Strong Female Characters in 19th-Century Fiction

We look back on the 1800s as a time of rampant sexism, patriarchy, male dominance, gender inequality — whatever you want to call it. And it was indeed that sort of time. But a number of 19th-century female novelists, and a few male ones, managed to directly or indirect speak against that in some of their books.

I thought of this last week while reading Lelia by George Sand (born Amandine Lucile Aurore Dupin). In that fascinating 1833 novel, the independent, intellectual, skeptical, cynical, depressed, world-weary, God-doubting title character in some ways sounds like she could be living in 2018 — if the eloquent language used in Sand’s philosophical book were more casual and not densely rich like a lot of 19th-century prose was. Lelia is not always an easy book to read, but you’ll rarely see better writing than penned by Sand (whose image accompanies this blog post).

Anne Elliot of Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1818) is another strong heroine. The capable Anne is in love with Captain Frederick Wentworth, but lives a very useful life even as the relationship between her and Wentworth is thwarted for years.

The star of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) has strong feminist leanings that come out in various ways — including her pride in being smart, her need to work, and her insistence that she be an equal in marriage.

Helen in Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) courageously leaves her abusive/alcoholic husband to save both her son and her own self-worth. It’s a novel so feminist that Anne’s not-quite-as-feminist sister Charlotte unfortunately helped prevent wider distribution of it after Anne’s death.

Of course, many of the 19th century’s male critics and readers slammed works that dared depict women as equal to men. Undoubtedly one of the reasons fewer women back then tried to write novels — and a number of those who did write them used male or gender-neutral aliases.

Another author with a George pseudonym, George Eliot (born Mary Ann Evans), created a number of strong women — including lay preacher Dinah Morris of Adam Bede (1859). And Eliot lamented the second-class citizenry of female characters in novels such as The Mill on the Floss (1860), in which Maggie Tulliver’s less-brainy brother is treated much better than her by their parents and society as a whole.

Jo March, who thirsts to be a writer, is another nonstereotypical 19th-century female — in Louisa May Alcott’s 1869 novel Little Women.

And Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) depicts Edna Pontellier’s memorable rebellion against her constricted role as a wife and mother.

Can 1900 be considered the last year of the 19th century? If so, Colette’s Claudine at School belongs in this discussion with its assertive, mischievous, hilarious protagonist.

Some male novelists of the 1800s also created female protagonists who didn’t act like stereotypical women of their time. Examples include Jeanie Deans in Sir Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian (1818), Judith Hutter of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer (1841), Becky Sharp of William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847), Hester Prynne of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), Marian Halcombe of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1859), the title character in Thomas Hardy’s The Hand of Ethelberta (1876), journalist Henrietta Stackpole in Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady (1881), and the martyred protagonist in Mark Twain’s historical novel Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896).

Of course, there were also strong women in pre-1800s novels, with just two examples being the very different stars of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722) and Frances Burney’s Evelina (1778). Moll has a tougher exterior than Evelina, but the latter protagonist also has lots of inner strength.

Your favorite 19th-century novels with strong women?

In keeping with this post’s feminist theme, here’s a live performance of The Cranberries’ “Free to Decide.”

Because of a National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference I’ll be attending, I won’t be posting a book piece next Sunday, June 10. But I’ll respond to comments when I can. 🙂 Back with a new piece on June 17!

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — which discusses a high-school amphitheater now too small for graduations — is here.

137 thoughts on “Strong Female Characters in 19th-Century Fiction

  1. In the novel North and South, courageous Margaret Hale is a strong protagonist. The main fault in this novel is that she is sometimes too noble to be believable and the happy ending is too forced and artificial.

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  2. People rarely mention The Awakening any more. When I read that I was stuck in a small town Patriarchal society, Bible Belt, where women, in themselves, were only valued by the rank of their spouse. It affected me profoundly. I was already ‘woke’ but seeing her end gave me …not a warm fuzzy feeling at all.

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    • Thank you for the comment, dunelight! I totally agree — “The Awakening” isn’t as “known” today as it should be. Kate Chopin’s novel is indeed powerful and wrenching — and I can imagine that it especially felt that way for you given your situation at the time. And, yes, a very sobering conclusion to that book. 😦

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      • No, that’s very kind of you. Wonderful blog by the way. Bookmarked it in order to dip in. I do love to read a blog where the writer knows his books. And I sometimes think there’s this perception of women in historical literature being window dressing or ‘wusses’ when in fact, culturally, socially and every other way you care to name women were up against it. That makes it very difficult when it comes to creating a female character functioning within and against these odds. But there, you have paid tribute to authors who did and characters who are strong.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thank you again! 🙂 There were definitely some strong, complex, nuanced, fascinating female characters in long-ago literature, and it’s always wonderful to see yet another example when reading. Of course, there are also some one-dimensional fictional women in novels of those days. 😦

          According to my WordPress stats, this post is the most-read of the approximately 300 I’ve written since starting this blog in 2014; I’m very grateful for that.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Well, it is a great post and of huge interest to readers of historical novels. I was actually reading an article last week about how in the early print editions of Oliver Twist Dickens sanitized Nancy so as not to offend his readers’ values. She was quite different in the magazine episodes. All fascinating. Your post also
            delivers exactly what it claims. It is crystal clear you know these books inside out. Sometimes you see and post that looks good on the surface but it pretty flimsy on the content. Well done. And I will be back tomorrow to read more of your posts.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Thanks once more!

