The Starlight Woman

I’m almost a full month late to talk about The Song of Achilles, the next book on my reading list. It should be up next week, and I’ll do an extra book soon to make up for it. I can’t really apologise, because years of ADHD and bad teachers have established my opinion on deadlines as ‘aggressively against’. Most people learn to work around their ADHD. I learned that everyone else is a jerk and I make my own schedule. (I don’t mean that. You’re not a jerk.)

Reading The Song of Achilles has made me think about several things, though, including, in a very roundabout way, one of my favourite tropes. I call it the Starlight Woman. Get it? Like scarlet, but starlight? I made up a name for it because I’ve never actually seen it categorised, but it’s definitely somewhere in the depths of the TV Tropes abyss. On the other hand, how much can a trope reflect real life before it becomes less of a trope and more of just A Thing That Happens?

A Starlight Woman, as I would define her, is a woman who basically has everything, or at least everything that our society values. She’s wealthy, popular, beautiful, witty, and intelligent. Too charismatic for her own good; too ambitious to avoid scandals. A social climber, usually. A patron of the arts and sciences. And she’s got a certain je ne sais quoi. She’s perfect, no? Not exactly. She’s not a Mary Sue, or if she is, she’s a very particular brand of one. She does have flaws, especially since every trait I just mentioned is a double-edged sword in our society. We might like to watch people like her, and we might hope to be like her someday, but when she actually appears in our lives she’s suddenly a bit too much. She burns too bright. When she does appear, scandals and/or disasters are usually not far behind, either because she’s a little out of control, or because she causes other people to lose control. If she’s written by a man, she has ‘damage’ (GROSS) and that’s mostly what the male lead finds attractive about her (GROSS), because of course he’s not shallow enough to care about her beauty or her wit (GROSS).

I had three women in mind as examples, one written by a woman, one by a man, and one who lived and died in the real world. Unfortunately the man was Hemingway, and on a second perusal through The Sun Also Rises, I realised that I can’t stand any of these characters, or at least the way they are written, and therefore don’t want to write about them, even if they prove my point. I should have picked someone else, but honestly I ran out of time. Those deadlines really get me.

The first example, however, is a woman that I do love, Marguerite St Just, otherwise known as Lady Blakeney, the wife of Sir Perceval Blakeney and the heroine of Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel. This is the first description of Marguerite in the 1913 novel:

There are many portraits and miniatures extant of Marguerite St Just – Lady Blakeney as she was then – but it is doubtful if any of these really do her singular beauty justice. Tall over the average, with magnificent presence and regal figure, it is small wonder that even the Comtesse paused for a moment in involuntary admiration before turning her back on so fascinating an apparition.

Yeah, that sounds a lot like a Mary Sue, but bear with me a moment: Mary Sues are almost impossible to define, but the major issue with them is that they don’t really have flaws. They’re perfect, everyone loves them, and they save the day.

Marguerite does have flaws, not everyone loves her, and she doesn’t save the day. The Comtesse of the quote above, in fact, has just finished telling her rescuers that she refuses to see Marguerite because she believes Marguerite to have denounced the St Cyr family to the new French Republic, resulting in the entire family being sent to the guillotine. And she’s right; Marguerite even admits it later.

Lady Blakeney (Merle Oberon) and her husband, Sir Percy (Leslie Howard), discussing her new portrait at the beginning of the 1934 film.

Marguerite’s quite an interesting woman in a story that is already packed full of adventure and intrigue. The Scarlet Pimpernel is set in the midst of the French Revolution, a particularly bloody period of general world history, when the French decided to murder their king and an entire socioeconomic class in order to create a government run by the will of the people – no easy task. The Pimpernel, the hero of Baroness Orczy’s novel, is a British nobleman with a talent for languages, disguises, and general cunning who spends his free time saving French nobles from their gruesome fate. That’s when he isn’t playing his secret alter-ego, the dull and inane Sir Percy Blakeney. You might have noticed this sounds familiar, especially to theatre-goers in the past few years, or comic book readers in the past fifty years. The Scarlet Pimpernel is arguably the origin of the superhero genre. There have been similar stories (The Count of Monte Cristo comes to mind), but Percy is the more solidified precursor, with the secret identity and the arch nemesis, the serialised publications … and the damsel in distress.

I’d like to say that Marguerite isn’t really a damsel in distress, but she is. She one hundred percent needs Percy to save her at the end, although she still does pretty well for herself up until then. She figures out his identity, for one thing, before it fully destroys their relationship but after she’s given his nemesis important information about him. She puts herself in danger to save him as soon as she realises this. At the end of the day, though, she still falls (or in the 1934 movie, feints dramatically) into Chauvelin’s trap.

merle oberon M St J
Marguerite (Merle Oberon) posing for her portrait. Merle Oberon is quite an interesting lady herself.

