LONG WAY FROM, LONG TIME SINCE: A letter to the Brontës and Thomas Hardy

Bronte_CC My Dear Sir and Mes Demoiselles,

I find your depictions of young women to be downright dangerous. You start out okay, with ladies who are eminently approachable and even likable. We think you want the same things we do in a heroine, but that’s not the case, is it? Ultimately, you all seem to be in search of something more, um, dramatic.

Miss Charlotte, your Jane Eyre is the biggest offender, though she comes to us as a stalwart friend and a woman of stout character. Righteous and strong, she changes her own fate and goes in search of a better station.

Then we have Miss Emily’s creation, Catherine Earnshaw. She, too, is a proper heroine: blond and shining, roundly praised for her beauty and intelligence, she bucked the trend and fell in love with a Gypsy heathen. Bully for her!

Mister Hardy! Your Tess is the perfect third example, being as she is stuck between Catherine and Jane—she is a peasant, but she is pretty and smart. Plus, she has a nutjob title-crazed father, so that’s interesting, too: Open any decent novel and five bucks says there’s a deranged parental unit lurking somewhere. (A nutjob parent requires a good daughter whom will help carry out his dastardly plots, which Tess, of course, does.)

I like all these girls. In fact, I have friends who suit these tropes. And therein lies the problem: These girls, all too true to life, and all too admirable, have terrible dating lives.

Miss Charlotte’s Jane—our Jane—crawls her way out of the muck only to pursue a guy who can’t be arsed to be nice to her half the time. She agrees to marry him, only to later find out he’s locked up his psychotic wife—who, by the way, needs help, not cozy attic living.

Then there's Catherine, our designated Mean Girl type, who ends up falling head-over-heels in love with a grubby street boy. When she catches him beating his head against a tree and screaming her name, she falls even more madly in love. Miss Brontë, this is not love. This is obsession. It is not healthy.

Lastly, Tess! Tess, the girl whom everyone today would want to know, gets pillaged, and then bamboozled by a guy who just wants to marry her sister. What. The. Hell.

Mister Hardy, Misses Brontë, you cannot make characters who are totally irresistible to young readers, and then have the characters make terrible life choices. Yours, more than others, have famously stood the test of time. They’ve been made into movie and television icons, graphic novel heroines, fan fiction fodder! They have made permanent impressions.

Someone could end up taking it the wrong way. Some poor girl might end up going in search of a Cro-Magnon brow, mistaking it for the only acceptable mark of manliness. She will discard healthy men with happy dispositions (who might have weaker noses or brows), and instead pine after a dark, brooding countenance and a snarl, which she will mistake for romantic expression.

Why, another poor girl might even aspire to find a man with secrets, and mistake those secrets for a puzzle to be solved. She‘ll hunt for men who say, with alarming regularity, “I don’t want to talk about it,” and she’ll misperceive these men as “interesting,” “dark,” “satirical” types.

Still another girl will save herself for a men who “thrill” her, who ignite “passion” and “chemistry,” and she will overlook danger and basic matters of compatibility to be with these passionate, chemical men.

And still others might fall into the unfortunate habit of saying to themselves, “I wonder if anyone would write a book about this relationship I’m having?” This is a terrible benchmark to go by. No one ever writes a whole book about a lovely committed relationship. But people look to books, don’t they, to find inspiration, and guidance, even more so than they might real-life events? So it’d be nice if things, you know, ended well, and didn’t go too far astray in the process.

Why, some girl might actually do all of these things, in search of her own Heathcliff. Or Rochester. Or, goodness, some nightmarish but hot-looking mashup of the two.

Not that I’m admitting to anything.

I wish you’d been more responsible. Miss Emily, Miss Charlotte, you practically never left your own parish. And when you did, you got homesick. You hung out with your family almost all the time, until your deaths. I’m reasonably sure that neither of you ever had to deal with either a Heathcliff or a Rochester. Write what you know, or something.

And Mister Hardy, you might well be the worst. If you were trying to write social commentary, you might have at least notified someone in the marketing department, so they didn’t end up filing you among comparably less harmful novels.

It’s too late now, anyway. After a whole lot of confusion in my teens and mid-twenties, I got married to someone from the Midwest. Someone whose temper is decidedly Midwestern, with what my mother calls a weak chin and whose most common verbal tic is to ask, “But what do you want to do?” I rescued myself, no thanks to you.

I’m just fortunate to be a writer, too, so that I can work all my own terrible relationships into stories. I guess I ought to thank you but, damn, I wish I’d outgrown you a lot faster.

I remain,

Yours truly,

Yi Shun Lai


Yi Shun Lai is the Fiction Editor of the Los Angeles Review. Her writing has appeared in venues from the Christian Science Monitor to the Los Angeles Times. She has just completed her first novel. Find her on Twitter @gooddirt or visit her website here.


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