As I was reading That Hideous Strength, I was reminded of an anecdote Professor Michael Bauman of Hillsdale College told us about a certain female student who claimed that it was necessary to be a woman to depict a realistic female character. After Professor Bauman, a man of great intellect and kindness but pugnacious in argument, discovered that his arguments claiming that understanding women as human beings sufficed to allow a male author to depict a female character adeptly were falling on deaf ears, he brought in a book for her to read sans cover, title page, and any other identifying information. When she had finished, she told Professor Bauman: “At last, we have an author who can truly express the female voice/person!” (The exact wording escapes me.) To this, Professor Bauman responded that the book she had read was Till We Have Faces, which incidentally happens to be C. S. Lewis’ favorite of all the works he wrote.
However, I think that neither the student nor the esteemed professor were completely correct. C. S. Lewis has a rare talent for writing female characters. I am reminded of this in That Hideous Strength as he flawlessly describes the character and motivations of Mark’s wife, Jane. She wishes to remain an independent woman, a scholar, and free of the chains of masculine dominance. But, in creating a character of this kind, he does not condemn her as being an unreasonable woman following the fashions of the time. Rather, her position is described as perfectly rational, and Jane is one of the most sympathetic characters in the work.
Also, he adeptly depicts Miss Hardcastle, the chief of the evil organization’s secret police. She smokes cheroot cigars, possesses a powerful frame, and has a no nonsense attitude toward how the organization will affect social change. C. S. Lewis could have made this character overbearingly masculine, and yet he eschews this by giving her light feminine touches and showing how Mark finds her a little attractive. If there were any deficiencies in C. S. Lewis’s earlier methods of writing compelling characters, he had certainly solved them by this novel!
All in all, of the few male authors able to delineate female characters, Ovid and C. S. Lewis stand head and shoulders above the rest. (I suppose that we can place Ernest Hemingway at the bottom?) One can learn more about a woman’s psyche reading his books than those of many a female novelist!
Do you know of any other novelists who are as capable of getting into the opposite sex’s head? Especially male authors?