Those Acro Collective readers who incline toward the bookish will agree with me that there’s nothing better than a complex heroine in whose struggles you can become invested. Victorian novels are particularly rich with such characters, coming as they do from an era in which women were beginning to call their society’s strict gender roles into question. Below are five heroines of Victorian fiction whom you’ve hopefully already met. (If not, do!). Based on which one you prefer, I’ve suggested other novels, either other Victorian novels or contemporary novels set in the Victorian era (or both), with similarly engaging female protagonists.
If you like Jane Eyre, from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847)…
Jane is perhaps the most beloved heroine in Victorian literature. She is imaginative and tenacious, a dreamer and a survivor. She has a strong sense of integrity that governs even her powerful emotions. Though “poor, obscure, plain, and little,” she believes in her own worth even when everyone around her seeks to make her feel small. She gives some of the most impassioned speeches ever written about the stifling of women’s spirits by Victorian England’s strict gender roles.
Other Victorian literature recommendations: Jane Eyre looks positively cheery and outgoing in comparison to the recessive Lucy Snowe, her counterpart in Brontë’s later masterpiece, Villette (1853), but they share the possession of a rich, passionate inner life behind their quiet exteriors. If you are looking to feel a LOT of feelings, look no further than that semi-autobiographical novel. Also, Anne Brontë is always underrated when compared to her more famous sisters, but her second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) is a magnificent novel and a powerfully feminist piece of work. Its heroine, Helen Huntington, marries a man who becomes increasingly alcoholic and emotionally abusive. Helen’s realization that she is not at fault for his illness, and the steps she takes to find freedom, are radical for their time.
Contemporary lit recommendation: If you haven’t read Jean Rhys’ take on Jane Eyre’s story from Bertha’s perspective, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), it’s a must—evocative and heart-wrenching, it feels like an act of justice toward that marginalized character. Among more recent works, I can’t over-praise Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart quartet (The Ruby in the Smoke , The Shadow in the North , The Tiger in the Well , and The Tin Princess ), which I’ve loved for much of my life. While not at well-known as Pullman’s fantasy series His Dark Materials, these novels are incredibly compelling mysteries, and were the reason I first fell in love with the Victorian era. They may be young adult novels, but they are never dumbed down and they convey powerful human emotion in a fully-realized Victorian setting. Sally Lockhart is a smart, courageous heroine with a resourceful and determined spirit that Jane Eyre would have admired.
If you like Bathsheba Everdene, from Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd (1874)…
Bathsheba is one of Hardy’s most vibrant heroines, and Far From the Madding Crowd, with its idyllic rural setting, is one of his (few) optimistic works. Bathsheba is fiercely independent and strong-willed, and determines to run a farm on her own, despite the distraction of three persistent suitors. It’s obvious why Suzanne Collins, in naming her Hunger Games heroine Katniss Everdeen, chose a last name reminiscent of Bathsheba’s. Bathsheba gives us such wonderful quotes as: “It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in a language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs,” and “I shouldn’t mind being a bride at a wedding, if I could be one without having a husband.” In last year’s beautiful film adaptation, Carey Mulligan played the role of Bathsheba.
Other Victorian literature recommendations: Hardy’s most famous heroine is probably Tess, from Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1892), and his sympathetic portrayal of this pure-hearted fallen woman was scandalous at the time of the novel’s publication. Tess’s frequent characteristic shifts from utter passivity to violence are jarring, as is the narrator’s obsessive focus on her physical attractiveness, but she is still one of the great tragic nineteenth-century heroines. Sue Bridehead in Jude the Obscure (1895), Hardy’s even more controversial final masterpiece, is an outspoken feminist and a keen intellectual, though readers may find Hardy’s depiction of how she ends up ultimately disappointing—something that is also true, of course, of Tess, and even of Bathsheba.
