We can sort of agree on what we mean by heroism. In its literary form it tends to involve a male protagonist undergoing a series of moral/emotional/physical trials to emerge improved, fulfilled and, as often as not, hitched.
For heroines the story doesn’t run along quite the same tracks. There is no such thing as heroinism, but if it were it would tend to describe a more passive journey towards the altar at which the hero is waiting.
It’s not much of a life for a character. That is why in this list of the most 20 most intriguing literary heroines there is no room for any of Charles Dickens’s women. Take Great Expectations. Between them Miss Havisham, fossilised in nuptial wedding weeds, and her vengefully created protégée Estella are somehow not quite in the female mainstream.
Women as seen through the prism of the male imagination certainly feature in this selection, notably Homer’s original pin-up and Dante’s heroine, who launched a thousand adaptations.
There is also no place for the tragic Marie Duplessis, a consumptive high-class Parisian working star who inspired Dumas to write La Dame aux Camélias as a novel and a play and who, in other art forms, would go on to be portrayed by Garbo, Callas, Fonteyn and Kidman. Instead there’s a more contemporary working girl who wrote her own story.
Children’s literature, where girls first learn to see their own convulsive emotions reflected, supplies a quartet of resourceful young girls.
Shakespeare contributes just the one – you can guess who – although it could easily have been 20.
But a significant bulk of the literary heroines come from the classic novel, that great invention of the middle classes that was consumed by women and, frequently, written by them, too. Here, female authors – and some empathetic male ones – were able to dwell on the lot of women seeking empowerment in a constricting man’s world, often with tragic consequences. But sometimes happy redemptive ones, too.
1. Jane Eyre
Plain Jane was the first literary heroine who was not required to look the part. She’s only a mouse, but the appeal of Charlotte Brontë’s abused young woman has rather deeper roots than her sister Emily’s equivalent creation, Cathy in Wuthering Heights. Mia Wasikowska recently became the latest young actress to capture the quiet essence of the second Mrs Rochester, who espouses all the Victorian virtues of modesty, resilience and piety without, somehow, contriving to bore the reader.
2. Helen of Troy
Her face launched a thousand ships much as The Iliad launched world literature. The wife of Menelaus and the stolen mistress of Paris is the archetypal literary pin-up, with not much to say for herself and the cause of a great deal of male mayhem. Her influence is still felt today. Without her elopement across the Aegean, Bart Simpson’s dad would have a different name.
3. Francesca da Rimini
No figure in literary history can have inspired quite so many dramas, operas and other classical tributes, from Dante’s Inferno to Tchaikovsky’s symphonic poem. Dante’s Francesca was herself inspired by the true story of the heiress married by proxy. She falls for the handsome proxy rather than his hideous brother, and both are duly executed. Her real-life contemporary, Dante Alighieri, encountered her in Inferno.
Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? There are Shakespearean women aplenty to choose from, among them wits and murderesses, but none has had quite the widespread appeal of this callow but passionate 14-year-old whose “violent delights have violent ends”. Young fans are still crowding onto the Veronese balcony, which probably wasn’t the Capulets’ home. Young women who defy their parents’ nuptial plans for them do so in Juliet’s everlasting shadow.
5. Moll Flanders
When the English novel was still in its infancy, its readers – as they were for most of the 18th century – were women. No heroine has more saucily lived by her wits and her charms than Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, whose picaresque journey involves serial marriage, infidelity, larceny, prison and much more. The great survivor, bless her, is as sinned against as sinning and happy to live to a penitent old age. But not before having a lot of fun.
6. Anne Elliot
Of all Jane Austen’s marriageable young gels, everyone loves Miss Bennet, but the most admirably steadfast of her heroines she kept for her last novel, Persuasion. Anne Elliot, whose union with Captain Wentworth has a melancholy autumnal flavour, speaks much more to the modern woman with the ticking biological clock than those demure Regency adventuresses who fortuitously marry money and station.
7. Lady of Shalott
Tennyson’s Arthurian heroine, immured in a tower and condemned to observe the world in a glass, is “half sick of shadows”, like many a domesticated Victorian woman condemned to the half-life of unexpressed longings. She pays the tragic price for going out into the world, captured in Waterhouse’s paintings of the ravishing beauty who turns Lancelot’s head.
8. Hester Prynne
A is for Adultery. The scarlet heroine of The Scarlet Letter is ostracised in 17th-century Boston for giving birth to a daughter out of wedlock. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s saga shines a bold torch into the world of suffocating American puritanism. Hester’s most recent reincarnation on screen was in the form of Demi Moore at her most demure.