              I didn’t know that about “Oliver Twist”! (Which, coincidentally, I mention in a different context in the blog post I’ll be publishing tomorrow.) Definitely fascinating! I’ve never really thought about the possible differences between the serializations of Dickens’ novels and the way those novels read when printed in book form.

              I’ve read virtually all the novels I discuss in my posts, but sometimes long enough ago where I have to look at the plot summaries on Wikipedia to remember details. 🙂

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              • I did not know that re Dickens either. I knew he had serialized the novels . But I thought he’d then published them as they stood. But rethinking that, only a foo,l or a very confident author, would do that. Even today a publisher can demand …usually once you have signed the contract and it is all in legal black and white.. that you remove the lead’s warts, or obliterate the novel you actually wrote. Anyway, it was really interesting cos it included his various rows with publishers. Don’t worry if you looked up plot summaries on Wikipedia, the bottom line is no-one is going to reread a book they read years back in order to blog it. The bottom line is having the facts to hand when you need them.

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                • It certainly makes sense to polish serializations before they become books!

                  Sometimes reader reaction to serializations caused an author to change things midstream. For instance, as you might know, Dickens’ “Martin Chuzzlewit” wasn’t as popular as some of his previous serializations, so he changed the plot to have Martin go to America and the work’s popularity soared.

                  True — impossible to find time to reread many books when one needs to read many books for the first time in order to have blogging fodder. 🙂

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                  • Interesting re Martin. Serialization is an excellent way to gauge how a character is going down with a reader. And Dickens certainly wasn’t a best seller for nothing. He took that onboard. Of course you need blogging fodder. (Also I sometimes wonder how many people have had glowing marks for essays having cribbed an entire book from Wikipedia.)

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                    • “Serialization is an excellent way to gauge how a character is going down with a reader” — so true! Dickens was definitely hyper-conscious of public opinion and reaction, undoubtedly also helped by all the public readings he gave.

                      Wikipedia is certainly crib-able! 🙂 😦

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                    • Putting aside the actual stories, the names, the characters, the themes he wrote about, he really understood the marketing bit of that time, the public readings, the popularity of serials. But he also understood the value of giving the public what they wanted, as opposed to the ‘I am a writer. Ergo I change nothing ‘ mentality. So you can see there’a number of reasons he’s still around today.

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  3. Pingback: Breaking Down Strong Female Characters In Literature | TCR

  4. Indian writer Tagore created very strong female protagonists in late 19 century, Jane Eyre By Charlotte Bronte is very strong for her Times, even Scarlet in Gone With The Wind will go to any length to protect Tara, Elizabeth Bennett in The Pride And Prejudice is very outspoken for her Times! I was reading Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace a diary of a Victorian woman, in which a married bored woman long’s for affection… her private journal echoes her intellect and sexual emancipation from rigid Victorian morals

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    • Thank you, Tanya! I’ve only read a little of Tagore’s work (some of his amazing poems); I’d like to try at least one of his novels.

      You named several very strong female protagonists. I love “Jane Eyre” — my favorite novel.

      “Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace” sounds fascinating. So much emotional repression forced upon women back then; her private journal must have been a bit of a welcome outlet.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Jane Eyre probably goes down as my favourite. I think the originality of Jane Eyre lies in the heroine’s simple freedom to show her real nature from the very beginning. Also because Jane’s daydreaming makes her a paradigmatic figure in Victorian culture. It was interesting to note that throughout the narrative Jane never quite dissolves the iron that entered her soul as an unloved and unjustly persecuted child.

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    • Great observations, Annesha, and VERY well put. “Jane Eyre” (also my favorite novel 🙂 ) has so many things going for it — including what you said and the fact that it basically is just an extremely compelling story.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I highly recommend one of the earliest ENglish language novels – Mill Flanders by Daniel Defoe (1722). She was a strong woman during a time when women had absolutely no advantages. Her struggle can be summarized by by part of the official title: “was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wide (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, kid’s Honest, and died a Penitent”

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    • Thank you, merrytravels!

      Those are two strong characters you named. As you know, the doomed Lily Bart had lots of integrity (she wouldn’t marry just for money) and the ruthless Undine Spragg was quite the opposite!

      My Edith Wharton phase was about five years ago. Loved the two novels you mentioned, plus “The Age of Innocence,” her ghost stories, etc.


