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Why do heroines have to be beautiful?

Julie Christie as Bathsheba Everdene in Far from the Madding Crowd. Vic/Appia/Kobal/Shutterstock

Why are the heroines of novels always beautiful, asks Lucinda Rosenfeld in Literary Hub. Anna Karenina, Far from the Madding Crowd, Madame Bovary, Emma – I could go on. Perhaps the most famous exception is Jane Eyre, whose protagonist is “visually unremarkable”. “Tastes mostly differ,” Jane tells her love interest, Mr Rochester; “beauty is of little consequence”. He is appalled by the idea.

And this is not just an old-fashioned phenomenon. Look at the bestselling novel of 2020, Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing. Its wild-child heroine, who “is understood to have raised herself in a swamp”, is still very pretty – all “full lips” and “sharp cheekbones”. A cynic might tell you that our modern literary obsession with looks is simply a product of economics. These days, most novelists “not so secretly” write in the hope that their books will be turned into films. And Hollywood “does not make a speciality of homely or heavy-set actors”. But I suspect it goes deeper than this. Really, authors know how much society values good-looking people – and they write accordingly. It’s a shame. Given beauty is of consequence, plain characters can be the most interesting ones. Sometimes I’d like to read about a heroine who “does not instantly render men speechless”. Her inner life would be richer for it.