Contemporary literature recommendation: The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) by John Fowles, set in Victorian England, is in many ways a postmodern Hardy novel. The narrator’s meta-commentary foregrounds the way the male gaze dominates narrative perspectives like Hardy’s. The novel’s heroine, Sarah Woodruff, shares the most characteristic quality of all of Hardy’s heroines: the mysterious, puzzling nature of her interiority to the men who observe her. Like theirs, her thoughts and motives must be interpreted from the outside. Sarah is a disgraced former governess with a secret, and is as unconventional and autonomous as Bathsheba seeks to be.
If you like Dorothea Brooke, from George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-1872) …
Dorothea is indisputably one of the great Victorian heroines, and George Eliot represents her as a secular saint, born in a materialistic age that cannot appreciate her: she has a “certain spiritual grandeur unmatched by the meanness of opportunity.” She is intelligent (though initially naïve), warmly sympathetic and deeply altruistic, representing her author’s highest ideals.
Victorian literature recommendation: Maggie Tulliver in Eliot’s earlier novel The Mill on the Floss (1860) is bright and passionate, but, like Dorothea, is determined to renounce all selfishness and be totally altruistic. Fortunately for readers, this can’t last. The differences in the expectations and attitudes of Maggie and her brother Tom show Eliot’s insight into the dangers of gender socialization and the cruelty of sexual double standards. Eliot seems to refuse her heroines happy endings, but she shows—like Brontë, and utterly unlike Dickens—the painful cost to women of attempting to attain self-effacing, self-sacrificing femininity.
If you like Becky Sharp, from William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847-1848)…
If you are a fan of Becky’s, you like anti-heroines. Becky Sharp is the anti-Dorothea, looking out only for herself. And she’s a lot of fun. Her name has become synonymous with social climbing, as she schemes her way into the upper echelons of society, though her position, like her respectability, is always precarious. Becky does what it takes to get what she wants, in contrast to her more sentimental foil, Amelia Sedley.
Victorian literature recommendation: Lady Audley in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862). Lady Audley is a villainess for whom the female author seems to have sympathy in spite of herself. She is both a cunning homicidal madwoman and a sweet, refined, delicately beautiful lady.
Contemporary literature recommendation: Meet the prostitute Sugar in Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White (2002); this is a sprawling novel, erudite but juicy, and I am convinced that it is also the most feminist novel any man has ever written. I adore it. Sugar, like Becky, uses her sexuality for social mobility, but she has a much warmer heart beneath her guarded exterior, and the author (unlike Thackeray) is definitely on her side. Her friendships with other female characters are as powerfully rendered as the Victorian setting, as the novel spans the era’s social scale and deliciously weaves in tropes of Victorian fiction in fresh ways, from the invalid wife to the madwoman in the attic to the angel in the house.
Aurora Leigh, from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh (1857)
You’re less likely to have read Aurora Leigh than the other novels mentioned above, but this verse novel is the best of both worlds: a compelling narrative and vibrant, powerful poetry at the same time. Its heroine, who narrates the novel, is an ambitious young poet in a society that views female poets as either frivolous or freaks of nature. Aurora was pondering whether women can have it all long before our time, and the answers she comes to regarding the roles of creative work, romantic love, and social utility in a fulfilling life are empowering. Bonus: Aurora’s stormy relationship with her cousin, philanthropist Romney Leigh, echoes Jane Eyre’s relationships with both Rochester and St. John Rivers.
Contemporary literature recommendation: Possession (1990) by A.S. Byatt features two strong heroines: the enigmatic Victorian poet Christabel LaMotte and her descendent, modern-day feminist academic Maud Bailey. Christabel in her personality and her poetry is a sort of mixture of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Dickinson, and Christina Rossetti. When I first read this novel as a teenager, I was convinced that Christabel and her illicit lover, Randolph Henry Ash (who is very like Robert Browning), were real Victorian poets that I’d just never heard of. Byatt’s that convincing, as are the poems she includes by the two. Like Maud and her fellow scholar Roland Michell, you’ll be eager to find out what really happened between LaMotte and Ash, even as you are equally fascinated by the story of the icily autonomous Maud herself.