  7. Pingback: Strong Female Characters in 19th-Century Fiction — Dave Astor on Literature – Detroit Campus

  8. OK, Dave, I promise you that this will be my last comment on this topic, for better or worse. 🙂 As part of my reading for the Civil War class I took at UT-Austin, I read the very fascinating “Mary Chesnut’s Civil War Diary.” She claimed at some point that the thing she hated most about slavery and the plantation system were the little children running around who were obviously born of the slaveowners. Quite an interesting take on the entire system!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I was thinking on the topic, and probably could have come up with somebody out of some novel or three that might qualify, but then it occurred to me: all the women in the 19th century were likely to be strong characters, in order to survive:

    1) childbirth without anesthetic
    2) childbirth without antiseptic
    3) high infant mortality rate after childbirth
    4) tuberculosis, rampant throughout our cities
    5) a home without labor-saving devices (unless one had servants)
    5) no suffrage and few civil rights
    6) corsets
    7) their male contemporaries (well, a lot of them)

    Thank goodness so many 19th century women survived these impediments and dangers that we are here today!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Back when I was younger, I didn’t think much about what women had to go through at that time. I thought that as long as I was born into at least the gentry class, everything would be great. I could spend my days reading, playing the pianoforte, and visiting all the like-minded folks (meaning the same social class) in the neighborhood. I can’t believe how naïve I was about women’s lives back then, which you have laid out so well. I think what galls me the most, especially since I never had children, nor wanted to, but the way women were treated as chattel, and had no voting or any other rights separate from their father or husband.

      Liked by 1 person

      • GREAT points, jhNY, and an excellent response, Kat Lib!

        Yes, in a way, all real and fictional women of the 19th century (and before) had to be strong. Heck, even in just the realm of writers, Mary Shelley’s famous mother (Mary Wollstonecraft) died from complications of childbirth and Charlotte Bronte died from complications of pregnancy. Both deaths would probably have been prevented with the basic antibiotics we have today. Plus the early deaths of Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, Anne Bronte, etc.

        And, yes again, women had minimal rights back then. I guess there has been some progress on that in much of the world, even as things seem to be backsliding in certain other ways.


      • To say nothing of unmarried women, who were especially vulnerable to the iron wishes of their families, having no outside resources– so many pressed into care of the sick and dying, so many working long hours tending to the needs of children, without pay or thanks– even many who were, in social class, members of the gentry.

        As you have mentioned Gettysburg, I mention Robert E Lee’s crushingly selfish assumption of right to his daughters’ devotion. What follows is from American Heritage, and it’s long, but illustrative:

        “Experience will teach you,” he wrote Mildred, “that notwithstanding all appearances to the contrary, you will never receive such a love as is felt for you by your father and mother. . . . Your own feelings will teach you how it should be returned and appreciated.” When Agnes went to a friend’s nuptials, her father wrote, “I hope that this is the last wedding that you will attend.” When she became involved in another friend’s marriage preparations, he wrote a relative, “There was a great rage for matrimony, and the fever seemed to be contagious. It made me anxious to extricate Agnes.”

        The oldest of the four daughters, Mary, was born in 1835. Anne was born in 1839 and Agnes two years later; the two were so close as to be known collectively as the Girls. Mildred arrived in 1846. Lee early referred to her as Precious Life; in time it became simply Life.

        They were tutored at home before attendance at what were termed female academies or female institutes— “Staunton Jail,” the girls termed one…

        Lee went to be president of Washington College, now Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Virginia. For relaxation from his new job he went riding on his horse Traveller with his daughters. Precious Life was his most regular companion. Perhaps he loved her best of all. “Where is my little Miss Mildred?” he would call when he came home at the end of the day. “She is my light-bearer, the house is never dark when she is in it.”

        Lexington was jammed with students from the all-male college and Virginia Military Institute, and there were plenty of young professors. Callers came in squads. Evenings just before ten Lee entered his outer parlor, where the young women and their guests were chatting or singing at the piano. That was the signal for the gentlemen to make their good-nights. If one failed to take the hint, Lee sat at his side and looked at him. His final weapon was to get up and start closing the window shutters.

        None of the young men ever became a serious suitor for any of the daughters. That one might seemed never to enter Lee’s mind, for when he spoke of the future, it was of how his girls would remain with their parents and take care of them, make them clothing and collect eggs from the chicken coop. Mildred liked chickens, naming them after friends and relatives. “My chickens are a great comfort,” she told a friend. “I am often dreadfully lonely,” she wrote. Did all four of the Lee daughters live out their lives as virgins? “Oh, certainly,” says Mary P. Coulling, author of The Lee Girls . “Well, maybe not Mary. But I doubt it.”

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        • Wow — fascinating information, jhNY. Lee not only fought to protect the ultimate racism (slavery) but, from what you describe, was also a selfish/sexist pig when it came to stunting his daughters’ emotional and romantic lives.


