Alfred Noyes’ poem “The Highwayman” is one of the most beloved story-poems in the English language. Originally written in 1906, it has survived intact into the present day, and has inspired numerous stories, films, songs and uncountable works of art. The poem’s appeal lies in the passionate way it depicts the doomed love of Bess, and the piece’s titular Highwayman. While both characters die at the end of the poem and many adaptations maintain the plot of the original, more recent adaptations have given an increasing amount of power and agency to Bess’ character. The original poem portrays her as almost entirely passive; her only moment of agency is in coming to her bedroom window in order to greet her lover. In The Highwayman’s Footsteps by Nicola Morgan, the daughter of two characters based on the protagonists of Noyes’ poem becomes a highwayman herself, bucking social norms and abandoning the restrictive expectations of women in the 18th century. Finally, Bess herself is reexamined when her character is adapted into a playable character for the tabletop role playing game, “Depths.” What emerges from the relationship between these texts is a representation in fiction of the real-world increase of women’s agency. With the expansion of women’s rights, female characters in fiction have simultaneously become more active in their own stories, and it is through adaptations of older female characters who originally lacked agency that creators explore this progression. In creating a visual representation of the relationship between these three texts using Scratch, placement, size and sequence are employed to convey the evolving nature of Bess’ character.
In his essay regarding the effect of emotional distance in art, Stephen C. Pepper writes that, “It is natural to find romantic love in the moonlight; natural… that a highwayman should kiss the land-lord’s daughter… that Bess should be brutally mauled, that she should struggle to save her lover… that she should save him and die” (236). Why is this sequence of events considered “natural”? Why has the “brutal mauling” of a woman considered normal enough to be romanticized? The answer may lie in the fact that women have always held a subservient position to men within literature, both when written and when writing. “A heroine without a maxim,” who does not fit into accepted ideas about the ways women should think, feel and act, states Nancy K. Miller, “is destined to be misunderstood” because such fiction “violate[s] a grammar of motives that describes while prescribing… what wives, not to say women, should or should not do” (36-37). Though Miller speaks specifically of wives in French fiction, the point applies more generally as well. Noyes’ poem is so popular in part because his characters fit so easily into accepted gender norms and literary tropes—Bess, the “fallen woman” who is having a premarital affair, is redeemed by death, and even in taking her own life she has no agency whatsoever: it is physically impossible to shoot oneself in the chest with a 5-foot-long musket. On a symbolic level, then, it is Noyes himself who kills Bess, a male presence deciding the fate of a female character.
French feminist Helene Cixous asserts that to subvert and ultimately dismantle such damaging paradigms, women must write, and write exclusively for themselves. She maintains that women don’t write “Because writing is at once too high, too great for [women], it’s reserved for the great—that is for ‘great men’,” which alludes to the way male writers control literature. Nicola Morgan subverts this to a degree simply by being a woman writer, and her novel The Highwayman’s Footsteps takes the first steps toward dismantling the inherent sexism of “The Highwayman” through her interpretation of Bess. Morgan’s character is the daughter of the lovers from Noyes’ poem, and while the younger Bess is a highly independent highwayman herself, able to ride, shoot and rob with the best of men, the narrative is told from the perspective of a male character. On top of that, his first prolonged interaction with Bess is to nurse her back to health after she collapses while attempting to rob him, giving him complete control over Bess’ body. In essence, this male narrator must return Bess’ physical agency to her before she can accomplish anything within the story. While Morgan’s attempt to reinvent Bess as a character with agency is admirable, it nevertheless falls prey to some of the same conventions as its predecessor, perhaps because, as Cixous puts it, “phallogocentric sublation is with us [women], and it’s militant, regenerating the old patterns.”
The last adaptation of Bess’ character is of my own creation, and was crafted as a direct response to my dissatisfaction with the original text’s treatment of Bess. In re-creating Bess Blackwood as a playable character for a tabletop role playing game, I am not only equipping the character with agency she did not previously have, but am also asserting that, as a woman, her agency is mine to own. Due to the performative nature of tabletop RPGs, I am constantly “writing” Bess into existence using my own femininity as a base. Having played through campaigns as a male character, during which my fellow players would refer to my character as “she” and “her,” I can assert that in tabletop RPGs there is a direct correlation between the gender of the player and of the character, so on a symbolic level giving Bess a last name, a literal voice and in-game attacks is a way for me to explore my own agency as a woman during a time when the discourse on gender is rapidly shifting.
At the same time, Bess Blackwood’s story and attacks tie her directly to Noyes’ work. This was intentional; I wanted her character to directly confront her lack of agency in the original text. Michael Hancock notes that in the work of fantasy titan Tamora Pierce, “The heroine’s quest is… a gradual development of self-awareness… Kel’s battle with Blayse, the man who preys on little children, cements her own role as protector. She has gone from the one who needed protecting… to being the one who protects others” (66). Bess, depicted as a vengeful ghost with the ability to conjure muskets at will in order to attack enemies, engages in that same subversion and reclaiming of power. She evolves from a narrative in which she is tied up and symbolically killed with a musket to a scenario in which she uses those same elements in order to defend herself, establishing her as the aggressor instead of the victim.
Cixous, Helene. “The Laugh of Medusa.” SUNY Oneonta. Web. 01 May 2012. <http://employees.oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/ARTH_220/cixous_medusa.htm>.
Hancock, Michael James. More than Escapism : Environmentalism and Feminism in the Young Adult Fantasy Novels of Tamora Pierce. Thesis. Thesis / Dissertation ETD, 2008. University of Saskatchewan, 2008. Print.
Miller, Nancy K. “Emphasis Added: Plot and Plausibilities in Women’s Fiction.” PMLA 96.1 (1981): 36-48. JSTOR. Web. 1 May 2012.
Pepper, Stephen C. “Emotional Distance in Art.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 4.4 (1946): 235-39. JSTOR. Web. 1 May 2012.