Nothing screams Girlboss more than an outspoken, rule-bending heroine in literature during a period where women could be anything but. They challenged convention, inspired millions of women, and even changed the face of what it means to be female.
It might sound a little far-fetched, but I harbour the personal belief that stories and characters have the power to influence and change society, alongside its perceptions. The heroines listed below (and of course, a great number more) have undoubtedly lived in the hearts of their readers, both past and present, while simultaneously working to carve a better, more exciting future for the women they represent.
So who are they?
Elizabeth Bennet, Pride and Prejudice, 1813
I’m not entirely sure any list of literary heroines has ever been published where this titular character was absent from it. Elizabeth Bennet remains a firm favourite of readers even today – which isn’t particularly hard to explain, as even 200 years on we’re still relating to her witty sarcasm and admirable stubborness to hold her place.
In a period where securing a husband for economic comfort was the best move a woman could make, this heroine ensures her own mind is made known. Refusing to settle for a situation that boasts any less respect or love than she is confidently deserving, she stands her ground until her point is proven. It certainly would have egged contemporary female readers to adopt a similar marital mindset, while it serves as an inspirational reminder for women today to stand firm with their own values and beliefs.
“There is a stubbornness about me tht never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.”
Jane Eyre, Jane Eyre, (1847)
In a society where a ‘successful’ female was beautiful, rich and reputable, Jane Eyre turned the tide by exerting intelligence and independence as the new attraction. Novels before Jane Eyre didn’t have the care to grant poor and plain female characters the spotlight, hence this titular character won over the hearts of all her readers by speaking on a far more relatable level to them.
The story, is in effect, a romance. But that’s not at the expense of Jane’s strong-willed character. She demonstrates that even when a man completely steals your heart, it should never compromise your own morals and values, ultimately demanding that respect for them before taking the jump. Jane Eyre may be over 170 years old now, but her lessons on love are completely relevant to us even today.
“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.”
Marian Halcombe, The Woman In White, 1860
While demanding mutual marital respect was certainly a forward attitude for women in this era, Marian Halcombe took it a step further by boldly rejecting the whole insitution altogether. It might not seem as extreme to us today, but this heroine effectively shunned her society’s entire reserved space for her and carved out her own. Not only that, but she completely trampled over limiting sexist attitudes towards women of that period: proving that females could be just as intelligent and heroic as her male counterparts. And what’s better? She really couldn’t care less for her critiques either.
Marian Halcombe had a clear, defining effect on her contemporary audience, too. Whilst she ultimately deviated from every aspect that deemed a Victorian woman ‘attractive’ (feminine, submissive etc.), her readers were completely won over – with many writing to Wilkie Collins personally asking where they could meet such a woman!
“No man under heaven deserves these sacrifices from us women. […] They take us body and soul to themselves, and fasten our helpless lives to theirs as they chain a dog to a kennel. And what does the best of them give us in return?”
Bathsheba Everdene, Far From The Madding Crowd, (1874)
If you’re a fan of Katniss Everdene from The Hunger Games then I’m sure you don’t need the names re-spelt out to realise that she was heavily inspired by this Hardy heroine. Just like Katniss, she owns her own game (in this context it’s running her own farm), faces unfair criticism and then throws it back in the faces of her critiques. Intelligent, bold and unconventional: she conquers and proves her worth.
What makes her even more exciting than her modern counterpart? She did all this in a far more sexist society. In fact, pretty much everything she set out to achieve wasn’t really an open option for her, but she made it one anyway. This is effectively one of the first examples in period literature where a woman enters a male domain and ultimately owns it as her own.
“In short, I shall astonish you all!”
Sue Bridehead, Jude The Obscure, (1895)
As you’ve probably just discovered, I’m a huge fan of Hardy heroines. In fact, I’d mention them all if I had the space – but I don’t, so I’ll just stick with the two. When I first read this novel, I was amazed by how audacious its arguments and feminist undertones were, which may ruffle a few feathers even today. Sue Bridehead is effectively one of the most valiant, opinionated and unorthodox characters to ever grace print – she’d even give modern heroines a serious run for their money.
Extremely well-educated, she loudly asserts her presence by wittyly criticising insitutions that a Victorian woman would be boldly lambasted for. Sue rejects sexist matrimonal ceremonies, refuses to adopt a married name in favour of her identity, slams over conventional femininity and wreaks havoc with the church and society that contradict her modern values. Unashamed and certainly unafraid, she still serves to inspire women today to use their voices in a tide that flows against their own.
“I have been thinking […] that the social moulds civilization fits us into have no more relation to our actual shapes than the conventional shapes of the constellations have to the real star-patterns. I am called Mrs. Richard Phillotson, living in a calm wedded life with my counterpart of that name. But I am not really Mrs. Richard Phillotson, but a woman tossed about, all alone, with abberant passions and unaccountable antipathies.”
Celie, The Color Purple, (1982)
Whilst this novel wasn’t exactly published in a particular period, it at least identifies as period literature due to its setting (1930’s). Celie’s journey starts out in a domain of horrific misogynist and racist abuse, which doesn’t look to improve after she’s sold from one tyrant to another. In a time and country where an African-American woman can expect very little respect, Celie overcomes her reserve and learns to demand it nevertheless.
Finding love in fellow female companions and forming her path through a love of fashion, we as readers witness a silenced female gloriously find her voice and be unafraid to exert it over others. It’s an exceptionally powerful novel, showing its equally powerful heroine stamp over her abusers; subsequently demanding the love and respect she deserves along the way.
“I can’t fix my mouth to say how I feel.”