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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Any other plain Janes?

Among Charlotte Bronte's claim to fame is her success in going against the grain of beautiful heroines. While her juvenilia did feature the standard beautiful type, in her two most popular novels, Jane Eyre and Villette, (The Professor also features a small and plain heroine, though she is not the central character of the book and is not as well delineated as her later heroines) her heroines fascinate based on what's inside rather than what's outside. They proved her capable of what she promised her sisters, " I will show you a heroine as plain and as small as myself, who shall be as interesting as any of yours." 

I was thinking about this now because it seems to me that literature (and films or television adaptions) are still peopled by beautiful heroines. If the girl was born plain, all she has to do is get the right dress, hair style, and makeup (perhaps also eyebrow shaping) to appear as the beauty she was meant to be.  Typically the one who appears mousy just sheds her glasses, shakes out her hair and gets the right dress to get noticed. 

In contrast, Jane Eyre resists that convention of the ugly duckling blossoming into a swan. When Rochester attempts to buy her gorgeous gowns and jewels, she does not feel the elation that girls typically exhibit when donning such lovely things. Instead, she feels her cheeks burn.  

There is also an interesting take on dressing up in  for Lucy Snowe, the heroine of Villette.  Normally, she dresses in shadowy colors and stays in the background, but on one night she dares to wear pink and spots herself in the mirror as if she had come upon a stranger. But the dress (italicized for the central role it plays in so many Cinderella type stories) does not win her the attention of the man she adores who is smitten by a superficial beauty until he turns his attention to another whose beauty is less showy but is still distinguished from the plainness of the heroine. 

I'm wondering: do any other novel achieve a heroine who does manage to captivate someone in a romantic sense even though she remains  plain?