My favorite literary heroines

There’s an important experience
that straight women and gay women have in common — and no, I don’t
mean lusting after Angelina Jolie. Falling in love with literary
heroines seems to me like something that transcends sexuality, mostly
because it isn’t really about sex. The best literary heroines are
a mixture of what you can identify with — what you’ve felt and experienced
— and what you’d like to be. They are usually smart, strong and not
the most beautiful girls in the room; yet somehow they have a charm
that puts the most beautiful girls in the shade. Sometimes they don’t
even have that outward charm, but because of the internal focus of
novels, the reader can still see, and love, their integrity and wit.

Growing up, I liked reading about
Jo March in Little Women and Laura Ingalls Wilder in the Little
books. I loved Sara Crewe from A Little Princess and
Matilda from the Roald Dahl story. There was Emily Byrd Starr from

Anne of Green Gables author L. M. Montgomery’s lesser-known
books, and the strange, moody Fuchsia Groan from Mervyn Peake’s
trilogy. There was shy, secretive, angry Beth Ellen
from lesbian Harriet the Spy author Louise Fitzhugh’s The
Long Secret

Here are my 5 favorite literary heroines
as a grownup:

1. Elizabeth Bennet from Jane
Austen’s Pride and Prejudice

Jane Austen wrote of her Lizzy that
“I must confess that I think her as delightful a creature as ever
appeared in print,” and she will hear no disagreement from me. As
well as reading the book, I’ve also watched three “lively and determined”
Elizabeths play out the drama on screen: Greer Garson in 1940,
Jennifer Ehle
in 1995, and Keira Knightley in 2005.

While I like Keira Knightley, I have
to say that her performance was lacking something crucial that the two
others conveyed to me: Elizabeth’s maturity, her full understanding
even at a young age of how degrading it would be to have an unequal
marriage like her parents’. Over the course of the book, Elizabeth
discovers that her strong moral judgments are not always right: She
is mistaken about Mr. Wickham, mistaken about Mr. Darcy. But she still
has an intelligence and strength of character that sets her apart from
all other heroines for me — and I can never get enough of her telling
off Lady Catherine.

2. Shirley Keeldar from Charlotte
Brontë’s Shirley (1849)

For a lot of people, a Charlotte
Brontë heroine means Jane Eyre. But much as I like Jane, she didn’t
capture my heart the way Shirley did. Named for the boy that her parents
wanted her to be (Shirley was a male name in Charlotte Brontë’s day),
Shirley is supposed to have been partly based on Charlotte’s sister
Emily (pictured below) — particularly in her independence and her love
for animals.

There are also some intriguing parallels
between Shirley and Anne Lister, a real-life nineteenth-century lesbian
whose diaries were first published in 1988. Both are Yorkshire landowners
who adopt a masculine persona. (Lister was nicknamed ‘Fred’ by an
early lover, and she formed a long-term relationship with a woman called
Ann Walker, who came to live with her).

Playing on her boy’s name, Shirley
refers to herself as “Captain Keeldar,” and at one point tells her
governess that if she was a man, “there was not a single fair one
in this and the two neighboring parishes, whom she would have felt
disposed to request to become Mrs. Keeldar, lady of the manor.”

Some readers might speculate that
Shirley changes her mind on this as she gets to know Caroline, the other
heroine of the novel, with whom she becomes close friends. Unlike Anne
Lister, Shirley is conventionally feminine and beautiful, and she does
eventually marry a man (though their engagement makes her strangely
nervous). But I still remain partial to the scene where, running with
Caroline through a field at night with an urgent message, she gallantly
offers to carry her across the narrow plank over a river. Just what
any well-mannered gay girl ought to offer to do for her girlfriend.

3. Lucy Snowe from Charlotte Brontë’s
Villette (1853)

The heroine of Charlotte Brontë’s
last novel, Lucy Snowe is like an older, wiser Jane Eyre, without the
fairy-tale ending. Angry, cagey, clever, bitter and searingly sarcastic,
she thoroughly offended notions of Victorian womanhood — which, of course,
is one of the reasons why I love her.

Like Shirley, her sexuality is also
intriguingly ambiguous. She falls in love with the beautiful young Dr.
John — who tends the Belgian girls’ school where she works — and also
with the irritable professor, M. Paul Emanuel (the idea that any decent
woman could fall in love with two men at once was one of the things
that horrified Victorian critics). But she also finds herself strangely
drawn towards the pretty coquette Ginevra Fanshawe, and admires her
employer, Madame Beck, enough to say, “Had I been a gentleman
I believe Madame would have found favour in my eyes.” Watching Lucy
and Ginevra flirt with each other is, in my opinion, one of the great
pleasures of this amazing novel.

4. Ursula Brangwen from D. H.
Lawrence’s The Rainbow (1915)

The Rainbow

is the story of three generations of the Brangwen family, growing up
and growing old in the north of England. The first two generations follow
a sort of animal existence, having some intellectual curiosity and aspirations
when they are young, but soon settling into stolid marriage and parenthood.
Then along comes Ursula, whose freshness, force, and lust for life are
not so easily dampened. She falls in love with a soldier, Anton Skrebensky.
She develops a lesbian crush on her teacher, Winifred Inger, and pursues
it quite uninhibitedly and unembarrassedly.

Lawrence put a lot of his own experience
into Ursula — particularly into the account of her working as a schoolteacher
— and the result is one of the most vivid, sensitive, imaginative
female characters ever created.

5. Catherine Bourne from Ernest
Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden

I’ve blogged about the upcoming film adaptation of

Garden, which will star Mena Suvari as the beautiful, boyish

Those who have read the book might
wonder what Catherine is doing on a favorites list — after all, she
is jealous, unreasonable, unstable and destructive. But when it’s
the 1920s and you’re starting to realize you might be a lesbian —
or possibly even transgender — it seems to me you’re entitled to be
a little cranky. Particularly when your husband and your girlfriend
keep hinting that you’re sinful and perverted.

When the book was first published
in 1986, E. L. Doctorow wrote in The New York Times that “its
major achievement is Catherine Bourne […] Catherine in fact may be
the most impressive of any woman character in Hemingway’s work.” What
I personally love about Catherine is how, even in the context of a narrative
and a time that disapproves of her, she remains a real and rounded character
— she never succumbs to a two-dimensional Tragic Lesbian stereotype.

Those are my favorites. Who are yours?