It’s Inspirational Women week, and where better to look for some feisty females than the wonderful world of literature? While the Eyres and Bennets of the literary sphere will always be heralded as ahead-of-their-time heroines, I’d like to consider female characters who, for varying reasons, are usually overlooked in the classic (and drearily similar) ‘Empowering Fictional Women’ countdowns.
10. Clarissa Dalloway
(Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf, 1925)
“He thought her beautiful, believed her impeccably wise; dreamed of her, wrote poems to her, which, ignoring the subject, she corrected in red ink.”
Criticised for her negative outlook on life, Clarissa arguably embodies the stereotypical ‘high society’ wife – cold, whiney, and ignorant to ‘real’ unhappiness in post-war Britain. Thanks to Woolf’s stream of consciousness narrative, however, we are able to scratch away at Clarissa’s surface and find a relatable lady beneath.
As millennials, we are increasingly inclined to present ‘picture perfect’ lives on social media; it is easy to forget people still endure personal struggles and hardships against this utopian backdrop. I draw a parallel between this phenomenon and Clarissa Dalloway’s ‘party’: her stage to present an idealised distortion of her life and mask her obsessive regret over refusing Peter Walsh – ‘the one that got away’. Clarissa soldiers on with elegance and grace despite her internal conflicts which, in my mind, makes her an unassuming yet tragic heroine of the modernist period.
9. Frau Freud
(‘Frau Freud’ in The World’s Wife, Carol Ann Duffy, 1999)
“Ladies, for argument’s sake, let us say that I’ve seen my fair share of ding-a-ling, member and jock”
Essentially spoofing Sigmund Freud’s theory of female ‘penis envy’, Duffy creates a feisty fictionalisation of Freud’s wife, Martha Bernays, who is not wholly impressed with her husband’s findings. Frau Freud’s phallic innuendos, such as ‘beef bayonet’, ‘night-crawler’, and ‘ding-a-ling’, subtly undermine the androcentric nature of Freud’s psychological reasoning in a sassy and stylish manner.
Her monologue edges into fifteen lines, but only just – marking a cheeky break from the traditional fourteen-line sonnet. Her ‘feeling of pity’ towards the male penis in contrast to her supposed jealousy reinforces her rebellious nature and confirms her title of literary heroine, despite her confined existence to one (hilarious) poem.
8. Emma Woodhouse
(Emma, Jane Austen, 1815)
“A woman is not to marry a man merely because she is asked, or because he is attached to her, and can write a tolerable letter.”
Described by Austen as ‘a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like’, Emma is often overlooked in favour of the esteemed Elizabeth Bennett of Pride and Prejudice. While Elizabeth experiences events, however, Emma determines them, shaping the novel to an extent unmirrored by females in Austen’s other works.
Of course, Emma is a snob and meddles in the business of others, but she is instantly prepared to sacrifice her own happiness with Mr Knightly at the thought of her lonely father; ultimately, she is a character that embodies kindness and love. What can be considered Emma’s ‘bitchiness’ at the start of the novel makes her more identifiable than other female romantic-protagonists, and contributes to a highly accessible development of character.
7. Lili Elbe (né Einar Wegener)
(The Danish Girl, David Ebershoff, 2000)
“Now she would go […] to prove to the world – no, not to the world but to herself – that indeed she was a woman”
The Danish Girl tells a fictionalisation of the life of Lili Elbe, one of the first people to have sex reassignment surgery. Born as ‘Einar’, Lili faces the struggles of living as a trans-woman in 1920s Europe with ruthless determination, making her an admirable literary heroine.
A word or two should also be said for Gerda Wegener of the same novel; based on the Danish fine-artist and wife of Einar Wegener, Gerda’s support for Lili by the end of the novel is unfaltering. Proving love truly knows no gender, Gerda is also a literary heroine who deserves more recognition.
(The Tempest, William Shakespeare, 1611)
“You have often begun to tell me what I am, but stopp’d, and left me to a bootless inquisition”
Shakespeare has created a whole host of dominant females including the likes of Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra, and Beatrice; Miranda may seem rather feeble compared to these fiery women. On closer inspection, however, Miranda is able to exercise influence over her patriarchal ‘superiors’ in a highly intelligent manner.
It is true Miranda often takes a submissive role, but this could simply be a subtle act of manipulation. Her opening lines are in fact a command to her “dearest father” Prospero, heeding him to supress the storm he has conjured. Her use of flattery to get what she wants could make her a bratty ‘daddy’s girl’; alternatively, she is exploiting her only available devices to express an opinion. Such opportunism makes Miranda a literary heroine to consider.
