With the recent return to vogue of feminism (and having just finished back to back reading of books by Caitlin Moran) I’ve been thinking a lot about the women in books who I admire. The women who step up, be awesome and don’t even care, don’t think twice about it. I doubt it’s a coincidence that a lot of the books that fall into this category also happen to be some of my favourite books. I just wish there were more male authors who’d made the list. Although a scan of my bookshelves suggests maybe I’ve just read a lot more books written by women than men.
Nothing on this list is particularly ground breaking or controversial. Just solid writers with female characters who have more to them than household chores and finding themselves boyfriends.
And yes I use the word awesome a lot. It happens in real life too but it’s just a great word and makes me feel like a stoned surfer at Venice Beach rather than a straight laced office worker in the Midlands.
Pretending for a minute that Mansfield Park, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey don’t exist (great stories but not exactly strong lead females) and she really could write a woman. Not only are Lizzy Bennett, Marianne Dashwood and Emma Woodhouse fully three dimensional characters but they’re also waaaaay ahead of their time.
In general I’m not a great fan of Emma but she was at least a go-getter with a pretty fun hobby (although it backfires slightly). If Hello magazine existed back then then it would be run by Emma Woodhouse. Lizzy Bennett is witty and nonconformist and recognises that there is a world beyond finding a husband. My personal favourite though is Marianne Dashwood. With her over the top emotions and couldn’t care less attitude to maintaining an untarnished reputation she was a truly modern character. In today’s more accepting society she’d fit right in and could probably write a pretty good tell-all in her later years when she’d settled down and realised Colonel Brandon was the one for her. Though I don’t altogether buy this marriage. I imagine a divorce would come soon after when Marianne realised one bout of flu doesn’t change your character forever.
George R R Martin
This is said without thorough research as like most people on the planet I have only read A Song of Ice and Fire and never delved further back in his bibliography. But that’s excusable because seen as only the most ardent readers of fantasy fiction had heard of them they probably weren’t any good. Anyway, for a book with so much gratuitous sex there really are quite a lot of truly awesome female characters. There’s the classic ‘women beating men at their own game’ women in the form of Brienne of Tarth, Ygritte and Arya to name but a few. There’s the ‘women who have somewhat accepted their position but are still going to make as much progress as they can within their means’ women represented by Catelyn. And my favourite, ‘the politically manipulative who are not above using everything they have, sex appeal included, to get what they want.’ In the books this is Cersei but the TV series adds Margaery (who is so far a little underdeveloped in the books though there’s suggestions she might live up to the TV version) and Ros although (spoiler alert) that didn’t turn out so well for her.
I’ve only read the Tudor Series so far as after I binge-read them all last autumn I’m needing a bit of respite from historical fiction and sticking to purely modern books for a while, but of what I’ve read she’s certainly got a knack for taking well known females and making them seem far more assertive and powerful than in reality they probably were. Though all my knowledge of history comes from Wikipedia pages so what do I know.
Catherine of Aragon was my favourite character in the series. Raised to never doubt that a woman could be a man’s equal she took it in her stride (pretty much) when she discovered England wasn’t quite as forward thinking as Spain and she would have to settle for second best. But she did manage to do some good and did a bit of a Margaery in getting Henry VIII to ignore his advisers and marry her anyway. Again though, didn’t end great for her (if that’s a spoiler than you really need to complain to your primary school teacher. Henry VIII had SIX wives you know) but she tried her best and was just no match for Anne Boleyn.
Anne Boleyn really took the bull by the horns, decided she wanted to be queen and then did some pretty immoral things in order to get there (employing a witch is ok, sleeping with your brother is a step too far). Perhaps, on reflection, she took the whole feminist attitude a bit too far.
Mary had potential to be amazing but gave in to pressures to marry and spent all her time instead trying to overcome her sexual frustration by killing Protestants (or something like that). But Elizabeth, who from everything I know about her I would have expected her to win hands down, was pretty average really. Though I suppose I can’t really pass judgement as I haven’t read The Other Queen yet (I got put off by the first person narrative very early on) and from what I remember from history (watching the Cate Blanchett films) she doesn’t get awesome until a couple of years in to her reign.
J K Rowling
What can I say? Awesome books, awesome women. Hermione Granger is my idol and I have a very hard time remembering that she isn’t real. In fact I’m much happier thinking she is a real person because it just makes the world a better place. I also forget that Emma Watson is a separate person. But I bet Hermione would have been all for making speeches about feminism to the UN. I just love a girl who’s so unapologetically intelligent, doesn’t feel the need to hide it at all. I was the complete opposite and wish the books had come in to my life earlier so I could maybe have used her for inspiration. It’s not just Hermione though. Ginny is also awesome. Luna even better. And Bellatrix Lestrange is an incredible character in a terrifying, messed up way. Mrs Weasley is a bit of a sticking point though. It’s never really clear whether she ever actually did anything for the Order of the Phoenix beyond making them dinner and keeping headquarters clean – aka ‘women’s work.’ I suppose I can understand it at the time in the books as the poor woman does have seven children, two of whom are Fred and George; she’s allowed to be retired. But what about in the first instance? Maybe if I spend more time on Pottermore (good idea, Lizzy, more potential procrastination) I’ll find an answer.
The majority of teen fiction I read when I was growing up (or is it YA fiction? I’m not at all sure on what the difference is. If there is one) was based around girls fancying boys, talking about boys, making fools of themselves in front of boys and finally going out with boys. If they were put to the Bechdel test (if two female characters have a conversation about something other than men) they would comprehensively fail. But I didn’t mind. Actually I loved these books. Hell, I could probably have single-handedly keeping the industry afloat. But Meg Cabot was doing something a little different (and I think from a quick flick through a few books would have passed the Bechdel test with flying colours). My examples here are the Princess Diaries books and All American Girl. In The Princess Diaries Mia was learning how to rule a small country. In All American Girl Sam threw herself on a would-be assassin and saved the life of the president. Pretty damn awesome stuff. And yes they did both discuss boys quite regularly during the books but in all fairness I doubt a real life teenage girl would pass the Bechdel test for two days put together.