‘Make your nasty characters ten times nastier,’ advised the creative writing tutor. ‘Readers want strong definition so exaggerate the light and dark.’
She had a point. Even if you aren’t writing crime novels, it’s no good running away from the evil side of human nature. But it’s July 18th, the day that Jane Austen died 201 years ago, and I found myself remembering the careful subtlety of the unpleasant characters in her novels, such as Mrs Ferrars, Lucy Steele, General Tilney, Mrs Norris. Jane Austen never goes over the top.
If asked who we hate most, many of us would probably opt for Mrs Norris, the horrible aunt in Mansfield Park, because of the way she bullies Fanny Price, the terrified little girl taken away from her own family and Portsmouth home to live with her grand relations. Her vindictive spite continues to find fresh expression in the years that follow, but it’s the abuse of a defenceless child that we can’t forgive. Mrs Norris is both loathsome and entirely convincing: we know her. If Jane Austen had overdone Mrs Norris’ awfulness, she might have slid into a caricature and become less real.
Re-reading Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, I could see the same elegant restraint in the portrayal of the corrupt and manipulative Gilbert Osmond. We shiver because we see the trap Isabel has walked into, but it is not until chapter 42 that we know what she is suffering: ‘… it was as if Osmond deliberately, almost malignantly, had put the lights out one by one … under all his culture, his cleverness, his amenity, under his good-nature, his facility, his knowledge of life, his egotism lay hidden like a serpent in a bank of flowers.’ Her real offence ‘was her having a mind of her own at all. Her mind was to be his – attached to his own …’
In my mind, Gilbert Osmond and the sadistic, chilling Henleigh Mallinger Grandcourt, husband of Gwendolen in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (described in the ninevoices post Emotional abuse from a monster husband – and a complex fascinating heroine) now tie for first place as the most hateful men in literature, while Mrs Norris is still without a serious female rival. But this is perhaps from a sheltered and limited viewpoint. What other fictional characters do we fear and hate?