True grit

Authors have a problem. Actually they must have lots of problems, but one of the key ones must be portraying a character of an opposite sex to their own. Critics and readers are divided as to whether authors should obey the old saying "Write what you know" - some write brilliantly about events and countries that are largely outside their experience - just think of the Booker Prize winning J.G. Farrell and The siege of Krishnapur set in a country that he had never visited. What must be even more difficult is writing about a culture or a sexuality or a sex that you don't share. Sure any human will have much in common with anyone else, but there are certain aspects of life as a woman (or man!) that will remain inpenetrable to the opposite sex.

And sometimes this is very obvious - John le Carre's women are always cardboard cut-outs and virtually always viewed from a male perspective, and as any aficionado of romance fiction will know (or at least they should unless they are constantly wearing rose-coloured specs) in a genre that is largely dominated by women writers, the heros are how women would like men to be rather than what they truly are like. Just occasionally though there are some shining examples of authors managing to get under the skin of the opposite sex. The two novels that immediately spring to my mind are Emile Zola's Nana (although it's not perfect) and Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders. It's perhaps not surprising that in both cases the women are tough and amazingly independent for their time period - in many ways they are men, but having to deal with a man's world from a very different perspective.

Moll is an amazing heroine. Growing up in seventeenth-century England she is forced to forge her own way in the world after her birth in Newgate Gaol and her mother's transportation to Virginia. Abandoned at an early age the feisty girl tries to obtain a living by honest means but life and sex get in the way, and she soon starts on a rambunctious path of prostitution, theft and some very strange liaisons (including a very dishy highwayman!). What's great about Moll is that she's never sorry for herself, she just takes whatever life throws at her and wholeheartedly pitches it back. The novel is often hilarious, and, yes, of course, it's saucy; but it's not just there for titillation in the way that perhaps you might feel that the slightly later Fanny Hill is. There's an element of social commentary that looks forward to Dickens. Defoe is scathing about a system of punishment that abandons children and leaves them no way forward but to embark on a life of crime themselves. He's equally scathing about the moral distinction between men and women - Moll may "sin" but Defoe is quick to point out that she's not alone in this (or indeed in her enjoyment of it).

She's a great heroine - someone you really want to cheer on, even when she's at her baddest. If you've never read Defoe before Moll Flanders  is a great place to start. It's got a universal and eternal heroine, while Defoe's background in journalism ensures that the sights and smells of the seventeenth century leap off the page. Great stuff.


Popular Posts