Right, I’m not going to officially “rank” them, because I’m sure I could hardly handle the arguments with myself, much less weather the idea of courting impassioned contention, so, in no particular order, here are some of the greatest – and my favourite – female characters in literature. The criteria are not especially rigid: without really examining their overall influence on literature and identity, and, reluctant to engage in iconicism, I’ve picked these ladies because they are awesome, unusual and gloriously memorable. Off we go, then.
The widely famed and imitated heroine of Pride and Prejudice is deliriously quick-witted, fiercely intelligent and splendidly able to rise above the nonsense and boredom around her. She’s honest, lively and rebellious, and she gracefully traverses the often spiteful and wanton society in which she dwells with consistent loveliness. What more can be said? Well, she also manages to successfully realise the error of her own misjudgements – no mean feat, especially when you contrast it with today’s culture of “(double down on your misguided beliefs when challenged and) never admit you may have been wrong” – in order to achieve happiness with a flawed and awkward man… which is a trope that continues to make for good fiction. She’s a blend of wisdom, vivacity and goodness that is seldom glimpsed in anybody.
“You must learn some of my philosophy. Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure.”
“I wonder who first discovered the efficacy of poetry in driving away love!”
“I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies, do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.”
Of course, the world of Harry Potter is populated by so many incredible women, it’s impossible to pick just one. Hermoine Granger, Minerva Macgonnigle, Molly Weasley, Sybil Trelawnay… the list goes on and on. But I’ve chosen Luna as a personal favourite of mine. A lot of this is because she is just such a fabulous kook – a comfortable, confident outsider in an already fairly odd world full of shapeshifters and magical creatures and the marginalised gifted. Plus, she has a serious flair for unique fashions and a dreamy disposition that keeps her outlook unique and fascinating. She also has a special link with the magical creatures of the world – which earns her extra love on my part. Kind, accepting, non-conformist, different in the best of ways, empathetic and blissfully odd… you couldn’t not adore her.
“All my shoes somehow magically disappeared. But I’m not concerned. They’ll show up sometime – even when you least expect it.”
“You’re just as sane as I am.”
Galadriel is probably most famous for that scene where Cate Blanchett goes petrifyingly nuts and starts screaming about having a queen not dark but beautiful and terrible as the dawn, tempestuous as the sea! … All shall love me and despair! … Ooph, chills. In The Lord of the Rings books, and The Hobbit, she is also an awe-inspiring figure of power, and she is tempered with unique levels of empathy and insight. Recognising the corruption of the ring – and possibly knowing more about it than anybody in the story – she becomes a mentor to Frodo and bestows upon the fellowship a set of unique gifts to help them in their quest. A psychic who uses her gifts to ensure that the best course will be taken, Galadriel is a beacon of perspective and compassion: a force for good whose unequalled knowledge allows her to know herself and others with a seldom seen purity. She pretty much bowls over everyone who encounters her. And with fair reason.
“The sound of her footsteps was like a stream falling gently downhill over cool stones in the quiet of night.”
“I will not give you counsel, saying do this, or do that. For not in doing or contriving, nor in choosing between this course and another, can I avail; but only in knowing what was and is, and in part also what shall be.”
First. Forget about Audrey Hepburn. Yes, Hepburn is great. No, Hepburn was not, is not, Holly Golightly. The two are a world apart and the film version of her was not even close. A big bug bear of mine from which, now that it has been aired, we can move on. So.
In Breakfast at Tiffany’s, one of the finest novellas ever produced, Holly is a complex character with far more depth than is initially apparent. Though the narrator is wooed by her novelty and her rebellious spirit, and though she seems at first to be little more than a self-serving fun-seeker with a talent for guile, Holly is a young woman dealing with a painful past, struggling to really know her place in the world. She’s a challenging character. One who does not fit within simple binaries like good and bad or hero and villain. It’s tough to say whether we are supposed to sympathise with her or to dislike or distrust or adore her. But we do all of those because what is most striking about her is that even in her affectations and schemes she is one hundred percent real.
“It may be normal, darling; but I’d rather be natural.”
“The answer is good things only happen to you if you’re good. Good? Honest is more what I mean… Be anything but a coward, a pretender, an emotional crook, a whore: I’d rather have cancer than a dishonest heart.”
Alice (in Wonderland etc)
Alice may be just a little girl, but into that young heart has been poured more spirit and gumption than most adults could handle. As young as she is, Alice seems to exist independently. In spite of what we assume to be a large family and household, Alice only ever refers to one other named character – her beloved cat Dinah. What’s brilliant about this is that in allowing Alice to stand alone, Lewis Carroll allows us to be Alice. With the logistical and concrete details of her life shorn away, Alice is every one of us. We can inhabit her because she is pure spirit. Now, I’m not suggesting that she is great because she is a blank slate but her unspecificity might just be what has kept her brilliantly alive for 150 years. Then again, she is also the absolute embodiment of one of our finest characteristics: curiosity. She represents the experimental essence of all children. Plus, she doesn’t shy from a philosophical paradox or a mad tyrant; she is an invitation to openly wonder about the bizarreness of this world.
“The first thing I’ve got to do,” said Alice to herself, as she wandered about in the wood, “is to grow my right size again; and the second thing is to find my way into that lovely garden. I think that will be the best plan.”
“She generally gave herself very good advice (though she very seldom followed it), and sometimes she scolded herself so severely as to bring tears to her eyes; and once she remembered trying to box her own ears for having cheated herself in a game of croquet she was playing against herself, for this curious child was very fond of pretending to be two people.”