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The Loom of Penelope, from the Chuisi Vase (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

The best of women in fiction

Q&A | 17 minute read
There has been a decrease of female characters in literature as well as a decline in women writers over the past two centuries, recent findings revealed. In our International Women's Day rejoinder, female writers pick their favourite fictional heroines or villains of all time. Contributions by Arifa Akbar, Diane Atkinson, Sam Baker, Alex Clark, Amanda Craig, Louise Doughty, Katy Guest, Natalie Haynes, Emily Hill, Alice Jolly, Beth McColl, Kate Mosse, Chelsey Pippin, Monique Roffey, Lucy Scholes, Nell Stevens, Preti Taneja, Cathi Unsworth, Erica Wagner, Meike Ziervogel


Maud Lilly in Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Women who are deemed bad – immoral, renegade, criminally misbehaving – thoroughly appeal to me, all the more when they get away with it. Unfortunately the most audacious fictional rebels of their time don’t often come out unscathed, or even alive. Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Hedda Gabler, Cathy Earnshaw are punished with doomed plotlines for their flouting of bourgeois convention. Some aren’t though.

Among the most glorious of all the unconventional Victorian manipulators is Maud Lilly, who in the first half of Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith is the fragile English rose. In the second half – after one of the best ever twists – she shows her true colours. Maud is strong, resourceful, dissembling and ruthless; a steely rose. However pitiable a backstory she has in her mother’s asylum, she has not become entirely embittered by it. What I love about her most, alongside her strength and magnificent duplicity, is her romantic spirit. Despite everything, she is capable of a great and glorious love with Sue Trinder (‘my pearl’) and she deserves – for once! – the happy ending.

Sarah Waters with her book Man Booker shortlisted novel, Fingersmith, in 2002 (Photo by John Li/Getty Images)

DIANE ATKINSON, historian and author

Lolly in Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Everyone needs an aunt like Lolly Willowes: a determined and outrageous witch. Unmarried at the turn of the twentieth century, after years of caring for ungrateful relatives, Lolly walks out of her tedious ‘maiden-aunt’ life in London and moves to Great Mop, a village in the Chilterns that she picks from a map. Her nephew pursues her. Lolly’s landlady takes her to a Witches’ Sabbath which Lolly fully enjoys. She meets Satan while out walking in this bucolic and spooky place, and makes a pact with the Devil to free herself of those women’s duties which have stolen her life. Lolly channels her new inner witchiness to drive her annoying nephew back to London by curdling his milk, and arranging for him to fall into a wasps’ nest. Lolly tells Lucifer that women are ‘sticks of dynamite’ waiting to explode.

Published in 1926, Lolly Willowes is about a tremendous woman and is a splendid novel, a delicious satirical comedy of manners that can be read by every woman who feels she is expected to give up some of life to care for others, if she does not want to.

Diane Atkinson is the author of Rise Up, Women! The Remarkable Lives of the Suffragettes

SAM BAKER, co-founder of The Pool and novelist

Helen Graham/Lawrence in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

I am a one-woman Helen Graham promotion machine. Hero of the quietest but by far the most radical of the Brontë classics, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Helen is a woman far ahead of her time. Not only does she leave her abusive alcoholic husband, changing her name and going into hiding, and not just for the sake of her child’s moral and physical wellbeing (which might almost have been socially acceptable in 1848), but for her own soul, but she also painted in oils. Oils! I know! Seriously, it was just about acceptable for a woman of Helen’s station to paint in watercolours at that time, but oils were a strictly masculine pursuit. And she committed the double sin of painting so she had an income in order to facilitate her escape. Whilst Helen’s piety is somewhat jarring 170 years after her inception, everything else about her is utterly contemporary.

