansas Review.
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