P.S. If you can ignore the fact that Marguerite literally just feints at the most important moment, the 1934 film version of The Scarlet Pimpernel is really good. It’s been my favourite movie since I was a child. I even wrote an essay on it in university. There’s a scene where Leslie Howard, playing Percy, is talking to his men about their next mission, and someone stumbles in on them. I have never seen a person so visibly switch personalities like that. It puts Andy Serkis’ Gollum to shame, and I don’t take Andy Serkis lightly. psst: you can find the whole film on youtube. 

For my second example I had thought of Lady Brett Ashley, the female lead of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. I just realised that all of my examples are titled women, and that really wasn’t intentional, although it’s an interesting observation – the difference between someone who is wealthy and someone who is “classy” – but that might take another post to get into … When I first read The Sun Also Rises in school, I loved it, but that was about nine years ago now and my view of the world has changed significantly. Now I find the treatment of the characters a bit of a slog to get through. Brett, however, has always remained in the back of my mind. She’s fascinating to me, whether that’s in spite of or because the main character, Jake, both loves and hates her so much, and that’s exactly what I mean about these traits being a double-edged sword. Brett can be as witty and popular and charming as she likes, but to Jake, those qualities are exactly what draws him to her, and exactly what pushes him away, because he’s not the only one being drawn in. In a way, what makes Brett a Starlight Woman is what makes her the villain of the story – so this is really an example of what not to do.

But I’m moving on now, because that’s as much Hemingway as I can stomach in one post.

Now I’d like to introduce Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire. Georgiana was not a fictional character. She really lived, from 1757 to 1806, and she was a Starlight Woman if there ever was one. Here’s a quote from Amanda Foreman’s biography:

Georgiana combined a perfect mastery of etiquette with a mischievous grace and ease which met with approval in the artificial and mannered atmosphere of the French court. Whenever Georgiana accompanied Lady Spencer people marvelled at the way in which she seemed so natural and yet also conscious of being on show.

That’s a description of her as a child. She only became more beautiful, more popular, the most fashionable woman in London, a published author of both poetry and prose, and an absolute mover and shaker in the world of British politics. She was also addicted to gambling, dabbled in opium, and had multiple affairs. I don’t want to get into too much detail, since she lived for forty-eight years and that’s a lot of detail, but there is the Foreman biography, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and the film they made with Keira Knightly if you want to know more.

Joshua Reynolds’ 1775 portrait of the Duchess. She was famous for the height of her hair in Britain, and the addition of the ostrich feather.

The thing about powerful women in stories is that they tend to occupy a singular space because there’s a common belief that powerful women hate other powerful women (or just that women hate other women) and will refuse to share the spotlight. This happily doubles as an excuse for not putting too many women in a story in the first place. In real life, it obviously doesn’t work like that.

There are certain historical periods in which gender roles and spheres of influence have been enforced more significantly. The eighteenth century in Europe was one of these, still enthralled with Renaissance ideals drawn themselves from Greek and Roman antiquity.¹ Despite new Enlightenment beliefs about the Rights of Man, it would still take another century or two before the rights of women and black men took the stage (maybe someday we’ll get around to the rights of black women).

Getting back on point, for some reason when women are restricted to spending most of their time around other women, we still believe they don’t like other women, and even define these same women in history by their relationships to famous men. What makes Georgiana interesting, though, is her relationships with women: she was best friends with her husband’s mistress, Lady Elizabeth Foster. The three of them actually lived together, which was very unusual for the time. She was also pen pals with Marie Antoinette, who might have been a contender for Starlight Woman herself, but executions put a damper on everything.

The reason I like this trope, or this kind of person, so much is that it’s one of the few times in stories and in history that women are really allowed to be both feminine and powerful.

That’s about it. That’s why I like it. There are flaws to this, obviously (cough Marie Antoinette cough), and it in no way means that these women don’t have flaws – I think they’re made the better for it, but that’s my opinion. These women don’t have to express their sexuality, although they can. They don’t have to carry a big gun to get their way, although it might have helped once or twice. They can be exactly who their society expects them to be, and exactly the opposite of what that means, at the same time. So she’s just a cool character. She can be done well, or she can be done badly, but either way I will still find her fascinating.

And as one final point: women in stories and history will always have some influence on women in real life, today, which is why this kind of trope is important: the powerful woman who represents a balance between feminine presentation and influence in society. I specifically didn’t mention men or other genders, not because I thought there wasn’t a counterpoint there, but because I was trying to make the original point, the one I have experience with. If there is a counterpoint to be made, someone else can take up that mantle.


¹Fun fact: The Renaissance gender distinctions were actually a regression from the period we usually think of as the “Dark Ages” – the early and high medieval periods obviously weren’t made up of an idealised society, but it was far closer to gender equality and freedom of expression than we think, hence the reaction against that spawned the Renaissance.

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