by REBECCA SPARROW
They change us. Befriend us. Show us how to be fierce. Brave. Loyal. Or conversely show us the consequences of decisions we’ll never make ourselves.
We may be turning the pages of their stories but it is they who tuck us into their pockets and take us with them on their adventures; learning magic in a school for wizards, scrubbing the kitchen floor of a rich white woman in 1960s Mississippi, pushing back against the expectations placed on young women in 19th century England or navigating the minefield that is dating over the age of 30 while battling a cigarette addiction and a love of enormous underpants (thank you, Bridget Jones).
I did a rather horrible thing this month and asked nine of my favourite female Australian novelists to each name their favourite literary heroine. That’s right. Singular. They all grumbled a bit (How can we choose just one?) but in the end their answers were as diverse and fascinating as the authors are themselves.
As for me, I’m choosing two. (Shut up. It’s my post.) It’s hard to go past Pride and Prejudice‘s Elizabeth Bennett, right? At a time when young ladies were appreciated for their aesthetics alone, Lizzie was there with her quick wit, her fierce loyalty, her gregarious nature and her free spirit. And when she said to Mr Darcy – “I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any.” – I wanted to high-five her through the page.
My other favourite literary heroine is Liesel Meminger, the nine-year-old fearless, at times feisty and deeply compassionate protagonist from The Book Thief. I went on a journey with her through Nazi Germany and I felt changed by the end of her story.
And now that I’ve chosen Lizzie and Liesel, I’m feeling immense guilt over not naming my favourite red-head, the irresistible, loquacious, loose-cannon, Anne Shirley from Green Gables. Or the deliciously subversive Miss Jean Brodie. Or Katniss Everdeen whose determination, courage and cunning in The Hunger Games makes you want to stand up and cheer.
I think we need a longer list.
For an arachnophobe, Charlotte A. Cavatica may seem a strange choice of literary heroine, but E.B. White’s character in Charlotte’s Web was the first to come to my mind. She was an earth mother, wordsmith and tireless activist who, with limited resources in the twilight of her life, made it her mission to save that sweet, doomed piglet, Wilbur, from his Christmas dinner fate. She was a source of comfort, company and camaraderie to Wilbur. She saved his bacon, soothed his woes and warmed his – and my – heart.
Jessica Rudd is a Canberra-born, Brisbane-raised ex-lawyer, ex-campaign worker and ex-PR consultant who lives with her husband in Beijing. She is the author of two novels: Campaign Ruby and Ruby Blues.
Never given a name, the handmaid from this dystopian story comes to represent all those who have fought quietly and bravely against social, sexual and gender injustice. She passively and actively resists oppression and, by recording history for future generations, remains optimistic and gives voice to those who dare not and/or are powerless to speak for themselves. Reading this book was literally a life-changing experience for me.
Dr Karen Brooks is a university professor, newspaper columnist with The Courier-Mail and the author of 10 novels. Her most recent, Illumination, was released in July.
I fell in love with Jo March from ‘Little Women’ when I was about eleven years old. I loved Jo’s passionate nature – she had the confidence that I lacked and a temper (which Marmee was always trying to reign in). But most of all I loved the way that Jo always knew, in her heart, that she was destined to be a writer. Skip forward twenty-six years and I found myself in Concord visiting Orchard House where Louisa May Alcott (Jo’s creator) once lived. Stooping over Alcott’s own writing desk I found myself gazing out the window and across the yellowed summer fields. Time collapsed, and I was once again seeing through the eyes of Jo March, fellow ‘scribbler’ and the very first of my fictional friends.
Louise Limerick is the author of the award-winning novel Dying For Cake and the recently released Lucinda’s Whirlwind.
‘Emily of New Moon, in the book by L.M. Montgomery, was the first girl I ever read about who wanted to be a writer. Most people love the Anne books best, but for me, Emily Byrd Starr of New Moon was the one who spoke most clearly to me. Even her name was magical! I felt I shared with her an intense love of the beauty of the world, a sensitive soul with a streak of strangeness or sadness in it, and, most of all, a passionate yearning to write and to “climb the Alpine Path and write my name on the scroll of fame.” Her struggles to be true to herself, to find the strength to keep on writing in the face of criticism and scorn, and to find true love resonated with me in a very deep and profound way.
Kate Forsyth is the bestselling and award-winning author of more than twenty books. Her most recent novel, Bitter Greens, is a retelling of the Rapunzel fairytale interwoven with the dramatic, true life story of the woman who first told the tale, the 17th century French writer, Charlotte-Rose de la Force.
Scarlett O’Hara had looks, husbands and money, but in the end, nothing mattered more than guts.
Apart from being a Contributing Editor at Mamamia, Kate Hunter is the author of the Mosquito Advertising series of books for young adults. She is currently working on a scandalous novel about school fetes.
The lessons Sybylla taught me? Stay true to yourself. Ask questions. Don’t settle for an ordinary life, whatever your circumstances. And, most importantly: write novels.
Nerida Newton is the award-winning author of two works of historical fiction: The Lambing Flats and Death of a Whaler.
I admire Jane Eyre, because she is both principled and spirited. Far from being a weakling or an emotional pushover, she uses intellect and a strong moral compass to make decisions and stick by them.
Kim Wilkins is the internationally published, award-winning author of more than 20 novels. Her latest novel is Lighthouse Bay which she wrote under the pen name Kimberley Freeman.
My choice is a little grungier. It’s the unnamed narrator from the anonymously-published 70’s novel Go Ask Alice, purported to be the diary of a 15-year-old high school student who got involved with LSD, then heroin and eventually died of an overdose. My mother gave me the book when I was about 14, no doubt intending to scare me off drugs forever, and I DEVOURED it. I read it in a day, then read it again, and cried my eyes out at the end both times. Yes, the book warned me about drugs (I’ve never inhaled), but more than that I think the narrator was the first literary character I’d truly engaged with. She was young and a bit unsure of her place in life and worried about her body and boys and school and she could have been me. She taught me that yes, growing up is scary and that life isn’t always fair, but it’s also precious and not to waste it. Thirty years on, I still find myself thinking about her some days.
Kylie is a novelist, freelance writer and neuropsychologist. Her first novel, After The Fall, was published in the US and Turkey , her second, Last Summer, was highly commended in the Federation of Australian Writers 2011 award for fiction, and her third, Into My Arms, will be released early next year.
9. Wendy Squires: Lolita from Lolita
I had the pleasure of reading Nabakov’s masterpiece as I was coming to grips with my sexuality post-puberty. Through the eyes of protagonist Humbert Humbert I discovered the power a young woman wields, the affect it has on men and the great price paid for using said power as a bargaining chip. I have read the novel many times as I have aged and passed it on to my god daughters when they too have reached that delicate stage when their bodies say women but their minds are still very much that of a girl.
Wendy Squires has been a journalist for more than 20 years and is currently a columnist for The Age. She is the author of the novel The Boys’ Club, based on her brief experience as a television publicist.
Click through the gallery to see what books we reckon feature inspiring female characters…
Who are YOUR literary heroines?