Skinny, red-haired Frederica is said to resemble the young Queen Elizabeth. Or perhaps Cate Blanchett as the young Elizabeth? Photos from marileecody.com and themakeupgallery.info.
If Frederica Potter were a real person and not a fictional character, she'd turn 72 years old today--August 24, St. Bartholomew's Day. (Here in the real world, her creator A.S. Byatt turned 71.) Earlier I threatened a big post about Frederica, and what better day to write it? She's my new favorite heroine, and as you see, I've been thinking a lot about the quartet of books in which she appears. Here I'll focus mostly on the first two books, The Virgin in the Garden and Still Life, because in them Frederica plays a bigger part and is closest to my age, so I can relate to her better.
Frederica feels so real and recognizable to me, yet she is very different from the typical coming-of-age-story heroine. When Jane Austen created Emma, she called her "a heroine whom no one but myself will much like," and I imagine Byatt saying the same about Frederica. If anything, Frederica is even less sympathetic than Emma: at least Emma thinks she's helping people by meddling in their lives, but Frederica is only out for herself. I don't mean she's immoral--but others often describe her as "prickly" or "grim" or even "awful." She is competitive and arrogant, she doesn't have a true female friend until she is in her thirties, and despite all that, I love her.
If there's one quote that sums up Frederica, it's this, which could be my motto, too:
ALEXANDER: Can't you just be in a place, Frederica?My post below about laminations gives you some idea of Frederica's overactive mind. She reads incessantly and loves to opine about her reading to others. (Sound familiar?) And a scene in Babel Tower proves that the worst thing you can do to a woman like Frederica (short of hurting her or someone she loves) is to burn up her book collection. In high school, Frederica is the top student and feels she obviously deserves it: "She knew the teachers did not like her, but justice required that she come first on any academic list, and it was the duty of those who made the lists to represent whilst they made them, abstract justice" (Virgin 70). In fact, at 17 she is a raging egotist: "[She] clearly believed herself to be a genius, and expressed this belief [...] grossly and stridently” (134).
FREDERICA: No. I think. I have to think. (Still Life 84)
Still, Frederica gains a measure of sympathy when it becomes clear that her unpleasant, arrogant behavior masks a deep insecurity. She is ashamed to be a virgin from "provincial" Yorkshire, lacking female friends. The conventionally pretty and sweet-natured high school girls reject her, so to avoid feeling hurt, she convinces herself she's superior to them. She is probably jealous of her older sister Stephanie, who is just as smart but much more pleasant, and feels superior to Stephanie's housewifely ambitions too. Frederica's fullest expression of her insecurities and defense mechanisms comes toward the end of The Virgin in the Garden: "I’m sorry. I only grate on people’s nerves because I don’t know what to do, I don’t fit in anywhere, I’m not seen, for all I flaunt myself so" (409). Frederica believes she is very special and valuable, but since no one else thinks of her that way, her self-confidence becomes shaky. Because how can a girl destined for such greatness be so awkward and unpopular in the here-and-now?