Cherchez les Femmes | Newberry

Cherchez les Femmes

I was attracted to an article on the abebooks website which promised to list the Top Ten Literary Heroines. That wasn’t what I found. They do have such a list, but THIS article, by Katie Yakovleva, was really top ten literary heroines a reader might like to be. The finishers were, in this order (from tenth to first)

Scout Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird)

Nancy Drew

Elizabeth Bennet

Alice (from Wonderland)

Miss Marple

Hermione Granger

Scarlett O’Hara

Mary Poppins

Jo March (Little Women, Little Men, Jo’s Boys, etc.)

Anne Shirley (of Green Gables)

One can spend all day arguing the list, of course–Dorothy Gale didn’t make it, nor Trixie Belden—but for those of us who sell books, the main concern is what brings them together. What do they have in common which might help to predict other such winners? A couple of them are magic, but most of them are not. Most appeared in more than one book (there are a LOT of sequels to Pride and Prejudice and Gone With the Wind, but I’m not sure those count). The majority appeared in books written by women, and several are believed to be at least partial self-portraits. Six of them begin as children, though we watch some of them grow older, but two others are characters it is hard to imagine HAVING childhoods (Mary Poppins was BORN a governess, umbrella and all, and Miss Marple’s stories of her childhood are as remote as Beowulf.)

They are, by and large, females of strong personality…but how many heroines of novels are not? Okay, how many heroines of successful novels are not?

And, anyway, these books are written so you get to see them at their best (or, in the case of Scarlett, at their worst, too). Classics don’t run on to the point at which you see Cinderella having more to do than try on shoes. No authorized novels show Nancy Drew forty years later, trying to remember where she set down the keys to her red SUV. Characters whom you do see right to the bitter end, say, Kristin Lavransdatter or the Wicked Witch of the West, don’t make the list. There has to be SOME scope for imagining what came after the book ended.

Perhaps we can’t really make a decision without a companion list of strong female characters one would prefer NOT to be. I think Mildred Pierce might make that list, and Cora Papadakis, from The Postman Always Rings Twice (though she has quite an adventure along the road to grimy death.) Janey Pecq, the heroine of Louisa May Alcott’s Jack and Jill, spends most of her time in bed fearing she will be paralyzed for life and learning valuable life lessons. Nice kid, but I wouldn’t want her job.

Well, it’s only a list, after all: maybe it doesn’t have any major morals to impart. After all, Pippi Longstocking didn’t make the list, and I knew LOTS of girls who wanted to be her. (I know Pippi will go on forever, but I often wonder how those girls turned out.)

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