I hardly ever identify with female protagonists. Either they’re too pretty, too privileged, or too prissy. Sometimes all three.
I have, of course, identified with some over the years, including Elizabeth Bennet, Katniss Everdeen, and maybe a handful of others. Lizzie is quick-witted and strong-willed; Katniss is strong-willed and purposefully keeps most people at a distance. Put those two women together and you’ve pretty much got me. Well, maybe add in a small helping of Hermione Granger’s brains, too.
As I read Deanna Raybourn’s Silent In the Grave, though, a strange thing happened. I found myself chuckling over and over again at Lady Julia, and thinking, “Yeah, I would’ve said that,” or “I would’ve reacted the same way.” Connecting with Lady Julia was remarkable and fun for so many reasons, not least of which is because she now ranks among the few female protagonists with whom I have connected.
I started to identify with Lady Julia as a character when, in the novel, she writes a letter to her late husband’s doctor, and finds “striking the right balance of wifely concern and abject stupidity…harder than I had anticipated.” I actually laughed out loud at this point, not only because I love Julia’s inner voice, but as it seems this “balance” is still expected of women today—even though it was far more expected of a woman in the time period in which Lady Julia “lived.” Though less common now than it was, some men still seem to want to underestimate women. I distinctly remember working at the customer service desk at a popular hardware store (my college and first-year-teaching job), and having men sneer at me—or leer at me, depending on the moment—their estimation and therefore misinterpretation of me clearly fixed on their faces. Sometimes, because I would get so angry, I had to force myself to that “balance of…concern and abject stupidity” just to get through the day. For Lady Julia—or, more appropriately, women of her ilk in Victorian England, it was the order of the day.
[Brief side not here to remind readers that when I read a book, I enter a sort of fugue state in which I believe the person is actually living…not fictional. Oh wait, it’s not a fugue state, that’s what happened to Walter White that one time. I’m just using my imagination. Anyway.]
My connection to Lady Julia grew when, as she was attempting to help a friend, she voiced a thought I’ve had innumerable times: “There seemed to be nothing I could do, and the helplessness infuriated me.” I hate feeling helpless. Most often, I feel that way when my daughter or son is sick; when a family member is suffering; or when one of my students is dealing with something at home I have never experienced, and all I can offer is a comforting word. I also despise feeling helpless when I am learning something new. My default mode is something along the lines of “kicking ass and taking names,” and so when I have to slow that process down because of helplessness, it drives me nuts. When that happens, though, I have to (at least try to) remember this card a friend framed for me.
Speaking of learning and slowing down: In high school, I really did not like my American History class. Because I wanted good grades, though, I devised a system for scoring well on the tests. I woke up early on the day of the test and read the entire chapter on which we would be tested. Because I have a semi-eidetic memory, I would remember where the information was on the page, and score an A on the tests. Later in life, though, I realized that history—especially British history—was so fun. So when Lady Julia says, “I adored history, not the dry dates and boring battles, but the stories and the people who populated them,” it made me think of that time in my own life when the “dry dates and boring battles” terrorized my brain. Thankfully, now, I know the truth of history is far more scandalous—and fun.
But back to Lady Julia. Later in the novel, she interviews Mrs. Birch, a woman of small means who supports her children by doing any work she can. Lady Julia describes her thus: “She spoke plainly…In all, she was rough and crude and common. I liked her immensely.” Again, I thought to myself, “Wow. Lady Julia and I would get along SO well.” My mother always taught me to look for “good people,” and to keep those people close. The thing is, “good people” don’t always have a consistent shape, form, or social status. Sometimes, the best “good people” out there are ones you never expected would be good people. But when you look in their eyes—and you can see their true, good hearts—that is when you know you can let them in.
I don’t let a lot of people in, to be sure. And on some days, I don’t even like to be around other people, which made it hilarious for me when Lady Julia tells Morag, “I am unfit to be around other people today.” I have a lot of those days. I suppose it is part of my introverted nature, but also because sometimes, being around too many people makes me anxious and I just need time alone (though that could be an aspect of being an introvert…). Also, when people drive me nuts (which is often), I struggle with being kind to them; I struggle with not letting my left eyebrow—which sometimes flicks up like it has a mind of its own when people say, uh, questionable things—give away the opinions I do not actually voice. Or, as Lady Julia puts it, “It took all the control I possessed not to tell hime exactly what I thought of him.” I think a lot. I do not, however, say a lot. Over the years, I’ve found that is, usually, the best way to handle people. Safety in silence? Maybe. Sometimes it is definitely easier.
Finally, I loved that finding Lady Julia—whom I think of now as my “Secret Twin,” and I thoroughly enjoy reading about her adventures—reminded me how much I still have to learn. Since I have only recently (within the last year, really) become more active on Twitter, I have learned so many things; I have had my eyes opened to different perspectives and people, and have learned so much more about aspects of culture: theatre, writing, reading, figures both fictional and real in history and in contemporary society, social injustices of various manifestations, and really, life in general. Lady Julia perfectly expresses my feeling regarding my experience of continuing to grow as a person when she says (albeit under completely different circumstances), “In spite of my pretenses to independence and bold thinking, I was beginning to understand how very conventional I really was.”
But, at least I have Lady Julia, the world around me—and maybe, someday, another female protagonist—to teach me more.