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.


Literary playlist for mildly eclectic bookworms.

For those of us who like to listen to our books, but don’t really like audiobooks.

A Song of Ice and Fire (George R.R. Martin) – The Howling (Within Temptation)

Fallen asleep from our vanity, might cost us our lives
I hear they’re getting closer
Their howls are sending chills down my spine
And time is running out now
They’re coming down the hills from behind

When we start killing
It’s all coming down right now
From the nightmare we’ve created,
I want to be awakened somehow

When we start killing it all will be falling down
From the Hell that we’re in
All we are is fading away
When we start killing…

a-song-of-ice-and-fire-al_b33dfThis song is great as being evocative of any kind of battle scene, but the way it captures each aspect of the infinite number of titanic battles that take place in GRRM’s monumental saga is so dazzling you can almost believe the song had been written with these books in mind. The lyrics, as well as the beautiful, warped battle cries that constitute its refrain, perfectly capture the red mist that descends on those possessed by bloodlust, as well as those unfortunate enough to witness the fields of blood, and the smell and the sound of men dying without the comfort of this primal state, so that something inside them shrivels and dies as well (‘all we are is fading away’). The song creates a world saturated with mistrust and the howls of both men and wolves, two things that readers of A Song of Ice and Fire understand all too well.

Gormenghast (Mervyn Peake) – One of a kind (Placebo)

The back of the class is where I was
Keeping quiet, playing dumb
Can’t you see these skies are breaking?
Cos the back of the class is where I’m from

0156This book is an allegory of society as it was between the two world wars: hierarchical, monarchist, rigid, dying, and Peake’s villain Steerpike comes straight from the gutter, but has ambitions for the top. To accomplish this, he will deceive, humiliate, kiss an infinite number of asses and ultimately, murder (an awful lot of this), all without once getting his hands dirty. He prefers torture of a more psychological sort, long, drawn-out, agonizing, the assassination of each region of a person’s mind, isolation, or just plain old starvation, each time remembering that he’s better than all of them, but would never have been allowed to be if he had chosen a different life. So in a way, his life is murdered by society, and in revenge, he murders society back, dismantling it one bloody gash at a time. When you listen to this song you can almost hear the monstrous little demon scurrying from one roof of the castle to the other (he’s a climber), being everywhere at once, a kitchen boy in the midst of the powerful people and taking such a perverse pleasure in the game till he has to run somewhere private to scream with delight, since ‘on top of the world, you get nothing done.’

Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë) – Fire and Ice (Within Temptation)

You run away
You hide away
To the other side of the universe
Where you’re safe from all that hunts you down

But the world has gone
Where you belong
And it feels too late so you’re moving on
Can you find your way back home?

Mar11a5This is a song for a fugitive, for the underscore of her life. Jane succeeds in making a new life for herself when her irresponsible but completely justified departure from Thornfield ends in that little squid St John offering her a job as a teacher. But let’s be serious now: while Jane does manage to make a new life for herself and even to prosper, she still has a specter chasing her and bursting through the door at night and during quiet moments (I will not say ‘calling across the moors,’ even under torture). She is far from Rochester and there’s no chance of him finding her, but while her whole life is now her pupils and her new life keeps her safe, she wants to return to him, even though she thinks she never will, because going to him is the same as going home.

North and South (Elizabeth Gaskell) – The Enemy (Mumford and Sons)

Give me hope in silence, it’s easier, it’s kinder
And tell me not of heartbreak, it plagues my soul, it plagues my soul
We will meet back on this road
Nothing gaining, truth be told
But I’m not the enemy, it isn’t me, the enemy.

north-and-south1In its incessant repetitions of the word ‘nothing’, we see the kind of self-effacement that Mr. Thornton feels after Margaret rejects his proposal of marriage: he’s angry and heartbroken, and Margaret acted with uncharacteristic unfairness and lack of intelligence, but he still believes that in spite of it all this, he was rejected because he was not good enough. He has spent his life trying to better himself, studying the classics, paying his workers better, looking after their health, and yet because he is brusque towards them, and a tradesman, she believes he is capable of no emotion but greed and cruelty. Worst of all, the poor man keeps coming back for punishment and in the first line quoted here ‘Give me hope in silence, it’s easier, it’s kinder’, there are echoed the whispered words of a lone dark figure watching a carriage drive away in the snow: ‘Look back.’* The song’s primitive instrumentals and raw vocals show someone trying to master a medium of expression he half knows, without realizing that it isn’t him who has to change – it’s her.

Northern Lights (Philip Pullman) – Adiemus (Adiemus)

Northern-Lights_novelLyra rides Iorek Byrnisson across the ice – above them is a sky so complex, so beautiful and so deep that this majestic praise song could have been written for it. In its intervals Iorek tells Lyra to look up, and dotting the landscape of the northern lights are witches riding to war. It’s a glorious, shouted out hymn to the beauty of the world about to be torn asunder by the wings of angels.

Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen) – All this and heaven too (Florence + the Machine)

Words were never so useful
So I was screaming out a language that I never knew existed before.

13182844_225x225-75In this case, I will take the liberty of using an excellent ad that ITV ran a few years back for their Jane Austen season that explains this better than I could ever hope to do:

‘There is an honesty behind a glance, a meaning behind a touch, and faith cried with a tear. There are lies behind a pass, importance in a whim, and deceit sealed with a kiss. There is hope behind a gesture, value in a token, and unspoken love delivered with a smile.’