Sam Baker is the co-founder of The Pool and author of the novel, The Woman Who Ran (2016)

ALEX CLARK, journalist, critic, literary festival director

Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch by George Eliot

There are those whom I felt more like (Darrell Rivers in Malory Towers), those who seemed to show a path (A. S. Byatt’s Frederica Potter) and those who were brutally mesmerising (Honor Klein in Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head), but I can never get beyond George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke. All she wanted to do was the right thing, and fate (and patriarchy) threw Edward Casaubon in her way. But despite all that threatens to stymie her, it’s Dorothea’s mind – ‘the reaching forward of the whole consciousness towards the fullest truth’ – that endures, and inspires.

Alex Clark is a journalist, broadcaster, critic and artistic director of the Bath Literature Festival

Alex Clark and George Eliot

AMANDA CRAIG, novelist and critic

Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Who can resist Elizabeth Bennett? Every word she speaks brims with wit – but not, crucially, malice. The limited opportunities afforded a woman in her time do not fill her with bitterness or fear. She is brave, both in refusing to marry the appalling Mr Collins and in rejecting the rich, arrogant Mr Darcy. She speaks truth to power, and in doing so changes her world and future: a true Enlightenment heroine, and also a Romantic one in insisting on the holiness of the heart’s affections. Lively, loyal, generous and discreet she is above all, a reader whose sparkling intelligence and warm sympathies have been tempered by reading. ‘Til this moment I never knew myself,’ she reflects, on falling in love. But we know her, and in knowing her become better versions of ourselves.

Amanda Craig’s latest novel is The Lie of the Land 


The women in Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

I would like to choose a small group of fictional women – the women in Marilynne Robinson’s concise masterpiece, Housekeeping, one of my favourite novels and a book that bears re-reading again and again. Ruth and Lucille are orphans growing up with an eccentric aunt called Sylvie. Nothing much happens and yet the book is brilliant in its portrayal of catastrophic loss – in particular the way the quiet lives of these small-town women, unremarkable and unrecorded, are full of interior drama and feeling. The final image, of Lucille alone at a restaurant table in table in Boston, her thoughts full of the other women in her life, is quite haunting.

Louise Doughty’s most recent novel is Black Water (Faber & Faber)

Louise Doughty (Photo by Yves Salmon)

KATY GUEST, critic and commissioning editor

Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird by  Harper Lee

I am Katy-with-a-y because my mum had read What Katy Did but never Katie Boyle, she says, and because of my name I was often given Susan Coolidge’s book by well-meaning relatives. I empathised with gutsy Katy Carr right up until the point when she learns her horrible lesson – that little girls should shut up and take no for an answer – then always lost interest in the goody-two-shoes part of the novel. After that I probably wanted to be several of the Little Women, one after another, and then had a turbulent period as a teen when I moped around with a tragic aspect pretending to be Tess of the D’Urbervilles. But it was only when I bought myself a pair of scruffy denim dungarees for a holiday a few years ago that I realised: when I grow up, I want to be Scout Finch. There’s a girl who loves to read, who’s good in a fight, and who sticks up for what she believes in. She’s a perfect role model for a twenty-first-century woman with scabs on her knees.

NATALIE HAYNES, novelist and critic

Medea by Euripides

My favourite fictional woman is Euripides’s Medea. I know she’s a monster. But I don’t think characters have to be likeable to be memorable. I first read Medea when I was sixteen. I was and still am blown away by the astonishing sensitivity of Euripides’s portrayal. She has two great monologues, the second of which is devastating, as she weighs up whether or not to kill her children. The first is even more remarkable: a plea (acted by a male performer, written by a male author, performing to a probably-all-male audience) to imagine the condition of a woman in a loveless marriage. She heroises womanhood, wifehood, motherhood; she ignores her previous crimes. And then she knowingly, self-destructively does the unimaginable. I knew the first time I read it that I would never be the same again.

