In literature, as in life, virtue is seldom its own reward. Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa might be a paragon of impeccable chastity, but golly, it’s a boring novel.
Dorothea Brooke and Isabel Archer are respectively heroines of great novels, but both Middlemarch and Portrait of a Lady always left this reader wondering what might have happened if they’d let rip a bit—forgotten ardent idealism and told Mr. Casaubon where to shove his key to all mythologies…
Here are ten fabulously ambiguous female heroines whose lack of propriety makes them more daring literary companions:
Troilus and Criseyde
by Geoffrey Chaucer
This medieval telling of the classic Greek myth gives much more autonomy to its heroine, who falls willingly into temptation. Middle English at its sexiest…
Dialogue between Strephon and Daphne
by John Wilmot Earl of Rochester
The wicked Earl’s naughty nymphs might not strictly be the heroines of novels, but his inversions of pastoral conventions make for deliciously funny reading. As Daphne says "Womankind more joy discovers, making fools, than keeping lovers.”
by Jane Austen
Yes, I know we’re supposed to admire the quiet courage of poor neglected Fanny Price, but the rambunctious Mary Crawford (speaker of Austen’s most risqué joke about admirals and rears) would be a much more amusing companion on a wet country house weekend. See Helena Kelly’s Jane Austen: The Secret Radical for just how subversive Mary is.
by Daniel Defoe
The original tart with a heart—Moll’s lucid, warts-and-all account of her life remains fresh and perceptive on the hypocrisies of patriarchal convention. Defoe is unfashionable now, but he’s fabulously funny.
by Choderlos de Laclos
The Marquise de Merteuil makes an art of vicious elegance. Ruthlessly manipulative to the end, she is terrifyingly captivating. A lesson in wicked sophistication, she is as irresistible as she is cruel.
by William Thackeray
Becky Sharpe has nothing in the world to rely on except her face and her wits, and her scramble up the greasy pole of London society skewers not only the world of Waterloo, but holds up a scathing prism to the materialism of our own culture. Anybody, after all, could be good with five thousand a year…
by George Eliot
This is an oddly divided novel, but the fate of its ambitious, conflicted heroine Gwendolen Harleth has a fascinating touch of the Gothic. In a way, she is the most fully human, and flawed, of Eliot’s heroines, intriguing but neglected.
by Martin Amis
“At the age of nineteen, Nicola knew that no-one would ever love her enough and the ones that did wouldn’t be worth being loved enough by.” A dystopian take on the femme fatale, Nicola Six seduces right until the (horrible) end.
Based on a True Story
by Delphine de Vigan
This bestselling example of “autofiction” is recently translated from the French. “L” is a chilling antiheroine, whose manipulations are all the more terrifying for their subtlety.
by Émile Zola
The heroine of this wonderful novel can be read in so many ways, but Nana is ultimately a figure of vengeance, before whom a whole society of worthies will fling aside their dress coats to roll on her bearskin carper, begging to be kicked. Of all ambiguous heroines, I find her the most consistently intriguing, as we never know who exactly is playing whom.
LS Hilton is the author of Maestra and Domina, both published by Bonnier Zaffre
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