The Bloody Chamber (Angela Carter) – Haunted (Evanescence)

Watching me, wanting me
I can feel you pull me down
Fearing you, loving you
I won’t let you pull me down

img072smThis collection of short stories abounds with women conscious of the sexual danger they place themselves in. In some of them (The Earl King), the narrator knowingly risks both her life and her freedom by giving herself to the person most capable of taking them from her, in a place where no one will come to help, the Earl King’s forest resembling a rustling, independent-thinking labyrinth with no structure and no walls, all wildness and darkness, like being indoors. In others (The Bloody Chamber), the narrator could have run ages ago: now that she can’t, she discovers her own predilection for the more horrific aspects of sex and disgusts herself because of it. With twisted, gothic voices as contradictory as the narrator’s attitude to her own trap, Evanescence gives us the sound of darkness both natural and manmade, the desire to run, the desire to stay.

The Millenium Trilogy (Stieg Larsson) – Thoughtless (Korn)

All of my hate cannot be bound.
I will not be drowned by your thoughtless scheming.
So, you can try to tear me down,
Beat me to the ground,
I will see you screaming.

IMG_5523This song should be Lisbeth Salander’s anthem. Closer to the fearless cry of a human voice than a tune, this song is as dedicated to righteous vengeance as Larsson’s avenging angel who maims, kills and terrifies not just for herself but for the whole of her sex. Korn surf wave after wave of brief calms and intense storms, of deadpan stares and small smiles. Lisbeth’s life.

Kick Ass: Elizabeth Bennet

Kick ass is a new series of stuff I’m going to be writing in praise of people from TV who, well, kick ass, from BBC to HBO and everyone in between. I will start with a classic.

jennifer-ehle-pride-and-prejudice-jennifer-ehle-16177700-1986-1980Name: Elizabeth Bennet
Show: Pride and Prejudice (1995, BBC)
Played by: Jennifer Ehle

Elizabeth Bennet is the heroine of every thinking woman from about the age of five and up (it’s about then that kids can put DVDs into players by themselves, isn’t it?). Lizzy is the second (and by far the most intelligent) of five sisters who don’t have the right to inherit any of their Dad’s shit because of a loathsome thing called an entail that happily doesn’t exist anymore, so the only major expectation Lizzy and her sisters have in life is to get married and have kids, though that probably won’t happen either because her Dad isn’t exactly rich. So, while her dotty and scatterbrained Mom devotes her life to humiliating herself in any kind of way to get her daughters married, and her younger sisters have nothing but what Lizzy calls ‘love, flirtation and officers’ on the brain, Lizzy pledges that she’s not going to just marry any arsehole for the sake of getting married and that ‘nothing but the very deepest love will induce [her] to matrimony.’

If somebody was writing this story in the 21st story, they’d probably turn her into some kind of bookish version of Arya Stark so as not to confuse viewers. Refreshingly, however, Lizzy manages to maintain these extraordinary views while still being graceful, polite, witty, sensible and perfectly ladylike. She knows how to tell idiots off in a way that is so seethingly well-mannered that the average person would probably prefer a simple ‘fuck off’ to one of her tirades. She also engages in a number of very admirable activities, like scampering about the country because her sister has a cold and improving her mind by extensive reading. She’s a compulsive people-watcher and prides herself on being able to read people a lot better than that black market copy of Tom Jones that I’ve always suspected her of hiding underneath her pillow. She adores her Dad, as well as her elder sister Jane, whom she admires deeply for being able to think well of everyone and for always trying to find the good in people, no matter how repulsive they may be. Dear Lizzy finds the latter impossible for a number of reasons, the most poignant of which is ‘the more I see of the world, the more I am dissatisfied with it.’ Furthermore, instead of shutting up or turning red as a beetroot when in a tight argumentative spot with Mr. Darcy, she either throws his shit right back at him or simply smiles enigmatically, something the divine Fitzwilliam doesn’t quite know how to respond to. And then there are those absolutely delicious scenes with Lady Catherine (who is by all accounts a snobbish pain in the ass) in which Lizzy stuns the great lady and delights us with numerous examples of respectful irreverence, from politely refusing to confess her age to kicking Lady Catherine out of the house. All of this is accomplished with the demeanor of a highly-bred woman who would almost certainly have had her own salon had she lived in Paris rather than in Hertfordshire.

One of the many great things about Jennifer Ehle’s performance as Lizzy is that she portrays all of these things the way Miss Austen meant them to be portrayed and understood. Lizzy is a perfect Regency lady, but without any of the silliness, naivety and willful lack of education or desire to improve that often bear the brunt of Miss Austen’s satirical side. Lizzy’s intelligence, education and naturally outgoing personality have led to all the characteristics described above. Fortunately, however, they haven’t turned her into a stereotype: she is what this kind of person, belonging to this class in society, would have been at that period in time, something that Ehle plays to perfection and something that later interpretations of the character just don’t seem to understand, probably because in the 21st century we have difficulty imagining independent thought and general awesomeness wedded to dresses, curtseys and good behaviour.

There is something irresistible about an intelligent woman who never forgets her manners. She’s smart enough to know when she’s surrounded by fools and annoyed enough to know that she can’t put up with them with too long, but as a child of her time, she knows that being taciturn and insolent will probably land her in the same boat as Mr. Darcy, who shares both her intelligence and her intolerance and isn’t shy to express either one, making him a willful social exile on more than one occasion. For Lizzy, staying put is a lot more fun. It’s through her politeness and her wit that the Mr. Collinses of this world find themselves shaking their heads long after she’s gone, unable to ascertain whether they’ve been insulted or praised.

(Image credit to