          • Lee was a white supremacist, and fought for his state to preserve the peculiar institution. For him, the notion of equality was insupportable, even after a lifetime of association with Black Americans. I wish, in that way, he was more unique among his contemporaries and their descendants than he has proved to be.

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            • Yes, Lee was just one of MANY with those views — views that clearly live on today. In a way, Lee is Trump without the five deferments. (I’m exaggerating, sort of…)


              • Can’t get there from where I sit. Lee was a man of honor and a man of his word, wrong, yes, but also brave, self-sacrificing and thoughtful.
                Trump is, among all those attributes, only wrong. Lee was also a career military man– for real– and not a Cadet Bonespurs.

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                • All true, jhNY, and I shouldn’t have compared the two. Unlike Lee, Trump hasn’t a clue about bravery, self-sacrifice, and thoughtfulness. But a “man of honor” should have acted a lot differently — not fighting on the side of slavery, and being a better father.


                  • That’s the trouble with white supremacy– it’s for real, sincerely. Lee sincerely thought there was an unbridgeable chasm between the capacities and intelligence of whites and blacks. Probably the saddest thing, as a young man, I had to recognize: his lifelong and prejudiced blindness on the matter of race, in order to advance from my boyhood worship of the Lost Cause’s version of the man.

                    Liked by 1 person

                    • Too bad more white supremacists like Lee didn’t/don’t realize that if whites were enslaved, not given an education, etc., their (whites’) accomplishments would badly lag.


                  • Thread’s maxed below, so i’m replying to your reply beginning ‘Too bad more white supremacists…’ and I’m sure you’ve seen this quote, which only so well applies:

                    ‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.’– Upton Sinclair

                    Substitute ‘way of life’ for ‘salary’…

                    Liked by 1 person

                    • One of the best, truest quotes ever! Upton Sinclair knew what he was talking about. Wish he had been elected governor of California when he ran in 1934, but he was too progressive…


        • I agree, jhNY and Dave, that is fascinating information. I read a lot about Lee when it came to battles and other non-fiction works I’ve read, but not much about his daughters, if anything. I can’t say that it surprises me but I do feel that he was a traitor of sorts by leaving behind his education he received as a “military officer in the U.S. Army, and a West Point commandant,” as were many other Confederate military men who chose to fight their brothers-in-arms over slavery and state rights. I’ll try to read more about the Lee Girls, if I can only get out from under the remaining boxes from my move!

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          • Lee was a career military officer, and served many years in uniform, hopefully doing much to repay our nation for his education.

            Do you think that anyone who met to create a Constitution as representatives of the states that were joined together by the Articles of Confederation thought, upon completion and ratification of the Constitution, that states could never ever leave the new union, no matter the circumstances? (I recognize that slavery, the cause which inspired secession, is despicable. I also recognize that slavery is enshrined in the Constitution itself– Article 1, Section 1….)

            87 years ago (“four score and seven”) was 1931. Do you think that things decided so recently as that are forever irrevocable? More exactly, the US Constitution was ratified in 1789, which means there are actually only 72 years between that year and the beginning of hostilities. Do you think things decided in 1946 must be forever irrevocable?

            I ask because our perspective, from so many more years away from the founding of the nation, can make us forget how little time there was between the founding of the US and the Civil War, and forget the fragility of the union in fact,and forget too, that it took the Civil War, and its rivers of blood shed, to settle the question above, and render it, practically speaking, moot.

            The major battles of the Revolutionary War were fought in the South, by men such as Lee’s father, Major-General ‘Light Horse’ Harry Lee. Lee’s wife was descendant of Martha Washington, and Lee’s Arlington home was filled with remembrances and pieces that were once household items belonging to the Washington family. I’d imagine Lee, given this background, considered himself to be an American in good standing, but a Virginian first, once the crisis came, unfortunately for us all.

            Complicated and fraught, this stuff. but that’s America!


            • jhNY, I hear what you’re saying; however, as I’ve said before, I’ve been to Gettysburg at least four times and have read many books that include that battle, in which brothers fought against brothers, something I’d hope would never happen again. I also lived for a time around Bull Run, Manassas, VA, as well as near Stone Mountain, and Atlanta, GA. I took a course in the Civil War at UT-Austin, that I’ve mentioned many times, as well as having read many books about that conflict. I also lived right around the corner from Valley Forge National Park and right down the road from Brandywine Battlefield, and at one time near to Washington’s Crossing. I also have lived near Philadelphia for most of my life, which houses the Constitution Center, Betsy Ross’s house, and the Franklin Institute. So, I guess I’ve got something to say about the American wars in this area, and if I’ve misunderstood you, then I most sincerely apologize. However, after having lived in PA, OK, TX, Iowa, VA, MN, WI, VA, GA, MD, FL, and perhaps others that I can’t remember right now, it’s difficult for me to understand state’s rights, let alone slavery. I hope we can agree to disagree.


