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.

Female-Focused Fiction

Compared to decades ago, today there is more fiction written by women and more literary works in which female characters significantly outnumber the male ones. Still, like almost everything else, much of literature unfortunately remains a majority-male world. So it’s especially nice when one stumbles on, or deliberately seeks out, fiction with a female focus.

And some of that literature isn’t very recent. I just read Dorothy L. Sayers’ interesting 1935 mystery Gaudy Night, which is set at a British women’s college and thus features many female students, alumnae, professors, and staffers. One of the alumnae is Harriet Vane, a well-known crime author who is asked by the college to investigate some weird goings-on in its hallowed halls.

Gaudy Night‘s frequent feminist elements are among the novel’s pleasures — which reminds me that female-dominated literature often strongly or subtly addresses women’s rights, patriarchy, sexism, mother-daughter relationships (good and bad), gender issues in the workplace, and more — usually to a greater extent than male-centric lit does.

And given that women often act differently when they’re around women rather than men, it’s interesting to see how that manifests itself in female-centric lit. (Men also often act differently when they’re around men rather than women, but that’s another story…)

Another school-set novel featuring many females is Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, in which the unconventional teacher of the book’s title is assigned six girl students who become known as “the Brodie set.”

Many other female-focused novels star sisters — whether it be two, three, four, or five of them. Among the most famous are Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Those and other multi-daughter books often feature memorable mother characters, too. (By the way, Happy Mother’s Day!)

Friendships between women also play a large role in various female-focused novels — including Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale, Toni Morrison’s Sula, and Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride. While those relationships are often positive and nurturing, there are obviously some marked by jealousy and worse. For instance, The Robber Bride spotlights the wonderful long-term friendship of three women, even as a fourth woman they all know makes life hell for the trio.

Of course, novels featuring characters who are lesbian (such as Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle) or who are experimenting with lesbianism (such as Colette’s Claudine at School) usually have a strong female focus.

Then there’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, in which the friendship between co-workers Idgie Threadgoode and Ruth Jamison has a lesbian subtext that’s understated — partly because the characters are interacting in the pre-World War II American South. Fannie Flagg’s book also includes the wonderful cross-generational friendship between Evelyn Couch and Ninny Threadgoode, who meet in the novel’s 1980s present-day.

And women are the focus of many plays — including Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles and Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, to name just two.

What are your favorite female-centric works of fiction?

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I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.