My Literary Heroines

Wednesday 15 January 2014 by

How to be a Heroine, Samantha Ellis, Book

I love my podcasts – from the History Hour to Ted Talks, and I listen to quite a lot of reading and writing ones. So when I was listening to BBC 4’s Open Book podcast, and Samantha Ellis came on talking about her new book, How to be a Heroine, I pricked up my ears.

Ellis was talking about exploring the literary heroines* of the past. Hers had always been the tempestuous Cathy Earnshaw of Wuthering Heights, but when her friend described Cathy as “silly”, she had to stop and think… what about the other literary heroines? And what if, after all these years, her opinion had changed?

So Ellis went on a journey of rediscovery, and read up on all the heroines she could remember to see what she thought about them now. The result is her book – How to be a Heroine: Or, What I’ve Learned From Reading Too Much.

Having heard the podcast, I now need to get my hands on a copy!

But it also got me thinking – who are my literary heroines?

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen, Book

The classical heroine

There are the classic ones – Jane Eyre, Cathy Earnshaw, Scarlett O’Hara. The women that invade the shelves of the Classics section of the bookshop, and who everyone knows. And everyone has one which is their favourite. I’m afraid I’m quite obvious in my choice: Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. She’s clever and fearless, and full of joy. Her relationships with Jane and her father are heartwarming, and her compassion for others is almost unmatched in other heroines. Plus, I’m a little bit in love with Mr Darcy (who isn’t!?)

I love Jane Austen books as it is – the drama and romance and scathing wit. It makes me wish I had lived in that era and walked amongst these people. Her ability to create a realistic character is astouding – each one, from the peripheral characters to the central ones that drive the plot, are perfectly imagined individuals, and that comes across in her writing. Lizzy Bennet, in my opinion, is the best of Jane Austen’s characters. No matter how many times she is brought to life in adaptations, she still has more to reveal. I wish I had the cutting tongue, the sharpness of eye and the bravery of Lizzy.

The Book Thief, Markus Zusak, Book
The modern heroine

There was a moment on the podcast when they briefly ventured in to more modern heroines (Hermione Granger was put forward). So I couldn’t resist putting forward a case for my own modern literary heroine.


Our very own 9-year-old adventuring saumensch from The Book Thief. She might only be nine, but her tenacity, her bravery and curiosity, and ultimately her maturity makes her the perfect role model for anyone. She’s a brilliantly imagined character, and although Death narrates this story with fabulous skill, it is her brilliance that draws you in. She experiences things that are so easily recognisable in ourselves – love and fear and doubt – and handles them with a skill that I’ve yet to learn even in my mid-twenties. She is stubborn and determined, but is also brimming with compassion and hope, and that’s what makes her my modern-day heroine.

Who are your literary heroines?

*I’m not entirely sure why we can’t call them heroes, as heroine feels quite a dated word, but for the purposes of consistency, I am calling them heroines for this post

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