onsdag 21 augusti 2013

What's the appeal of the ranting rebel?

think I know which of my own taboos I will break next. Next time I fall in love - or, to be precise, develop a weird villain crush - the object of my affection will probably be an idealist who likes to explain at length his plans to save the world. Because, hitherto, I have not been able to see the point of this kind of bloke at all. Clearly this is a barrier waiting to be broken down.

It is, by now, impossible to find any one common denominator among all my villain crushes, except that they have been villains. But there is one thing most of them share: supreme selfishness. If pushed, they may perform a selfless act for someone they love (think of Soames, for instance). But sacrificing themselves to a higher cause? Nope - never, and quite right too. This down-to-earthness is one of the reasons I like villains so much. They cut through the waffle - or sneer at it and parody it to great effect - and concentrate on essential things. Like looking after number one.

Of course, there have been exceptions to the rule. Javert and Bulstrode are both idealists, and Chauvelin's exertions to capture the Scarlet Pimpernel are, at least at first, powered by his wish to be of service to the Revolution. But in each of these cases, what I've admired has been the style and personality of these men rather than their beliefs. I don't believe as fanatically in law and order as Javert (though anarchy certainly holds no appeal for me, besides not having to work), and I don't think people should be strong-armed into a grim and unmerciful kind of faith even by a scrumptious banker like Bulstrode. As for the Reign of Terror, we-ell, I suppose it got of hand just the teeniest bit. But no one could fault the way these gentlemen go about their business, with cunning (Chauvelin), powerful efficiency (Bulstrode) or just bare-faced panache (Javert).

The normal template for an idealist heartthrob in the world of fiction is nothing like Javert and Co. anyway. One good example, which made me think of the subject, is a character in the book I'm reading at the moment. It's called Park Lane and should be right up my street, as it has as its central characters a maid and her young mistress in a rich London household in the 1910s. An upstairs-downstairs perspective; balls; hard-to-find eligible matches; handsome (if annoyingly blameless) footmen - I ought really to be wild about it. Somehow, though, I'm not finding it as easy going as I'd hoped, and this is largely because I can't really warm to the novel's two heroines. They seem each in their own way very silly girls, and I find it hard to care when they get into completely self-inflicted trouble. The upstairs girl, Beatrice, is especially idiotic, more like a fourteen-year-old than a twenty-one-year-old. Both girls are full of admiration for Michael Campbell, the maid Grace's brother whom Beatrice encounters when attending a suffragette rally.

Michael is a texbook idealistic revolutionary, and describes his ideas of a new world order to anyone who cares to listen. He is full of glowering resentment towards the upper classes, and far from being put off by this, upper-class Beatrice thinks his rants are top hole. She even offers to type his glittering opinions and to find a newspaper publisher who will print them.

What is wrong with these women? Show me a self-important numbskull droning on about the people's revolution (while not so much deigning to wash up his own tea-cup, in most cases) and I'll show you a flock of women sitting entranced at his feet. Whenever a surly rebel turns up in a novel - or film or TV production for that matter - you can be sure one of the female protagonists will be making a bee-line for him. And I don't get it. I simply do not.

All right, perhaps it's partly, or even mostly, to do with the fact that the grand ideas that these rebels tend to spout hold no appeal for me. Also, I am a woman of the 20th century - we were taught to be wary of Utopias which hinged on the mysterious disappearance of a considerable part of the populace. The century's hard lessons weren't available to Beatrice, of course, but still it's hard to sympathise with her starry-eyed acceptance of both Michael's railings against her own kind and the violent actions planned by the group of hard-line suffragettes she's joined.  There is no excuse for committing foul deeds in the name of creating a better world. If it demands such things of you, how good can it be?

And so I throw down my gauntlet to future villains. Make me care for a wild-eyed social reformer who commits his villanies for the good of humanity, and you will truly have achieved something new.