Is Verity Durant a “Feminist” Heroine?

Rachel Potter’s C+ review of Sherry Thomas’s Delicious over at All About Romance is, IMO, very well done, although I liked Delicious a lot more than she did. But what struck me most about Potter’s review were the following statements (and, in my biz, it’s a compliment when someone’s writing inspires you to think hard about something, so I hope Ms. Potter, should she ever stumble upon this, takes it in that spirit):

” Verity is a strong character, never a victim even when victimized. Readers who like feminist heroines will love her. … Readers who like love triangles, feminist, sexually experienced heroines, disguises, and strong sensuality might like it more than I did, however.”

I personally *heart* all of the things in that list, which explains, in part, my more positive view of the book. But I find myself asking, “Is Verity Durant a feminist heroine?” And what does that even mean?

Possible meanings:

1. Verity is a self-identified feminist (ok, first wavers didn’t use the term, but you know what I mean). Was she an Elizabeth Cady Stanton? Obviously not.

2. Verity herself holds beliefs that we can call “feminist” for her time, although she never self-identified as such, or fought for the cause. First wavers tended to be less theoretical and more focused on issues like suffrage, but regardless, there’s no textual evidence that Verity recognized the politicized nature of gender, or viewed her own situation within any kind of political framework.

3. Verity believed things and behaved in ways that women today who call themselves “feminists” will approve of. I think this is what Potter means. Let’s suppose –bracketing for a moment all the thorny questions of how we define “feminist” — this statement is true. What is the objection to it? Is it (a) that it is historically inaccurate? Or is it (b) that there’s something unappealing about a heroine who behaves in a “feminist way”, a way Potter has described only as “never victimized.”

As to (a), I can understand the criticism when a character behaves in ways that are historically extremely unlikely. This doesn’t bother me too much, personally, especially if the author has made a character’s journey into historically unlikely possibilities believable for me as a reader. Why didn’t Verity take the more historically probable course, ending up impoverished, a prostitute, and dead at a young age (actually, the MOST likely course would have been to hew to her family’s rules and culture’s traditions in the first place)? I personally think Thomas did a good job showing us why that fate didn’t befall that particular character. But this isn’t an issue relating specifically to feminism — there are all kinds of historically unlikely routes which could give a reader pause (for example, Verity could have summoned a spaceship and headed to Mars, a planet on which few feminists currently reside).

As to (b), what I can’t understand is the criticism that there is something wrong with a heroine acting in ways a reader who today views herself as a feminist would appreciate and enjoy. What on earth could this mean? Verity is witty, smart, supremely talented at the skill to which she has devoted her life, loves deeply, as both a mother and partner, and is (hell yeah!) the master of her sexual domain. I admit (see (a) above), that some of this is extremely unlikely for the late nineteenth century (and even today. See this New York Times article from 2007 on why top women chefs are such a rare breed), but that’s a different issue.

I enjoy reading about heroines like Verity Durant, and I hope authors like Sherry Thomas keep writing them.

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