It’s hard to find novels with female characters who read like actual women. In this list of some of my favourites, I’ve tried to present women who lead their own lives, who aren’t sidelined for men, whose stories don’t revolve around other people, and who have depth and complexity existing beyond the necessities of plot. That meant I had to cut some obvious candidates (sorry, Hermione). There may be spoilers ahead.
1. Fevvers ““ Nights at the Circus, Angela Carter
Carter’s novels are glorious messes of womanliness, sexuality, hope, magic and delight. Sophie/Fevvers is a big, tall, cheerily vulgar and secretly revolutionary aerialiste with a pair of enormous wings growing from her shoulders. The star of a very strange circus, Fevvers knows the value of her body and with astonishing agency is prepared to milk it for all that it’s worth. She’s a clever, feminist play on the whore with a heart of gold. A whore with a heart of gold, wings and a sword that she keeps in her cleavage.
Fave moment: The spot-on description of her as a “celestial fishwife.”
2. Jo March ““ Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
Confession: my favourite was always Amy, because she was arty and a bit of a princess. I might be the only person ever to have been pleased when she married Laurie. However, Jo is clearly the feminist hero of the book, questioning and challenging the expectations of gender in society. Tomboy Jo longs to run away and be a drummer in the army, and goes merrily through life whistling, running around and burning the backs of her dresses. She cuts off all her hair midway through the novel. By the end, though, she’s matured and adapted into a woman and a writer, without losing the wilful temperament and questioning personality which make her unique. Her friendship with Laurie is a beautiful example of a relationship founded on mutual respect.
Fave moment: When Jo marches into a newspaper office and has some short stories secretly published in the paper, and how proud everybody is when they find out. Also, the hilarious Pickwick Portfolio, the girls’ homemade newspaper.
3. Precious Ramotswe ““ The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, Alexander McCall Smith
Mma Ramotswe is a badass small business owner in Botswana, a self-declared detective relying solely on one stiff textbook, one secretary, red bush tea and her own intuition. She has a sharp mind, a kind and forgiving heart and a core of steel, and builds up her business with her honesty, love and intelligence, finding missing husbands, dogs and children. When she gets married again and adopts some children, it is on her own terms. Mma Ramotswe carries her traditional build with a sense of her own worth, and backs down to nobody.
Fave moment: When she shoots a crocodile dead, then cuts it open to rummage through the contents of its stomach to find out if it ate a man. It did.
4. Elizabeth Bennet ““ Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen.
What many readers of this text (and many modern romance writers) miss is that this is not a novel about Mr. Darcy. It’s barely even about their relationship. It’s a novel about Lizzie Bennet, who is spirited, observant and independent, and spends approximately 1% of the time moping about pining over Darcy, and 99% of the time running around being cool and ironic.
Fave moment: The pages which detail Lizzie’s thoughts after she reads Darcy’s letter in the grove of Charlotte’s house. It’s a triumph of realistic thinking, honesty and self-criticism. She cries, “Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love, has been my folly”¦ Till this moment I never knew myself.”
5. Orlando ““ Orlando, Virginia Woolf
Okay, it’s a bit iffy having Orlando on the list since she starts the novel as a man, but there can be no denying that once she transforms into a woman, her life becomes a rigorous (but fun) examination of sex and gender, so she counts. Based on Virginia’s bisexual, cross-dressing lover Vita Sackville-West, Orlando skirts around and occasionally smashes through gender boundaries across several centuries, accompanied by her biographer’s ironic notes on sex and society.
Fave moment: On the ship on her way back from Turkey, when Orlando stretches out her legs and a sailor falls off the mast, causing her to realise that she must learn how to “be” a woman acceptably in society: “She remembered how, as a young man, she had insisted that women must be obedient, chaste, scented and exquisitely apparelled. “˜Now I shall have to pay in my own person for those desires’, she reflected; “˜for women are not (judging from my own short experience) obedient, chaste, scented and exquisitely apparelled by nature. They can only attain these graces, without which they may enjoy none of the delights of life, by the most tedious discipline.’” Also, to get in the spirit of being a woman properly, she bangs the ship’s captain. Ahhhh yeeeahhhh.
6. Moll Flanders ““ The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe.
How many novels with whores in do you know that are written from the whore’s own perspective? What about one of the earliest modern novels ever written? Like Carter’s Fevvers, Defoe’s Moll Flanders is an excellently vulgar indomitable spirit, “Who was Born in Newgate, and during a Life of continu’d Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, as last grew Rich, liv’d Honest, and died a Penitent.” Whereof once to her own Brother! How can you argue with that? You can decide for yourselves whether the repentance that saves Moll from execution and helps her become extremely rich is a sham or simply very, very convenient.
Fave moment: Moll’s low, low point of robbing a family as their house burns down. Dastardly genius.
7. Offred ““ The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
Offred, faced with an unimaginably bleak situation, refuses to become what Marcuse called “one-dimensional” ““ someone who cannot imagine society being any different from the way that it is. Unlike Ofglen 2, Offred never stops dreaming of another, free life, where she can be with her husband and child again. This book woke me up to the patriarchy as a teen and never fails to tug at my feminist heartstrings.
Fave moment: When Offred steals pats of butter to use as moisturiser. So small and so heartbreaking, and explains so much about the world in which she lives, and shows such a deep understanding of women.
8. Matilda ““ Matilda, Roald Dahl
I wanted Matilda to be my best friend as a child. Hell, I still do. Matilda is a smart, bookish little girl whose brain is so highly developed that having her creativity stifled means she gains actual magic powers that let her move things around without touching them. Matilda is perky and hilarious and she likes going to the library, and she knows how to get the better of her horrible parents and Miss Trunchbull with a series of ingenious tricks, like supergluing her dad’s hat to his head. Matilda is my hero.
Fave moment: When the newt in the jug of water falls onto Miss Trunchbull and she goes flailing around the classroom. Also, when Matilda gets to move in with the delightful Miss Honey. Also, when the children recite the Mrs. Difficulty rhyme and Miss Trunchbull says “Why are all these women married!?” This is all-round an incredibly satisfying book.
Thoughts, kittens? Who are your favourite women in fiction? For discussion purposes, here are some of the other ideas I had who didn’t make the list:
Hermione Granger (Harry Potter), Fermina Daza (Love in the Time of Cholera), Clare DeTamble (The Time Traveler’s Wife), Winnie Louie (The Kitchen God’s Wife), Dora and Nora Chance (Wise Children), Esther Greenwood (The Bell Jar), Sonmi-451 and Luisa Rey (Cloud Atlas), Kambili Achike (Purple Hibiscus), Daisy Goodwill (The Stone Diaries), Kiki Belsey (On Beauty), Cordelia Kenn (This is All), Molly Bloom (Ulysses), Sophie (Sophie’s World), Rosemary Hoyt (Tender is the Night).