1. Tess Durbeyfield – Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, 1891
2. Sarah Woodruff – The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles, 1969 (but inspired by an 1823 novel)
3. Catherine Earnshaw – Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, 1847
4. Elizabeth Bennett – Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen, 1813
5. Anne Elliot – Persuasion by Jane Austen, 1816
6. Scarlet O’Hara – Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, 1937
7. Sophie Zawistowska – Sophie’s Choice by William Styron, 1979
8. The Marquise de Merteuil – Les Liasons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, 1782
9. Countess Ellen Olenska – The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, 1920
10. Roxane – Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand, 1897
11. Jane Eyre – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, 1847
Not included on my list but available for discussion: Anna Karenina – Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, 1877
These are my top eleven (today anyway) favorite romantic but flawed heroines of literature. You might have others that don’t appear on my list, but I had a couple of binding rules for including characters on my list:
1. I had to have actually read the book, not just seen the movie or BBC adaptation.
2. They had to be smart and not just victims or ciphers for the male character to show off to.
3. I had to find them sexy.
Curiously this set of rules nearly knocked Jane Eyre off the list. Much as I admire her spunk and passion, she never set my pulse racing, but on deep consideration she’s too well written of a heroine not to include. Tess might be on the list for the opposite reason – she’s hot, but I’m not sure she’s not more of a victim than not. Of course considering the time periods all of these heroines had to live in it’s not at all surprising that their lives are often tragic, and that fate deals them hands that no one could raise above, no matter their inner steel.
Taking my heroines one by one I will give a brief explanation for their inclusion on my all time favorites list; however please bear in mind there is no particular order to the list. Tess is there because of her struggle. Viewed through the eyes of the men around her we see her vulnerability and desirability, and yet… she’s so badly treated by them all. She keeps getting kicked down, getting back up, and getting kicked back down again. Sarah Woodruff, on the surface seems a similar sort. Her mystery makes her desirable and then Fowles plays with us by giving us all possible versions of her, and yet not revealing which is the true Sarah. Cathy Earnshaw is elemental in her passion. Who wouldn’t fall for a woman that death couldn’t even hold down? Elizabeth Bennett is one smart cookie, but prone to understandable blindness. Her beauty lies in her essential goodness and her ability to learn, grow, and her loyalty to those she loves.
Anne Elliot is a more gentle heroine, trapped by social mores, she retains dignity. In the end she wins deserved love and redemption. Scarlet O’Hara is maddening. She’s beautiful, passionate, and fiery. She’s strong-willed, an idiot, and irritating as hell. Who hasn’t fallen for such a woman? Sophie from Sophie’s Choice is so beautiful and tragic, she makes my heart bleed. I suppose in the literal sense The Marquise de Merteuil is not a heroine. She is spiteful and scheming, and yet I feel that she is such a woman of passion and intelligence she deserves her place here. She is merely having her revenge for the status her gender demands. She uses her wit like poison, and in the end it is she that suffers.
The Age of Innocence is the one book on this list I did not read until the end, but not because it wasn’t worth reading. I had seen the movie first, and then intrigued picked up the novel. It was great, but for me the repressed and thwarted passion of Ellen Olenska was more than I could bear a second time. I wanted her to win against society, when no winning was possible in that time period. I think Roxane is an overlooked heroine. Everyone focuses on Cyrano, and with good reason, but Roxane is the lovely woman with the understanding to adore beautiful words, and in the end she would have loved Cyrano as well or better than Christian, if she’d been given the opportunity. Jane Eyre… everyone knows her: mousy governess with a wild heart capable of great and passionate love. It’s the dark eyes, luminous in a pale face, that does it.
Anna Karenina is not on the list because I hated that book. The story of Anna was powerful and provocative, but cut with a very boring second story about some landowner and his wheat crops. I have no idea this far removed his name or why he was there, but I didn’t finish the book and it pissed me off. I did, however, read the incredibly lengthy War and Peace, so it’s not big wordy Russian novels by Tolstoy that put me off.
Which brings up another question I have about my own list. Why are all the books so old or even if written in this century set in an earlier age? Where are the modern heroines to make my blood boil and my heart strings sing? I don’t know if I have the complete answer to that question. I know that I read a great many classics in my teens and twenties – exactly at the time when the hormones were raging the most – so it’s entirely possible that my concept of what was romantic was crystallized by my reading habits. I also know that I don’t often read modern fiction, and when I do I don’t find a lot of romantic writing there. I won’t pick a ‘romance’ because they are often, for me, of very limited scope and reading quality as genre fiction. Has a good modern romance been written? If so please tell me about them so I can expand my horizons. Also feel free to post your own list in my comment box. I want to hear more about it.