A Woman’s Touch: Literature and the Lady


Gustave Flaubert’s great opus, Madame Bovary, was a flop with women when it was first published. So was Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, where the fairer sex was concerned. Both writers were men and knew very little about women, so say some modern feminists. When I first read this rubbish some time back, I had a good laugh, but then read more and realized there was some truth to it. Female writers are better at details, and details are essential in creating a romantic buildup. For example, in Madame Bovary, the closest the author came to describing what the heroine wore was that it was something white and frilly.

Alas, romantic fiction needs a woman’s touch, and this is why Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice are always at the front of the line when the votes are counted. The irony lies in the fact that the hero of Wuthering is a psychopath given to roaming the moors in a frenzy of rage and sexual frustration. Mister Darcy, on the other hand, I find a total bore—always standing around a drawing room looking superior. Yet both books score very high where literary achievement is concerned, and both are great and easy reads.

Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca was not as popular with women as the previously mentioned, and that was because the desperate-to-please second wife to Maxim de Winter came off as a bit of an insult. What fascinated women in Rebecca was Maxim’s enduring love and hatred for the beguiling but black-hearted witch that was Rebecca. We all have seen the movie, and here’s a little link to yet another wonderful film, A Bridge Too Far. Daphne du Maurier’s husband, Frederick Browning, was the fool of a British general whose plan was to shorten the war and take Arnem, a bridge too far in Holland. Ten thousand allied soldiers lost their lives and the operation was a disaster, but Browning got away with it. He was a pompous ass and never failed to mention that he was married to Daphne, but such are the joys of pomposity.

Flaubert, incidentally, was a hell of a philosopher when he wasn’t scribbling away. A friend of his had written to him complaining of depression and the old Flaubert cheered him up by defining how to be happy. First of all, wrote Mister F, one needs good health. Second, one needs good luck. Third, and most important, one needs to be stupid, “but if stupidity is missing, all is lost.” Good old Gustave, he knew what he was talking about.

But back to literature. Men prefer books with action and pursuit of the fairer sex, hence the popularity of Stendhal, Hemingway, Graham Greene, and old Count Tolstoy. The Red and the Black is probably the greatest novel ever written, as is The Charterhouse of Parma. Stendhal had served under Napoleon and had seen firsthand what war does to people, yet his strength lay in his ability to explain in dispassionate terms the state of conscience of his heroes. Hemingway became a romantic writer posthumously when his unpublished novels were discovered, but I have given those a miss. Greene’s The End of the Affair is as good as it gets in romantic fiction, except that he took inspiration from his own affair with a friend’s wife.

Women writers keep the romance central, driving the narrative better and faster than any other device. Which brings us to Gone With The Wind, Margaret Mitchell’s great opus about yesteryear’s South. Yes, the outcome of the war and the burning of Atlanta were exciting and all that, but what kept everyone turning the pages—and there were many of them—was to find out whether the silly Scarlett would ever realize that Rhett Butler was the only man who understood her and truly loved her, rather than the weedy Ashley Wilkes.

I know a lady who has seen the classic more than 40 times, and read the book about 10 times. She is an Anglo-French aristocrat whom I haven’t seen too much of since 50 years ago to be exact, although we’re on excellent terms. We were married for three years when we were both very young. I often wonder how many times she has seen Gone With The Wind since 1968. I can never resist it when it comes on TCM, and to think that Melanie Hamilton is still with us and living in Paris under her real name, Olivia de Havilland, aged 101.

It would have been nice to finish this off with a few kudos for contemporary women writers, but Zeus would strike me dead in a jiffy for telling lies. I am an old-fashioned man and just a notch below Jane Austen, where propriety is concerned. Enough said. Go for Daphne, Jane, Emily, Margaret, and if reading is not your forte, see the movies.