              • I was attempting to neither promote slavery nor states’ rights, but as I wrote above, this stuff is fraught and complicated, even today, and the question of states’ rights, as I also wrote above, was only settled by blood– though there is no ‘right to secede’ written into the Constitution, neither is there, by my reading, an unconditional forbidding of the exercise of those rights, and there is, in the 10th amendment, enough open-endedness and vaguery that even today, those who cannot agree the question was settled in blood in 1865 will trot it out as a place wherein states’ rights are set out. I do not agree with such folk, because I believe the Civil War settled the question– a question that might be more attractive, at least as a legal and political exercise, had it not been employed to preserve and expand enslavement, and in few other instances.

                ps I don’t think we’re really disagreeing; we’re just concerned with different parts of the same elephant, like the several blind men in the story who each touch the animal in different places on its body, and then cannot agree as to its appearance overall…


  10. Dave, sorry to put a somber note to this blog, and of course I’m going off-topic once again, but I was reading the news today and was reminded that today is the 74th year anniversary of D-Day, as well as the 50th anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination, As a somewhat pacifist person, I don’t like to celebrate war and/or battles in any way, but I’ve made a very big exception to the battles of the Civil War, as well as to battles in WWII or even WWI for that matter. Two of my most favorite movies are “Gettysburg” and “The Longest Day,” which encapsulate my feelings about two of those wars, and I could even bring up “All Quiet on the Western Front” as well. When my brother was trying to get CO status for the Vietnam War, the judge asked him if he would have served in WWII, and he replied quite honestly that he didn’t know because he didn’t live back in those days. Once again, I’m going on too long, so I’ll sign off for now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Two very significant anniversaries, Kat Lib. D-Day was a “success,” but so many died to create that “success.”

      Re the Civil War, I coincidentally just started reading a novel — Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain” — set during that war.

      I’ve never seen the movie, but Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” novel is superb, as are many of that author’s other novels.

      Trying to get CO status was a very commendable thing for your brother to do during the Vietnam War.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks, Dave, for your kind words about my brother. I think that when I was at UT-Austin, they had a special showing of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” and it was superb, but perhaps too raw for me at the time. I know that both my sisters loved “Cold Mountain,” but I never got around to reading it, perhaps because I’d read so many non-fiction books about the Civil War (I’m not sure that makes sense but I felt the same way about “Killer Angels,” which was widely praised). I’ll be interested to hear what you think about it, and maybe I’ll get around to it one of these days.

        Liked by 1 person

        • You’re welcome, Kat Lib!

          I’m early in “Cold Mountain” (page 26 of 356) but am very impressed so far. The novel definitely does NOT romanticize the carnage of war, and the characters are skillfully drawn.


    • Thank you, Tarissa! I love “Little Women,” but regretfully it’s the only Louisa May Alcott book I’ve read. I was interested to see on your blog that an Alcott novel (“A Long Fatal Love Chase”) was released posthumously in the mid-1990s — after having been considered too sensational to be published during Alcott’s lifetime. Will see next month if my local library has it. Authors, and perhaps especially women authors, had a lot of societal restrictions on them in the 19th century.

      Thanks for the offer to join your reading challenge! Unfortunately, I’ll have to politely decline. I’m just too busy right now. 😦

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Dave, unfortunately I don’t have much to add this week, as my favourite ladies have already been mentioned – Jane Eyre, Elizabeth Bennet, Marion Halcombe (I highly recommend Wilkie Collins’ “The Woman in White” to anyone who hasn’t already read it). I also liked Thomas Hardy’s Bathsheba Everdene from “Far from the Madding Crowd”. She made some silly choices in her life, but that was probably because as part of the ‘weaker’ sex, she just didn’t have the same options open to her as the men did.

    I hope you enjoy your conference next week 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Sue!

      I agree that “The Woman in White” is a great novel — maybe one of the best of the 19th century. I guess it’s more an example of popular fiction than of literary fiction, but it’s a riveting read.

      And, yes, when women’s roles are constricted, that can really affect the kind of choices they (voluntarily or involuntarily) make.

      Thanks for the enjoy-the-conference wishes!


  12. Elizabeth Bennett was unique because she demanded respect in her partner over financial security. And Austen’s Emma was neat because she flat out commented that, since she was secure of her fortunes, she didn’t need to marry – something quite revolutionary! I love Austen’s characters for these reasons.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well said, Quest Quilts! I agree that both of those Austen characters were very admirable in the ways you described.

      (I did have more mixed feelings about Emma Woodhouse than Elizabeth Bennet because Emma interfered too much with her friend Harriet’s love life before becoming more mature as the novel went on.)


