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8 Literary Heroines: Sisters Doin' It For Themselves

Recently, a good friend and I discussed books we read and re-read growing up and noticed a common theme: Our lasting favorites featured strong female protagonists who often kicked some serious behind. After the fun I had writing about literature's desirable men and reading the heated debates in the comments, the time came to reminisce and cyber-bond over sassy leading ladies.

Warning: Some spoilers ahead.

1. Elizabeth Bennet (from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen)

I dismiss any accusations that it is clichéd and trite to name Elizabeth Bennet the greatest literary heroine, because none compare. Austen did not write romance novels and Elizabeth isn't a girl seeking love. Austen created an assertive character whose confidence and wit transcend the pages of Pride and Prejudice to satirically jab at 18th-century British society and customs. Elizabeth is well-read, pensive, and fiercely independent. Always standing strong, she refuses her cousin's marriage proposal—even though the pairing would guarantee her family's security—and later, doesn't kowtow to Lady Catherine's insulting accusations. And, of course, despite Mr. Darcy's social class and her previous rejections of his proposal, Elizabeth does the unexpected and gets her man.

Soon after the publication of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen wrote about Elizabeth Bennet:
"I must confess that I think her as delightful a character as ever appeared in print, and how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know.

I concur.

2. Helen Graham (from The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë)

2-Helen.jpg Often considered one of the first feminist novels, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall challenged the Victorian moral code through the character of Helen Graham. After falling for a handsome charmer who (after marriage) reveals his true character as an abusive scum-bucket, Helen decides to leave him, thereby saving herself and her young son. In a move unheard of during Brontë's time, Helen so much as slams a door in her husband's face, symbolically turning the tables on sexual politics. Despite Helen's murky circumstances, Brontë portrays her positively, as a spirited and assertive heroine not intimidated by men and not afraid to ruffle a few Victorian petticoats.

3. Karana/Won-a-pei-lei (from Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell)

3-Karana.jpg Raise your hand if you still cry when Rontu dies. The ladies over at Jezebel have an awesome summary of this classic piece of young adult literature. Based on a true story, Karana's amazing tale begins when Aleuts wipe out her entire village by killing the men and taking away the women. After her brother is left behind, Karana chooses to stay, but soon another tragedy strikes when wild dogs kill him. Never once does Karana feel self-pity; she survives for eighteen years by herself on the island, figuring out how to make weapons, hunt for food, domesticate wild dogs, provide shelter, and protect herself from the island's many natural dangers. And while being forced out of her comfort zone to do things her tribe traditionally deemed "men's work" (and rocking at it!), Karana—still a girl at heart—sews herself some haute couture outfits out of feathers and seal pelts that I still envy.

4. Josephine "Jo" March (from Little Women by Louisa May Alcott)

4-Jo.jpg Due to the many comments regarding Teddy's ostensible absence from my list of leading men, a quick explanation: I was tempted to deem Teddy swoon-worthy, but let us not forget that he marries whiny, burner-of-Jo's-manuscript Amy, an unforgivable act. Now, back to the eternal tomboy, Jo. Based on Alcott herself, Jo March is another ass-kicking, independent female lead who displays a caring heart on numerous occasions. Incredibly loving, she cuts and sells her hair (her "one beauty" according to Amy, natch) to purchase a train ticket for Marmie. Jo's bold character shines despite the many dire circumstances that fall upon her family. Although this independent streak leads to the refusal of Teddy—much to my chagrin (each time I read/watch that scene, I always hope she'll say yes)—it allows for single Jo to move to New York, become a writer, get swept away by a German professor, and eventually open a school for boys.

5. Jane Eyre (from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë)

5-Jane.jpg Considered plain and unimportant from the get-go, Jane Eyre rises up as another feminist literary icon. Orphaned Jane never lets her societal position or gender determine her fate. Those Brontë sisters were on to something! Jane's shyness and lack of resources don't hinder her from getting a sweet gig as a governess at Thornfield Hall, where her other awesome character traits (talented, caring, hard-working, honest to a fault) are revealed as she works for the deliciously dark Mr. Rochester. But as long as crazy Bertha lives, moral Jane cannot marry Rochester. Even though she gets a proper offer to be a missionary's wife, the role of a subordinate doesn't fly with Jane, and she follows her heart back to Thornfield.

