Character: Althea Vestrit
Text: The Liveship Traders trilogy by Robin Hobb.
(Some mild spoilers)
Althea still sometimes felt she needed someone’s permission simply to be herself. Men seemed to sense that in her. Nothing came easily. She felt the struggle was as constant as her breathing
Upon her father’s death, the families ship the Vivacia is passed down to her elder sister Keffria and through her, her husband Kyle Haven. Althea is distraught, having always anticipated that her beloved father would name her captain, despite her youth and gender. She feels betrayed and hurt – but mostly terrified that she will be forced to cut ties with her ship.
(I should note here for those unfamiliar with the series, the Vivacia is a Liveship meaning she is a sentient ship. Made from a mysterious wood named “wizardwood” Vivacia has living memories and can communicate via the figurehead she uses as her “body”. Liveships bond with the Trader families who own them, sharing their emotions and their experiences)
Her mother Ronica knows that Kyle is not the best choice — he is quick to anger and too concerned with obtaining wealth at any cost —but feels he is their only option to ensure their families survival during uncertain times. Ronica attempts to explain to Althea their situation but the hurt is too deep. Althea begs to be allowed to serve on the ship in any capacity:
I don’t care. I don’t care, really, if I am a pauper or not. Yes, I dreamed that Vivacia would be mine. Because she is mine, Mother, in a way that I cannot make you understand…Vivacia’s heart is mine, and I am hers. I look forward to no better marriage than that. Keep whatever coin she brings in, let all say she belongs to Keffria. Just let me sail her. That’s all I’m asking, Mother, Keffria. Just let me sail her and I’ll be no trouble to you, I won’t dispute your will in all else.
Kyle denies her wishes, claiming she will bring shame to the family for her wild ways. He demands that she settle down and marry – become a “respectable lady”. Of course, Althea wants none of that and instead vows to prove her ability as a sailor and reclaim the Vivacia.
Althea is incredibly headstrong, admittedly sometimes painfully so. She is so determined in her mission that she can occasionally overlook what is going on with other people. She can be selfish, and inadvertently cruel, especially to her mother and sister. She is also fiercely independent to the point of refusing assistance, even when those who offer only mean well. All of these traits could result in a selfish and unlikable character, yet it is because of all these apparent “flaws” that she is such an exciting and endearing heroine.
In a town (and culture) where a woman’s only real prospects are to marry well, Althea’s determination to follow her own path is refreshing -as are all her flaws and mistakes. She is not a princess, she is not a damsel in distress. She does not charm men with her feminine beauty, nor does she actively look for a romantic partner. In many ways she is not a conventional heroine. She drinks (sometimes quite a lot), occasionally partakes in recreational drug use and has (and enjoys) premarital sex.
She proves herself capable of hard work, taking the position as ship’s “boy” and completes all of the hard, dirty and back breaking work associated with working on a ship. She is good at her work, but only because she works hard. Nothing is granted to her, she does not have any magical powers, she is not blessed with super strength.
“Anyone can see you’re worth your pay. You were always a good sailor, Althea. And your time on the Reaper has made you an even better one”.
Rather than falling into the trope of the “exceptional woman”, Althea is an example of a well-rounded woman. A woman with many interests and talents, but one who works hard to achieve them. She is neither exceptionally beautiful nor stereotypically plain ( a trope that is often used for those female characters who take on “unfeminine” roles). While she occasionally laments that her skin is rough and weathered due to all the time spent on ships, she feels uncomfortable in skirts and silks.
Althea is constantly in a state of struggle. While she continues to gain confidence in her ability as a sailor, she is conflicted by how this side of her identity relates to her position as a woman. Her confusion reflects what many women experience in their daily lives: if I’m too strong will I push people away, if I’m too pretty will people not take me seriously? To be a woman is to constantly need to negotiate between what is expected of you and what you desire. Althea represents this struggle so perfectly – yet she never gives up.
Althea demonstrates that yes, nothing comes easily, but if you continue to work hard to make your life (and the lives of those around you) better, things will eventually fall into place.