03 April 2014

+JMJ+

Character Connection 43


Remember when Thursday was "Character Connection Day" around here? The Introverted Reader hasn't revived this meme, but I feel like reliving the good old days with a post about one of the most wonderful characters I've ever encountered. It helps that she also carries the potential for great controversy. ;-)


Miss Bianca
The Rescuers
by Margery Sharp

. . . "I dare say you'll have to go into pretty rough quarters. I tell you my blood boils when I think of it--"

"Why?" whispered Miss Bianca. "Why does your blood boil?"

"Because you're so beautiful!" cried Bernard recklessly. "It's not fair to ask you to be brave as well! You should be protected and cherished and loved and honoured, and I for my part ask nothing better than to lie down and let you walk on me."

Miss Bianca rested her head lightly against his shoulder.

"You give me such a good opinion of myself," she said softly, "perhaps I could be brave as well."

When pantry mouse Bernard first explains to the very spoiled, but very charming nursery pet Miss Bianca that she is being asked to leave her porcelain pagoda (You read that right) and to take part in a rescue mission to one of the most awful prisons in the world, she faints at his feet. Not from excitement, either, but from sheer horror. She is finally persuaded to help--and she does have a good heart--but as you read in the excerpt, it is her awareness of someone's romantic adoration that makes the real difference.

I don't know if you can tell, but Margery Sharp wrote The Rescuers in the 1950s. I'm not sure what the other "Girls and Adventures" stories were like back then, but they probably weren't as scornful of refined ladies as heroines as their equivalents are today. Penelope Pitstop managed to carry the Pretty Blonde Girl flag into the 1960s, but "Pussycat" Melody was already getting second billing to Josie in the 1970s, and in the very next decade, despite the best efforts of Rainbow Brite, children's stories were starting to reach the consensus that unless girls were willing to be a tad tomboyish, they didn't deserve to have adventures. A character with Miss Bianca's aristocratic airs would be allowed along only as a foil to the real heroine.

But decades of media conditioning were no match against Sharp's littlest mouse, when I finally met her. Though I didn't fall for her as quickly as Bernard did, I was a goner after the scene in which she has to draw a very important map . . . makes a huge mess out of it because she doesn't even know what a compass is . . . and desperately sketches a lady's garden party hat on the paper just to prove that she's not that horrible an artist. I mean, ROFL!

There's a sense in which Miss Bianca is the most useless third mouse to have on a rescue mission . . . and another sense in which it doesn't matter. To her loyal companions, what is important is not what you can do, but the fact that you're willing to do it at all. If you can make life more pleasant by sculpting artificial flowers from old bread to brighten up the headquarters, that's a bonus! But while that's a wonderful way to see others, it doesn't seem a very realistic approach when stuff needs doing. Never mind that it all works out after Miss Bianca makes at least two valuable contributions that a less cossetted mouse might never have pulled off: for unlike the elegantly drawn hat and the cleverly crafted flowers, these are mostly happy accidents. And of the ex machina variety, yet!

It's clear early in the adventure that when Sharp has to choose between plausible plotting and giving Miss Bianca another moment, Miss Bianca gets the moment. LOL! And when it comes to that friction between plot and character that is supposed to lead to the latter's development? Well, we must admit that growth is hardly necessary for a character already darn near perfect. =P Or to paraphrase Bernard, our heroine is so innocently delightful that it's not fair to ask her to be practical and strategic as well!

Besides, I don't trust any criticism of The Rescuers that is also criticism of Miss Bianca! (So my inner voices can just pipe down now.) Skirting spoilers here, let's say that it wouldn't be so out of character for Miss Bianca if she were to outgrow her life as a pampered pet in a palatial home, but that this predictable progression would ignore the fact that she's actually really useful there. (How may other pets do you know who have the devotion to help their owners learn Ancient Greek and Latin by studying alongside them and the grace to assist at official diplomatic functions?) Despite our heroine's conflicting desire to be worthy of the admiration of a gallant mouse . . . and despite our own conditioning against rarefied ladies in heroic roles . . . it wouldn't be such a bad thing for her to choose the porcelain pagoda as her best possible home. 


Image Source: The Rescuers by Margery Sharp

10 comments:

Sheila said...

Hm, that gets me thinking of which female archetypes *I* like best. You already know I prefer the Introverted Brunette to the Popular Blonde. I have never had a whole lot of sympathy for the Pampered Lady, though when they unmask surprising skills, I give them a second chance. Like the mother in Brave -- she is proper, polite, and I was prepared to hate her, but it turns out she is a very skilled politician, so it's all okay!

