bitches, rebels and other heroines

On my list of female protagonists are more than a few difficult women. If you go looking, you’ll find (for example) that readers either love or hate Melanthe of Kinsale’s For My Lady’s Heart. The comments I have heard is that she is too hard and even abrasive, although I think some of the dislike of Melanthe has to do with the fact that this novel is not an easy read; Kinsale does a good job of approximating Middle English for a modern audience, and it takes a little work to get into it. I loved Melanthe, particularly because she seems — if you look at the surface only — to be manipulative and disdainful but is in fact struggling hard to survive in a world inimical to independent women. She has suffered some terrible losses which have made her hard, but the beauty of this novel is in the way she adapts to Ruck, and he to her.

Something that is true of all these women (as it is true of the men) is that they all stand on the social periphery. Christine noted this in a comment to an earlier post about the men:

I think there’s always something about those guys that don’t quite fit in whatever the ‘norm’ is. Perhaps that’s part of their self-possession, but those characters always seem slightly on the fringe.

For me personally, traditional female characters may be interesting and well done, but they don’t make it onto my short list. Which is why I could make a second list of female characters whose stories I liked, but are too traditional for my tastes. This list would include Minerva from Jenny Crusie’s Bet Me (an actuary working for her father’s company) and Maud Bailey of A.S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance (a fairly run of the mill academic). Christabel LaMotte, also from Possession, is one of the women who probably should be on my list. Please don’t misunderstand: I truly love and admire both these novels (for different reasons); I’m distinguishing here between individual characters and the work as a whole.

A look at my list shows all these women to be rebellious in one way or another.

Behaving Badly
Elizabeth Bennetttalks back to gentlemen and old ladies, flaunts expectations, refuses marriage proposals
Marie Du GardIn turn of the century France a single woman of good family evades the match her father has made for her, and pursues a career in the new industry of film making
Maddy TimmsThe most traditional of my seven, Maddy, an observant Quaker, flaunts authority to help a man who is being mistreated by the medical authorities.
MelantheA rich woman runs away from the men who control her life and does everything in her power to establish a safe haven for herself.
Aeryn SunAh, Aeryn. Pulled against her will out of her native environment, it takes a while for her to recognize the rebel in herself and the streak of independence that comes from a mother she never knew.
Hannah Trevora midwife, Hannah struggles to make a life for herself after she loses her children and a treacherous husband; she gets pregnant because she wants to be a mother again, but rejects the idea of another husband. She is in constant conflict with the men in this late 18th century Maine village, and with her own needs.
Elizabeth Middletonwants an education, the opportunity to learn without restrictions, to teach girls as boys are taught, and to pursue her life without being made to feel aberrant.

One Reply to “bitches, rebels and other heroines”

  1. Sara- I’m so enjoying your analysis of these heroes and heroines, partly because I just finished reading Into the Wilderness and can’t wait to start the next book, and then because I just recommended the Margaret Lawerence books to someone who has adored all of your work. I’m so pleased to find her characters on these lists as well!

    I’m not familiar with the other female protaganists, aside from Elizabeth Bennett, Hannah, Elizabeth Middleton and Aeryn, but I love the comparisons of them, strong women, on the periphery, at times figuring out just where their strength and defiance comes from, and at the same time figuring out what to do with it.

    I’m so looking forward to reading more of this analysis.

    Thea

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