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Saturday, September 30, 2006


Speaking of Mary Sue . . .

. . . who here has read Silly Novels by Lady Novelists by George Eliot? It's a fascinating and funny essay about amateur-written novels produced in her day, when it would appear to have been much easier to get published because fewer people were trying it, resulting in some gosh-awful books of the kind we normally only see from vanity presses or posted online nowadays.

What she's talking about, basically, is Mary Sue. The really interesting thing is the similarities and differences. The character is identical, but the things she gets up to by way of being perfect are completely different. It's a great document of what a different age valued.

Here's a link to it.

Here's a description of our Sue:

The heroine is usually an heiress, probably a peeress in her own right, with perhaps a vicious baronet, an amiable duke, and an irresistible younger son of a marquis as lovers in the foreground, a clergyman and a poet sighing for her in the middle distance, and a crowd of undefined adorers dimly indicated beyond. Her eyes and her wit are both dazzling; her nose and her morals are alike free from any tendency to irregularity; she has a superb contralto and a superb intellect; she is perfectly well-dressed and perfectly religious; she dances like a sylph, and reads the Bible in the original tongues. Or it may be that the heroine is not an heiress -- that rank and wealth are the only things in which she is deficient; but she infallibly gets into high society, she has the triumph of refusing many matches and securing the best, and she wears some family jewels or other as a sort of crown of righteousness at the end. Rakish men either bite their lips in impotent confusion at her repartees, or are touched to penitence by her reproofs, which, on appropriate occasions, rise to a lofty strain of rhetoric; indeed, there is a general propensity in her to make speeches, and to rhapsodize at some length when she retires to her bedroom. In her recorded conversations she is amazingly eloquent, and in her unrecorded conversations, amazingly witty. She is under stood to have a depth of insight that looks through and through the shallow theories of philosophers, and her superior instincts are a sort of dial by which men have only to set their clocks and watches, and all will go well. The men play a very subordinate part by her side. You are consoled now and then by a hint that they have affairs [meaning business affairs, ahem], which keeps you in mind that the working-day business of the world is somehow being carried on, but ostensibly the final cause of their existence is that they may accompany the heroine on her "starring" expedition through life. They see her at a ball, and are dazzled; at a flower-show, and they are fascinated; on a riding excursion, and they are witched by her noble horsemanship; at church, and they are awed by the sweet solemnity of her demeanour. She is the ideal woman in feelings, faculties, and flounces.

Sounds awfully familiar, no? But the way that the heroine expresses herself is not by being kick-ass or sweetly charming; it's usually by being educated and/or religious. Here's a thought - being really powerful in our age and being properly educated in Eliot's are things that were just coming in enough that women could aspire to them, but were not yet widespread, and hence the subject of fantasies. Possible? And being charming in our age and religious in Eliot's are areas where it's expected that women can have some clout, hence it's predictable that unimaginative women would over-emphasise them to prove a heroine's virtue.

Some more interesting comments she makes:

Such stories as this of "The Enigma" remind us of the pictures clever children sometimes draw "out of their own head," where you will see a modern villa on the right, two knights in helmets fighting in the foreground, and a tiger grinning in a jungle on the left, and several objects being brought together because the artist thinks each pretty, and perhaps still more because he remembers seeing them in other pictures.

Rather a nice idea.

And something else she talks about: unconscious incompetence. There's a study done about it which wikipedia gives a precis of under the work 'crank', surprisingly - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crank_(person) - which also echoes something Teresa Nielsen Hayden said in a Making Light post when talking about a website called RejectionCollection. It's comment 190 on this thread http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/004641.html, but to save you the trouble (though it's a very interesting post, and also helpful to anyone trying to get published), Ms Nielsen Hayden says:

It's a funny thing. People who can't do advanced math, or play classical piano concertos, or pitch a no-hitter in the major leagues, generally know they can't do it. People who don't have an intimate relationship with language are far less aware of their condition, and for them the written world can be a very frustrating place. Near as we can make out, they literally can't tell that their rejected writing isn't like the writing that does get published.

And here's Eliot on the same subject:

In the majority of women's books you see that kind of facility which springs from the absence of any high standard; that fertility in imbecile combination or feeble imitation which a little self-criticism would check and reduce to barrenness; just as with a total want of musical ear people will sing out of tune, while a degree more melodic sensibility would suffice to render them silent . . . there is no species of art which is so free from rigid requirements. Like crystalline masses, it may take any form, and yet be beautiful; we have only to pour in the right elements -- genuine observation, humour, and passion. But it is precisely this absence of rigid requirement which constitutes the fatal seduction of novelwriting to incompetent women. Ladies are not wont to be very grossly deceived as to their power of playing on the piano; here certain positive difficulties of execution have to be conquered, and incompetence inevitably breaks down. Every art which has its absolute technique is, to a certain extent, guarded from the intrusions of mere left-handed imbecility. But in novel-writing there are no barriers for incapacity to stumble against, no external criteria to prevent a writer from mistaking foolish facility for mastery. And so we have again and again the old story of La Fontaine's ass, who puts his nose to the flute, and, finding that he elicits some sound, exclaims, `Moi, aussi, je joue de la flute;' -- a fable which we commend, at parting, to the consideration of any feminine reader who is in danger of adding to the number of "silly novels by lady novelists."

Eliot is out of patience for a different reason from Teresa N H, of course; the latter is tired by importuning and Eliot, being a novelist herself, in a time when women writers were not respected, is fed up with bad female novelists dragging the average down and injuring the sex's reputation; as she says, 'we believe that the average intellect of women is unfairly represented by the mass of feminine literature'.

Well, it's too long to quote the whole thing. But it's extremely interesting; the opening and the conclusion make some very sharp and funny general remarks, and the middle is full of bizarre examples. Have a look.


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