9. Scarlett O’Hara
Quite frankly, my dear, she’s hardly the product of great literature, but, however flat in print, in the guise of the then-unknown Vivien Leigh Margaret Mitchell’s Deep South heroine caught up in the turmoil of the Civil War was just the woman to launch glorious Technicolor when it came in 1939.
10. Bathsheba Everdene
Of all Hardy’s women, Bathsheba is the least tragic. Where Tess Durbeyfield pays for owning up to her past, the solitary heiress at the heart of Far from the Madding Crowd must choose between three suitors of varying social pedigree. How many young ladies have heeded her example and plumped for their own worthy but penniless Gabriel Oak? Julie Christie beautifully embodied Bathsheba on film, and Gemma Arterton in very short shorts reincarnated her in the film of Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel Tamara Drewe.
11. Emma Bovary
A bad, bad girl. Also a bored, bored girl. English heroines of the 19th-century novel are barely made of flesh. Flaubert’s young protagonist marries the wrong dullard, and an early example of very French ennui ensues under the grip of which she can do nothing to prevent her desertion to one lover, then another, until there is only one way out. Her ride around Rouen in a closed carriage, in which we see nothing, is one of the most erotically shocking scenes in literature.
12. Anna Karenina
Literature’s most notable suicide plunges into the kind of downward spiral that could not happen outside the 19th century – leaves dull husband, takes up with lover, falls foul of polite society – but the disproportionate opprobrium for the archetypal loose woman remains. How could a male novelist so understand a woman’s beating heart? Only Tolstoy, who pursues her to the end and hurls her under a train.
Even if you don’t believe in fairies, you can still root for J M Barrie’s diminutive anti-heroine, who is a much more robust introduction for children to the minefield of love and loyalty than the insipid mother substitute Wendy. Would Wendy have drunk from Captain Hook’s bated chalice to save Peter Pan from poisoning? Though given to spiteful jealous rages, Tinkerbell thoroughly deserves the resuscitation she gets every year at Christmas pantomimes all over the UK.
14. Eliza Doolittle
She’s a good girl, she is. The upwardly mobile flower girl is the only one of George Bernard Shaw’s heroines with whom anyone still identifies, thanks rather less to the wordy Pygmalion than to Audrey Hepburn’s pert young cockney songbird (whose soprano was entirely dubbed in the musical version of the play). Taking the hard road to wisdom, Eliza’s is the template for any number of fair ladies since over-promoted into celebrity’s spotlight.
The young orphaned heroine of Eleanor H Porter’s 1913 novel who loses the use of her legs when hit by a car is synonymous with a plucky worldview we slightly look down on 100 years on. The 20th century more than any other taught that looking on the bright side is futile. But any young lady who has entered the language deserves a place on the plinth.
16. Dorothea Brooke
The twice-married heroine is a rarity in literature. George Eliot’s slightly dry young intellectual of Middlemarch is in the thrall of the desiccated scholar Casaubon, whose death paves the way for his altogether more eligible young cousin Ladislaw, but only at the cost of renouncing her fortune. Dorothea’s sacrifice of wealth makes her a poster girl for the romantic credo that love conquers everything.
17. Mary Poppins
Spit spot. The creation of P L Travers, whose stories of an English nanny who blows in on a brolly and puts an Edwardian family to rights were first published in the 1930s. Mary’s modern ideas about treating children as human beings who should be seen and heard are far more widely known thanks to her screen incarnation in the form of the supercalifragilistic Julie Andrews, whose spoonful of sugar made the medicine go down.
18. Bridget Jones
Helen Fielding’s creation began as a newspaper column. Her terminally single heroine – the word singleton has entered the language – was a fictional creation whose struggles with weight, wine, cigarettes, men and self-esteem tapped into post-feminist anxieties. Even if many of feminism’s battles had been won, it irked some strident female readers that Bridget seemed obsessed with pleasing the other half of the human race.
19. Hermione Grainger
Half witch, half muggle but all heroine to several trillion young readers of the Harry Potter books. The brains to Harry’s bravery and Ron’s, er, Ron’s, er... she taught a generation of girls that there’s no shame in being class swot. In truth, she’s probably not as pretty as her big-screen incarnation, Emma Watson, although she does have a delightfully vain streak: offered the chance, she discreetly uses magic to downsize her rodenty front teeth.
20. Belle de Jour
The internet’s first great gift to literature, the heroine of this blog was named after the Catherine Deneuve character in the same line of work . The result was a series of lavishly well-written dispatches. There was a frantic search to out the author, which was revealed long after the book of the blog had become a best-seller. She turned out to be a medical researcher. The difference between Belle and Helen of Troy is that in the 21st century such a woman is allowed to write her own story.