I'm hard to please when it comes to literary characters. Specifically, I'm thinking now of romantic heroes. I seem to have gotten on a track of reading novels with romantic plot lines this summer, so several leading men are jostling against one another in my mind's eye. I was reading a book last week about a woman who had a summer affair with a man she met in Europe. The book was insightful about many things, but the main character, a relatively young woman, related the story as if all good things in life were behind her, all because the guy she tooled around with wouldn't leave his loveless marriage for her.
This guy actually asked her, at the end of their affair, if she expected him to ruin his life for her. Ding-ding-ding! Fire! Disaster! Help! Shouldn't that have told her what she needed to know? Would you believe that someone who'd say such a thing was the best thing that ever happened to you? She didn't seem to see it the same way I did, though, and at story's end was in deep mourning over the one who got away. I don't get it.
She did say he was good-looking, easy-going, companionable, and funny, but isn't that beside the point? To me, nothing kills the credibility of a hero like unreliability.
Well, Mary, you might say, what heroes do you find credible? Of course, you probably think I'm going to put Rochester from Jane Eyre at the top of my list because I was once an English major and he's in my dissertation. Actually, though, I have a problem with his lack of truthfulness about the madwoman in the attic. He should have told Jane the truth. That would have been a different book, but after all, a preexisting wife is not a small thing.
Some of Jane Austen's men stand up pretty well, although some are a bit milquetoast, even if you otherwise like them (Edward Ferrars, I'm talking to you). I blame some of this on the mores of the world Austen was depicting. You really don't expect a sturdy character like Aragorn son of Arathorn to wander into the genteel precints of Emma or Pride and Prejudice, even though it's fun to imagine it. I think Emma's Mr. Knightley comes off well, since he always gives Emma good advice and remains steadfast in his concern for her welfare. He's intelligent, kind, and consistent, though of course he can afford to be. He doesn't have someone breathing down his neck about making an unsuitable match.
I've already mentioned Tolkien's Aragorn, a rough-and-ready character who cleans up well, is brave and honorable, and doesn't scare easily. He turns out to be a king, but I don't know that I don't like him better as Strider, the wandering Ranger who doesn't look like anyone special, but is. One of my other favorite heroes is Mary Stewart's Simon Lester, who appears in the novel My Brother Michael. The heroine runs into some truly hard-nosed villains in this story of murky dealings in and around Delphi some years after World War II, and Simon, a Classics teacher investigating his brother's wartime death, is a true rock.
I read this book as a teenager and barely registered Simon, who is not a flashy character, but when I re-read it several years ago, he seemed to leap out of the page with his courage, resourcefulness, and good sense, like a quieter version of MacGyver. I guess you need a few decades before you can appreciate a staunch, trustworthy character over the moody, tortured types that make such an impression on a teenager, but there you have it.
It all goes back to something my grandmother used to say when I was growing up: "Handsome is as handsome does." It used to irritate me, because I thought she was saying you couldn't trust good-looking men, which seemed like a sweeping statement (and not one I wanted to hear). Now that I understand what she meant, I've been known to say it myself.
I'm reading yet another book about a divorcée who is swept off her feet by a good-looking, sophisticated man and was ready to throw the book across the room last night when he showed up in a well-tailored jacket and crisp shirt that set off his tan but seemed too insecure to weather his date's nervousness. I'm deferring judgment for the moment, though, because the heroine is just as annoying, and I haven't gotten to the end of the story yet. I'm trying to be open-minded here and not a snob. Even a wealthy, good-looking man may have redeeming qualities, and I'll be the first to admit it.