Natalie Haynes’s latest book is The Children of Jocasta (Pan Macmillan)

Ana Belen in ‘Medea’, Madrid, Spain (Photo by Europa Press/Europa Press via Getty Images)

EMILY HILL, author

Jane in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

All my best friends are long dead writers who taught me how to live. Or worse, heroines who never existed at all. And viewed like that it’s impossible to choose who’s really meant the most… Penelope, in the Odyssey, or the witch in the cherry tree from the old children’s book? Lizzy Bennet or Lily Bart, the Master’s Margarita or the Wife of Bath? But because above all things I must admit, I am – and what’s more love – a madwoman, my conscience tells me I must name Bertha, who just will not remain in that attic in Jane Eyre. Here’s to the original ruiner of weddings. Who so obsessed Jean Rhys.

Emily Hill’s debut book of short stories is Bad Romance

ALICE JOLLY, novelist and playwright

Sue Bridehead in Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

Can love last a life time? Is it possible to have intimacy and freedom? Why should a woman be bound by a marriage which makes her unhappy? Sue Bridehead – independent, intelligent, capricious and unconventional – sets out to rewrite the hypocritical rules that govern late-nineteenth-century England. This being a Hardy novel, she fails entirely and meets a tragic end. But we continue to love her – and to love Hardy for his refusal to judge her. The forensic accuracy of his writing, and his unfailing honesty, ensure that her struggles continue to resonate, even in the modern age.

Alice Jolly’s new book, Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile, is published by Unbound in June

BETH McCOLL, author and advice columnist for Dazed & Confused magazine

Harriet Cleve Dufresnes from The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

Clever, unsentimental, independent and fiercely brave, Harriet is going to solve the mystery of her brother’s murder – a murder that happened before she was a year old. I read this book for the first time when I was Harriet’s age – twelve, almost thirteen, and had long been refusing to read books that were – in my teacher’s words – ‘age appropriate’. I loved Harriet then and I love her still, a tiny ‘badger’ of a girl who keeps going despite it all – just a little longer, a little longer, a little longer.

Beth McColl’s book, How to Come Alive Again, will be published by Unbound in 2019

KATE MOSSE, novelist and founder of the Women’s Prize for Fiction

Jane Marple in the Miss Marple series of novels by Agatha Christie [Salvadora Boussay in The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse]

Some of the most extraordinary female characters – those who change a reader’s perception of what women do, who drive the plot and have agency, who have the power to twist the narrative and influence the outcome – are usually not the stuff heroines are made out of but, rather, are unsung heroes: opinionated, independent, often plain rather than pretty, refusing to submit to the expectations of the time, outspoken rather than compliant, or quiet rather than charming. Intelligent. Favourites include (of course) Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Celie from Walker’s The Color Purple, Willa Cather’s brilliant protagonist in My Ántonia and Marian Holcombe from Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White. But my heart belongs to Christie’s Miss Jane Marple, an elderly, often patronised and overlooked woman, whose fortitude and strength of character always triumphs in the end. She’s a testament to all the unseen women, to all women made invisible by age, but whose courage and principle underpins the story. (For the same reason – though it’s cheeky to include her – I’m very fond of my own Salvadora Boussay in The Burning Chambers. She started as a rather silly woman, but the moment she got going, she elbowed the younger characters out of the way to steal the show!)

Kate Mosse’s next novel, The Burning Chambers, is published in May (Mantle Books)

Kate Mosse (photo by Ruth Crafer); Angela Lansbury as Miss Jane Marple (photo via Getty)


Matilda Wormwood from Matilda by Roald Dahl

For me, all roads lead back to Matilda, who taught me to cure loneliness with books, to find power in ideas, and to fight for fairness. Her story was a godsend for the shy, unsure but wildly imaginative child I was. She gave me a map, and a reading list that I was all too desperate to follow to the letter. Surely my early admiration for her wit, kindness, and sense of justice sourced the pattern that drew me to all the other fictional women I adore the most. Without her at the start, I wonder: would Hermione, Leslie Knope, Lizzie Bennett, Belle mean as much?

