The greatest literary heroine of all time: Who is yours?


MIA: "This is what happened when I tried...

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Who is the greatest female literary character of all time? I don’t know. I tried to come up with a definitive answer to this question, but it’s too hard.

There are not as many wonderful women out there in literature as I would like, but there are a lot of them.

I can’t pick just one.

Instead, here’s five that make my shortlist. (If you try and make me choose I won’t do it.)

Hermione Granger, the Harry Potter series.

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Is it embarrassing to admit that my personal hero is probably a teenage witch? When we first meet Hermione she’s the know-it-all nerd that everyone at Hogwarts
loves to hate. Whip-smart and determined to succeed, she wants to be liked just as much as she wants to be the best, which is something we can surely all relate to (or I can, anyway).

When she eventually wins over the boys, their friendship becomes the cornerstone of the series, and more often than not it is Hermione who propels them forward as they fight against Voldemort. Hermione is brave, strong-willed, independent and resourceful. She is also incredibly loyal to her friends. J.K. Rowling packed the Potter series with wonderful women – Professor McGonagall, Mrs. Weasley, Luna Lovegood, Tonks – each one strong and clever. But Hermione Granger, muggle-born daughter of dentists, is a true heroine.

anna kareninaElizabeth Bennet, Pride and Prejudice.

Elizabeth Bennet is a feisty, smart, strong woman who will not be forced into a life she did not chose. That’s a gutsy position for a woman of her circumstances at the time Pride and Prejudice was written. Lizzie’s life as an English country gentlewoman is pretty far removed from mine (when I say I play the piano very poorly, it is a whole other level of terrible).

But Jane Austen’s most popular heroine sticks with us because she is basically a young woman who knows her own mind and refuses to compromise herself for money or position. In Jane Austen’s day, that made Lizzie a bit of a rebel. She’s taught generations of teenage girls that your mind is more valuable than your appearance, and that you shouldn’t compromise yourself simply to conform to society’s standards.

Scout, To Kill A Mockingbird.anna karenina

I love this book. I’ve read it so many times, I couldn’t even begin to count them. At its center is little Scout. Scrappy, curious, fair-minded Scout who is constantly trying to make sense of a divided and confused world. Like Scout, I’ve got an older brother and a lawyer father who would often pose questions of law at the dinner table, provoking us to think on our motivations and actions.

Scout is wonderful because she is open-minded and so often unsure of herself. She does not blindly believe conventional wisdom because she has been taught to think critically and ask questions. Harper Lee gave us a wonderful story with a smart, compassionate, curious girl at its core. If you haven’t read it since high school, dust it off and give it a go.

Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina.

anna kareninaLeo Tolstoy’s epic novel is about so much more than one woman and her struggle to live and love freely, but Anna is the key to a much broader story of Russian society, politics and class. Anna is trapped between the choices she made before we even meet her (her marriage to Karenin) and the ones she will be forced to make.

It would be easy to write Anna off because she is ultimately devastatingly unhappy, but Anna is an example of someone who will not chose a path simply because it is easy. She lives fully, passionately, recklessly – and her plight is made far worse because her indiscretions are acceptable in men, but not women. I don’t admire Anna because I would like to be her, I admire her because she has the courage to live her life outside of the bounds of what’s expected and accepted. Having the courage to be true to yourself can be hard, but she does it anyway.

Jo March, Little Women series.

anna kareninaGrowing up, my mother had the four Little Women books in 1960’s hardback, their dust jackets long gone, with just the titles in gold lettering on the cracked spines. How desperately I wanted to be Jo. Jo is a pretty traditional heroine up until she turns down Laurie’s marriage proposal. She’s the smart, independent, feisty sister with an unpredictable streak and a vivid imagination. But really, her greatest strength is her insight.

She knows that she could never be happy with Laurie despite their deep friendship and his vast fortune, and she knows that her refusal will end their camaraderie, but it is the best thing for them both, and she sticks to her guns. Jo March taught me that loving someone just because they love you, or because you don’t know if someone more suited will come along, is no way to live your life. You’ve got to live it for you.

Anna Karenina is acclaimed director Joe Wright’s bold, theatrical new vision of the epic story of love, stirringly adapted from Leo Tolstoy’s great novel by Academy Award winner Tom Stoppard (Shakespearein Love). The film marks the third collaboration of the director with Academy Award-nominated actress Keira Knightley, following their award-winning box office successes Pride & Prejudice and Atonement.

The timeless story powerfully explores the capacity for love that surges through the human heart, while illuminating the lavish society that was imperial Russia.

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Who is your favourite female literary hero and why?

What do you think?


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