A while ago I was kept waiting for an hour in a doctor’s surgery, and started leafing through a pre World War Two historical romance someone had left on the table.
Soon, I felt as if steam was about to burst from my ears. This would seem to have been the author’s intention, but in my case, it wasn’t because of the hero’s cynical, world-weary, supercilious look – rendered all the more telling by his heavy eyelids and ‘Devil’s eyebrows’ (I assume by this the author meant ones that taper upwards at the corners) – but because he was a rapist jerk. Not content with half throttling the heroine at one point, he also threatens to rape her on another two occasions. Despite this, she is happy to marry him at the end, though I couldn’t find so much as an apology from him for his little lapses in taste, save the implication that he usually saved such behaviour for ‘women of easy virtue’…
To be fair to this author, this book was written before World War 2, and even up to the nineteen-seventies the attitude towards rape was much more lenient than it generally is today, with the view taken that ‘it’s only a man’s nature, they can’t help it..
I’ll rant elsewhere about how disturbing it is that women should still be reading such romances and admitting to ‘rape fantasies’. Here, I wanted to comment on how I suspected the author felt obliged to stress this abuser’s physical assets because he was somewhat lacking in any other charm – was obliged to do so really, so that the harping on his appearance became dull rather than intriguing.
This leads me on to reflect on how difficult it is to strike a balance between boring the reader with too explicit descriptions of characters and frustrating her with not enough.
I do yawn through books which aren’t intended to be erotica but which have the hero’s ‘rippling torso’ stressed at every other page – fair enough, when he’s taking his shirt off, or if some aspect of the plot makes it necessary to stress that feature – but otherwise…
I remember reading another historical romance (I blame these doctor’s surgeries and periods of being snowed in when a youngster) where the heroine’s golden hair was mentioned several hundred times in the text.
Interestingly, classic writers are more sparing in their descriptions of their characters’ physical appearances. Jane Austen, that model of conciseness, gives us only the vaguest notion of Elizabeth Bennet’s looks.
We know that Darcy on first seeing her was ungallant enough to say that she is ‘tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me…I am in no mood to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men’ (Elizabeth has to sit out a dance). Ouch. No wonder she detests him for so long.
In the second half of the novel, Miss Bingley has a jealous outburst about Elizabeth’s appearance, during which she jeers at her ‘too thin’ face, her ‘sharp shrewish’ eyes and interestingly, uses the word ‘tolerable’ herself about her teeth, and sneers at the lack of ‘brilliance’ in her complexion (in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, a high colour was considered indispensable for either men or women, hence the rouging). She has already jeered at the sun tan Elizabeth has got traveling n the summer, so that ironically, through her spite, we end up with a more minute description of how Elizabeth looks than we otherwise would.
It seems to be Elizabeth’s misfortune to have her looks picked to pieces; earlier, Mr Darcy,now outraged at the attack on his idol, did just the same when he was eager to point out to his friends at Netherfield that she had no good features at all.
It’s a commonplace that Richardson was a great influence on Jane Austen and her concise novels are the greatest contrast to his wordy volumes. Therefore, it’s an irony that in fact Richardson’ doesn’t describe any of his characters save for an aside here and there .
We know that Clarissa is fair, and looks healthy until her decline (despite hardly eating) and we know that Lovelace has that much admired high colour and is tall above average. As he is an expert swordsman and survives nights spent pacing out in the frost covered grounds, scribbling love letters beneath his dripping periwig , we may assume he is very fit, but we know nothing of his hair and eye colour, or his features, and as he is meant to be outstandingly handsome, this does tease the reader.
This, if intentional, was a clever move on Richardson’s part. A character who has any element of mystery attached to him or her is the more intriguing.
In another, less well-known classic, ‘Sylvia’s Lovers) (here I go again, I know) we have the three main characters described in some detail. Sylvia Robson has chestnut hair and great grey eyes, a high colour until her heart is broken, when, rather like Clarissa, she becomes pale, and is fairly slim (by Victorian standards, that is, which wouldn’t be ours) and vigorous (I always maintain that if only she could have gone to sea herself, it would have suited her admirably and solved her problems).
Philip Hepburn and Charley Kinraid, the two rival lovers, are oddly like two halves of the same incomplete character, both physically and mentally, This is reflected in the fact that both are tall and dark, but while Philip Hepburn is drooping and out of condition, Kinraid is stalwart and athletic, Hepburn has drooping hair to match his character while the flashy sailor Kinraid’s curly hair is in ringlets, the one has a long, sad face with a long upper lip, the other a short, broad one with a sun tan, etc.
But, frustratingly, we never hear what the heiress the ‘fause’ Kinraid marries so soon after his dramatic parting with Sylvia looks like, merely that she is ‘very pretty’ and oddly, is described as a ‘joyous little bird of a woman’ (does this mean flashy plumage?). Whether Mrs Gaskell, who surprisingly, rarely edited her work and finished this novel in a rush, intended to go back and fill in this detail, we don’t know, but the whole effect makes one want to know more about this superficial heiress..
So, I really have no idea which is the best approach and try to aim for somewhere in the middle, myself (I may not succeed and I may have emphasized once too often that Aleks Sager has Pushkin’s wildly curly hair and piercing light blue eyes, or that Sophie is blonde and has a full hour glass figure, with a large bottom).
Like the issue of descriptions of places, those regarding physical descriptions of characters is complex. Everyone sees the same person differently, for instance, a fact that some writers seem at times to overlook. People can look strikingly different at different times depending on state of mind and health, etc – Mrs Gaskell is very good at depicting this and Jane Austen nearly as good – Richardson again provokingly vague.
Ah, an unknown visitor with drooping supercillious eyelids has just knocked at the door, hoping to sell life insurance specifically aimed at women. I could swear I’ve come across him somewhere before…