The best literary heroines are worth imitating. These women may be (mostly) fictional, but they have a great deal to teach us about ourselves and the real-life stories we find ourselves in.
Some people gobble up self help and development books like their personal success really does depend on it. Oh, and I admit, I enjoy dipping into this genre a few times throughout the year myself!
But I’ll be demmed if I don’t find much more impetus for self improvement in the novels I read.
Funny how being in another time and place, surrounded by people I’ve never met in real life, can make me understand my own self and place in the world so much better! A good author with a good novel can do that to you. She can write characters that make you say with a nod “oh yes, that’s me! That’s one of my faults, too.” Or, “Her dreams are shaped like mine. If she can find some of hers, perhaps I can as well?” Walk through the heroine’s journey, and you tread a little more of your own.
Surely you’ve noticed that in your real, everyday life the people you’re in contact with rub off on you. After being around a certain person or group of people for a while, you begin to imitate them ever so slightly. You adopt hints of their mannerisms, accent, moods, and likes and dislikes.
I’m convinced we don’t just mirror our real-life friends, but also the characters we watch on TV, the people we see online, and the characters in the books we read. And here, too, we must choose our companions wisely. Who’s rubbing off on you? Who’s helping to develop you as a character?
Personally, I’d like to be influenced by people who are praiseworthy. In classic novels I’ve found many heroines to emulate, whether they be orphans or governesses or society women fallen on hard times. I can never part with these literary kindred spirits or finish their journeys without finding myself changed, too. I want to get to know these women better, to revisit their stories and inhabit them more deeply.
Who would I be like, if I could?
If I could be like Elinor Dashwood, I’d be stalwart but ever tender. Did you see how her life was turned upside down and twisted inside out–repeatedly? But she remains a constant lover and caring sister, with a generous nature even to the undeserving.
If I could be like Anne Shirley I’d win others to my side–and hold my head up high even if I couldn’t. Half the characters in the first Anne books don’t like her initially, but end up counting her as a friend, like Rachel Lynde does. As for the Josie Pyes of the world, Anne’s not afraid to walk a ridgepole at their dare, or to take a more mature tack later in life and simply say “Well, never mind the Pyes.”
If I could be like Mrs. Miniver I’d see the joy, idiosyncrasies, and poignancy in every situation. We get the treat of her thoughts in common things like family road trips–or scary things like gas mask fittings. Every vignette makes me cherish life a little more.
If I could be like Margaret Hale, fortitude would be my virtue. Margaret has much to complain of, but never develops a martyr complex; she bears it all like a saint.
If I could be like Jane Eyre I would know myself. Jane leaves Lowood school “to seek real knowledge of life amidst its perils,” but one of the best outcomes of this new intelligence is knowledge of self. Burgeoning self knowledge gives her agency in the trials throughout her story. As she says to Rochester, “your claim to superiority depends on the use you have made of your time and experience.” Jane makes impeccable use of hers.
If I could be like Emily Starr I’d ache with the beauty of the world…and try to capture some of it with my pen. She’s never blind to loveliness and mystery, even when it’s found in unexpected places like the red panes of glass on the front door at New Moon.
If I could be like Bella Wilfer I’d learn not to grasp wealth and pleasure so tightly. You know how most heroines start out likeable, although they have more development ahead of them? Well, Bella is different in that she’s not much of a heroine at first, and hardly likeable. Her desire for money and status eclipse all her good qualities. But watch: it’s her poor beginnings that make her transformation all the more admirable.
If I could be like Laura Ingalls I’d run free in the fresh air, putting my heart into the land and letting each place I live leave its own indelible mark. On the surface of it, it would seem that Laura is a wanderer, always rootless. But read her books and you’ll see that in reality wherever she is, she’s always home.
If I could be like Jo March I’d relish playfulness and imagination. These are traits that mature in Jo but never go away. And the best part is that she doesn’t hoard them, as people with a rich inner life sometimes do. Her imagination and sense of fun are gifts to her dearly-loved family, and she’s a generous giver.
These heroines all change, they grow, they strive before they flourish. They soften and learn to understand. They discover what’s truly important in life and learn to realign their ambitions. That’s what I love about my favourite literary heroines, and that’s the kind of real-life heroine I want to be.
How about you?
Still not convinced there’s practical merit in reading novels? Read my post on The Jane Austen Cure: Why Women Need Fiction to Replenish Their Souls. For other praiseworthy literary characters you can root for, check out the Gryffindor House Reading List.
P.S. There are so many amazing heroines I had to leave off this list for sake of time. So please, fill in the Comments section with your own imitation-worthy favourites! Also, for more on literary heroines, check out this post on How to Be an L. M. Montgomery Heroine in a 21st-Century World.