Don’t Let the Bastards Get You Down, and Other Lessons We Learned From Our Favourite Fictional Women, an anthology edited by Chelsey Pippin, is launching its crowdfunding campaign with Unbound today


Antoinette Conway in Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

While I’ve loved many women in fiction, it was easy to choose one for women’s day, the creole heiress Antoinette Cosway, from Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. Antoinette is many things: mixed race, white creole, island woman, product of empire, orphan, chattle wife, reject from the island’s upper echelons of society, the true whites (The British elite pre-emancipation), but mostly she is ‘the mad woman in the attic’ of Jane Eyre, a European canonical work. Antoinette Cosway is a complex character; not only does she have her own tragic story in Wide Sargasso Sea, of being sold into an unhappy marriage she cannot fix, but she doubly exists because she was so poorly written and misunderstood in Brontë’s ‘masterpiece’. Rhys knew this half-white, angry, wild woman in the attic intimately, and she objected to her disassociated and cruel treatment at the hands of her author, Brontë. Wide Sargasso Sea is a work, famously, of ‘writing back’ to the British canon and the metropolitan centre; but it is a uniquely feminist work too, where the poorly drawn subaltern woman is given her due status. Famously, in the 1990s, Kamau Braithwaite passed a harsh judgement on Rhys’s famous novel (though he later rethought this) by saying that Rhys’s ‘white voice’ didn’t belong to the collective spiritual landscape of most Caribbean people, and was therefore irrelevant. So Rhys’s heroine exists in a unique post-colonial cross-net: she is first seen as Bertha, Rochester’s mad wife in Jane Eyre. She appears again, a century and more later, under another name, Antoinette Cosway, anti-heroine, in her own tragic plight in Wide Sargasso Sea. And then a Caribbean man of letters, an academic, gives Rhys the thumbs down for her narrative and creation. It’s as if her first creator, Brontë, never knew enough about her to write her well, and then she wasn’t believed, initially, when she came to be reborn in good hands by Rhys. Antoinette Cosway lives despite others, male and female, trying to kill her off. I love her, dearly. She means a lot to me, as a not black, but not-white-enough island woman. I have long, wild, hair too and can get crazy sometimes. But the likeness ends there.

Monique Roffey’s novel, The Tryst, is published by Dodo Ink


Barbary Deniston in The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay

Well aware that the characters I’ve met in books have always populated my inner world, choosing a single favourite fictional female lead was no easy task. Dido Twite immediately sprang to mind, the fearless child adventurer in Joan Aiken’s peerless Wolves Chronicles, a proto Lyra Belacqua, beloved of readers long before Philip Pullman dreamt up his heroine. But Dido – however perfect – seemed too obvious a pick. Then it struck me: Barbary Deniston, the seventeen-year-old heroine of Rose Macaulay’s tour de force of a novel, The World My Wilderness, first published in 1950 but recently reissued by Virago Modern Classics.

Having grown up in France during the War under the lax care of her mother, we learn that Barbary spent her childhood running wild with the Maquis. Now, sent to live with her barrister father in London where she’ll supposedly be taught to behave like a young lady, she struggles to adjust to her new life, turning instead to the bombed ruins around St Paul’s – a wasteland bursting into bloom hidden in the heart of the city – and the ragtag band of misfits she finds there. One couldn’t describe Barbary as particularly loveable. She’s prickly, and awkward, and clearly damaged by a traumatic childhood. But nevertheless, I adore her. Years ahead of the game, Macaulay often made a point of reversing stereotypical gender roles in her protagonists, thus Barbary is defined by her action, presence of mind and physical fitness. Not especially striking by today’s standards, I know, but pretty exceptional for the first half of the twentieth century.


