Mary Costello's literary heroines
My favourite literary heroines reside in the twentieth century and don’t look much like heroines at all. There’s Ruthie and Sylvie in Marilyn Robinson’s Housekeeping, and Lila and Doll in her latest novel Lila. These girls and women are transients, migrant workers, in whose wandering souls Robinson reveals the intrinsic value of human beings. At the other end of the heroine spectrum is J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, a tired old novelist in possession of an extreme sensitivity to the suffering of all beings, which causes her to speak her mind and say the unsayable. With this character, there’s no escape from the self, no shirking of awkward truths.
And then there’s Juliet. It is 1965 and Juliet is twenty-one when we encounter her in Chance, the first of Alice’s Munro’s three linked stories from her collection Runaway. A Classics student, Juliet is tall, socially awkward, with little experience of men. In the town where she grew up ‘her sort of intelligence was often put in the same category as a limp or an extra thumb.’ Her professors are delighted with her giftedness and her love of the Greeks but there is the question of what will become of her. The problem was she was a girl, and if she did not marry she would become ‘bleak and isolated’.
Juliet meets a man on a train and six months later she travels out of Vancouver and arrives, uninvited, at his home near Whale Bay. Eric is not at home but she waits in his house overnight, full of dread and shame. ‘You’re here,’ he says when he arrives the next morning. She is aware of the complications of a relationship with Eric, but she stays. Because ‘there will never be another chance so momentous in her life.’
In her life Juliet protests almost nothing. Outwardly she is calm, measured, rational, but inwardly she is full of trepidation, acutely aware of the precarious nature of existence. In her pursuit of love and in her yearning to belong she suffers heart-stopping moments of utter devastation.
In the second story, Soon, Juliet has abandoned her studies, set up home with Eric, borne a daughter named Penelope. When she travels back to her hometown with her daughter, we witness the growing estrangement between Juliet and her parents and her guilt in not fulfilling her daughterly duties.
In the final story, Silence, Juliet finds herself alone in middle age. Her beloved daughter has gone from her life without a word, firstly to a spiritual centre (‘She came to us in great hunger’) and then vanished entirely, leaving Juliet lost, shocked, baffled. It is not her only grief. Eric is dead, drowned at sea when Penelope was thirteen, his body then burnt on the beach by his fellow fishermen and friends. As she waits for word from Penelope, Juliet’s state of mind is portrayed with a quiet devastating power. Years pass, and then one day she discovers that Penelope is living in a town way up north, living the ordinary life of a wife and mother. If Juliet ever had to explain all of this to a lover, what would she say?
My daughter went away without telling me goodbye and in fact she probably did not know that she was going. She did not know it was for good. Then gradually, I believe, it dawned on her how much she wanted to stay away… You know we always have the idea that there is this reason or that reason and we keep trying to find out reasons. And I could tell you plenty about what I’ve done wrong. But I think the main reason may be something not so easily dug out. Something like purity in her nature. Yes. Some fineness and strictness and purity, some hard-rock honesty in her. My father used to say of someone he disliked, that he had no use for that person… Penelope does not have a use for me.
On the surface, there’s little that appears heroic about Juliet’s life. A typical introvert, she constantly struggles to navigate the outer world. Munro is a writer who has always given the inner life its due and here she gives immense weight and depth and value to Juliet’s interior world. Early on, Juliet makes a brave decision to pursue love. But her most courageous decision – her great act of love – is in not seeking out her daughter, but leaving her to live her own life. As she heads into old age Juliet takes a small garden flat, lives a quiet life among her books, where, I imagine, she will interrogate her own life – and conscience – against the backdrop of her beloved Greeks.
And Juliet’s life is, truly, suffused with the Greeks. In the everyday she accommodates the mythic – Homeric words and stories stream through her and she feels, in her own life, something of the impact and force the gods gave to the lives of the ancient Greeks. Her interior life is one of fervour and quivering intensity, where everything is observed and everything counts, and nothing is wasted. She engages in rigorous self-examination, and bravely accepts tragedy and loss without bitterness or blame, but as part of the human condition, part of a passionate and intensely lived life. For surely it is not only those who protest and fight against life’s hardships who can be called brave and heroic, but also those who can accommodate such hardships and transcend them, and in the process withstand immense psychic suffering.
Threaded throughout Juliet’s story is the question of fate, chance. There is a moment towards the end of the first story when Juliet decides to wait for Eric and not catch her bus back to Vancouver. This decision determines the arc of her life. The arc that includes thirteen years of joy and then the rest – the lost lover, the lost daughter, the silence, the eternal waiting. Would Juliet have fared better if she had stuck with her studies and risked growing bleak and isolated in the male world of academia? Would her loss and suffering have been any greater? In Darwin’s Worms Adam Philip argues that, in Freudian terms, there is just the right amount of suffering in the world, that nature sees to that – both our own nature and Nature in general. And in a world without God we have no one else to blame.