I must say, though, that my favorite type of heroine is neither beautiful nor tomboyish. (Although usually and improbably they are expected to be BOTH!) I like tough pioneer women, clever grandmothers, midwives. Well, you've read my book. It's not the tomboyish blonde who steals your heart, it's the conflicted widow. Women whose importance and story doesn't lie solely in romance (which is how I see "the beautiful girl's" destiny the moment we meet her, and am always right) but who find other womanly strengths besides just being able to win the right sort of heroes.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

If you like Introverted Brunettes, no wonder you're here so often! ;-)

The archetypes you mention often have their own surprises tucked away. The clever grandmother must have had a romance of her own in her youth, the pioneer women often came from bustling communities with a lot of social support, and midwives were once young, inexperienced mothers. (I'm especially reminded of the mothers in the novels of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Carol Ryrie Brink: we occasionally get glimpses of their past lives--so mysterious and so tantalising to their own children! And now an honourable mention must also go to J.M. Barrie's Mrs. Darling, who was as elusive to her daughter as Peter Pan himself!)

The insistence on combining beauty and tomboyish qualities in a single heroine seems to be a symptom of our age's ideal of "having it all." (It's especially annoying when she's also totally unconscious of her beauty and her effect on men. LOL! I guess this is what passes for "modesty" in modern stories.) I think the archetypes you mention are a better representation of the same idea, in that women "have it all"--or rather, get to be it all--over different stages in their lives. God willing, the impish girl will get to be a wise grandmother someday, and bring all her experiences (and adventures!) into play in the last age of her life. But a little scamp who is already wise beyond her years? Perhaps we should be grateful that modern storytellers draw the line somewhere!

love the girls said...

Miss E. writes : "unless girls were willing to be a tad tomboyish, they didn't deserve to have adventures"

Or as I prefer to look at it, proper young girls have a better sense of themselves than to seek out adventure, they get the Virginian to do it for them.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Yet another rabbit trail to follow! Let's see . . . When I first read your comment, I thought you meant John Carter (because the last novel I finished happened to be A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs); but typing "The Virginian" into a search engine turned up the Owen Wister novel. Is that what you mean?

love the girls said...

Miss E.,

The Virginian, we never are told his name.

He's the nameless personification of the virtuous and rugged western man.

Sheila said...

I love The Virginian!

However, girls sometimes get a little tired of reading books in which men have adventure after adventure, and they appear as bit parts. We have to have *some* books about girls! The question is, what sort of girls are they and what kind of adventures do they have? Even the properest young lady might not be able to avoid getting into adventures from time to time.

love the girls said...

Miss Sheila writes : "what sort of girls are they and what kind of adventures do they have?"

Anne with an 'e'

Or Violet : who wondered what would happen who orphans were 'out'

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Sheila -- While I welcome books about girls having adventures, I also have exacting standards. That is, I'm not going to believe that the heroine of a novel is a girl just because the author says so--kind of the way a friend of mine refuses to believe that Harry Potter is boy. =P

I think the historical paucity of such stories reflected the reality that it was next to impossible for a girl to have the same kind of adventures as a boy. She'd have so many barriers in her way--external and internal. I respect that nod to reality, and am always immediately suspicious of period novels with heroines who seem a little too modern. I wouldn't rule out a rebellious lass or two (or ten!) in every age, but I'd like them to be realistic.

When I featured Karen Cushman's medieval-set novel Catherine, Called Birdy on my old blog, I quoted Birdy's question of why male saints could be kings, crusaders, monks, and so on, while female saints were mostly someone's mother. Someone commented to protest that a medieval girl would never say something like that: for one thing, the reason would be obvious to her; for another thing, it wouldn't be a source of philosophical discontent the way it would have been to a more modern girl. And I do buy that, for the medievals as a group seemed content with their respective "places" in society and in creation. I also think, however, that the novel in general is fun and funny, and that's enough to give it's author a pass.

I should add that I'm not a big fan of girls having adventures in fantasy settings (which now seems to include dystopias). As much as I love Fantasy, this combination seems to be an admission that the heroines we admire won't really stand up in "the real world"--which is still the best test.

LTG -- I don't get the second reference. Do you mean Violet Baudelaire?

I'd also say that Louisa May Alcott and Jean Webster, for all their unfortunate ideology, wrote some great girl characters. I'm finally reading the latter's Dear Enemy now!

DMS said...

I haven't read this one. I did see the movie last year (for the first time). I am curious about how the movie and book are different. It is fascinating to look at different characters from different time periods and seeing how the female characters are portrayed. I tend to like females who aren't afraid to speak their minds and who have big hearts. :) I am thinking of Mrs. Weasley- I just love her.
~Jess

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Oh, the movie and the book are very different!

I agree that it's fun to study characters from different time periods and to compare them to the popular ones of today. =) But this is a new discovery. Until very recently, I was worried that I'd just impose a feminist reading on some great characters and be unable to see them the way their original readers did or the way their authors intended . . . so I've stayed away from them. But I had another fantastic experience with an even older novel just last week, and now I think I'm ready for a proper project! =D