Like many young women in their 20s, I went through a Chick Lit phase. This was in the 90s and early 2000s when the genre was dominated by books that focused on two topics: weight and marriage. Bridgette Jones was the voice that spoke for the genre and many other authors copied the idea in various ways. Some did it far better than others, but for me, I realized this wasn’t the genre I could enjoy. It actually put me off romance too. It took writing Modern Persuasion for me to open up to revisiting the genres and I am not sure I like what I am reading.
I’m Fat and Nobody Will Marry Me
This was the mantra of 90s era Chick Lit. If it wasn’t weight, it was simply that the main character wasn’t pretty enough to get the attention of guys. The key was that the obsession was really on marriage and the character’s inability to get married. You were stuck reading the book from your main character’s point of view, so you were stuck in her head as she obsessed about her hotter/skinnier friends (who also had self-esteem issues) and wondered why she was nearly thirty (or actually thirty) and still not married and popping out kids. She endlessly compared herself to her perceived betters and wished she was like them. She was also often a doormat without a backbone.
These were tropes for women beyond the Chick Lit genre. They were often how women were written. Even Austen’s characters were obsessed with marriage! What was refreshing about Anne Elliot (who became my Emma Shaw) was that she was not obsessed with it. She was living her life without wondering where the next potential bachelor would be. Even Elizabeth Bennet is less concerned with marriage than almost every other character in the book.
The Need vs. The Desire to Wed
The difference for me, when considering marriage obsessions, is society’s requirements. Does a woman need to get married now? No! Do women want to get married now? In most cases, yes! Are women obsessing over marriage now? Certainly many do. I am not sure how much of that is because we think we are suppose to obsess and how much we simply want to obsess. I say ‘we’ in a very general sense because *I* certainly never thought about marriage until I had to start defending my own desire to never marry and pop out babies.
The thing is, in Regency era UK, women needed to marry. Many got away without it, but they were the exceptions and typically wealthy. Charlotte Lucas openly acknowledges this when she chooses to marry Mr. Collins (the world’s worst choice for a spouse) in Pride and Prejudice. In Persuasion, two of the three Elliot sisters are not married when we open the story. Oldest sister Elizabeth doesn’t seem to ever marry.
Side note, what often surprises me in Jane Austen Fan Fiction is how many writers turn to these single characters to write stories about them finding love. I appreciate the JAFF where Mary Bennet, Elizabeth Shaw, and others simply never marry. Additionally, the thing I love most about Curtis Sittenfeld’s modernization of Pride and Prejudice, Eligible, is that Mary gets to fully embrace not just her lack of desire to marry, but her asexuality. I also enjoy the Darcy/Elizabeth hate sex, but that’s a different post.
Emma Shaw: What does she look like?
I know who I imagined Emma Shaw to remind me of. I cast all my characters because I want to see them in my head. I know if she was skinny, average, healthy, buff, heavy, or bottom heavy. A few people are asking me about it though, because I didn’t tell the reader. I didn’t want to write a character who is obsessed with her weight, how pretty she is/isn’t, how old she is to be unmarried, or even how she compares to the people around her. What you learn about her is what you need to understand other issues. You know she is tall because she is seemingly unlike Fredrick’s type. You need to know this so you understand that, to get over Emma, he dated women who look like tiny, pixie Louisa. Emma isn’t obsessed with her looks or getting married because I wanted to create a character that reflects what we want women to value: themselves the way they are. I want readers to recognize that growth and change are good, but it doesn’t have to be about you physically and it’s not all in service to marriage.
This was something I wanted to make the point of in the Mary short story. That we use labels to box women into being a specific way. Identifying as a feminist puts you in a box that shouldn’t exist. There isn’t one way to be a feminist. I dislike anyone feeling like they have to fit into someone else’s box.
So, why don’t I give more of a description of a character? Primarily because I don’t what their physical traits to become the focus of this or any story. Emma isn’t defined by her body and I don’t want readers to think something specific about her because of it. That being said, for those who have read the book, who did you picture for these characters? I would love to know because a few people know who I had in mind, but I don’t know who other people think of. Tell me your casting choices in the comments!