What makes a literary idol?

Another short post, but one which I’ve been mulling over while reading Barchester Towers – since, as any followers of @stuck_inabook on Twitter might have noticed, I flipping love Septimus Harding. He is the hero of The Warden and, to a lesser extent, Barchester Towers – and he is about the most moral, kind, and self-sacrificing gentleman imaginable.

He thus joins what has become a trio of literary men whom I admire wholeheartedly. Alongside Septimus H are Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird and lovely Joe Gargery in Great Expectations. What all three have in common are absolute goodness. They are basically my fictional moral compasses.

But… what’s also struck me, subsequently, is that (much as I continue to admire these men) I’m not sure how much I would like to know them in real life. Because none of them (correct me if I’m wrong) are especially funny, and a sense of humour is pretty much the thing I value most in a friend or acquaintance. Yes, Joe is fond of larks, but I’m not sure I would find many of the same things larkworthy.

Would knowing Septimus or Atticus in real life just make me feel unworthy all of the time? Would they be able to have a giggle over a cup of tea? I’m not sure.

Plenty of the characters I love reading about (Miss Hargreaves, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Mapp & Lucia) would be nightmares in reality, but I’ve come to realise that it’s not just the appalling ones who wouldn’t work out well on a day to day basis, it’s the good’uns too.

Or are there characters who are very funny but also very good? By which I mean moral-mentor-good, not Elizabeth-Bennett-sort-of-good. Or is a sense of humour always a slight moral flaw (or at least a moral diminishment) in a novel?

Here endeth the stream of consciousness…

19 thoughts on “What makes a literary idol?

  • January 15, 2015 at 1:36 am
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    Fascinating! Simon, I think a sense of humor is rooted in a sense of balance, of clarity. Humor can cut straight through to truth. Perhaps the question is why we see "moral" as stuffy or flat?

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  • January 15, 2015 at 8:18 am
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    Perhaps Mr Knightley in "Emma" might fit the bill; he's certainly moral-mentor-good, and his sense of humour is surely part of his perceptiveness and good judgement. I too love Atticus Finch and Joe Gargery, and I'm sure Septimus Harding is lovely as well (I read a lot of Trollope in my teens, improbably, but can't now remember him very well); but, for me, it's always Mr Knightley.

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  • January 15, 2015 at 11:30 am
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    Hm, interesting. I recently (ish) fell in love with Adam Bede, but he doesn't strike me as that jolly, either. And Mr Rochester's hardly a laugh a minute, is he!

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  • January 15, 2015 at 11:49 am
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    It *is* a bit of a moral dilemma Simon! I think that some of Dickens' good characters would be nice to be around – the Minor Canon and Mr. Grewgious in "Edwin Drood" were a delight, despite their all-round cosiness because you felt that they knew life in all its myriad forms, and were still lovely! But perhaps that's the joy of fiction – we can revel in Lucia's bitchiness without having to meet it in real life!! :)

    kaggsysbookishramblings

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  • January 15, 2015 at 12:59 pm
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    Excellent question, Simon. I'm going to have to think about this today while performing chores (it's just 8:00 am here in Toronto) and get back to you.

    Yes indeed to Atticus and Joe. I love Joe. I love that he never raised a hand to his horrible wife because he'd had a violent father and didn't want to start down the same road. I love that he ends up with all the good things he deserves.

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  • January 15, 2015 at 6:03 pm
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    Fascinating!! I probably would have gotten a little bored with Joe, gentle soul that he is, but I don't think I'd ever get tired being around Atticus and my bet is that he was actually a lot of fun once he kicked off his shoes and loosened his tie. Actually the man I really wish I could crawl into a book and spend some time with (over high tea somewhere) is Lord Peter Wimsey. In spite of his snobby upper class crust he was actually a decent sort of guy, and terribly witty.

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  • January 15, 2015 at 10:23 pm
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    Yes! One of my absolute favourite characters is Mark Tapley from Martin Chuzzlewit, and that's partly because he's just so delightful and so kind, but also because he's such entertaining company. Someone who refuses to admit there's any virtue in his good works because he just enjoys them too much! He could have been a really irritating character, but he isn't. He's one I would love to meet in real life (and who I was sorry to say goodbye to at the end of the book).

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  • January 15, 2015 at 11:16 pm
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    Mr. Knightley in Emma. His "badly done, Emma" was shattering. His dressing down of Emma because of her insensitivity to Miss Bates, too. Those words from any person I hold in high regard would be enough.