          • As Austen put it, she was going “to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” I found Emma to be someone I liked quite a bit, and it may be that she’s the one Austen female main character that was wealthy in her own right as opposed to those others that married into it. I also loved her relationship with her father, even at the very end, moving into his house as opposed to Mr. Knightley’s. She also had become something like a daughter, and even best friend, to her governess. She was often very misguided in her actions, but we’re looking on her as a 20th or 21st century woman, which is quite different from today. Ha, Dave! I’m not quite sure why I’m defending Emma Woodhouse, but in her way, she was a much stronger female character than others, such as Fanny Price, Catherine Morland. and even some of the others.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Thank you, Kat Lib! All great points! I guess there’s something to be said for Jane Austen creating a partly self-involved/significantly flawed/partly unlikable heroine. After all, many of fiction’s hero (male) protagonists have been partly self-involved/significantly flawed/partly unlikable. So perhaps Emma was Austen’s most feminist act of literary creation?


              • I’d agree to that last point, because as said before she had the means to be a feminist, before that term was even known. I do think that she usually meant well in her desire to be a matchmaker for other women who didn’t have her financial resources, which I thought commendable. Yes, she was wrong in her flirtation with Frank Churchill, her treatment of Jane Fairfax, the Misses Bates, and finally Harriet Smith. but I don’t think she did any of that out of malice.

                Liked by 1 person

                  • Dave, I just realized that you used the term “clueless” to describe Emma, which was the name of the modern movie based on Austen’s “Emma,” starring Alicia Silverstone. I’m not sure if that was intentional or not, but either way it was quite well-done!

                    Liked by 1 person

  13. Another great blog post, Dave. I’m sad that I can’t think of more strong women characters in 19th Century Fiction beyond what has been mentioned by you and others in comments. I’m sure there are more waiting for discovery. See you in Cincinnati!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I too was thinking of Tatyana. She is strong I think, certainly stronger than Onegin. She moved on and succeeded in life. Anna Karenina was very brave to leave her husband and child. Natasha Rostova definitely has a powerful character, you could even say that she rules the Rostov household.
    And what about Turgenev’s women? He certainly liked to be overpowered by his heroines, like Zinaida in First Love.
    I just finished Vilette from Charlotte Brontë (I do try to read other things besides Russian literature;-)) and Lucy Snowe is also a real survivor who doesn’t really need a man.

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      • Thanks for the very interesting conversation! As I previously mentioned to Elena, you have a deep knowledge of Russian literature as well, Elisabeth!

        Re that non-Russian-lit mention, Lucy Snowe is indeed a strong character in “Villette.” I like Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” better, but “Villette” is a pretty darn good novel. More melancholy than “Jane Eyre” — Charlotte Bronte lost her sisters Emily and Anne between those two novels.

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  15. I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before, but Karolina Pavlova’s “A Double Life” has a strong woman in it–the narrator! The actual heroine is not weak, exactly, but extremely naive and easily manipulated by the older women around her.

    There’s a great deal of debate whether Tatyana from “Eugene Onegin” is strong or weak, with the general consensus being she’s much stronger than the titular character Eugene.

    Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s “City Folk and Country Folk,” which was recently translated into English, has a strong mother-daughter pair who resist the attempts of their citified male neighbor to bully them into cowed admiration of his opinions about women, and the daughter also effortlessly fends off a physical assault.

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    • Thank you, Elena, for those three excellent examples of strong women! Well described — and, given your deep knowledge of Russian literature, I’m not surprised you came up with them. 🙂

      I guess Grushenka in “The Brothers Karamazov” and Anna Karenina are among other fictional women in Russian lit who are strong in certain ways.

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      • Grushenka and Anna are both very powerful characters, as are Nastasya Fillipovna (The Idiot) and Natasha Rostova (War & Peace). I guess it would depend on your definition of “strong” if you wanted to call them “strong” characters.

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        • Thanks for naming those two additional characters!

          Yes, “strong” can be defined in different ways. There’s strong strong, strong but vulnerable, and so on.

          Someone like Sonya in “Crime and Punishment” is meek and stereotypically female in a way, but is a “survivor” and really quite strong.

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  16. I think all of Jane Austen’s main characters are strong in their own way, including the aforementioned Anne Elliot and Elizabeth Bennet. There’s also Elinor Dashwood (“Sense and Sensibility”), Fanny Price (“Mansfield Park”), and Emma Woodhouse (“Emma”). Even the naïve Catherine Morland is able to get home by herself when kicked out of “Northanger Abbey” by the evil General Tilney. All of these characters were inspirational to me during my college years, when I was trying to formulate my own brand of feminism, part of which was that it was better to be single than to marry someone that wasn’t loved or not even suitable. I was also inspired by Austen herself, who never was married or had children.

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    • Thank you, Kat Lib! I agree that all of Jane Austen’s “heroines” are strong in their way — with some (such as Anne Elliot and Elizabeth Bennet) stronger than others (such as Fanny Price and Catherine Morland).

