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Beauty only "cover" deep
#1
I have been reading through the book reviews on this forum, and I notice dissatisfaction often expressed with gothic heroines. So often she can be enchantingly beautiful on the cover, but not much of anything substantial on the inside of the book.
What is it that causes an author to fail at engaging our interest in and our concern with a heroine? Any thoughts?
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#2
I don't care what the cover says about the heroine. Lots of times she doesn't look anything like it; it's just the lure for buyers to show a beautiful picture.
I actually like a plain Jane as heroine. She's sensible and just average looking. In Holt's books more often than not her hair is her one good quality. I want to think people like our heroine because of her character and not of her looks.
What I want most in a heroine is common sense. When she does stupid things, I don't feel like identifying with her anymore.
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#3
It is hard to sustain interest in a gothic heroine who is unbelievably illogical and unreasonable. I have encountered my fair share of these. We all have our off moments, but really!
Victoria Holt and the hair . . . . Yes, this consoled me as a teen reader, as I had this same opinion about myself. Smile
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#4
(08-03-2010, 08:27 AM)Charybdis Wrote: I actually like a plain Jane as heroine. She's sensible and just average looking. In Holt's books more often than not her hair is her one good quality. I want to think people like our heroine because of her character and not of her looks.

That's interesting. So often in Gothics I can't help a little smile for the false modesty of the narrator when she describes herself in first person. You know the sort of thing I mean: "I regarded the person in the looking-glass before me. She was perhaps a trifle too thin . . . " or "My mouth was perhaps a shade too full and generous to be considered classically beautiful. To my eternal annoyance it bespoke, to the stronger sex, of a sensual nature that did not exist." Hard not to read between such disingenuous lines. I always think, "Oh you poor thing."

Perhaps I'm way off? Maybe when the narrator says, "I felt a plain brown partridge beside Lady Peahen's polychromatic splendour," she could be really telling the truth. Yet often the heroine's "plainness" seems to have more to do with the quality of her clothing than her bone structure.

But don't get me wrong -- this is the charm of the genre. I wouldn't have it any other way. (I've read some Gothics in which the heroine describes her own gorgeousness in no uncertain terms, and it's offputting. We don't like conceited protagonists; modesty, even false, is a much more charming trait.)
(08-03-2010, 03:32 PM)AliceChell Wrote: It is hard to sustain interest in a gothic heroine who is unbelievably illogical and unreasonable. I have encountered my fair share of these. We all have our off moments, but really!
Victoria Holt and the hair . . . . Yes, this consoled me as a teen reader, as I had this same opinion about myself. Smile

Ugh! TSTL (Too Stupid To Live) is my pet peeve. Obviously, the reader will catch on sooner than the heroine when the attempts start on her life. But when she still hasn't figured it out, after four heavy objects have mysteriously almost fallen on her, and she's feeling strangely drowsy after being served that cup of tea, and after everybody's convinced her that it wasn't a human hand that had tried to strangle her in her sleep but simply that she'd gotten tangled up in the bell-cord . . . if she still shrugs and says to herself, "Oh, I suppose it is all just a terrible coincidence," then my response is: Please, please let the next "accident" succeed!

Some authors handle this problem well -- that of keeping the protagonist in the dark convincingly, and long enough for the suspense to escalate.

I guess I don't mind the tradition (cliché?) of the hero showing up at the last moment and saving the heroine, but there has to be a really convincing reason why she can't save herself. If she tries to shoot the villain and manages to miss at point-blank range, well, she's TSTL.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is my long-winded way of saying what's already been said.
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#5
I find it interesting, Penfeather, that you see a heroine's self-deprecating comments as false modesty. I've always believed them. Since, so often, they're writing in first person, I feel that they are duty-bound to be honest with me ( I make an exception for the ones you call TSTL, they seem incapable of being honest with themselves!).
There are cases in which you are probably right, but I've found that most women are far more critical of their appearance than you might believe, even the pretty ones.
To change course a bit, I think that the way in which a gothic heroine comes to perceive her danger, as things begin to happen in the story, has to be adroitly handled by the writer. It can so easily ring a false note if her awareness of the intrigue and menace is rushed. It should dawn upon her gradually, but believably, with mounting horror and suspense!
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#6
(08-04-2010, 09:00 AM)AliceChell Wrote: I find it interesting, Penfeather, that you see a heroine's self-deprecating comments as false modesty. I've always believed them. Since, so often, they're writing in first person, I feel that they are duty-bound to be honest with me ( I make an exception for the ones you call TSTL, they seem incapable of being honest with themselves!).

It's my skeptical nature showing. My statement applies only certain books and authors. It's hard to make a case without presenting specific examples that strike me as disingenuous.

Of course, since the heroine is fictitious, the question is whether the author intended the reader to believe her self-appraisal or to read between the lines. We assume, usually, that the heroine is reasonably attractive. Sure, she may have a couple of flaws, but these are probably the sort of imperfections that lend her character and individuality. I prefer a minimum of self-description beyond the basics of hair color, eyes, a few distinguishing features. Part of the fun of reading a book is "casting" the dramatis personae with our imagination, and filling in the details ourselves.

The same applies to the hero. He too may have minor flaws -- a crooked smile, hollow cheeks, a romantic scar, an inch too much height (ha!) -- but I'm going to assume he looks more like Laurence Olivier than Danny DeVito.

(08-04-2010, 09:00 AM)AliceChell Wrote: I've found that most women are far more critical of their appearance than you might believe, even the pretty ones.

Aha! I hadn't really considered this. I suppose it would also be in keeping with the heroine's progress from an innocent ingenue to a woman who has had one or two illusions broken.

This is very interesting psychologically. I'm fascinated by how other readers' experiences differ from my own. Since I can't read the author's mind, I'm probably projecting my own thinking patterns -- something that can't be avoided completely when reading.

(08-02-2010, 09:15 PM)AliceChell Wrote: So often she can be enchantingly beautiful on the cover, but not much of anything substantial on the inside of the book.

To address this other idea in your post, yes! It's often obvious when the cover artist has not bothered to find out what the heroine looks like. It's also possible that stock covers were used for novels (or reused from earlier ones). This is not unheard-of in the publishing world. The editors figured, "Well, there's a young lady running from a creepy house with one light on upstairs -- good enough!"

I've also noticed that a lot of the heroines on the covers of Gothics published in the late 1960s looked strikingly like Barbara Steele:

http://content6.flixster.com/photo/94/92...68_tml.jpg

She was the movie queen of Gothic thrillers (Black Sunday, etc.), so go figure.
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#7
Thanks for stating your impressions so clearly. It was fun to read them!
I, too, prefer a minimal amount of physical description, just enough to give one the sense of the person described. I have to admit, though, that the picture on the cover colors my perception strongly. If she's a short brunette on the cover, but a statuesque redhead on the inside (this has happened!), I tend to retain the impression of the former in my mind.

On another note, I would like to offer a few thoughts on the question that started this thread. Thoughts not necessarily connected.
1) To state the obvious, it takes a good writer to create a good heroine and a great writer to create a great one. Since many gothic heroines are not fortunate enough to be in the hands of such a one, the portrayal of their character obviously suffers.
2) In the best stories of any genre the author takes pains to present his characters to the reader with deft and unique touches that delineate the characters and draw us into the story.
3) A truly good gothic romance writer endears the heroine to us through the portrayal of her intelligence and integrity. The more winsomely this is done, the more memorable she will be.
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