Updated: Aug 5, 2021
In celebration of International Women's Day, we take a look at some of English literature's greatest women.
We had a great time at TT celebrating International Women’s Day yesterday, and we thought there was no better way to round off the celebrations than with a look at a few of our favourite, most inspirational and kick-ass female characters. It can be really easy to dismiss books written before the turn of the twentieth century as patriarchal and sexist, but here are five spectacular female characters from the last few centuries of literature. Warning: some spoilers…
1. Jane Eyre, Jane Eyre
Jane Eyre is one of my all-time favourite characters. Charlotte Brontë creates a protagonist who’s the opposite of a drippy romantic heroine fainting into a cloud of golden ringlets. She’s a woman with incredibly strong principles, who won’t let go of what she believes is right, even in the face of the most temptingly persuasive offers. She has no fear of deep and passionate emotions, feeling extremes of anger, despair, and love, but not letting those emotions sweep her away, instead relying on her intellect and her morals. She works hard, does things that scare her, and she’s not pretty.
The point, that so many film and television adaptations seem to miss, is that it literally doesn’t matter what she looks like – her character, personality, mind and heart are what earn the liking or loathing of everyone she meets. She was the first female main character I came across in a ‘grown-up book’ where her appearance doesn’t influence things in the slightest, and it completely changed how I saw female protagonists.
2. Lizzy Bennet, Pride and Prejudice
An obvious choice, but Lizzy Bennet is just wonderful. The protagonist of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice has a sharp tongue, a sharper mind, and refuses to do things just for appearances, propriety, or an easy life. She goes out walking in the wind and rain, scandalising the neighbouring ladies by turning up with muddy petticoats, to look after her sister who’s fallen ill.
When mocked by people she has no respect for she can give as good as she gets, but when offered constructive criticism by those who deserve her respect she can learn and change. She’s staggeringly brave in the face of opposition and calamity, standing up to those who dismiss or injure her or her family. True, she does fit into the mould of a romantic heroine and end up getting her own matrimonial happy ending, but on her own terms, having made her own decisions, and knowing exactly what she wants.
3. Isabella, Measure for Measure
A slightly left-field suggestion: Isabella from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. Honestly, there’s a huge selection of incredible and inspiring female characters across Shakespeare’s works, but Isabella seems particularly appropriate at the moment. In some ways her dilemma, whether to lose her virginity to save her brother, has lost some of its power and relevance, as most people no longer believe that extra-marital sex will cause you to go to hell.
However, the broader picture, of a man abusing a position of power to try to manipulate and force a reluctant woman to have sex with him, is unpleasantly relatable to current events. Isabella is a heroine for the #MeToo movement, defying Angelo’s advances, telling a higher authority, and guiding events to save herself and get justice for another woman. Sure, the methods she uses are somewhat questionable, but Isabella’s overall defiance, determination to do what is right, and refusal to give in to someone more powerful are the hallmarks of a ferociously strong female character.
4. Lizzie, Goblin Market
A second, but quite different Lizzie. In Christina Rossetti’s masterpiece of a poem, Goblin Market, two sisters, Lizzie and Laura, are wandering at dusk when they hear the cry of the goblin men, selling their delicious, magical fruits. Laura succumbs, eats their fruits, and falls deathly ill. Lizzie stages a one-woman rescue mission, walking right into the lair of the goblins and fighting for her sister’s life. Damsel-in-distress stories can be extremely irritating, but when the knight in shining armour who saves the victim’s life is another woman, the story can transform from frustrating to fantastic.
5. Jo March, Little Women
Josephine March in Louisa M. Alcott’s Little Women series is a spectacular woman. She is constantly climbing trees, running races, rolling down hills, and generally failing to act in the way expected of a young lady in nineteenth century America. She’s ambitious, working relentlessly to become a great writer, and tries every route and goes to any place that might help her achieve that goal, sacrificing home, comfort, and ease along the way. When she does achieve fantastic success, she manages to juggle writing, celebrity, philanthropy and family life. Alcott was decades ahead of her time in showing a woman who could have a career and a home life, and didn’t make it look perfectly easy – her novels show all the struggles and compromises of being a working woman with a family, whilst still holding it up as an excellent aim to strive for.
These are just a few, personal suggestions of female characters I find awesome, and have influenced my ideas of what a woman can be and do. The books we read, and show our children and pupils, are so important – they really do shape ideas and expectations, and telling tales of rebel girls of all shapes and sizes, rather than identical hapless princesses, can enormously impact the narratives that people tell about themselves and others.
Blog Post Crafted by Rebecca
Background: Rebecca is one of our most popular tutors, with a degree in English from the University of Cambridge and hundreds of hours of private tuition experience in 7+, 11+, English and Maths. She is also an assessor for Titanium Tutors, observing the mock lessons taught by potential tutors and deciding whether or not they meet the high standards of the agency.