Heroines

The article is based in part on one of the Ewing Lectures given by Mr. Kazin at U.C.L.A.

Henry James in an early travel note—“…a certain habitual assurance which is only a grace the more. She combines…all that is possible in the way of modesty with all that is delightful in the way of facility.” He said of her in The Ambassadors

…by a turn of hand she had somehow made their encounter a relation. And the relation profited by a mass of things that were not strictly in it or of it; by the very air in which they sat, by the high cold delicate room, by the world outside and the little plash in the court, by the First Empire and the relics in the stiff cabinets, by matters as far off as those and by others as near as the unbroken clasp of her hands in her lap and the look her expression had of being most natural when her eyes were most fixed.

George Eliot called her the frail vessel that carries the inestimable treasure of the world’s affection. Flaubert, in a lyric passage that characteristically violates his determination in Madame Bovary to show life as banal, says that

Once, during a thaw, the moisture was oozing out of the trees in the courtyard, the snow melting on the roofs of the outbuildings. She was on the threshold; she went to look for her parasol; she opened it. The parasol, of silk colored like a pigeon’s breast and pierced by the sunlight, lit up with shifting reflections the white skin of her face. She smiled beneath it at the damp heat, and the drops of water could be heard falling, one by one, upon the stretched silk.

Tolstoy described her as a round smiling woman whose very way of walking created a bond between people looking at her. Dostoevsky has her trying to take all the anguish of a murderer’s soul into her own. Dreiser has her say to the man who has been keeping her for years—

He said that if you married me you would only get ten thousand a year. That if you didn’t and still lived with me you would get nothing at all. If you would leave me, or I would leave you, you would get all of a million and a half. Don’t you think you had better leave me now?

Colette has her say—“One night I dreamt that I did not love, and that night, released from all bonds, I lay as though in a kind of soothing death.”

She” is not merely Anna or Natasha or Isabel or Mme. de Vionnet, but The Heroine—a figure who in so many of the Western novels that we know stands for a unique presence that composes and socializes our existence. She is first of all, of course, The Beloved, so long cherished that she has become the idea of what is cherishable. She is the object of so much striving and longing that she is the greatest possible symbol in …

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Letters

Women Writers Are People June 3, 1971