Maisie Dobbs, or, in Defense of a So-Called Mary Sue

Posted on June 10, 2013

If you follow me on Twitter or GoodReads (and you should), you know by now that I am a huge fan of the Maisie Dobbs mystery series by Jacqueline Winspear. Although I don’t tend to read tons of mysteries, some friends recommended these to me and I got hooked but good. Maisie’s combination of determined practicality and occasional mysticism struck me as unusual and compelling, the cases she investigates are satisfyingly twisty, and her personal life is written with such an extreme level of restraint that it only makes me wilder to find out whether any of these guys stand a chance against Maisie’s fierce independence. Yet when I began looking for fellow fans of the books, whether in person or online, I kept running into an objection: “Oh, she’s just a Mary Sue.”

As you guys no doubt know, the “Mary Sue” is a term from fanfiction. It refers to an original character, nearly always female, who is a stand-in for the author, who soaks up attention that would normally be given in fanfic to the characters from the source text, and who has so many gifts/talents/admirers and so few flaws that she is both unbelievable and insufferable. It is my firm belief that Maisie Dobbs is no Mary Sue.

There are fangirl reasons I could give, and will briefly: Maisie has plenty of flaws, which are not only left for the reader to notice but are brought up by the characters once in a while, and often belatedly realized by Maisie herself (such as her meddling in her employee’s lives, or her tendency to brood). Not every character in the series admires her — just ask Inspector Caldwell.

But the real logistical reason Maisie Dobbs is no Mary Sue is because she is not in fanfiction. The main reason fic readers get annoyed with Mary Sues isn’t their idealization, as a fair bit of fanfic idealizes the canon characters almost past the point of recognition. No, the reason the Mary Sue is annoying is because she’s not supposed to be there. You’re not reading Star Wars fanfic to hear all about Han’s spunky kid sister, the purple-eyed telepath who, at the age of 15, already pilots her own ship that’s even faster than the Millennium Falcon. You’re reading it because you want to hear about Han, Leia, Luke and the gang from the movies.

Therefore, to me, no character in an original work can be a Mary Sue in the first place. It would be ludicrous to say that Maisie Dobbs is taking up all this time in the Maisie Dobbs series. So why do people say it?

Well, my good friend Marina once said, “Some people throw the term Mary Sue at any female character competent enough to walk home in the rain without drowning.” Or, more generally, we don’t want to let female characters just be awesome.

Is there an element of wish-fulfillment in Maisie Dobbs? For sure. She was a domestic servant whose intelligence was discovered by a benevolent employer, who put her way through school. She lived through dramatic events in World War I. Now she’s a single female PI in interregnum London. And she even has … I can’t get into this without spoiling the twist in the first book that made it such a delight for me, but let’s say Maisie has a few more cards to play than the usual investigators. And a few rather winning men have paid attention to her over the years, from the cheerful Andrew Dene to the dashing Simon Lynch to the melancholy Richard Stratton (i.e., everyone’s favorite … except Maisie’s, so far.)  So she’s got a whole lot more going on than the average person.

Which is what makes this an interesting series of books. Which makes her an intriguing character.

Seriously, let’s look at another character by way of contrast: Jack Reacher. Mr. Reacher is the lead character of a series of novels by Lee Child that have sold as many copies as there are molecules in the sun. He’s a graduate of West Point, a richly decorated Army vet who has become a mysterious drifter and righter of wrongs. So unencumbered is he that he owns nothing, just a toothbrush and some ID, and simply discards and replaces clothes cheaply as needed. At the age of six, he had already been studied by Army docs who marveled at his inability to feel fear, and he himself says he lacks “the remorse gene.” He’s 6’5″ and muscular even though he doesn’t really work out. He has a fascination with mathematics. He has the uncanny ability to know what time it is, no matter whether waking or sleeping, and so needs no alarm to wake himself up. He’s talented in several martial arts. He can break someone’s neck with one hand, or kill with a single punch to the chest. He’s the only non-Marine to win the US Marine Corps International Rifle Competition. His mother always called him “Reacher” instead of Jack … need I go on?

And Jack Reacher is a hero. Everyone knows he’s all about wish fulfillment, but the difference is, nobody cares when it’s a guy. A male character can be this over the top and win the love of thousands upon thousands of readers, be featured in a movie (regrettably ill-cast with Tom Cruise) and even show up in an admiring mention by Stephen King in one of his books. Meanwhile, Maisie Dobbs thinks with satisfaction that she’s going to be able to pay her mortgage this month, and apparently the response of a lot of readers — female readers, alas — is “Who does she think she is?”

I want to be clear; in no way am I putting down Jack Reacher, a character who is clearly much beloved, or Lee Child, an author I greatly respect.* Nor am I saying the Maisie Dobbs books are perfect; like every other book ever written, they have their flaws. What I’m saying is, women should get wish-fulfillment characters too. Maisie Dobbs works hard on her investigations, deeply questions her own motives, sometimes makes mistakes and goes down blind alleys, knows she picks out frumpy clothing but has no time to worry about it, and in many other ways acts like an entirely believable human being. Can we maybe let her meet slightly more handsome, available Englishmen than sheer statistics would suggest? Can she have a couple of talents that not every single person in the world shares?

In other words, can we allow a female character the chance to be even just a smidge larger than life, the same way we allow male characters to be? I’d like to think so.

(Sometime soon I’ll blog – as others have done – on the insidious “annoying” applied to virtually any female character, with no reason given, and yet virtually never applied to male characters with the same flaws.)


*Several years ago I attended Thrillerfest, at which Lee Child was one of the featured authors. Another featured author was Sandra Brown, who moved into thrillers after many years of success writing romance. I got to Sandra Brown’s talk a little late and so hurriedly slipped into the very back row — where I was startled to see Lee Child sitting next to me. Here’s this guy who’s sold more books than the next 10 NYT bestsellers put together, who writes manly-man books … and not only was he listening with attention and respect, he was taking notes. A lot of male writers automatically disdain women who write romance. Well, not Lee Child.