In the last few weeks, I’ve read two books, quite accidentally, with some similar themes. They were, The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy, and The Queen of Love, by Sabine Baring-Gould. The Constant Nymph was published in 1924, The Queen of Love was published in 1894, and I think the dates are important because the options for young ladies with complicated romances in their lives were pretty limited – you married them, or they ruined you, or you were forever alone.
Both novels feature a young lady who is wild and original and lives on her own terms and to her own standards. Both of these young women fail to please or appease the people around them, who are revealed as hypocrites by contrast. The young ladies are authentic, passionate, wholehearted and fundamentally good. The people who think ill of them are mean spirited, obsessed with social appearances, and oblivious to the true value of what’s in front of them.
In one of these books, the young lady dies. I won’t say which one, because it’s the only way I can talk about this and avoid spoilers. She dies, because there’s really no way out for her that allows her to remain true and good, aside from death. The girl who lives does so because there are some good people around her, not just the mean spirited hypocrites. The good people shelter her, and she is able to build on that. The girl who has no friends, has no options. They really are girls, too. One is fifteen by the end of the book, the other is seventeen during most of the action.
I think characters like these are ancestors of the manic pixie dream girl. They’re too good for this world, too pure of heart for the impure interpretations of those around them. All too often, people who create such characters cannot imagine a viable future for them, or a way of life in which they might get to be happy and secure. Tess of the D’Urbervilles is a similar figure – a woman who is inherently good in herself but betrayed by all the key people in her life. Mary Webb’s Gone to Earth offers another in the same vein.
Older books tend to punish fallen women by killing them. Women are not allowed to come out of love affairs unscathed – even the most innocent love affairs (with all due regard to The Mill on the Floss). Women who give too much of themselves and do not pay enough attention to social norms, are punished for it in much of our older literature. We seem to have replaced this wild, social misfit with new, similar figures who also have no future, and no imaginable life. They come into stories to shake men up, to re-enchant and re-inspire and then they slip away – they don’t die as often as they used to, certainly, but they do still die. And yes, I’m still angry about Bridge to Terabithia.
It makes a pleasant change to read an older novel in which a girl who is both wild and good, comes out on top in the end. The prejudice of those who judge her is revealed for what it is. The true virtues of the girl shine through, and she is not killed to protect the hypocrisy of people who consider themselves better than her. I wish there were more stories of this shape. I think these are stories we need, in which wild women are allowed to live on their own terms. Women who are allowed to be passionate, and sexual, and true to themselves, and who are not crushed by society for being as they are. Alongside that we need the room for actual women who are actually wild and unconforming and I know from firsthand experience how much judgement and prejudice remains in the world for women who don’t behave in just the right way.