Strong Women in Victorian and Regency Literature
My favourite books when I was growing up all had one common factor: they all featured strong women who were often outspoken, and who flew against the norm. As a voracious reader who sped past age-appropriate books by the age of six, I was introduced to the classics by a mother who just wanted me to stop bothering her. It was with utter delight that I sank into the pages of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell; it was with immense satisfaction that I devoured the work of the Bronte sisters and Harper Lee and Louisa May Alcott.
In a recent discussion about strong female characters, I was disappointed to note that nobody thought to mention any of the Regency and Victorian characters from the classics that I know and love so well; it is almost as though people want to consign these characters to the stereotypes that were prevalent at the time. This is a grave injustice, not only to women as a sex but also to these amazing authors who wrote those groundbreaking characters. Strength and stoicism among women is not limited to modern women; it has always been a hallmark of ours.
Although this list came together quickly in my head as I was pontificating endlessly about strong Regency and Victorian female characters, I have extended the list to more than the initial handful of books I intended to present you with.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
“There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of merit or sense.”
Austen's brilliant and comic book is as much a reflection on the social mores of the time she lived in as it is a funny and heart-warming love story. It features the feisty and outspoken Elizabeth Bennet – one of my favourite protagonists – and centres around her romance with Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy (and no, things don't play out in the way that you would think). When you consider that this book was written in the nineteenth century, and how women's lives seemed to be headed toward one destination alone, I suspect you will admire Elizabeth as much for her intelligence, her sense of humour, and her 'lively playful disposition which delighted in anything ridiculous' as you will for her refusal to be awed by Darcy's wealth.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
“Do you think I am an automaton? — a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! — I have as much soul as you — and full as much heart!”
Ah, Jane. I suspect Jane Eyre – which I read at age seven or eight – was the first book that made me sob out loud as I was reading it. Jane's trials and tribulations begin at a very young age when she is orphaned and sent to live with her cruel Aunt Reed. Jane is the detested child from the very first, and she also stands up for herself, something that Aunt Reed does not like. Jane is packed off to a charity school where she is subjected to even more evil. Not all is bleak, however; Jane meets her best friend and knows some human love and companionship, albeit briefly. When she is an adult she sets forth into the world after securing a job as a governess. Then she meets Edward Rochester, the handsome brooding owner of Thornfield, and falls in love, and is loved in return. But now Jane's life is rife with danger, and she has to make some difficult choices and come to some hard decisions. Through it all, she remains stolid, steady, and strong.
The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer
“Pooh!” said Sophy. “Mind your horses, Charles, and don’t talk fustian to me.”
Although this book was not written during Regency times, it is set in Regency times, and I had to make a difficult decision as to whether to include it or not. At length, I decided to include it because Sophia Stanton-Lacy is one of my favourite heroines (I suspect I will be typing these words rather a lot), and she is a force to be reckoned with. The irrepressible Sophy arrives at her aunt's family home in Berkeley Square and discovers a family in turmoil – at least to Sophy's eyes. Since she can never leave well enough alone, she meddles in almost everyone's affairs and succeeds in leaving everyone better off than they were when she found them. She is incapable of obeying anyone, and I particularly enjoyed that characteristic of hers when I was a child. Of course, along the way Sophy finds love, and all is well with the world at the end. This book is a delightful romp and you have to read it!
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
"Mr. Thornton,' said Margaret, shaking all over with her passion, “go down this instant, if you are not a coward. Go down and face them like a man. Save these poor strangers, whom you have decoyed here. Speak to your workmen as if they were human beings. Speak to them kindly. Don't let the soldiers come in and cut down poor creatures who are driven mad. I see one there who is. If you have any courage or noble quality in you, go out and speak to them, man to man."
I first read North and South at a very young age, and I suspect I was too young to appreciate it. I'm very glad I gave it another go because it is a beautifully written book; the grim realities it paints of the very poor in Victorian England is stark and painful to read. Margaret Hale – our enterprising heroine – felt the same way. When her father leaves the church and uproots the family to move north, Margaret loses her comfortable home and everything she has been used to. At first, she detests the ugliness of the industrial town she lives in and struggles with intense homesickness. Her passionate sense of justice is awakened when she witnesses the struggles of the mill workers, and she locks horns many times with the owner of the mill, John Thornton about the mill's treatment of its workers. Of course, they secretly like each other rather a lot, but that comes later because in Margaret Hale's world romance can only follow after social justice.
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
“I am a princess. All girls are. Even if they live in tiny old attics. Even if they dress in rags, even if they aren’t pretty, or smart, or young. They’re still princesses.”
Sara Crewe, the little princess who had everything, is left penniless and destitute when her father dies. Worse, she's at Miss Minchin's Select Seminary for Young Ladies when this terrible event occurs, so Miss Minchin – the vile cruel headmistress in charge of the school – banishes Sara to the attic and forces her to become a servant. Sara uses her imagination to transport her imaginary self away from the attic, and into amazing extraordinary worlds inspired in part by the books she loves to read. A Little Princess is one of the books I (still) love returning to over and over again; Sara's behaviour and the grace with which she conducts herself was hugely inspiring to me as a child, and her bravery was impressive. In the end, everything is righted, but never knowing that a better future existed for her, Sara still woke up every morning and did what she needed to do, and that is something that resonates with all of us.
Persuasion by Jane Austen
“Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”
I wondered whether or not to include another Jane Austen book in this list, but I'm afraid I can't help myself. You may as well ask me to choose between both my hands (I choose both). Although Pride and Prejudice was my deep love as I was growing up, it is Persuasion that I fell into as an adult. Impossible not to adore gentle, timid Anne Elliot, who could so easily be persuaded to not accept the handsome and dashing Captain Wentworth when he proposed. Lovely Anne, who put everyone else's needs ahead of her own; Anne, who bore so much so bravely and so often in silence; Anne, whose voice was soft, but strong and steady when she found it; Anne, who waited. Anne Elliot is the epitome of strength and endurance; the fact that she did it in an unexpected and rather quiet way does not diminish her.
I hope you enjoyed this list. Who would you add? Let me know in the comments!