My good friend and fellow History Hoyden Isobel Carr had a great post recently about anti-heroes. (Isobel has a wonderful new book out, by the way, Ripe for Pleasure, featuring an anti-hero and a courtesan). The fascinating follow-up discussion on Isobel’s post took me back to a question I pondered a bit myself in a post on “Bad girl” heroines. What exactly makes an anti-hero or anti-heroine? Is it the behavior or the motives?
I’ve heard the term anti-hero used to encompass a range of characters. There’s the Talented Mr. Ripley, who commits murder for his own advancement. There’s Don Draper, who has principles of a sort and is remarkably loyal to some of the people in his life, but seems to have no concept of romantic fidelity–(or at least no ability to be faithful. (One of the things I love about Mad Men is how all the characters are flawed and yet all of them have sympathetic moments.) Francis Crawford of Lymond does all sorts of seemingly horrible things, and yet he inevitably proves to have done so for the noblest of motives. Is he an anti-hero? Or is an anti-hero someone who acts out of selfish motives and doesn’t have a core of principles? Both Han Solo and Rick Blaine claim to only be out for themselves fairly early in their respective stories. And yet neither of them does anything remotely approaching Lymond’s actions (burning his mother’s castle, being responsible for the death of his son).
Isobel described Lady Barbara Childe in Georgette Heyer’s An Infamous Army as “a benchmark anti-heroine.” Lady Barbara’s behavior is certainly destructive and causes pain to a number of people. On the other hand, I don’t think she does anything as morally questionable as Mélanie/Suzanne (entering a marriage on false pretenses, lying to her spouse for years, being responsible for deaths because of information she passed along). But Mélanie is acting out of loyalty to a cause and comrades, whereas Barbara’s behavior is driven by being discontented and unhappy. Does that make one more an anti-heroine than the other?
How do you define anti-heroes and anti-heroines? Is it their actions or their motivation or both? What are some of your favorite examples? What does it take for you for such a character to be redeemed?
If Tatiana Kirsanova were the protagonist of a novel, I think she might be an anti-heroine. This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition is a letter from Geoffrey Blackwell to Lady Frances about Tatiana’s death (dealing with some of the questions in response to last week’s letter about who knew what when about Tatiana’s birth).