      “…better to be single than to marry someone that wasn’t loved or not even suitable” — so true, whether in literature or real life.

      Hope you’re continuing to settle in well in your new home!

      Am I remembering correctly that Kennett Square, Pa., was your former town? The New York Times had a great (albeit depressing) story about it this past weekend:


      • Yes, I lived in Kennett Square for about two years, and I must admit I liked living in the Hispanic community that was such a part of that small town. But one could sense that things were changing there because of the POTUS and ICE raids on the mushroom farms. I only heard about one myself, but I’m sure it was enough to scare Hispanics away from the community or even to drive a car, unless they were pulled over for just a broken light or whatever. It’s been interesting moving up to the more rural mountain/lake towns of the Poconos. There are many more African-Americans up here than Latinos as we go around shopping, but that may be because there’s a resort near-by, which interestingly enough Bill’s son-in-law is an executive for, that has a majorly huge indoor water slide but has an African theme. I’m still having trouble wrapping my head around that!

        But yes, we’re very slowly getting settled in up here and we’re both of an age that means we don’t have any fixed timetable to get it done. I’ve only met one neighbor so far, but she informed Bill that she’s going to pick me up at 12:15 next Thursday to introduce me to the Seniors Meeting. Not exactly my idea of something I really want to do, but I realize that my neighbors will become important, especially in the winter months. Most people who own homes here are not year-rounders, but own vacations here. Sorry to go on so long!

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        • Such a shame, Kat Lib. Trump’s immigration crackdown (and to a lesser extent, Obama’s immigration crackdown during his presidency) have wreaked havoc on lives and communities. So many politicians choose to forget that, other than Native Americans, our ancestors were all immigrants once.

          Interesting the difference in your new town from your old town — and it does sound like it will be good to have ties in your new community especially during the winter. Which seems so far away, but…


          • Well, little did I know that this weekend has a Nascar race here in the Poconos. We stopped in to Walmart to pick up a few things yesterday and saw a humongous trailer/truck sitting outside with an M&M (of all things)Nascar ad/logo on it. Yikes! I was very happy to get back to my property and its lake!

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              • Here I go off-topic once again, but as I was unpacking boxes (will they never end?), I came across a clipping from who knows what newspaper (most likely Boston or area), but it was of a Pulitzer Prize poet, Peter Viereck, alongside my brother, who was described as a young Rockport poet. It must gave been from the late 60’s, but it was such a nice thing to see. I was reading about Viereck, who was a conservative, but not what one would think of today. The funny line was when he was teaching at Mount Holyoke, and said, “He and the poet Joseph Brodsky would often joke about teaching a course together, “Rhyme and Punishment.”

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                • Nice find, Kat Lib, and a nice description of your brother! One of the few silver linings of packing and unpacking is coming across interesting old photos, clippings, documents, etc.

                  “Rhyme and Punishment” — ha ha! 🙂


  17. I’m going to be a bit cheeky here as my work is not a ‘novel’ as such, but I really loved the titular protagonist of Aurora Leigh, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. If you haven’t read it, it is an epic poem (‘novel in verse’ I think it is often called) about a young woman struggling to make her own way as an independent writer in a male-dominated world. Worth a read, and don’t be put off by the fact that it is verse rather than prose!

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    • Thank you, A Paradoxical Millennial! A non-novel work is absolutely fine to mention! 🙂

      That epic poem sounds really interesting — and ahead of its time! Like many people, I’ve only read a little bit of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s verse. I put “Aurora Leigh” on my list for the next time I make one of my (very) occasional visits into the poetry realm.

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    • Thank you, Bill! Well, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” author Harriet Beecher Stowe lived in Cincinnati — years before she moved to Hartford, Conn.

      Looking forward to seeing you at the columnists’ conference!

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      • Mark Twain worked in Cincinnati they say for the newspaper.he said ( was never verified) “if the world is coming to an end, he wats to be in Cincinnati, because it is 15 years behind “.

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        • Mark Twain worked in and/or visited so many places I wouldn’t be surprised if one of them was Cincinnati!

          But sort of an unkind statement by him — Cincinnati was already a major city when Twain was young.

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          • How Mark Twain really felt about Cincinnati 18th Feb 2016 Cincinnati Enquirer by Bob Strickley

            First, let’s start with the recondite quote. You know, this one:

            “When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Cincinnati because it’s always 20 years behind the times.”

            No one knows for sure if Twain said it, but, a website that does what its URL implies and has been referenced dozens of times in media reports, seems to land on the side of ‘no.’

            According to the Mark Twain Project, Twain worked as a journeyman typesetter from 1853 to 1857. During that period he worked in St. Louis, New York, Philadelphia, a couple cities in Iowa and Cincinnati.

            While working as a typesetter, Twain scribed humorous articles under the pen name of Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, according to Ken Burns’ PBS documentary “Mark Twain.”

