I love classic literature that was written decades or centuries ago. But one advantage of more recent lit is that it features more women and people of color in prominent professions — such as medicine, law, academia, the media, and politics.
Older fiction has mostly white males as doctors, attorneys, professors, publishers, etc. — which of course reflected real life at the time. Female and “minority” characters tended to be homemakers, secretaries, laborers, craftspeople, servants, governesses, one-room-schoolhouse teachers, and so on — with many of them frustrated that societal norms didn’t allow them better job opportunities.
Obviously, long-ago classics featured some exceptions — including preacher Dinah Morris in George Eliot’s Adam Bede, journalist Henrietta Stackpole in Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, and the title characters in Mark Twain’s historical novel Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc and Eugene O’Neill’s play The Emperor Jones. But those cases were relatively rare — and the characters were often “punished” in some way for their prominence, or eventually became stay-at-home wives/mothers.
Which reminds me that Anne Shirley of Anne of Green Gables and its many sequels is a brilliant girl who later becomes a teacher and college student (in that order) — but then ends up as a homemaker. She is happily married (to Dr. Gilbert Blythe), a great mother, and an admired person who retains intellectual interests, but it’s all a bit disappointing after her early promise. L.M. Montgomery’s Anne novels were set during a time of more restricted gender roles, but the author did break the mold by having the title character in her semi-autobiographical Emily trilogy become a professional writer.
Sometimes, women and people of color in older novels fared okay if they were prominent in the arts or entertainment fields. For instance, while her life was by no means perfect, renowned opera singer Thea Kronborg did pretty well for herself in Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark.
Accomplished women often felt/still feel that they have to choose between professional success and marriage/parenthood, while men have less trouble attaining both. That’s of course the case in fiction as well as real life.
Life can also be hard for the rare females and “minorities” who don’t know “their place” in novels written recently but set in earlier times. For instance, Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures co-stars amateur fossil hunter Mary Anning, whose expert 19th-century work was mostly dismissed because of her gender (and because she was working-class). Madison Smartt Bell’s All Souls’ Rising features Haitian revolutionary Toussaint Louverture, a brilliant military and political leader who couldn’t indefinitely overcome overwhelming odds.
Obviously, tons of recent books that are not historical novels feature women and people of color in prominent jobs. I’ll name just a few.
Female professors? In such works as Alison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs (Virginia Miner) and Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride (Tony Fremont), while academics in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty include female prof Claire Malcolm and black prof Monty Kipps.
Wole Soyinka’s The Interpreters focuses on several young Nigerian intellectuals in various fields, while Terry McMillan’s novels include African-American women such as Stella Payne (a stockbroker in How Stella Got Her Groove Back) and Savannah Jackson (a TV producer in Waiting to Exhale).
In the health-care field, we have pharmacist Zandy and psychiatrist-in-training Clarissa in Steve Martin’s The Pleasure of My Company — among many other examples of medical people populating recent novels.
We also have attorney Reggie Love in John Grisham’s The Client, prominent law-enforcement agent Julia Sorenson in Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novel A Wanted Man, computer wiz Kat Potente in Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, politician Alma Coin in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, and publisher Erika Berger in Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium Trilogy” (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, etc.).
Who are some of your favorite female and “minority” characters holding prestigious positions in both recent and older literature?
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