Celebrating Women's Writing: Fiction
Continuing our exploration of 100 books by women, to mark 100 years of the first women’s right to vote in Britain, we consider some of the most memorable fictional women: the good, the bad and the downright wicked.
It’s a daunting task to have to narrow down literature’s witty, courageous, dastardly and unforgettable female characters to just a handful, so I begin with the qualification that these choices are just that, a snapshot, and a personal one at that. Ten fictional women who hook themselves into the imagination, so that, years after reading, a reader can till conjure them, fully formed, to mind.
Not so much a conjuring, as a summoning, Rebecca is a haunting presence, permeating every page of Daphne Du Maurier’s eponymous novel, despite never making an actual appearance. The deceased first wife of the mysterious Maxim de Winter, Rebecca is a perfect cypher. Beautiful, charming, talented and ungovernably independent, she is pointedly everything the book’s narrator (the second Mrs de Winter, who is, tellingly, never named) believes she is not. As Sarah Perry - who has written the introduction to a new edition of Rebecca, published to mark the book’s 80th anniversary - writes, ‘Rebecca… shocks all the more because its menace blows in on Rebecca’s azalea scent; it creates a dwelling place within which every furtive longing of the human heart seems not only possible, but permissible.’ ‘Rebecca, always Rebecca, I should never be rid of Rebecca’ contemplates an increasingly desperate Mrs de Winter as the novel unfurls. She’s right, she won’t, and neither will the reader.
From a ghost in the mind, to the ghost in the shell. Creating characters who force questions about the very nature of what it means to be human, science fiction author Becky Chambers plays with ideas of gender, identity and human nature, particularly in her inventive second novel, A Closed and Common Orbit. Described by the Guardian as, ‘a very likable novel indeed’, it’s also a novel peopled with original, inherently likeable characters. Through the relationship between two ‘women’ - Sidra, an AI inhabiting a custom-built female body-suit, and Pepper, her not-quite-human companion - Chambers is able to explore two innovative kinds of growing-up stories, which subtly question how female identity is shaped and defined. The result is a powerfully distinctive story of female friendship between two very different people, each carving out their own individual course.
Enduringly popular, Stella Gibbon’s gloriously funny novel, Cold Comfort Farm, delivers one of literature’s most pragmatic, resourceful and funny heroines. Orphaned and penniless, Flora Poste finds herself forced to take up residence with her relations in a remote corner of rural Sussex and immediately sets about making improvements. Refusing to be drawn into the romantic entanglements of brooding young men or the siren call of the sukebind, she dispenses invaluable advice about - amongst other things - contraception and the washing of curtains and gradually sets everything to rights. Amidst a sea of swooning romantics, Flora remains a breath of fresh air, reminding readers that there are few problems that can’t be cured by a brisk walk or a good night’s sleep.
Gibbons’s humour finds an echo in Gail Honeyman’s adept debut, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, with her protagonist sharing some of Flora’s distaste for unnecessary fuss and sentimentality. Told in Eleanor’s own, distinctive voice, this story is a masterpiece of undertone and reading between the lines; a fully-fledged picture of a flawed, lonely, indomitable character who is funny, without ever being laughable.
A refreshing character in more ways than one, Eleanor Oliphant talks refreshingly (down to the pounds and pence) about the cost of living, reminding readers of the ways in which personal isolation is exacerbated by the need to count every penny. The lack of working class writers and, consequently, working class characters in modern fiction has made headlines lately, with the author Kit de Waal writing about her project to crowdfund an anthology of new work. And if working class voices are rare, working class women’s voices are rarer still.
Now a mainstream figure, Jeanette Winterson wrote her semi-autobiographical novel, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, in the early 1980s, living with no money and few prospects in a grey, mouldering flat ‘Dinginess is death to a writer’, she writes. ‘Filth, discomfort, hunger, cold, trauma, don’t matter a bit… but dinginess… the mediocre… make good work impossible’. Yet write good work she did, creating the refreshingly orange-bright and spikily funny Jeanette, who burns brightly against her drab surrounding. ‘Oranges is a comforting novel’, writes Winterson, ‘its heroine is… poor, she’s working class but she has to deal with big questions that cut across class, culture and colour’. Jeanette’s journey of self- and sexual discovery and her tender, passionate relationship with her first love, Melanie, still feel as intense and refreshingly new today as when the novel was first written.
Like Winterson, the Scottish author Agnes Owens makes no apology for creating female characters who are caustically unlikeable. She is arguably at her best in her short stories, particularly in the creation of the stand-out character of Arabella, an execrable figure, unforgettably nasty with her pram, four dogs and stomach-turning ‘medicine’. She is a welcome reminder that women in fiction needn’t, shouldn’t, always be ‘nice’. Owens’ stories, as Alasdair Gray writes, ‘present comedy and tragedy in a factual voice that is often that of her characters, and which never cheapens them, no matter how poor they are’.
The under-representation of working class female characters is only compounded when considering that of working class, BAME women. In North American fiction, the best-known black female characters have become emblematic, carrying the heavy weight of representing not just themselves but a wider cultural experience. Inspiring figures from Barack Obama to Lupita Nyong’o, Celie, the protagonist of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple, became the voice of a generation in the early 1980s. A poor, brutalised Southern woman, who tells, in her own words, of her escape into a self-determined life, Celie remains a landmark voice for black women’s struggle for independence.
It’s a trajectory likely to be echoed by Angie Thomas’s hugely popular teen character, Starr. The narrator of her bestselling debut YA novel, The Hate U Give, Starr inhabits two worlds – the white-dominated environment of her suburban high school and her poor home neighbourhood. When she witnesses her best friend shot by a police officer, she finds herself representing her community in a debate which draws attention to the growing problem of race-related violence in the USA today. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, Angie Thomas’s novel has created an ever-more relevant icon for young, black Americans.
Not all lives of course, are destined to make an indelible mark. ‘The growing good of the world is partly dependent on un-historic acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs’. So wrote George Eliot of Dorothea Brooke, just one of a nexus of wholly realised characters in Middlemarch. Often cited amongst readers’ favourite fictional characters, Dorothea begins her life determined to make a difference to the world, but eventually settles for a life more ordinary. What could be seen as a defeat, in fact feels much more like a quiet celebration of the small, unrecognised acts of good that enact no great change in the world but are nonetheless meaningful. As Rebecca Mead writes in the New York Times, ‘Virginia Woolf characterized [Middlemarch] as “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people” it is also a book about how to be a grownup person—about how to bear one’s share of sorrow, failure, and loss, as well as to enjoy moments of hard-won happiness.’
Of course, you can’t like everyone, and while a host of readers would happily spend a few hours in Dorothea’s company, there are many (myself included) who would gladly strangle Jane Austen’s Emma. Arguably one of the most divisive female characters in fiction, Emma is either – depending on your viewpoint – vain, selfish, snobbish and insufferable, or witty, energetic, misguided and ultimately redeemed. That the argument over which portrait prevails still continues more than 200 years after her creation, only serves to emphasise Austen’s skill. Like her or loathe her, she’s a character you certainly don’t forget.