            But, before he left, he let his displeasure be known about one other aspect of Cincinnati.

            “In April 1857, when departing for New Orleans on the steamer Paul Jones, Clemens (Twain) said he did not care for Cincinnati’s severe winters,” Wessling wrote.

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            • Very interesting, bebe. Thank you!

              That “when the end of the world comes…” quote — whether Twain said it or not — is hilarious, albeit harsh. Which of course describes a lot of Twain’s wisecracks. 🙂 And many of those quotes had plenty of truth in them. Whether Cincinnati was that bad back then I don’t know. I’m guessing, given the city’s proximity to the South, that there was unfortunately a lot of pro-slavery sentiment there in the 1850s.

              The one novel I can remember reading that was partly set in 19th-century (1869) Cincinnati was Darryl Brock’s terrific baseball/time-travel book “If I Never Get Back.”

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    • Yep. There was one, at least, but she was especially:

      Ada Isaacs Menken, possibly born Ada C. McCord (from wikipedia):

      “…she met and in 1856 married the man more generally considered her first husband, Alexander Isaac Menken, a musician who was from a prominent Reform Jewish family in Cincinnati, Ohio.

      He began to act as her manager, and Ada Menken performed as an actress in the Midwest and Upper South, also giving literary readings. She received decent reviews, which noted her “reckless energy,” and performed with men who became notable actors: Edwin Booth in Louisville, Kentucky and James E. Murdoch in Nashville, Tennessee.

      In 1857, the couple moved to Cincinnati.”

      Menken is most famous for her dramatic ‘breeches role’ portrayal of

      “the noble Tartar in the melodrama Mazeppa, based on a poem by Lord Byron.At the climax of this hit, the Tartar was stripped of his clothing, tied to his horse, and sent off to his death.

      Menken wanted to perform the stunt herself. Dressed in nude tights and riding a horse on stage, she appeared to be naked and caused a sensation.”

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  18. First character came to my mind was Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) , but of course you mentioned her , the book being your favorite one.
    Bela from The Lowland I thought about, but that book is of twenty first century by Jhumpa Lahiri .
    How about Elizabeth from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin , one strong formidable character !

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    • Thank you, bebe! Yes, I couldn’t NOT mention “Jane Eyre.” 🙂 And, yes again, the admirable Bela would definitely fit this theme if I were covering more recent literature.

      Elizabeth of “Pride and Prejudice” is a great addition! I thought of her when writing the column, but artificially decided to just name one character/one novel per author. But there’s no such rule in the comments section! 🙂

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      • Also Melanie Hamilton of Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchel , she was pure, kind, helpful soul loved her husband dearly and loved Scarlet as well. I am sure she knew well of the sparks between Scarlet and Ashley but her being so strong, trusted her Husband.
        But, if one reads the book today, some will cringe with some racial discrimination there, which brings back to the awful pathological liar Donald J. trump.

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        • A memorable 20th-century-created character from a novel set in the 19th century! You described her accurately and well, bebe.

          Yes, plenty of racism in that novel, and Margaret Mitchell didn’t exactly slam that prejudice in its pages. Trump would certainly feel at home in the vicious Antebellum South, even as he tried to figure out what the word “Antebellum” meant…

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            • Very true, bebe. 😦 Authors can depict racism in their novels in a way that shows they’re against racism, and/or they can speak against racism outside their books. Margaret Mitchell didn’t do the former and I don’t think she did the latter, though I vaguely remember reading she might have financially helped one black student get through school. Not much, but something.

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                • I probably told you this previously, but

                  Born a son of the South, upon my birth I received a relative’s Bowie knife, which he carried in the battle of Chancellorsville on the side of the Confederacy. Later, that man, known as Cousin Charlie in the family, was a prisoner of war. He kept a diary. When I visited the place as a boy of four, that diary was on display in a cabinet at Appomattox. Manly Wade Wellman, my favorite of my father’s friends, was a descendant of the Confederate general Wade Hampton. I literally had an old photograph of Robert E Lee on the wall of my room growing up. Had I been asked, I would, at that time, have been hard-pressed to choose whose was the most exemplary of personalities: Jesus or Lee.

                  But some of my Virginia relatives had been slave-holders, and luckily enough, one former slave was still alive when I was 4 and he was 104. His humanity was compelling. Meeting him changed my life. Right on the spot.

                  And from then on, though I still battened my young self on stuff out of The Lost Cause, there began to be doubts, which only grew as I did, just in time to be on the right side of history for a change, and a supporter of civil rights, surrounded though I was then by NC and TN.

                  The statues and flags and cannon and plantation houses I see but with irony attached, and with shame.

                  Liked by 1 person

                  • I remember you describing that pivotal conversation with that aged former slave, but it is VERY well worth repeating. The meeting between you and him — one white kid, one extremely old black man, 100 years apart in age — could make an amazing movie. Thanks for the heartfelt comment.


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