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Our Favourite Classic Heroines

By Megan Powell and Hannah Spruce


Through the process of reading many of us are left with a longing. A longing for a setting, time, place. But maybe the most impressionable longing is found within the characters. The classics team have previously explored the tragic hero characters found in classic literature. Those popular figures emerge often, and now it is time to explore some of the more remarkable heroines. In classic literature the role of women hasn’t entirely been reflective of actual experience, or cast women in a favourable light. So, it is important to admire those characters amongst them who take a stand against oppression and society, revolutionising the written female character and becoming more than ideals. Here are some of our favourite classic heroines.


Sara Crewe from A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett


Much like The Secret Garden, Hodgson’s novel A Little Princess remains a classic in children’s literature. Published in 1905, the story follows our heroine, Sara Crewe, through her life and journey from wealth to poverty. While in a London boarding school, those around Sara are envious of her wealth, yet this is not mirrored in Sara’s personality. Where some may be entitled and selfish through the material privilege, Sara remains selfless and creates the Princess image. The heroine envisions herself as such through her generosity and desire to help others – like a monarch to their subjects. But when her father dies and takes with him the family wealth, Sara is mistreated and life becomes miserable for the young girl. Through the isolation, Sara remains spirited and loyal to her friends. To outsiders, Sara appears to contrast her poor appearance with her upper-class manners, and, while her wealth is restored from the help of Carrisford, she remains a favoured classic heroine through her spirited depiction which overshadows her change in circumstances.


Nancy Drew from Nancy Drew Mystery Stories by Carolyn Keene


It is unsurprising to feature the beloved classic character of Nancy Drew here. She is instantly recognisable and has become a household name. This is credited to the many talented authors who wrote under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene. Collectively, they wrote a grand total of fifty-six books in the Nancy Drew series, spanning across the years 1930-1979. However, since then, the premise of Nancy Drew has earned numerous exploration through more stories, adaptations and retellings. And it is no secret why creatives are so keen to reproduce the titular character. Nancy Drew has undoubtedly developed across the years with new takes on the character through different authors and materials. But throughout them all the character remains intelligent, adventurous and unafraid of a challenge. This character advocates enforcing what you believe in by not being afraid to push the boundaries. The courage this character possesses is one of the main heroine qualities that is admirable to all readers.


Therese Raquin from Therese Raquin by Emile Zola


A more understated heroine is Therese Raquin from Emile Zola’s eponymous novel, who is a passionate figure trapped in a loveless and stagnant marriage. Therese’s isolation and repression manifests itself into a torrid love affair and subsequent murder plot as she desperately seeks an escape from her situation. Zola uses the novel to study temperaments in a scientific manner, which causes the reader to assess questions of morality and human behaviour. It is this narrative choice which makes Therese such a complicated and tragic heroine, as, despite being the titular character, she is an ordinary woman who becomes embroiled in extraordinary circumstances. Therese is a passionate character who by virtue of her situation becomes trapped and neglected and must use her body to try to escape. The reader empathises with Therese despite her crimes as she risks her otherwise comfortable life in the pursuit of liberation. Therese is flawed, but it is her flaws which make her less pedestalized than other heroines. She does not achieve her happy ending, but instead represents the unsuccessful plights of many women desperate to achieve freedom.


Marji from Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi


Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis is an autobiographical bande dessinée which follows her adolescence and early adulthood against the backdrop of social and political unrest. Satrapi is masterful in her portrayal of unprecedented change under a child’s lens, as Marji, the protagonist, struggles to comprehend the traumatic events she witnesses. The reader forms a strong attachment to Marji as a heroine, as they follow her experiences from a young age. Depictions of violence are intertwined with the simplicity and mundanity of Marji’s family life to dismantle Western audiences’ stereotypical perceptions of Middle Eastern ideologies. Marji is forced to grow up quickly due to her exposure to brutality, and she consequently struggles with her Iranian identity against the extremist regime. Marji, as the central figure amongst the chaos, opposes patriarchal systems and becomes a symbol of feminist independence. Persepolis offers a refreshing reinvention of the heroine, as, unlike many literary heroines of the 1800s, Marji is an independent and self-reliant figure who navigates complex environments.

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