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  • January 16, 2015 at 4:39 am
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    Now I want to read Barchester Towers. I like to read about good people in novels, or in biographies, for that matter. Commissario Brunetti in the Donna Leon series would be a person to enjoy a chat with.

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  • January 16, 2015 at 10:45 am
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    I agree with you in your choice of good people – I have always been fond of Joe.

    Who would be the female equivalents?

    I nominate Anne in Jane Austen's Persuasion, Dorothea in Middlemarch and Cassandra in I capture the castle (I thought long and hard about nominating Cassandra, but she is a good person, and moreover she has a sense of humour).

    I love Susan's comments about Mr. Knightley, a great favourite of mine.

    ( I've just finished reading Alexander McCall Smith's version of Emma, and after a promising beginning, it just fell away… such a difficult task to update and re write Jane Austen.)

    Love this topic and your post is great fun.

    Sue

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  • January 16, 2015 at 12:18 pm
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    Just as I was falling asleep last night, not even thinking about literary heroes, Matthew Cuthbert slipped into my mind and smiled his sweet smile. Perhaps a direct descendent of Joe Gargery. His kindness and decency flows like a river through Anne of Green Gables. "We might be of some use to her," he says, astounding Marilla with his quiet determination to keep the orphan they've been sent in error. And then he risks Marilla's disapproval and the dangers of the pretty, pert shop assistant to buy a dress with puffed sleeves for Anne.

    Like Sue, I was trying to think of women who are literary heroes. Thanks for mentioning Anne Elliot. Having once giving in to persuasion, to her lasting regret, she grows into her own woman, defying her father and family to hold her ground.

    I had considered and discarded Dorothea, because of her blind spot about Casaubon. Thinking again though, I see you're right; like Anne, she grows wiser about her own heart without abandoning her principles.

    I'm still thinking about this question.

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  • January 16, 2015 at 8:19 pm
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    Mr Knightley as so many have already said, plus the ex-monk doctor Guy in the Shardlake series. I agree with Susan D too about Dorothea and Anne.

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  • January 17, 2015 at 12:38 pm
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    Sorry, just a quick further thought after reading other comments: readers might enjoy "How to be a Heroine" by Samantha Ellis,in which she tells her life story through the books and heroines which have influenced her. (The paperback was published in the UK this week and rather to my surprise I managed to win a copy by tweeting "Dorothea Brooke"!)

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    • January 19, 2015 at 7:34 am
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      I love Mr. Harding! Such a good man. And I adore how he plays an imaginary cello when he is feeling stressed.

      Mark Tapely would probably be fun to hang out with, but I also love Tom Pinch from Martin Chuzzlewit. A very good man, although very naïve.

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  • January 19, 2015 at 4:24 pm
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    Interesting – just a few days ago, I was thinking about fictional characters versus real people … it occurred to me that all who read a specific book receive exactly the same information about a character, chosen by the writer often with the precise purpose of illuminating the character (even with an unreliable narrator, every reader is getting the same shock about the same information at the same time in knowing the character), whereas with real people, each of us has such different bits of information about them depending on varying experiences, varying things we’ve each heard them say in differing situations and whatever we’ve each randomly happened to observe of them and their actions as well as other people’s reactions to them. In real life, getting a reliable, well-defined view of someone’s character in the same amount of time that it takes to read a book is difficult and probably unlikely.

    My friendships are deepest with people who share my morals and ethics, have a satirical, but at the same time kind, sense of humour, and are confident and engaged in their own areas of interest while open and respectful to others. Septimus is lovely and is a favourite of mine – he might, though, tend to the literal side of humour rather than the satirical which might make me a bit lonely in my satire. I’m nervous about Mr. Mr. Knightley … he appears to get very upset when he can’t control a situation. Mrs. Oldknow of The Children of Green Knowe would do well with me, I think.

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  • January 19, 2015 at 7:06 pm
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    I'm going to be mulling this one for a while, but the first name that springs to mind is Rose Campbell from Louise May Alcott's "Eight Cousins" and (more specifically) "Rose in Bloom." She really tries to follow her moral compass and strive for the good, and she's also affectionate, amusing, fun-loving, loyal, intelligent. One of my favorite literary role models. I'd love to hang out with her.

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    • January 19, 2015 at 7:07 pm
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      Arrrgghh… LouisA!
      I should have previewed. :-)

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  • January 23, 2015 at 10:14 pm
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    John Ames from Marilynne Robinson's description-defying Gilead trilogy: such a good man; flawed but truly good.

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