Through Jane, Brontë questioned Victorian stereotypes about women, saying:
"Women...suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation...and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags."

6. Scout Finch (from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)

6-Scout.jpg Yes, even six-year-olds can be role models. Spunky and wise beyond her years, Scout Finch, the unpretentious narrator of Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, exhibits quiet strength and dignity and captures the innocence of youth. Scout beats up boys, sports overalls instead of dresses and swears "for the fun of it." She speaks her mind, but wants to learn from her father and the strong females who surround her. When her lawyer father defends a black man accused of raping a white woman, he receives so much flak that Scout wants to fight for his honor. Scout's bruises and missing teeth cannot hide her kind heart. She makes it okay to question authority and to always stand up for your beliefs, no matter what.

7. Hester Prynne (from The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne)

7-Hester.jpg Public humiliation and forced isolation don't sound like much fun to me, but Hester Prynne proves that suffering can make you stronger. From the beginning, Hester's strength of character is evident. Forced to wear the infamous "A" because of a scandalous pregnancy, she is a survivor, always compassionate and honest, all the while defying convention and the harsh puritanical society that condemns her. Determined to stand alone, Hester never rats out the father of her child, and chooses banishment instead. Single motherhood? Check. Pissed-off Puritans? Check. Defiant to the core? Check.

8. Anne Shirley (from the Anne of Green Gables series by Lucy Maud Montgomery)

8-Anne.jpg "Which would you rather be if you had the choice—divinely beautiful or dazzlingly clever or angelically good?" Perhaps by default, our spunky, redheaded heroine, Anne-with-an-"e", chooses to be dazzlingly clever, indulging her wild imagination at every chance, which leads to her adventures and scrapes alike. She pursues education obsessively, excels (eventually) at her literary ambitions, and loves her friends and adoptive family deeply. Not without her faults, the always eloquent Anne opines, "It's so easy to be wicked without knowing it." She has to be reminded to "make time for romance" amongst her studies. And then of course there's Gil, whom Anne turns down at first due to her idealized notions of love, but eventually she realizes her mistake, making for a happy ending (and more books chronicling their life together). "It's delightful when your imaginations come true," says Anne, speaking for all the bookish girls who grew up wanting to write and—let's be honest—have Gilbert Blythe for our very own.

I know I admire more literary heroines than these, but once again, I showed great restraint in limiting myself. Keep the discussion going and promote strong female role models in literature!

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10 Facts About Charlotte Brontë
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Bronte: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Bronte: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock

Charlotte Brontë was born in England to an Irish father and Cornish mother on April 21, 1816. And though much of her life was marked by tragedy, she wrote novels and poems that found great success in her lifetime and are still popular nearly 200 years later. But there’s a lot more to Brontë than Jane Eyre.

1. BRONTË WAS JUST 5 YEARS OLD WHEN SHE LOST HER MOTHER.

Maria Branwell Brontë was 38 when she died in 1821 of ovarian cancer (or, it's been suggested, of a post-natal infection), leaving her husband, Patrick Brontë, and their six young children behind. In the years after Maria died, Patrick sent four of his daughters, including Charlotte, to a boarding school for the daughters of clergy members. Brontë later used her bad experiences at this school—it was a harsh, abusive environment—as inspiration for Lowood Institution in Jane Eyre. As an adult, Bronte mentioned her mother (who was also fond of writing) in a letter, saying: "I wish she had lived and that I had known her."

2. BRONTË HAD BEEN WRITING POETRY AND STORIES SINCE HER YOUTH.

Though one of her boarding school report cards described her abilities as "altogether clever for her age, but knows nothing systematically," Brontë was a voracious reader during her childhood and teen years, and she wrote stories and staged plays at home with her siblings. With her brother Branwell, especially, she wrote manuscripts, plays, and stories, drawing on literature, magazines, and the Bible for inspiration. For fun, they created magazines that contained everything a real magazine would have—from the essays, letters, and poems to the ads and notes from the editor.

