Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
“Confidence is a quality I prize, although it has come to me a little late in the day,” writes Rebecca’s narrator, Mrs de Winter. “I suppose it is his dependence upon me that has made me bold at last. At any rate I have lost my diffidence, my timidity, my shyness with strangers. I am very different from that self who drove to Manderley for the first time ... handicapped by a rather desperate gaucherie and filled with an intense desire to please.” Rather like Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Mrs de Winter wins her confidence when she tames a wild husband. Unlike Jane, she never gets a first name.
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
It is not just women in fiction who are beaten into submission by life and their families. Pip’s sister’s husband, Joe Gargery, in Great Expectations, is “a mild, good-natured, sweet-tempered, easygoing, foolish, dear fellow – a sort of Hercules in strength, and also in weakness”. This put-upon, gentle man is reminiscent of Quoyle in Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News: “a great damp loaf of a body … As a child he developed stratagems to deflect stares; a smile, downcast gaze, the right hand darting up to cover the chin.”
Austen’s Mr Darcy embodies a particular sort of shy person: one so stricken by social anxiety that he ends up coming across as arrogant. He snubs Elizabeth at the Meryton ball, because dancing embarrasses him. His first marriage proposal is excruciating: “In vain have I struggled. It will not do …” A contemporary equivalent is Douglas Peterson in David Nicholls’ Us: a good man whose stuttering inability to say the right thing makes him slightly unbearable.
Roald Dahl was a master of writing characters for children who echoed common feelings of shyness and awkwardness: Charlie in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; Miss Honey in Matilda; even, sometimes, the BFG … Novels set in childhood are perfect arenas in which to explore shyness and, usually, how it can be overcome. For older teens and young adults, there is Lee Fiora, who contends bravely with boarding school in Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep; and Little Women’s Beth March, whose shyness tends more towards being a moral trait that defines an entire life.
Shyness as a self-fulfilling prophecy is portrayed with great tenderness in the character of Boo Radley, “an unknown entity the mere description of whom was enough to make us behave for days on end”. His fear makes him hide, which makes the neighbourhood children fear him. A similar affliction befalls Christopher John Francis Boone in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, whose shyness stems from a real fear of loud noises and crowded places. For him, conquering his fears is more than a matter of just putting on a front.
Maurice by EM Forster
Some characters are timid for a reason. Maurice, in Forster’s novel, written in 1913-14, hides himself because he has to, but the book is a brave one. “A happy ending was imperative,” wrote Forster. “I was determined that in fiction anyway two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows …” In The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, Charlie knows that he’s a “freak”: “I’m the one who beat up Sean and couldn’t stop crying after he did it. I guess I’m pretty emotional.” Much later, the reader learns why.