Last year, I was sitting in the cinema with my daughter watching ‘Mr Peabody and Sherman’, which is about a dog and his adopted son (yes, that’s right) who travel through time. It was tremendous fun and really rather educational about history, but I realised I was getting very annoyed. The reason occurred to me: all the historical characters they meet are either men, or the few women they come across are either queens or models e.g. Marie Antoinette or Mona Lisa. *Scowl.* Why couldn’t they meet Marie Curie? Or at least Boadicea? I’m hoping if they make a sequel, they might even things up a bit.
You see, what I’ve learnt by reading a lot of history and writing about it, is that there were lots of females doing lots of interesting things in history, it’s just that the history books written in the past largely ignored them. BUT, the novels of the past certainly did not ignore women. And that’s because a lot of them were written by women! Thankfully, novels is where women had a bit of freedom, a little bit, to tell their own stories.
So I’ve chosen three of my favourite female characters from the past, all of whom tell in their unique voices different versions of what it was — and is — to be a woman.
Here we go:
Jo in Little Women
How could I not love Jo? She’s a writer, she’s feisty, she cuts all her hair off to save her family, she’s impetuous and absolutely determined to make something of herself. She says what she thinks — she’s delightfully gobby with a strong sense of justice — and she won’t stand for any bullshit. She makes mistakes and moves on. Yet she also learns the importance of love and relationships, and to me, that’s a wonderful balance to have in life.
Anne Elliot in Persuasion
Probably one of Jane Austen’s least known novels, it’s actually my favourite. They do say that Anne Elliot is the most similar to Austen’s character in real life. I’ll never know how true this is, but what I like about Anne is that she is not bolshie, like some other strong female characters, but is quiet and thoughtful, loyal and yet full of emotion. And through patience and gradual, gentle determination, finds and secures her own happiness away from her awful family.
Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch
Perhaps my least popular choice, some readers might feel she’s a bit too pious to be loved. But what I do love about Dorothea is that I believe her to be one of the most complex and fully-rounded female characters in fiction. At nineteen, she’s full of idealism, then marries badly and has that idealism crushed. Yet she carries on, has tremendous self-control and never loses sight of her ambitions to do some good in the world. She needs love too — don’t we all? — and chooses for her second husband someone who admires and loves her and who still has that idealism she nearly lost.
Eliot writes that Dorothea and others like her “lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs”, which initially sounds sad, yet for me, is the point of all these hidden histories of women we find in novels: by hearing their voices through the pages, we revisit their lives and these women become immortal.