Lizzie Eustace in The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope

The nineteenth century may not have been the best time to be a woman, but it was a wonderful time to be a heroine. Victorian writers did a brilliant line in sharp, determined, female characters, from George Eliot’s earnestly philanthropic Dorothea, to Emily Brontë’s windswept Cathy. My favourite sub-genre of Victorian heroines, though, is schemers: the ambitious, ruthless women who lie, marry or bully their way to the top. Of these, my most beloved is Trollope’s Lizzie Eustace.

Lizzie Eustace is a mendacious, backstabbing social climber and I adore her. Locked in an escalating legal dispute with her late husband’s family over the ownership of a diamond necklace, she accidentally-on-purpose steals it from herself. She commits perjury, betrays nearby innocents and barely notices, so intent is she on fulfilling her own ambitions. She is Becky Sharpe with more glitz, and even though she terrifies me, I want to be her best friend.

Nell Stevens’s first book was Bleaker House (Picador). Her memoir, Mrs Gaskell & Me, is forthcoming this year

PRETI TANEJA, novelist

Sophia Jansen in Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys

Sophia Jansen walks from bar to bar, musing on her past, collecting around her a motley crew of immigrants, gigolos, old women with painted faces she confuses for herself. She drinks. She grieves, and rages. She desires to be desired, and seeks release. Sophia is the working-class heroine of Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight. Her self-reflexive wandering undermines the Imperialist grid of Paris and exposes the privilege of the literary male, with his stationary penseés. In the blazing white modernist vision of 1930s Europe, Sophia sees behind all masks of ‘civilisation’, she sees the dark bodies being sacrificed. Rhys distils language until each sentence yields myriad meanings: she and Sophia force us to confront our collusion in the world’s fierce carnival.

Preti Taneja’s debut novel, We That Are Young (Galley Beggar Press), was shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize 2018 and longlisted for the Jhalak Prize 2018

Preti Taneja (Photo by Rory Bryan)


Dinah Wentworth in The Twilight Hour by Elizabeth Wilson

My favourite fictional female is Dinah Wentworth in The Twilight Hour, a novel set in Bloomsbury during the Big Freeze of 1947. Dinah is one of those women who was liberated by the Second World War from the stuffy confines of her middle-class background by getting married at twenty to a budding film director and moving to London and an artistic demimonde ripe with intrigue. As murder unfolds in bohemia, we see all the players through her naive but perceptive eyes as she crosses through social, class and criminal boundaries, pursing a truth as elusive as perfume on the air.

Cathi Unsworth’s sixth novel, That Old Black Magic, is published by Serpent’s Tail today

ERICA WAGNER, author and critic

Grendles módor in Beowulf

ofsæt þá þone selegyst      ond hyre seax getéah

brád ond brúnecg·      wolde hire bearn wrecan

ángan eaferan·

Shout out to Grendel’s Mom, Grendles módor, furious in defence of her adored boy. She takes on the hero of this particular tale, Beowulf, and when I first encountered her I understood – decades before I became the mother of a son myself – the fearsome power of a mother’s love. The above, in Seamus Heaney’s brilliant translation:

So she pounced upon him and pulled out
A broad, whetted knife: now she would avenge
Her only child.

Shove over, Jane Eyre.

Erica Wagner’s latest book is Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge (Bloomsbury)

MEIKE ZIERVOGEL, novelist and publisher

The unnamed narrator in A Man by Oriana Fallaci

After graduating from high school in Germany in 1986 I travelled the world. In my rucksack was one book: A Man by the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, first published in the original Italian in 1981. I still have the paperback copy – now tattered and torn. The novel is based on Oriana Fallaci’s relationship with the Greek poet and resistance fighter, Alexander Panagoulis. The female narrator is a courageous international journalist who falls in love with a man determined to free his country from dictatorship. She tries to understand him and hopes against her better judgment that their relationship could have a future. Even now, I still admire the narrator’s fearlessness and intelligence and I am willing to forgive her misguided passion.

Meike Zeiervogel’s latest novel is Kauthar (Salt Publishing); she is the publisher of Peirene Press