Dear Ones –

A friend of this page wrote me a really thoughtful note yesterday, expressing her frustration with the fact that Alma Whittaker, the heroine of THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS was so homely. She felt it was a cliché to suggest that a brilliant female scientist must be unattractive. She felt that this choice of mine reinforced the idea that girls are either pretty or brainy, but cannot possibly be both.

I thought she raised an interesting point, and I wanted to open up the conversation to all of you…what do you think? I'm curious to hear your feedback.

I gave a lot of thought to the creation of Alma, and her homeliness seemed like a vital character point to me. I had several reasons for wanting to create her as plain, and I will share those thoughts here…

1) I wanted to show that not every female novelistic heroine has to be beautiful — because they generally always are beautiful. (Scarlett O'Hara, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, etc.) I think women who are not gorgeous can also be worthy heroines of great stories.

2) I wanted to create a female character who was sexually passionate, but not beautiful. I get annoyed that the sexualized female characters in novels always look like temptresses (flashing eyes, heaving bust, high color in their cheeks.) Desire inhabits all of us — ALL of us — whether we are stunning or plain, and I wanted to play with the idea of a passionate woman whose sexuality may not be apparent to onlookers, and whose looks do not attract male attention…how would that fact shape her life? How would that impact other people? How would she manage that, and how would others manage that? (This is also why I created Alma's sister Prudence to be gorgeous, but not desirous of male sexual attention — to suggest that both Prudence and Alma must feel at some level as if they ended up in the wrong bodies…something I think a lot of women can relate to.)

3) Lastly, I get frustrated, as a female reader, when an author tries to play it both ways with a heroine's appearance. I get irritated when an author says, "She was not a beautiful woman," and then goes on to describe a woman who is, objectively, beautiful. (Typical example: "She was not a beautiful woman…but she did have thick auburn hair, clear green eyes, a lovely figure and porcelain skin." Even our dear Jane Austen is guilty of playing this trick. Lizzie Bennet is a perfect example of a girl whom we are told is not a great beauty, but who is, clearly, a great beauty. Ditto: Jo March.) My feeling is, "If you're going to claim that your character is not beautiful, then stick with it. Commit to it. Otherwise, just go ahead and openly say she's gorgeous." (Here, I must give props to Charlotte Brontë, for allowing Jane Eyre to be full-on plain, and for sticking with that choice — and for not giving Jane a swan-like makeover midway through the novel.) I wanted to make Alma homely, and seriously homely, and to stick to it.

But I can also see my reader's point about Alma, which seems to be, "Why is it necessary that the brainy girl always be homely?"

Thinking it over, I'm wondering if there is any way to win on this question. I know we all get irritated in movies, for instance, when the female nuclear physicist is played by the likes of Brooklyn Decker — then again: Why couldn't someone who looks like Brooklyn Decker be a nuclear physicist?

Should we just not describe a woman's appearance in a novel at all? But then, how would the reader come to know her?

ARGH…you can see how it makes the mind spin!

SO…what do you all think? Let's open it up for conversation! Share your feedback here! Curious to hear your thoughts and intelligence on this question…



(And in the meanwhile, please enjoy this portrait of 19th century Dutch botanist and illustrator Berthe Hoola van Nolten, who seemed, if this portrait does not lie, to be both clever and lovely.)

via Elizabeth Gilbert’s Facebook Wall