And my blogging/twitter friend Sarah Salway has just written a post about her five female literary role models at www.sarahsalway.net, and I felt duty bound to write my own.
Off the top of my head, I tweeted: Jane Eyre, Maggie Tulliver, Beatrice, Joan Foster and Granny Weatherwax, but I've just decided I should have had Antigone in Beatrice's place. And here's why...
I fell in love with this book at the absurdly precocious age of ten. I was lucky enough to grow up in the sort of house where books were always lying around and came across it one day in my bedroom, picked it up and read it (understanding perhaps a third). I immediately identified with Jane. She was so put upon, and had the harsh orphan life I fondly imagined as being somehow romantic in the rather grotesque orphanage games we used to make up. But more then that, she is stoical, and tenacious. She loses everything and is prepared to walk away from the man she loves for the sake of principle. And despite being plain and ordinary, she is anything but. I reread the book recently and was struck by different things then on that first reading: I found Rochester's teaching of her patronising when I reread the book as a young woman, but now I'm inclined to think they learn from one another, and although it is a matter of debate whether they are true equals, by the end of the book the balance is definitely restored in her favour.
Mill of the Floss was one of my A Level texts. I'd never read George Eliot before, and it was a revelation. I was particularly taken with Maggie as she has dark hair, like me, and struggles with being clever in a man's world (ok, at that point our paths differ). She is passionate and feels things deeply, and her impulsive nature leads her time and time again into trouble. Like Jane, she does the principled thing, by walking away from a relationship with Stephen Guest, which leaves her reputation in tatters, but unlike Jane, she doesn't get the happy ever after. The image of her drowning with her brother Tom at the end of the book is one that I still find haunting after all these years. She's a metaphor for our grandmothers and greatgrandmothers; the ones who weren't lucky enough to get the education we take for granted today, and as such, a perfect choice for International Women's Day.
Lady Oracle was the second Margaret Atwood novel, I read, in my early twenties. I loved the character of Joan Foster - a fat girl who becomes thin, a famous poetess who hides her hidden career as a gothic novelist from her oh-so-serious communist husband Arthur. She is full of wit, invention and the capacity to recreate herself. A modern heroine for a modern age. Oh and her propensity for writing gothic romance may just have influenced my career choice...
I might have mentioned before Terry Pratchett (along with Margaret Atwood) is one of my favourite living authors. Apart from writing hilariously bonkers fantasy books which neatly parallel the absurdities of our own world, he has a genius (unparalleled I think, among male fantasy writers) for not only understanding women but capturing them brilliantly. (There is a line in A Monstrous Regiment about ironing, which with no intended disrespect to the men of my acquaintance was so true to a woman's experience, that I wouldn't have believed a man could have written it). Granny Weatherwax is my favourite female character in the Discworld novels. She's cantankerous, difficult, tricksy, ballsy, always funny, and always (usually in a roundabout way) on the side of right. Her spiritual heiress, Tiffany Aching, the teenage witch who features in The Hatful of Sky quartet, also deserves an honourable mention. In Tiffany I recognise a lot of my teen self, and Granny Weatherwax provides a great model for growing old crabbily (for disgraceful growing old you need to look at Granny's partner in crime Nanny Ogg, whom I love, but not quite as much). Her pet phrase "I ent dead yet" is one I intend to use till my dying day...
I first read Antigone (in translation natch, I don't know any ancient Greek), when I was a student. It's the third play in Sophocles' retelling of the Oedipus story (Oedipus the King/Oedipus at Colonus are parts 1&2 though confusingly, I think Antigone was written first), and it tells the story of Antigone, one of Oedipus' two daughters from his incestuous marriage to Jocasta. After the truth is discovered in the first play, Jocasta hangs herself and Oedipus blinds himself and is sent into exile. During Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone looks after her blind father in his exile, until his death, but Antigone finds her back in the palace at Thebes. In the meantime her uncle, Creon has become the city's dictator and in the civil war he has had to undertake to gain power, Antigone's two brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices have both been killed. But whereas Eteocles is buried with full burial rights, Polyneices is declared a traitor and his bones left to rot outside the city walls. Antigone defies an order from Creon to give him a proper burial and goes outside the city and performs the rites. For this crime, she is walled up in a cave, where she subsequently hangs herself. What is so wonderful about this play is it demonstrates the disconnect between civil duty and family duty - Creon demands that Antigone puts the state ahead of her family duty, but Antigone cannot do that. Even when given an opportunity to repent her actions, she remains defiant, being prepared to lose Haemon, the man she loves, in order to do what is right. Another principled brave heroine. In a world where daily many women are called on to make sacrifices that I cannot even dream about, Antigone seems to me to be a pretty good role model, her story as relevant today as when it was written over 2000 years ago.
I think all my heroines share a strong sense of principle and self, a ready wit, and the ability to stand up and be counted. All qualities I deeply admire. I'd like to be like them all, but Granny Weatherwax most of all(-: