I blogged a while back about my fondness for imperfect characters. As I wrote, “I’ve always found flawed characters much more interesting than the more conventionally heroic sort. Growing up, Milady de Winter was my favorite character in The Three Musketeers (I thought Constance was boring), I couldn’t understand why Lucie Manette looked twice at Charles Darnay when Sydney Carton was around, I much preferred Mary Crawford to Fanny Price.” Sarah wrote to me recently following up on this, because she’s reading The Three Musketeers and getting to know the fascinating Milady de Winter. Sarah wrote, “I know I tend to prefer heroines who use their ‘feminine wiles’ – or sexuality – to achieve their own way, instead of resorting to the cliched ‘PC’ approach of typically male methods, such as physical violence, and Milady is the perfect example of a strong woman.”
As with so many classics, my first introduction to The Three Musketeers was my mom reading it out loud to me when I was quite small. I remember her describing the book before we read it and saying “It has a fascinating heroine–I mean villainess.” That’s a perfect way to describe Milady, because while she’s definitely an antagonist to d’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, she’s a compelling, fascinating character. As Sarah said, Milady “was actually wronged as well as in the wrong, and yet was punished for her ambition and desire.” Sarah compared Milady to another character we’ve discussed on this blog. “Milady reminds me a lot of Chauvelin, actually – the sympathetic villain, the ‘anti-hero’.”
Anti-heroine seems an appropriate description of Milady and, I think, sums up the contradictions of her character. Milady is an agent of Cardinal Richlieu which pits her against the musketeer heroes in the complex intrigues of the novel. She also, it is later revealed, has a connection to Athos. Athos (the most tormented of the musketeers) was once married. He was madly in love with his wife until he realized she bore a brand which meant she had been in prison. Enraged that she had deceived about her identity and past, he killed her. Or thought he did. It turns out she escaped, and she and Milady de Winter are one in the same. From the time I first read the book, I was far more sympathetic to Milady than to Athos (a view my mother reinforced). Sarah had the same response. As she wrote, “I think Milady won my sympathy in comparison with the men in the story, particularly when her ‘crime’ is held up against her husband’s. Imagine if Percy had flown so violently and absolutely off the handle when he learned that Marguerite had kept her past from him!”
I hadn’t thought of this comparison until Sarah brought it up, but it’s very apt. Athos trying to kill Milady is much as if Percy tried to kill Marguerite. Or if Charles tried to kill Mélanie when he learns about her past in Secrets of a Lady. As much as I’ve thought of alternative ways the revelation of Mélanie’s past might have played out, that’s one scenario that never occurred to me. And yet, Charles would have had a “better” justification than Athos, because Mélanie was using him when she married him. Milady lied about her past to Athos, but as far as I recall she wasn’t spying on him or otherwise betraying him at that time.
What makes an anti-heroine? Are they the opposite of a heroine? Or of what we expect of a heroine? As with an anti-hero, I think the term encompasses a wide range of characters. I don’t think I’d call Marguerite an anti=heroine. She has some interesting flaws, but for the most part she is a caught in a fiendish dilemma and trying to do the right thing (at considerable personal cost). Mélanie may be an anti-heroine. Her actions are certainly food for debate, and as we’ve discussed, she elicits a wide range of responses from readers. I always knew that Milady de Winter influenced Mélanie a bit, but until I wrote this post, I didn’t realize quite how much🙂.
Sarah wrote that “another literary ‘black hat’ is of course Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair – I couldn’t quite finish that novel, but I did admire her determination and guile!” I would definitely call Becky an anti-heroine. Unlike Milady she is the protagonist of the story rather than the antagonist, but she schemes her way throughout the novel, managing to make her friend Amelia, a more “typical” heroine, look distinctly dull in comparison. Troubled, spoiled Barbara Childe in Georgette Heyer’s An Infamous Army perhaps might also be called an anti-heroine. Certainly her perspective sister-in-law Judith sees her as an undesirable wife for the hero. Judith would prefer him to marry sweet Lucy Devenish, like Amelia more typical heroine material. But Lucy proves to be not precisely what she seems on the surface. And Barbara grows and changes in the course of the novel and ends up with a quite believable happy ending. Scarlet O’Hara also grows and changes in the course of Gone with the Wind, though the end of the novel is more up in the air. And then there’s Emma in Jane Austen’s novel of the same name. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Emma described as an anti-heroine, but just a few days ago a friend was saying that much as she loved Austen’s novels, she just couldn’t sympathize with Emma. Emma is arguably more flawed than the heroines of Austen’s other novels. Given my fondness for flawed and imperfect characters perhaps it’s not surprising that she’s tied with Elizabeth Bennet as my favorite Austen heroine🙂.
What makes anti-heroines so intriguing? Well, for one thing (as I noticed as a child) they usually get to wear the best clothes🙂 (only compare Emma with Fanny Price or Becky Sharp with Amelia or Milady with Constance). But more seriously, I think it’s in large part that they often are characters who break rules and defy conventions. That’s part of the appeal of anti-heroes as well, but I think there’s something particularly interesting about women who defy conventions in an historical setting in which there are so many restrictions on a woman’s role. Becky Sharp has nothing but her wits to rely on (unlike Amelia, who is protected by fortune and family, at least in the beginning). I’ve always seen Barbara and Emma both as bright women who have trouble finding an outlet for their intelligence.
As a child of seven, I liked Milady because she got to *do* things, instead of waiting to be rescued. She plays the game with (and against) men and sometimes wins. As Sarah says, “I don’t know if her brand is meant to signify that she is guilty of a serious crime, such as murder, or merely a crime against the church/state, but Athos makes it clear that he punished her for betraying him. It’s almost as if he turned on her because he felt that he was in her power, that she was in control of him – and there are various references to her hypnotic, supernatural allure, comparing her to a snake and a devil, that suggest she cannot be merely a natural woman and a fearful enemy at the same time. For all that, Dumas doesn’t exaggerate her character – Milady serves her own interests, and uses her wits and attraction to manipulate others, because she has good reason not to trust anybody else!”
I would have ended Milady’s story quite differently had I written it. Sarah referred to my earlier comment on this, asking, “Is it necessary to believe that an anti-heroine can be ‘redeemed’? In a previous topic, you mentioned that you would have written Milady with a ‘heart’, but what would that mean for her? Should she have spared Constance? …I think this is what intrigues me – the concept that ‘strong’ women must be caring and forgiving at heart, or face their own destruction, as ‘independent’ heroines are really only awkward, plain creatures searching for a husband!'”
I certainly don’t think anti-heroines need to be redeemed or even redeemable. I would have written a Milady with a bit more compassion (I wouldn’t have had her kill Constance) because that’s the way my mind works and the sort of story I write. I would have wanted to give her a happy ending with Athos–which would have necessitated changing Athos’s character a great deal (more than Milady’s, I think). That’s me, and the stories I tend to tell. My heroes and heroines (and even a number of my villains) tend to have a fair amount of compassion and empathy (as I mentioned in a previous post, whne my mom’s and I attempted to write a hero who began the book as amoral–in A Touch of Scandal–he didn’t turn out nearly as amoral we intended). But I too dislike the idea that heroines or anti-heroines need to give way to softer impulses. Mélanie has her share of compassion (though not as much, I think, as Charles), but she puts her loyalty to her cause before her loyalty to her husband, and if she had to do it again, I don’t think she’d make a different choice.
Do you like anti-heroines or do they simply lose your sympathy? Any thoughts on the characters discussed above or any other anti-heroines to suggest? If you’ve read The Three Musketeers (or seen any of the film versions) what did you think of Milady? Do you think Mélanie is an anti-heroine? What about Emma?
This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is a (fictional as are all the Fraser Correspondence) letter from Emily Cowper (a real historical figure, the sister of William Lamb and sister-in-law of Lady Caroline Lamb) to her friend Harriet Granville (also a real historical figure, the daughter of the Duchess of Devonshire and Caroline’s Lamb’s cousin) just after Charles and Mélanie have settled in London in the spring of 1817.
Update 26 March: I’m blogging today on History Hoydens about An Age of Unrest: Britain in 1817. Do stop by and comment if you have time!