When you think of a kick-ass heroine, who springs to mind? Obviously Hit-Girl in the movie Kick Ass. Or Katniss in The Hunger Games, or the cat burglar Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises.
I LOVE all those heroines, too, but to be fair, “kicking ass” isn’t just about wielding a rocket launcher. Even in olden days there were heroines who “kicked ass” as hard as ass possibly could be kicked within their social confines. How about Jane Eyre? If the mad woman in the attic turned out to be a vampire, Jane could have driven a stake through her heart no problem. We picture women in days gone by sitting quietly in a corner with their needlework and their tea-cups, but actually they were a lot tougher than we imagine. They walked for miles and miles in all weathers, they woke up to ice inside the windows in winter, every night the streets were terrifyingly dark, and most of all they were inured to the reality of death and dying in a way that many of us nowadays can’t imagine, with our antibiotics and our surgically clean hospitals.
So, I’ve put together a list of 10 of my favourite romantic heroines – and if some of the heroines on my list seem more “knit-ass” thank “kick-ass”, think again! These are all tough women, with or without the crinolines. (Warning – may contain spoilers.)
10 Great Romantic Heroines
A Town Like Alice, by Nevil Shute The heroine of this novel is called Jean Paget (such a dull, ordinary name) and when the novel begins she is secretary in a factory (such a dull, ordinary job). However, the novel flashes back in time to the second world war and Jean’s incredible hardships in Malaya during a forced march by the Japanese, and we soon realise that underneath her staid exterior Jean is absolutely not dull and ordinary. She makes heroic sacrifices for the other women during the march and along the way meets and falls in love with an Australian POW named Joe. The novel later deals with their attempts to find each other after the war. In the Australian outback Jean goes on to prove herself once more to be some tough chick. So, never under-estimate an English secretary in a tweed skirt. Jean is one of my all-time favourite down-to-earth heroines, and Joe is one of my favourite heroes.
An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, by P.D. James Cordelia Gray is a private detective. During one of her investigations a murder is committed and, for reasons too complicated to go into here, Cordelia decides to protect the murderer and arrange the body to make it look like suicide. The police are called in and she meets the brilliant Adam Dalgliesh (hero of P.D. James’ other crime novels) for the first time. The scene where Dalgliesh questions Cordelia is excellently written and nail-biting. He knows a murder has been committed, and she knows he knows, but she remains brilliantly cool throughout. The tension between the two of them sizzles off the page. In a later book (A Taste for Death) they are seen “dining together.” I just love the understatement.
La Dame aux Camellias, by Alexandre Dumas (fils) This tragic love story about a courtesan inspired many other versions, including the opera La Traviata and the film Moulin Rouge. In Dumas’ version, the heroine Marguerite Gautier gives up everything – her wealth and glittering life in Paris – for the man she loves. Eventually, believing that their affair will bring scandal on his younger sister, she renounces him, making him believe she is returning to her life as a courtesan. By the time her lover realises the truth – that she has given him up because she loves him so much – it is too late. Marguerite dies of tuberculosis. The first time I read this book I had no idea this was going to happen, and was absolutely gutted. Marguerite comes across as the absolute noble heroine, and I’m afraid her wimp of a lover didn’t deserve her.
The Clan of the Cave Bear, by Jean M. Auel This is the first novel in Auel’s famous Earth’s Children series, set approximately 25,000 years BC. The heroine, Ayla, is a human girl living with a group of Neanderthals. As a human she has a different way of thinking to her clansmen. She uses her own intiative, in complete contravention of the clan’s strict social code, and she teaches herself to hunt and fish – both of which are forbidden to women in the clan. Her spirited character, her openness and her skill with healing help her win the clan round, in spite of her apparent disobedience to their social rules. Maybe the first feminist in history?
War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy Anyone who’s been following my blog will know how much I LOVE this book. I wrote about it here once already, and am mentioning it again because the heroine, Natasha Rostov, is one of the greatest female characters in the history of literature. At the beginning of the novel she’s a lively, spirited, witty young girl full of hope on the verge of life. At the end of the novel she has lived through Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and seen men dying in agony; she has made a terrible, tragic mistake (Natasha! how I feel for you); and she is a calmer, steadier, more reflective version of the same girl. She’s an ordinary girl who proves herself in extraordinary circumstances. So much more to be said. I love her.
