The Heroine of the Future


THE heroine of our choice has always been a more difficult creation than the hero. The pages of fiction are full of Mortons, Orvilles, Lydgates, Wentworths, Heldars, irresistible heroes every one, and yet how few of them have won such ladies as they deserve! Sir Walter mercifully draws the curtain over the prosaic sequel of Morton’s life. We hope that Lord Orville was amused for a year or two. We know the fate of Lydgate and of Dick Heldar. Captain Wentworth, it is true, won a rare prize, but Anne Elliots are few in fiction as in the world to-day.

If we except the lovely sisterhood of Shakespeare’s heroines whom any coward would die for, there are a scant score of women in English literature whose colors any one of us were proud to wear against all comers. Di Vernon, Dorothea Brooke, Elizabeth Bennet, Lady Castlewood, Katriona, and a dozen of their kin make up the sum. Our modern chivalry must have incentive. Our imagination must be aroused. For imagination is not dead, but sleeping. It slumbers soundly in the presence of the excellent Marcella, dozes in the face of Bathsheba Everdene, nods over Lord Ormont’s Aminta, and turns a deaf ear to the melodious voice of Glory Quayle. But let another Beatrix (oh that there could be another !) come tripping down the stair to meet us in a modern chapter, wearing in our honor her white shoes and her scarlet stockings, and imagination will start up hotly enough at her approach.

The heroine such as the imagination cherishes has disappeared from our literature. Her place is filled by intelligent young women of various types. They are preferably serious. Then their forte is religion and their foible philanthropy. They probe the questions of society and life, and become at once the subjects of conversation in serious drawing-rooms. But a heroine of this class is always subordinate in interest to her ideas. She is impersonal, or her personality is obscured by the bright halo of her intellect.

Or again, the young woman is anything but serious. She may, perhaps, figure in one of Mr. Anthony Hope’s romances. Surely she is not a heroine to touch the imagination. Our attention is riveted to the story. In the dovetailed succession of alarums, excursions, entrances, retreats, adventures, escapades, a few brisk words of love are our only key to the lady’s character. The swift lunge and parry of her speech amuse, but do not captivate. As we close the book, we are on no nearer terms with her than with some pretty actress when the curtain is rung down.

The heroine of to-day is most apt to be a dramatic character. The story is preferably tragic. With grim determination, the novelist stretches his reader on the rack, adjusts the thumbscrews, tightens the iron boots. The proof of the novel is in the pain it gives. With few exceptions, the plot is one of two or three established types. The “ inexpressive She ” is separated from her lover by the prejudices of caste, as in Mr. Caine, or by the intolerance of parents, as in Mr. Meredith. Or perhaps our story-tellers solve to their own satisfaction the problem so popular in the novels of France, and ring the changes upon “ Monsieur, Madame et l’autre,” as the French critics say. Here the psychologist has free range. Conditions and conclusion must be scientific, — no matter about the reader. The pathos of the story centres round the heroine. She is dramatic, passionate, intense. But it is not the intense, passionate, dramatic woman whom we commonly grow fond of in life. Why should she win us in books ? She may be interesting, touching, absorbing, but that is quite a different matter. Such cannot be the heroine of our choice. Were her complexities incarnate upon earth, as they may be in a galaxy of women, should we follow her ? Surely. Admire her ? Perhaps. Love her ? No, — a thousand times, no ! Her passion, beauty, and suffering might conspire to insure the aim,

“ But it’s innocence and modesty
That polishes the dart,”

and we are proof against her enmity.

Nothing is so elusive as feminine charm. Photograph it, and you will not find its counterfeit upon the plate. Print it in books, and your description is cold as the type that stamped the paper. Only a few great artists have succeeded in this most difficult of portraitures. Whether it be Jane Austen or Ivan Turguenieff who draws the picture, we love and are grateful.

That a novel without a heroine whom we delight to think of is imperfect, few will gainsay. In these days of novelwriting and novel-reading, it is interesting to notice how wide the author shoots of the difficult mark. Yet if the novelist holds up the mirror to life, great are his opportunities. Mr. Henry James, in a recent essay, comments upon the fresh field offered by the modern business man, “ whose song has still to be sung, and his portrait still to be painted.” This is most true, but how much vaster the province presented by the modern woman ! Away with the humdrum hackneyed models of the past! Away with the Priscillas of an outworn age ! Let every novelist set upon his marks, for surely his goal is within sight.

The progress of woman is evident on every hand. Far be it from us to belittle her advancing strides. Now, discarding the thwarting skirt, she climbs the Alps and lends a helping hand to the lagging mountaineer. Now we hear of her directing an army of sweepers and cleansing the Augean streets of Chicago. Now, scarcely pausing to vote, if we may trust the papers, she rushes to massmeetings and proposes to join the National Guard. If the existing uniform must be altered, more ’s the pity, but even so there will be something gained. Or again, she enters the quieter walks of life, and becomes a physician, lawyer, or mere clergywoman. If your novelist is still dissatisfied with these riches of material, let him turn for his heroine to the “ sweet girl-graduate.” Think of the plot of psychological problems which can be made to thicken about her! Armed from mortar-board to heel, she can meet the hero on his own ground, give him the choice of weapons, and beat him roundly.

Let the story-teller sweep the horizon with His literary glasses. Everywhere he will see the army of new women demanding recognition. Choice is invidious, but choose he must. Now at last he can find a heroine worthy of his novel. A novel, forsooth! Why, she would queen it in an epic, while former heroes flee to Dunciads!

These are auspicious times for the maker of heroines. Well may he look forward to the new century with confidence in the approaching consummation of his art. The development of the heroine will increase the scope of the plot. The seductive villain will be thrown on the defensive, and it is the hero who will be won. The new heroine will be masterful, accomplished, dazzling, if you will, but will she charm ? Will it be she whom the young men of the next generation will wish to dream of? Will her qualities go to make their ideals ? Will they reverse the novelist’s process, and run to seek her likeness through the world, or will they cling to the magic memory of the few lovely portraits they possess ?

The story-teller must pursue his destiny. He will sketch the world about him in flattery, caricature, or truth. What will be the heroine of his choice ?

“ An’ forward though I canna see,
I guess an’ fear.”