Over the years my heroines’ bolshy behaviour has led to conflict as I’ve resisted attempts made by long-suffering editors to make my female protagonists nicer. It’s not just that I think in fiction, nice is generally a bit dull (how many times have you re-read POLLYANNA?), it’s that I’m steeped in the classics and know niceness is not necessary; that many a book has stood the test of time despite the heroine’s lack of social skills.
Let’s face it, Jane Eyre is not exactly Miss Congeniality. And I'm surely not the only one who’d like to slap Emma Woodhouse. Cathy Earnshaw is a minx at best, demon at worst. Becky Sharp, Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Scarlett O'Hara, Tess D'Urberville - none of them would have made Head Girl. Even everyone’s favourite, Elizabeth Bennet, is tricky. At a time when marrying for love was a fanciful and uneconomic notion, turning down Collins' and Darcy's marriage proposals was selfish and would rebound disastrously on her large and impecunious family. But we love her anyway.
It’s not that publishers see themselves as moral arbiters, rather they’re convinced that readers won’t like a woman who's less than perfect, and if they don’t like her, they won’t like the book.
|A LIFETIME BURNING|
In UNTYING THE KNOT the heroine, Fay has walked away from an unhappy marriage to her war hero husband and a casual sexual escapade has painful and messy consequences, but Fay's misdemeanours don't seem to have put readers off. The Kindle e-book has acquired eleven 5-star Amazon reviews since it was published in August. One of them says, "This book triggered all my emotions, it made me angry, made me sad, made me remember the hopelessness of lost love, the despair of divorce and the sickening hope and passion of reconciliation."
|Kindle e-book (£1.90/$2.99)|
I sometimes wonder how the Brontës’ novels might have fared in today’s slush piles. In an idle, possibly vengeful moment, I composed an imaginary rejection letter sent to an aspiring Charlotte Brontë. I tried to emulate the tone and content of the sort of helpful editorial feedback that many authors receive nowadays. The following might seem rather familiar to some of you...
Dear Ms Brontë
We enjoyed your manuscript JANE EYRE. You write well and most of your characters are believable, but I'm afraid we found your plot relentlessly downbeat and depressing. Does Helen Burns have to die? Does Rochester have to be blinded? A disfigured hero is not appealing and spoils your otherwise feel-good ending. We wondered whether superficial burns and a partial loss of sight would serve just as well?
We found Rochester himself problematic. He isn't likeable, nor is he physically attractive. He is wealthy (a point in his favour) but you fail to clarify whether or not Adèle is his illegitimate daughter. In short, we thought he just wasn't hero material.
Sadly, Jane herself is not very appealing as a heroine. She’s feisty, but physically unattractive and a little prissy. There's little for a female reader to identify with here. Something more upbeat is required for a romantic heroine. Readers might forgive Jane rejecting Rochester's immoral proposal, but to reject St John Rivers as well makes her look priggish and ungrateful.
You might want to think about demoting Rochester to a subplot and upgrading Rivers to main hero, perhaps dropping the unappealing religious aspect of his character. (No one loves a do-gooder.) You could then dispense with your frankly unconvincing plot device of Jane hearing Rochester call to her after the fire. (We don't think paranormal romance has a future.)
You write well and with passion, but JANE EYRE belongs to no clear genre and this would make it extremely difficult to market. Sorry not to be more encouraging, but in a fiercely competitive field, a romantic novel has to have stand-out qualities to be commercially viable.
Thank you for letting us read your manuscript.
A N Editor