Monday, September 21, 2015

The Betty and Veronica Effect in Victorian Fiction

Betty and Veronica are two comic book characters in the comic Archie.  The two women vie for the affection of the titular hero, forming a love triangle.  One would think that Archie would have a more difficult choice if both women were very similar, but no: they are dynamically different, with Betty being the wholesome girl-next-door and Veronica is the dangerous Vamp.  One need only refer to TV Tropes to see that this is a common storytelling technique, seeing whether the hero will choose safety or danger, good or bad, light or dark.  But as I’d like to point out in the following blog entry, this sort of character dynamic is much older than Archie.

I’ve read a lot of Victorian novels, and most—especially those written by male authors—have a tendency towards saintly female characters who are so very good and yet so very, very boring.  Most of them may have upright natures, but they are helpless to stop whatever injustice is done to them or their loved ones.  

Kate Nickleby and Madeline Bray from Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby are good examples of what I mean: both are destitute and forced to work (gasp!) rather than be refined ladies as they deserve.  Yet it is not by their own efforts that they are saved from ignominious marriages of convenience or from ruined reputations or even from drudgery: it’s all up to Nicholas Nickleby (who is, after all, the hero) to save them.  Dickens usually has Betty characters as the heroines, basing them off his deceased sister-in-law (it’s a long story).  But he also incorporates Veronicas in characters such as Estella from Great Expectations or Little Em’ly from David Copperfield.  A great example of the Betty/Veronica dynamic is in Little Dorrit, with the heroine Amy Dorrit being the Betty while her more wordly, practical, and controlling sister Fanny is the Veronica.

In Vanity Fair, Amelia Sedley is this pure Victorian woman, and Becky is…well, not.  But the Victorians were all about morality, even if it was superficial morality and no matter how interesting, realistic, or well-developed the “bad” character.  It’s not so much that Becky is a great character—in any other story, she would be the shrewish villainess—as that she’s a great character in comparison to the extremely boring portrayal of Amelia.  Amelia is too passive, allowing the events of the story to happen to her, and not taking action herself.  Becky might be taking all the wrong actions, but a reader will always choose a proactive villainess over a passive heroine. 

Looking back to Far from the Madding Crowd, I said in a previous post that Bathsheba was a great character in theory, but was ruined by Thomas Hardy’s trying to get her to fit into the helpless, emotionally-governed model of weak femininity.  She’s like Becky Sharp, if a bit better behaved.  Bathsheba’s foil—and in fact the only other developed female in the book—is Fanny Robin, the poor, na├»ve, and doomed girl who was Sergeant Troy’s sweetheart before he went and married Bathsheba for her money.  The moment that Bathsheba realizes she’s part of this love triangle, she is heartbroken, not so much because she loved Troy but because she realized she was the “other” woman, a second choice, and in contrast to Fanny she’s the “bad” one. 

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot is another example.  The heroine is the misfit and clever Maggie Tulliver, a girl who longs for the very education and rights that were denied her as a woman in that time.  Her cousin Lucy is the perfect dear, domestic and simple and unconditionally loving everyone.  I’m actually surprised Eliot, a female author best known for her psychologically complex characters, resorted to this sort of dynamic between her two female characters. 


We’re often supposed to root for the Betty of Victorian novels, which is often hard for modern readers who are used to morally ambiguous heroes (or anti-heroes) from television and movies.  Readers tend to identify with characters who are like them, and since no human is perfect, it’s impossible for us to identify with the perfect Bettys of Victorian novels.  We often find ourselves rooting for these darker characters, not necessarily because they’re more three-dimensional or complex, but because they’re more realistic.  In a way, novel characters who are wicked allow us to admit to our own severe flaws and failings, to own up to a harsh reality through identifying with it in a fictionalized setting.

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