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Bookshelf: Unlikely Heroines in Literature

Sometimes even the most literary among us need some suggestions. And who better to oblige than the authors themselves? Welcome to Bookshelf, wherein we ask authors to design us a fantasy library, giving us their recommendations for the perfect reading material on a variety of topics. This week, author Leslie Jamison, whose gorgeous and intense debut novel The Gin Closet finally came out in paperback this week, suggests her favorite unlikely heroines in literature — fitting for a lady whose own novel follows a couple unlikely heroines of its own as they try to navigate this wild world.

And when we say ‘unlikely,’ boy do we mean it. As Jamison says, “Fairy tales introduce us to certain standard breeds of heroine: beautiful innocents, homely martyrs, and plucky tomboys. These heroines aren’t those ones. They’re vindictive or passive or both. They’re ugly or bitter. They’re unwed mothers. They’ve got chips on their shoulders. They’ve killed people or chased them hundreds of miles. They’ve slept with lots of men—or none at all—and they’re not afraid to admit it. But they’re also determined and ferocious. They make it hard to look away.” Click through to see Jamison’s list of unlikely heroines (and the works of literature they inhabit), and get ready to stare.

The Wife of Bath, from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

Imagined in the late fourteenth-century, the Wife of Bath is one of literature’s earliest promiscuous ladies. Jovial and clever, she regales a band of traveling religious pilgrims with tales of former husbands. (She’s got five, the first one wed at the age of twelve.) Hence the name: she’s been a wife over and over and over again. Some women are white bread, she says, but freely admits that she’s a coarser loaf of barley—and this is exactly why I’m drawn to her. She’s not ashamed of her sexuality, or how it serves her desire for power.

Rosa Dartle, from Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield

Rosa Dartle has had a scar across her face since she was young—the cruel gift of a narcissistic step-brother—and it’s turned her undesirable and bitter. The scar almost becomes a character in its own right; it nearly glows whenever she gets upset. Rosa’s mean to almost everyone. But I like her anyway, maybe because no one else does. She’s not appealing to men, she’s pissed about it, and she’s willing to say so. She’s the essential wounded lady. I respect her anger, and the fierce intelligence beneath it.

Anna Karenina, from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina

She’s a married woman who abandons her husband and son to run away with the charming playboy she’s fallen in love with. But despite all this—because of it, actually—she’s become one of fiction’s most enduring tragic heroines. Why do we care about her? She wants something more than stability from a man. She wants passion. But it’s not just that she believes in love, it’s that she suffers for this belief. She doubts herself. She’s needy. She ends up vulnerable and pathetic, betrayed by her own love as much as the society that disproves of it. She isn’t afforded any glory as compensation for her aspirations. She has to pay for them. I never know what to make of Anna. I get angry with her, and love her, and root for her, and root against her, and feel deeply sad for her, and what good is a heroine, in the end, if she doesn’t make us feel all these things?

Lena Grove, from William Faulkner’s Light in August

Lena Grove is young and poor and pregnant in the middle of the Deep South. The father of her child has abandoned her, but she’s determined not to let him get away with it. She sets out on foot to track him down. Destiny deals her the victim’s portion but she refuses to accept it. Without money or companions or even a horse, she fights back. She’s not particularly clever or subtle, but I don’t miss these things in her; she’s determined to be a mother, and this means finding her baby a father. She’s on a primal quest. She turns resourcefulness into an art.

Maria Wyeth, from Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays

Maria Wyeth is a washed-up film star with a troubled marriage and a disabled young daughter. Didion’s minimal, knife-like prose brings her hardened psyche into pristine focus—besides her daughter, Maria isn’t sure what to care about, and her reckless self-destruction and affairs are the only way she knows to articulate this hopelessness. I didn’t like Maria, but I found something deeply moving in her plight—the way she’d given up, but kept on going, the fact that she kept caring about her daughter long after she’d stopped caring about herself.

Patsy McLemoore, from Michelle Huneven’s Blame

When we first meet her, it seems like Patsy might be a tough character to root for. She’s an alcoholic history professor—smart and beautiful, sure, but also deeply thoughtless and self-absorbed—who accidentally runs over two Jehovah’s Witnesses in a drunken blackout and kills them. The novel follows her through years of prison, recovery, and atonement. Along the way, we see her struggle through a kind of guilt nearly impossible to comprehend. She doesn’t live a martyr’s life, but she tries her best to live a good one. I found, in the end, that she’d dug herself out of the hole of her own character—had, somewhere along the line, captured my sympathy and my respect.

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