Kickass literary heroines: A Victorian/ Fantasy Mashup

Lyra Silvertongue – His Dark Materials Trilogy

Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra in the god-awful film adaptation.

Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra in the god-awful film adaptation.

The foul-mouthed urchin who would be Eve, this twelve year old Oxford native possesses the strength of all women, navigating a multitude of dangerous, sometimes steampunk Blakean worlds of archangel assassins and tyrannical deities in a quest to restore a Truth hidden since the writing of the Bible. She loves deeply and loses excruciatingly, but is nevertheless possessed with an immovable, Frodo-like certainty that none but she can see her task through to the end.

Violet Hunter – The Adventure of the Copper Beeches (Sherlock Holmes)

Natasha Richardson as Violet Hunter in the Grenada TV adaptation.

Natasha Richardson as Violet Hunter in the Grenada TV adaptation.

I have blogged about Violet before, but no list of awesome Victorian women is complete without her. Being the only woman apart from the overrated Irene Adler that Holmes would look twice at, this oft-forgotten woman is completely independent, insanely daring, meticulously observant and very, very bright; her determination to find the reason for the strange conduct of her employer impressing the wits out of Holmes, even inspiring him to favour her with the rare compliment of calling her ‘quite exceptional.’ She kicks an impressive amount of conspiracy ass with Holmes and Watson, before disappearing as quickly as Holmes’ interest in her, now that she’s no longer one of his clients.

Éowyn Dernhelm – The Lord of the Rings

Miranda Otto as Éowyn in the immortal Peter Jackson adaptation.

Miranda Otto as Éowyn in the immortal Peter Jackson adaptation.

One of many glorious Tolkien originals, Éowyn is multi-faceted and wild. Suffocated by the tradition that puts a sword in her hand but only allows her to use it in the defence of hearth and home, this shieldmaiden is possessed by a deep sadness at Sauron’s gradual poisoning of Middle Earth; a sadness that metamorphoses to a fiery anger both at the enemy and at her being forbidden to fight, as men do, to protect what she loves. It is both this and her desperate unrequited love for Aragorn that leads her to the battlefield at Pellennor Fields, where she endures an agonising dark night of the soul that is followed, eventually, by a blindingly incandescent catharsis.

Jane Eyre – Jane Eyre

Ruth Wilson as Jane in the 2006 BBC adaptation.

Ruth Wilson as Jane in the 2006 BBC adaptation.

More than anything else, Jane Eyre is free – penniless and without family, but free to go where she chooses and to do as she pleases. Ruled by a sense of right that is her own and not society’s, Jane’s strength is her ability to remain true to herself, even if it means making an unbearable choice between that and the person she loves. There’s none of the usual cooing about strong feelings being wrong and unbecoming: she knows, and admits, that she’s passionate, but doesn’t let that passion control her. This is particularly exemplified in the year she spends away from Rochester following the catastrophe at their wedding: she accepts that there is fulfillment and even, to a certain extent, happiness, to be found in retaining that self. Thankfully, she’s also perceptive and sensitive enough to realise that, where real love is concerned, being true to the other person and to oneself sometimes cannot be separated.

Polgara – The Belgariad and The Malloreon

Polgara cover art.

Polgara cover art.

The sorceress Polgara is several thousand years old. Daughter to the great if crotchety Belgarath, one of several immortal sorcerer disciples of the god Aldur, she is simply ‘Aunt Pol’ to generations and generations of ordinary tradesmen and craftsmen that she protects both from the knowledge that they are the direct descendants of the assassinated King of Riva, Overlord of the West and from the generations and generations of bad guys who know the bloodline still exists and will do anything to extinguish it. She suffers tremendously from what one might call ‘the immortal complex,’ a harrowing, ever-present sadness and knowledge that she will outlive the ones she loves many hundreds of times over and that she will never be able to engage fully with that grief: there will always be another child to raise, another family to be strong for. Her joys in life are simplicity, domesticity and solid, profound goodness, as exemplified in her marriage to the blacksmith Durnik, BUT: terrifyingly powerful and fatally beautiful, she is as formidable an enemy as she is a friend.

Arya Stark – A Song of Ice and Fire

Maisie Williams as Arya in the HBO adaptation.

Maisie Williams as Arya in the HBO adaptation.

A staunch believer that she has a hole where her heart used to be, Arya, who was eleven the last time we saw her, is ruled by anger and vengeance. Already possessing a naturally iron, angry disposition when she witnesses her father beheaded for treason, long months on the road posing as a boy, both free and in captivity, have ensured her daily exposure to the most horrifying cruelty, torture and injustice. This has led to a merciless, eye-for-an-eye view of the world and willingness to commit murder at a moment’s notice, though she still possesses an immensely strong moral compass and confines her bloodlust to those that she believes deserve to die, the most important of whom feature on a list which she recites each night before going to sleep, rather like other people say their prayers. Furthermore, being on the run from most people in the Seven Kingdoms, she has been forced to adopt a wide variety of different identities and smother her own in the name of staying alive. Every day, she tries to kill the little girl by forcing herself to look at each corpse and each hideous injury she comes across, but is also haunted by a childlike fear that she will face rejection if reunited with her family, because of all the people she’s killed.

Marian Halcombe – The Woman in White

Tara Fitzgerald as Marian and Simon Callow as Count Fosco in the 1997 BBC film.

Tara Fitzgerald as Marian and Simon Callow as Count Fosco in the 1997 BBC film.

By far the most interesting woman in the whole of Victorian literature, Marian is the charismatic, ugly and highly intelligent half-sister of the highly annoying Laura Fairlie, the love interest of the novel’s protagonist, Walter Hartwright.

When her beloved Laura turns out to have married an abusive fortune hunter who wants to murder her for her money, and Laura herself turns out to be utterly useless in a crisis, Marian must do everything she can to keep Laura alive and unmask her husband’s plot in the house where they are both trapped. This involves climbing out of her bedroom window in her underwear and eavesdropping in the pouring rain for over an hour, somehow managing to get over the resulting fever in time to fake Laura’s death, and to break her out of a highly secure asylum in broad daylight. She also gets into a somewhat creepy understanding with her new brother in law’s friend and partner in crime, the redoubtable Count Fosco, with whom she shares volcanic ‘hate’ chemistry, hides for months in London (once again taking care of her pathologically useless sister, who has now added insanity to her infinite charms), and, when it’s all over, determines to spend the rest of her life as a companion to her sister rather than search for a serviceable husband to justify her existence.

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