Nightbirds on Nantucket, by Joan Aiken Dido Twite is one of the most sharp-witted and sharp-tongued characters in children’s literature. This book is the third in a series about “Hanoverian” England, a set of historical novels in which England’s royal history plays out a little differently from real life. Dido is a brat from London’s streets, but a resourceful, honest and delightful brat. She was left to drown at sea at the end of the previous book, Blackhearts in Battersea (great title), but a child reader wrote to Joan Aiken begging her not to let the brilliant Dido drown. And so Aiken revived Dido for this book, where she ends up at sea on a whaler bound for Nantucket, and caught up in a series of thrilling adventures. A fantastic children’s heroine, in every sense.
For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway Maybe I’m going out on a limb here, as there has been criticism of Hemingway for writing female characters who are just cyphers to the male lead. Still, there’s something about Maria in this novel that I find heroic – maybe because she’s now forever identified for most of us with Ingrid Bergman’s magnificent portrayal of her in the film. Whatever, there’s no denying her strength. She survives trauma and rape and yet somehow her innocence and her zest for life are undimmed. She’s not afraid to fight, and even offers to shoot the hero if she has to. Her love for the hero is intense and brings back the intensity of emotion we all felt as teenagers. Everyone in the novel loves her, and so do I.
These Old Shades, by Georgette Heyer Anyone who loves romance novels has read Heyer, and Léonie, the heroine of this novel, is one of her most spirited heroines – and that’s saying something. Léonie is a beautiful aristocrat, abandoned to a tavern-keeper as a child and forced to disguise herself as a boy to escape the unwanted attentions of the tavern’s clients. Unaware of her background, Léonie becomes page-boy to the hero, the Duke of Avon. Of course he guesses at the truth. There are many melodramatic plot twists, including abduction of Léonie and attempted murder, before justice wins out. Through it all, the heroine retains her spirit, her liveliness of wit and her occasional lapse into street talk. I’m sure I’m not spoiling anything by saying she gets the happy ending she derserves.
Madam Will You Talk, by Mary Stewart Charity Selbourne is this novel’s heroine and, like many of Stewart’s heroines, she’s an ordinary girl who suddenly finds herself at the centre of terrifying drama. In this case a young boy’s murderous father is on the loose in Provence. There are fantastic car chase scenes in which Charity proves herself an excellently cool driver (in the fifties, at a time when “women drivers” were an object of derision). She’s still grieving for her husband, who died in the war, and she’s shown facing her grief with great strength. Of course she meets another man, the hero of this novel, and the author shows her dealing with her growing feelings whilst holding onto the memory of her first husband. The writing style has dated a little, and there are other aspects which jar to the modern reader – the constant smoking, for example, and especially the use of the word negro, which in those days wasn’t as politically charged as today. I’d still highly recommend this as a good read, though, and the heroine is tremendously likeable and acts with aplomb.
Middlemarch, by George Eliot The heroine of this 19th century novel, Dorothea Brooke, is capable of great things. What would her life have been had she lived in the 21st century, instead of trapped by her own time’s conventions? She’s intelligent and has great ideas for social reform, which she’s unable to put into practice without the patronage of a husband. She marries a vicar, Casaubon, intending to devote her life to helping him write a great work, but she soon finds out he’s a dullard and, no matter how she tries to reassure him, he finds her intimidating. She is totally wasted in this marriage, but she acts towards her husband with dignity and even tenderness, despite his shortcomings. At first Dorothea seems a bit of a prig, but in the end I really liked her and was rooting for her to get the happy ending she deserved. The first time I tried to read this book I thought it was as dull as ditchwater and I put it down. I’m glad I tried again, though, because it’s become one of my favourites of all time.
So, what do you think to my choices? Are there any heroines from books or film who you love? Please let me know in the comments – I’d love to hear about them!