International Women’s Day: HT editors pick their favourite female character from literature
As in life, so in literature: we all have favourites. Though you may not always stop and analyse why. Sometimes you’re drawn to a character because he/she is like you or going through something similar that you may have struggled with too. At times the bias could also be fed by admiration, oh the people we wish we could be and the adventures we could have had then. In other cases, it is just the beauty of the storytelling and the power of the author’s imagination to create a remarkable ink-and-paper being.
For International Women’s Day, we asked our editors at Hindustan Times to pick their favourite woman character from literature. There are a lot of surprises on this deeply personal, diverse and wonderful list.
Antoinette (Bertha) Cosway from Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea
It took her more than a century to get out of that attic but when she did, Antoinette (Bertha) Cosway turned the classic Jane Eyre on its head. In Jane Eyre, Bertha was the “madwoman in attic” whose marriage to Edward Rochester forces Jane to wait for years for her happily ever after.
Jean Rhys unlocks Antoinette in Wide Sargasso Sea. Hers is the story of a young lonely Creole girl caught in turbulent dying days of colonialism and slavery. A demanding cold husband proves too much for young Antoinette, who far away from home is driven to madness.
Rhys’s Antoinette is a completely different person from Charlotte Bronte’s Bertha, a reminder that there are layers to us and we can be a different person to different people.
PS: Jane Eyre was published in 1847 and Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966 – Charu Gupta, Associate Editor
Charlotte Lucas from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
I’m attached to Charlotte Lucas in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice because she commands an extremely intriguing place in literature. First, she is not the heroine. Second, she is not beautiful, and she knows it. Third, she is the only intelligent young woman in the novel apart from its vivacious heroine, Lizzie. Obviously they are good friends. Fourth, Charlotte is supremely sensible. She realises that in the society she lives, it will be foolish to expect happiness in mere romance. So she swiftly accepts the offer of a most stupid man imaginable to cherish the certainty of lifelong middle-class comforts. The woman has a sensitive heart and yet smartness enough to manipulate men to create her own pool of limited independence. – Mayank Austen Soofi, writer
Estella Havisham from Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations
Estella. Dickensian. A tad melodramatic maybe. But real.
Estella of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations is a person of Miss Havisham’s making. Estella has always fascinated me. A poor child made to be cruel for the sake of being cruel, yet vulnerable. A frail woman despite all the vileness she was “taught”. One’s environment and experiences shape a person. For poor Estella her life and experiences as laid bare in Great Expectations is about that – a transparent, obvious display of that human condition, human conditioning. Her life’s mission was to be cruel to men and that’s why I have enormous sympathy for her. I know her. I feel sad for her. But would I like to be Pip? Was I? I’d loathe the thought. I wish Estella had eventually “ended up” with Pip. Estella deserved better, she deserved Pip. Pip deserved her, not as the adoptive daughter of Miss Havisham, but as a woman in her own right, even if life’s vicissitudes had made her a vile woman. – Subhash Kevin Rai, Digital Editor
Lady Macbeth from Shakespeare’s play Macbeth
There are too many women characters I admire in literature. It is impossible to pick a single one as my favourite. Instead, let me talk about one of the most compelling women in the history of literature. Let me talk about Lady Macbeth. Ruthless, manipulative and ambitious, she strikes us as someone who will stop at nothing to achieve her ends when the play opens. One of the most riveting things about Lady Macbeth is her transformation: how, as the play progresses, she turns into a brooding, beleaguered, broken figure, haunted by her sins. ‘Favourite’ does not begin to describe Lady Macbeth. But if you want a character who is unforgettable, look no further.
– Soumya Bhattacharya, Managing Editor
Nancy Drew from Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew Mysteries
The girl I loved in school was Nancy Drew. One day in a week the school library would open for 35 minutes and students could pick a book to take home. I chose the ‘girl detective’.
In Password to Larkspur Lane, Ms Drew solves a mystery involving a carrier pigeon and a woman imprisoned in a mansion. The Hardy Boys would have needed a team to solve the case. Ms Drew busts the baddies all by herself.
She is confident, calm and cool. She is also white, upper class and privileged, critics say. Thirty years ago, I was young and innocent about political correctness. Ms Drew was how imagined my girl would be: beautiful and badass.
Ms Drew, I love you still. – Pallav Nayak, Editor Online News
Scout Finch from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird
You meet them in school libraries or they may be well-thumbed hand-me-downs. And over the years, they will become a companion, the voice of your conscience and a part of your very being. They are the books you grow up with, the characters that inhabit your mind and your heart. I was in school when I first read To Kill a Mocking Bird and Delhi was a long way off from a small southern town in the US. But Scout Finch, never Jean Louis – always Scout, grasped me with her opinionated, quirky, tomboy act. It would be years before I truly understood the maelstrom of racial prejudice and hate that enveloped the sleepy town but it was Scout’s innocence, underlined by adult Scout’s knowing narration in the book, that till date stayed with me. That and the conversations Scout had with her father: “Atticus, he was real nice.” “Most people are, Scout, once you see them.” – Jyoti Bawa, Entertainment Editor
Sibongile Maqoma in Nadine Gordimer’s None to Accompany Me
My favourite woman character in a work of fiction is Sibongile Maqoma in Nadine Gordimer’s book None to Accompany Me.
The novel focuses on the empowerment of both black and white women in the backdrop of the transition from apartheid to a new multiracial South Africa. Sibongile who has so far only been used to home politics puts aside her traditional role and begins to fight in public life for both women and society. She in fact plays a more political role than her husband and in doing so she has to redefine her relationship with him and other family members. Her ability to change and reinvent herself is remarkable given the societal conditions she found herself in.
– Lalita Panicker, Comments Editor
Varsha Vashisht from Surendra Varma’s Mujhe Chand Chahiye
There are quite a few women characters I like in fiction, but if you ask me who I like the most – at this point in time – I’ll go with a character in a Hindi novel I read some years ago: Varsha Vashisht from Mujhe Chand Chahiye by Surendra Varma. She’s a small town girl, from Shahjahapur (in UP), from a very conservative family, who rebels and carves out her own life path. Much to the unforgiving disapproval of her father, she goes to Delhi and joins the National School of Drama, eventually becoming a leading actress of the repertory company. From there it’s on to films where, once again, she finds success.
What I loved about Varsha was her courage and how (despite achieving success) she never loses her sensitivity and warmth. She falls in love with a pedigreed Delhi boy Harsha and their love story, or rather Varsha’s part in that love story, is tender and moving. (Though I suppose it would have been too much if the love story had worked out like a fairy tale too... but as they say, kabhi kisi ko muqammal jahan nahin milta). Of course, what made the book even more special for me was the brilliant recreation of Delhi, from life in NSD, the theatre hub that is Mandi House, Bengali Market, Connaught Place...and much more.
– Poonam Saxena, National Weekend Editor
Tess Durbeyfield from Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles
I am tempted to pick Elizabeth Bennett from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice but I’m internally compelled to go with Thomas Hardy’s Tess Durbeyfield. She may not be the smartest, the wittiest or even the bravest heroine in literature but she’s an epitome to the double standards that we women are still held to. The 1891 Victorian era female lead in Tess of the d’Urbervilles leaves a mark for her innate strength. Many might see her a victim of men and fate, but Hardy paints her as resolute and powerful.
– Harinder Baweja, Editor, Special Projects
Do you have a favourite literary heroine? What is it that you love about her? Tweet to us @htlifeandstyle and let us know.