A man in a railway carriage, driven to desperation by noisy small children around him being unsuccessfully entertained by their unimaginative and strait-laced aunt, shuts them up with a story about a little girl called Bertha.
‘Was she pretty?’ asked the bigger of the small girls.
‘Not as pretty as any of you,’ said the bachelor, ‘but she was horribly good.’
There was a wave of reaction in favour of the story; the word horrible in connection with goodness was a novelty that commended itself. It seemed to introduce a ring of truth that was absent from the aunt’s tales of infant life. (from Saki’s The Story-Teller)
It looks as if adults don’t like heroines who are ‘good’ any more than children do. In modern fiction it’s difficult to think of more than a handful of heroines we might describe using the word. Is this because we no longer look to fiction for moral guidance or inspiration in the way that people once did?
This might help explain why Fanny Price is Jane Austen’s least popular heroine; she hasn’t aged well. Patience and gentleness and a faithful loving heart combined with strong principles were enough in a heroine at the time Jane Austen was writing Mansfield Park, but modern readers often find Fanny’s passivity spineless and her virtue irritating. They prefer the amusing and witty Mary Crawford, who takes active steps to get what she wants.
It may be that readers often dislike Fanny because she comes across as naturally good – and therefore difficult to identify with. There might even be a sense in which she shows us up, and we don’t like that either. She doesn’t make mistakes about people or find herself initially attracted to a dodgy man, like Elizabeth Bennet does. Elizabeth is morally upright, but she combines virtue with a sense of fun, dawning self-knowledge and awareness of her own errors of judgment; it’s not surprising that many people say she’s their favourite Jane Austen heroine.
I can’t think of a Fanny type heroine in modern fiction – and if a new author tried having one in a novel, agents would probably advise making them less wet. So is it that we don’t want heroines to be any more ‘good’ than we know ourselves to be?
Or can modern writers get away with a ‘good’ heroine if enough of their moral vacillation is shown? Maybe this is the problem with Fanny. Secret suffering and standing up for principles in silence: what’s the interest in that? But if a heroine is seen to struggle with moral choices, between right and wrong and the muddle between them, and then act on her decisions, her goodness is not the passive quality that we are warned to avoid when writing a novel.