3. SHE WORKED AS A TEACHER AND GOVERNESS BUT DISLIKED IT.

portrait of Charlotte Bronte
Charlotte Bronte circa 1840.
Portrait by Thompson. Photo by Rischgitz, Getty Images.

In her late teens and early twenties, Brontë worked on and off as a teacher and governess. In between writing, she taught at a schoolhouse but didn't like the long hours. She also didn't love working as a governess in a family home. Once, in a letter to a friend, she wrote, "I will only ask you to imagine the miseries of a reserved wretch like me, thrown at once into the midst of a large family … having the charge given me of a set of pampered, spoilt, and turbulent children, whom I was expected constantly to amuse as well as instruct." She quickly realized she wasn't a good fit for these caretaking jobs, but she later used her early work experiences as inspiration for passages in Jane Eyre.

4. BRONTË DEALT WITH A LOT OF LITERARY REJECTION.

When she was 20 years old, Brontë sent the English Poet Laureate Robert Southey some of her best poems. He wrote back in 1837, telling her that she obviously had a good deal of talent and a gift with words but that she should give up writing. "Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure will she have for it, even as an accomplishment and a recreation. To those duties you have not yet been called, and when you are you will be less eager for celebrity. You will not seek in imagination for excitement," Southey responded to her. The Professor, Brontë’s first novel, was rejected nine times before it was finally published after her death.

5. SHE USED THE MALE PSEUDONYM CURRER BELL.

English writers Anne, Emily and Charlotte Bronte.
English writers Anne, Emily, and Charlotte Bronte circa 1834, as painted by their brother.
Painting by Patrick Branwell Bronte. Photo by Rischgitz, Getty Images.

In 1846, Brontë paid to publish a book of poetry containing poems she and her sisters Emily and Anne had written. The three sisters used male pseudonyms—Charlotte was Currer Bell, Emily was Ellis Bell, and Anne was Acton Bell. (The book sold two copies.) Brontë also used the Currer Bell pseudonym when she published Jane Eyre—her publishers didn't know Bell was really a woman until 1848, a year after the book was published!

6. JANE EYRE WAS AN INSTANT SUCCESS.

The first page of the manuscript 'Jane Eyre.'
The first page of the manuscript 'Jane Eyre.'
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

In 1847, British publishing firm Smith, Elder & Co published Jane Eyre: An Autobiography. From the start, the book was a success—one critic called it "the best novel of the season"—and people began to speculate about who Currer Bell was. But some reviewers were less impressed, criticizing it for being coarse in content, including one who called it "anti-Christian." Brontë was writing in the Victorian period, after all.

7. BRONTË WAS LUCKY TO AVOID TUBERCULOSIS …

Tuberculosis prematurely killed at least four of Brontë's five siblings, starting with her two oldest sisters, Maria and Elizabeth (who weren't even teenagers yet), in 1825. In 1848, Brontë’s only brother, Branwell, died of chronic bronchitis, officially, though tuberculosis has also been a rumored cause, probably aggravated by alcohol and opium. Her sister Emily came down with a severe illness during Branwell's funeral and died of tuberculosis three months later. Then, five months later in May 1849, Charlotte’s final surviving sibling, Anne, also died of tuberculosis after a lengthy battle.

8. … BUT SHE DIED AT 38 YEARS OLD—WHILE PREGNANT.

In June 1854, Brontë married a clergyman named Arthur Bell Nicholls and got pregnant almost immediately. Her pregnancy was far from smooth sailing though—she had acute bouts of nausea and vomiting, leading to her becoming severely dehydrated and malnourished. She and her unborn child died on March 31, 1855. Although we don’t know for sure what killed her, theories include hyperemesis gravidarum, based on her symptoms, or possibly typhus. Her father, Patrick Brontë, survived his wife and all six children.

9. ZEALOUS BRONTË FANS TRAVEL TO HER HOME IN ENGLAND.

Charlotte Brontë's writing desk in Haworth.
Charlotte Brontë's writing desk in Haworth.
Christopher Furlong, Getty Images

Emily and Anne Brontë wrote famous books, too—Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, respectively. The Brontë sisters's writing has inspired devoted fans from around the world to visit their home in Haworth, West Yorkshire, England. The Brontë Society’s Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth has a collection of early manuscripts and letters, and the museum invites bookworms to see where the Brontë family lived and wrote, and walk the Yorkshire moors that inspired many of the scenes each sister depicted.