5. Brienne of Tarth
(A Song of Ice and Fire series, George R. R. Martin, 1996 – 2011)
“All my life men like you’ve sneered at me, and all my life I’ve been knocking men like you into the dust.”
When thinking of heroines from Game of Thrones, a blindingly obvious candidate is the beautiful Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen, First of Her Name, the Unburnt, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea etc. etc.
A more humble contender is Brienne of Tarth. Fiercely loyal to the Starks, her dedication to Sansa reminds us of the strength female bonds can bear. She is also exceptionally accomplished in combat and sword fighting, proving no occupation is reserved for the honing of male talent.
4. Helen Graham
(The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Brontë, 1848)
“You may think it all very fine, Mr. Huntingdon, to amuse yourself with rousing my jealousy; but take care you don’t rouse my hate instead. And when you have once extinguished my love, you will find it no easy matter to kindle it again.”
Helen is often cast aside in traditional ‘literary heroine’ countdowns. I believe we overlook her in favour of Jane Eyre and Catherine Earnshaw, just as we might overlook Anne Brontë in favour of her sisters – Charlotte and Emily. Equally brilliant, the Brontës present women who defy the odds under a repressive Victorian patriarchy – Helen, though less proclaimed, is no exception.
Fearing the influence of her drunken and despotic husband Arthur Huntington, Helen leaves him, taking their young son with her – an extremely audacious decision in 19th Century England. Her courage and independence were seen as dangerous to the novel’s contemporary audience, with one critic deeming it ‘utterly unfit to be put into the hands of girls’. Helen’s ability to shock patriarchs, through behaviour such as door slamming in the face of marital abuse, makes her an important literary heroine.
3. Bridget Jones
(Bridget Jones’ Diary, Helen Fielding, 1996)
“I will not fall for any of the following: alcoholics, workaholics, commitment phobics, people with girlfriends or wives, misogynists, megalomaniacs, chauvinists, emotional f***wits or freeloaders, perverts.”
Bridget Jones has often been criticised as a character who defines happiness through marriage and children, thereby misrepresenting feminist ideals of the 21st century. In a recent article for the Guardian, however, Laura Snapes argues “the expectation that female characters be ideologically watertight and representative is suffocating.” I couldn’t agree more.
While Bridget dreams of her ideal man, she never attempts to change the fundamental aspects of her character; it is her kindness, strength of mind and unwavering sense of humour that define who she is – not her search for a boyfriend. In the wake of Daniel’s affair, Bridget is determined to focus on herself, achieving personal goals along the way which shows she is perfectly capable of enjoying life in her own right.
(Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens, 1838)
“She staggered and fell: nearly blinded with the blood that rained down from a deep gash in her forehead; but raising herself, with difficulty […] breathed one prayer for mercy to her Maker.”
Perhaps the ultimate ‘tart with a heart’, Nancy is dismissed as a literary heroine because she is a prostitute and is condemned for her arguably foolish loyalty to Bill Sikes, one of the most notorious villains of Victorian literature. Yet Nancy, despite embodying the notion of a ‘fallen woman’, is fiercely loving and prepared to risk everything to save Oliver from the miserable life she has led: an act which ultimately costs Nancy her life.
Nancy is an important reminder of Dickens’s view that a person, however tainted by society, can still retain a sense of goodness. The impurities of her truly tragic story don’t make for a neat or romantic summary, but this makes her a stronger literary heroine for all her struggles.
1. Bathsheba Everdeen
(Far from the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy, 1874)
“I shall be up before you are awake; I shall be afield before you are up; and I shall have breakfasted before you are afield. In short, I shall astonish you all.”
Bathsheba hasn’t been heralded as a feminist icon to the extent she deserves. Despite being vain and at times superficial, she is an incredibly strong character who, knowing her own mind, exudes the confidence to run a farm and all its employees after learning her manager has been stealing from her – an incredibly bold move for a woman of her time.
It is true she falls for the dashing and dangerous Sergeant Troy which could lead us to dismiss her as shallow. Bathsheba follows her passions, however, and shows she is not too high and mighty to be fooled by a ‘wrong one’ – as many of us have been! Her hard work and commitment to her farm combined with her eventual choice to marry the kind and reliable Gabriel Oak show whilst Bathsheba doesn’t need a man, she has developed as a character and taken the time to discover the depths of a person who can truly add to her happiness.