Where would we be without literary heroines to inspire, counsel, infuriate and charm us? As we approach International Women’s Day (8 March) Jennifer Lipman looks back fondly over a childhood shaped by George, Katy, Jo and co – and cheers on the beloved role models of the next generation of bookworms...
When I was younger, I could never decide which March sister I wanted to be. The third of four daughters, it’s perhaps no surprise that I adored the quartet from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. But did I want to be benevolent Beth, alluring Amy or unconventional Jo? (Meg – kind-hearted but bland –never got a look in.)
As a bookworm, fiction is home to some of my greatest female role models. Not that we’re lacking in real women to admire – from Malala to Merkel and from Taylor Swift to Sheryl Sandberg, far from it – but literature is a fertile source of inspiration.
Over the centuries, novelists of both sexes have invented countless fearless, enthusiastic girls and charismatic women: characters like Tess ‘of the d’Urbervilles’, Holly Golightly and Rebecca; youngsters like Mary Lennox and Katniss Everdeen. Women who are original, colourful, maddening and brilliant, the best friends you wish you had and the wisest counsellors imaginable.
Who among us has not imagined climbing the Alps with Heidi, journeying west with Laura Ingalls or building a new life in Blitz-era London with Anna from When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit? Who among us has not dreamed of attending St Clare’s with Enid Blyton’s twins or dancing at regency balls with Elizabeth, Jane and the rest? How many of us have wished for heart-to-hearts with our favourite heroines?
Though they aren’t real, these women deal with authentic heartaches and tragedies. Like us, they fall in love, experience loss, navigate tricky bosses, and deal with fractious family members. Few experience an easy life.
If not all make the right choices or are individuals you’d necessarily want to spend time with, that doesn’t matter. Even when they do mess up, it’s with wit and aplomb. So when we are in need of cheering up or a cathartic cry, when we could do with a confidence boost, fictional heroines are the perfect therapists.
For starters, they make clear that women don’t have to ‘have it all’. Our society may expect women to be stars of their own show; well-coiffed and slim, experiencing simultaneous career and relationship success, and eager to have an appropriate number of well-bred children. But fiction’s heroines point to another way; they rail against society’s rules and are the better for it. Look at Bathsheba Everdene in Far
From the Madding Crowd – vain, yes, but unwilling to settle – or at the free-spirited women of Nancy Mitford’s semi-autobiographical Radlett family in The Pursuit of Love.
Or at Elizabeth Bennett, who defies her mother’s wishes to stay single rather than marry the ridiculous Mr Collins. ‘I am not one of those young ladies... who are so daring as to risk their happiness on the chance of being asked a second time,’ she tells her unwanted suitor after he effectively tells her she won’t be able to do better. Written in the early 19th century, at a time when women lacked any real rights (it would be some 60 years before the law allowed married women to own property), Jane Austen gave us a woman who refused to be limited by society’s expectations. And she married Darcy, so she must have done something right!
And fiction has offered some wonderfully unrepentant feminists; women who refuse to settle for a world that says they are in any way less capable. Jane Eyre, for example, who cries ‘I am no bird; and no net ensnares me’. Many of them are preternaturally talented – Posy, in Ballet Shoes, say, or, fiercely intelligent Hermione – yet importantly, they never apologise for being at the top of their game.
And they are survivors, whether Vanity Fair’s social climbing Becky Sharp or Katniss in The Hunger Games. While the feminist debate is punctuated by discussion of why we can’t have it all, the women of fiction rarely wait to be told go.
Take Scarlett O’Hara. There can be few heroines as utterly repugnant as Margaret Mitchell’s southern belle, whose litany of sins includes murder and a pass at her supposed best friend’s beloved. Yet Scarlett’s redeeming quality is her steely resolve; she has the grit to deal with what life throws at her, including Melanie’s supremely inconvenient labour. For Scarlett, tomorrow is always another day.
In fact, one of the best lessons from fiction’s heroines is not to be afraid. Novels offer no shortage or women demonstrating derring-do, from Lyra in His Dark Materials to girl detective Nancy Drew and Lisbeth Salander. And unlike adventurous women in the real world, who are often viewed with suspicion (why would they want to circumnavigate the globe?, for example) fearlessness is portrayed as a positive trait.
At the age of five, Roald Dahl’s Matilda is intrepid enough to snoop around Ms Trunchbull’s house and save the day for the insipid Miss Honey. Or more recently, Life After Life’s Ursula, who arguably lives a full existence only when she understands she is meant to embrace adventure.
But it’s not just about feminism. It’s also that they are like us, only wiser. They serve as our personal agony aunts; Judy Blume’s Margaret has taught several generations about puberty in a gentle way; I Capture the Castle’s Cassandra offers wisdom to soothe the heartache of first love.
Equally, they make mistakes so we don’t have to, from Emma’s cluelessness of her feelings for Mr Wickham to Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic and just about any of Marian Keyes’ protagonists. They provide a how-to guide for female relationships (no squabble is worth losing a sister, teach Jo and Amy March) while making clear that true friendship can survive anything, even, as in Malory Towers, a ruptured appendix.
Tellingly, many of the best heroines are found in children’s fiction; perhaps reflective of a society more willing to accept free-spirited girls than unconventional women. As a young reader I wanted to be (or, at the very least, to befriend) every single one of them; Wendy Darling, mystery-solving George (surely the most famous of the Five) and impulsive Anne of Green Gables above them all.
Naturally, some stories have dated; if it was written now, there would be no excuse in leaving Wendy out of the hi-jinks or making Anne lose her quirks as she matures, but their stories still inspire. Not that all the best heroines are from books written long ago. One of the greatest heroines of recent years is Ifemelu from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s wonderful Americanah. A Nigerian who emigrates to the US, she is constantly insightful as she navigates life in her hostile adoptive home. More recently we’ve had the intrepid Nella in The Miniaturist, capable Queenie from Small Island and prejudice-fighting Skeeter from The Help.
None of this is to say that fiction’s women are flawless. Plenty make for terrible role models – girls, don’t take cues from Anastasia Steele about relationships! – and their decisions leave much to be desired. Bridget Jones was a runaway hit 20 years ago but looking at it now, her obsession with her weight and her lack of ambition come across as rather pathetic. Too many women in books spend their lives waiting for Mr Right, mourning his departure, or resenting him for turning out to be Mr Wrong.
And in books written in the Victorian era, women are too frequently castigated for being comfortable with their sexuality; look no further than Cathy Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights, whose passion and wilfulness are her undoing. Many of the qualities mentioned above – being fearless, feminist and proud – do not serve fiction’s women well; poor Katy of What Katy Did has to be taught a lesson via an accident, while Scarlett loses the love of her life. But that’s in keeping with the moral prurience of those times, not an argument against them being role models.
Back when women had few rights, the appeal of these brilliant, devil-may-care heroines seems obvious. Maybe we have less need for them today, but I’m not ready to say goodbye just yet. There’s still a place for the heroines of the written word; the characters who, over the years, have made us laugh and cry and shown us what women are really made of.
Or maybe, to quote Louisa May Alcott, I am too fond of books, and it has turned my brain…