In a recent interview, says Jane Shilling in The Daily Telegraph, the screenwriter Andrew Davies decried the “monoculture” among heroines of current period TV dramas. “Strong” female characters are all the rage, he explained, to the near exclusion of less feisty types. Davies himself has had pitches for “frail, delicate, slightly soppy” female leads rebuffed by execs. It’s yet another example of our strangely anachronistic insistence that historical characters must all be “resilient, idiosyncratic and courageous” feminist types. And it fails to notice that often these frail and delicate creatures can be just as powerful as their “more assertive” sisters.
Take the “mousy narrator” of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, identified solely as the second Mrs de Winter. She’s often considered to be a “helpless pawn” – but the “real power”, so far as the reader is concerned, is hers, given the novel is written entirely from her perspective. Jane Austen’s Fanny Price and Anne Elliot are similarly “not assertive”, but their “apparent passivity” conceals an inner core of moral strength. And George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke may harbour a “romantic vision of herself” as the helpmeet of a great man, but her “capacity for self-delusion” is later magnificently transformed into self-knowledge. Sure, these characters might clash with our modern sensibilities. But they remind us that there’s still hope for the meeker among us. Some strength is “rooted in frailty”, and we need to hear those stories, too.