10. SHE HELPED MAKE THE NAME 'SHIRLEY' MORE POPULAR FOR GIRLS.

Thanks to Brontë, the name Shirley is now considered more of a girl's name than a boy's one. In 1849, Brontë's second novel, Shirley, about an independent heiress named Shirley Keeldar, was released. Before then, the name Shirley was unusual, but was most commonly used for boys. (In the novel, the title character was named as such because her parents had wanted a boy.) But after 1849, the name Shirley reportedly started to become popular for women. Decades later in the 1930s, child star Shirley Temple's fame catapulted the name into more popular use.

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From A Game Of Thrones to War and Peace: These are America's 100 Favorite Books
Denis De Marney, Getty Images
Denis De Marney, Getty Images

Die-hard classic literature lovers might quibble over Fifty Shades of Grey being placed on the same list as Jane Eyre, but alas, the people have spoken. Both are among America’s 100 favorite novels, according to a national survey conducted by YouGov.

The list was compiled in support of The Great American Read, an upcoming PBS series about the joys of reading. Set to premiere on May 22, the eight-part series will introduce the "100 best-loved novels" and feature interviews with famous authors, comedians, actors, athletes, and more. A few of the featured guests will include George Lopez, Seth Meyers, Venus Williams, and James Patterson. Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, A Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao author Junot Díaz, all of whom have books on the list, will also make appearances.

On the day of the series premiere, PBS will launch a round of voting to determine "America’s Best-Loved Novel." Viewers across the country will have the chance to choose their favorite book from the list of 100 and place their vote online, or through Facebook or Twitter using the #GreatReadPBS hashtag. The winner will be announced this fall.

The oldest book on the list is Don Quixote, a classic Spanish novel by Miguel de Cervantes (1603), while the newest is Ghost (2016), a young adult book by Jason Reynolds. The list includes authors from 15 different countries, and the books span several genres. Many of the novels are staples on high school summer reading lists, including 1984, The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Scroll down for the full list of America's favorite books, arranged in alphabetical order.

1984
A Confederacy of Dunces
A Game of Thrones
A Prayer for Owen Meany
A Separate Peace
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
The Alchemist
Alex Cross Mysteries (series)
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Americanah
And Then There Were None
Anne of Green Gables
Another Country
Atlas Shrugged
Beloved
Bless Me, Ultima
The Book Thief
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
The Call of the Wild
Catch-22
The Catcher in the Rye
Charlotte's Web
The Chronicles of Narnia
The Clan of the Cave Bear
The Coldest Winter Ever
The Color Purple
The Count of Monte Cristo
Crime and Punishment
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
The Da Vinci Code
Don Quixote
Doña Barbara
Dune
Fifty Shades of Grey
Flowers in the Attic
Foundation
Frankenstein
Ghost
Gilead
The Giver
The Godfather
Gone Girl
Gone with the Wind
The Grapes of Wrath
Great Expectations
The Great Gatsby
Gulliver's Travels
The Handmaid's Tale
Harry Potter (series)
Hatchet
Heart of Darkness
The Help
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
The Hunger Games
The Hunt for Red October
The Intuitionist
Invisible Man
Jane Eyre
The Joy Luck Club
Jurassic Park
Left Behind
The Little Prince
Little Women
Lonesome Dove
Looking for Alaska
The Lord of the Rings (series)
The Lovely Bones
The Martian
Memoirs of a Geisha
Mind Invaders
Moby Dick
The Notebook
One Hundred Years of Solitude
Outlander
The Outsiders
The Picture of Dorian Gray
The Pilgrim's Progress
The Pillars of the Earth
Pride and Prejudice
Ready Player One
Rebecca
The Shack
Siddhartha
The Sirens of Titan
The Stand
The Sun Also Rises
Swan Song
Tales of the City
Their Eyes Were Watching God
Things Fall Apart
This Present Darkness
To Kill a Mockingbird
Twilight
War and Peace
Watchers
The Wheel of Time (series)
Where the Red Fern Grows
White Teeth
Wuthering Heights

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