10 Female protagonists created by male authors
Author Noel O’Reilly lists his ten favourite literary heroines written by male authors.
Any male writer who attempts to write from a woman’s point of view risks putting his literary credibility on the line. In March, a male author boasted about his abilities to channel his inner woman and unleashed a Twitterstorm of ridicule. The snares waiting for the unwary include “mansplaining” women’s thinking errors and inadvertently revealing a creepy fixation on women’s anatomy.
My debut novel Wrecker, published July 12, is told from the point of view of Mary Blight, a poor countrywoman in historic Cornwall. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I’ll come out unscathed. Here are ten novels written by men where the authors are generally judged to have created a convincing female protagonist.
Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert (1856)
Discontented with her marriage and bored by provincial French life, Emma Bovary withdraws into daydreams inspired by romantic novels. She has a series of disastrous affairs, gets into debt and comes to a tragic end. Prosecuted for obscenity on publication, the novel is considered by critics to be a breakthrough in literary realism.
Flaubert’s feelings for his heroine were ambiguous. On the one hand he’s alleged to have said "Madame Bovary, c'est moi" suggesting he identified emotionally with his character. On the other hand, he mocks her in the novel and said in his letters that he shared none of her feelings.
Nevertheless, this portrait of an unexceptional bourgeois woman, desperately frustrated and trapped in small-town domesticity, set the standard for other authors to follow.
Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy (1875-77)
Countess Anna Karenina, a married Russian noblewoman, has an affair with Count Vronsky, a dashing cavalryman. The lovers try to keep their relationship discreet but she gets pregnant and they’re forced apart. Finally, Anna throws herself under a train, tormented by suspicions about Vronsky’s infidelity.
Anna is an ill-fated martyr to romantic love who is punished for refusing to observe the hypocritical proprieties of the time in which she lived. She is shunned by high society, but her philandering brother’s misdeeds are overlooked.
Tolstoy captures Anna's thought processes in a way that anticipates the stream-of-consciousness experiments of later writers. However, the writer’s deep fictional sympathy with his heroine was not extended to his real-life wife, Sofia, whose diaries reveal him to have been a cruel and difficult husband.
Tess of the d’Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy (1891)
With her impoverished family falling into desperate need, Tess Durbeyfield’s parents send her to claim kinship with the wealthy D’Urberville family in the hope of claiming part of their fortune. This leads to a train of events where Tess gives birth to lecherous Alex d’Urberville’s child, is courted by dairy farmer Angel Clare but rejected when he learns of her past and, you guessed it, suffers a tragic end.
As with Anna Karenina and Madam Bovary, sexual double standards are a key theme. The novel had the subtitle “A Pure Woman”, and Hardy’s sympathetic view of Tess’s misfortunes was controversial at the time of publication as it challenged the belief that unmarried women should be chaste. The symbolism of the novel identifies Tess with nature and tradition as opposed to the corrupting influence of modernism.
While Hardy shows tenderness towards Tess, this was not always the case with the women in his life, notably his own wife.
The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James (1880-81)
Isabel Archer, a young American woman travelling in Europe, inherits a large amount of money and agonises over her destiny. After turning down a marriage proposal from a rich English lord, she is duped by socialite and schemer Madame Merle into a disastrous marriage with a hard-up American expatriate Gilbert Osmond.
James is the last of the late 19th century big hitters on this list, but the novel feels strikingly modern, not least in the author’s insights into Isabel Archer’s complex psychology. Free-spirited Isabel ponders her existential options for pages on end, before making the worst choice possible in marrying the cold, controlling and pretentious Osmond.
Atonement, by Ian McEwan (2001)
In 1935, 13-year-old Briony Tallis sees her older sister Cecilia having sex with Robbie Turner, a childhood friend, at her parents’ country estate. When she later sees another young woman being raped she assumes Robbie is the culprit and informs the police which leads to his imprisonment. Later, realising her mistake, Briony attempts to atone for it.
In a final twist Briony, now an old woman, reveals herself to be the narrator of the preceding novel and announces that she has changed the facts to give the story a happy ending. With one fell swoop, Briony’s character and the foundations of the narrative are deconstructed in the service of McEwan’s metafictional musings on the motivation of novelists and the slippery nature of truth.
McEwan deserves points for writing a novel about a woman whose destiny isn’t completely tied up with love and her relationships with men.
The Crimson Petal and the White, by Michel Faber (2002)
Sugar is an infamous London prostitute who uses one of her clients, William Rackham, the heir to a perfume business, as the means to escape her trade. Rackham first sets up Sugar as his mistress, then moves her into his house as governess of his young daughter Sophie.
Sugar is a vivid creation with her mysterious skin condition, long baths, surprising business acumen and secret manuscript where she imagines herself taking violent revenge on her clients. She also proves she has the perennial tart’s heart of gold when she decides to rescue little Sophie from Rackham’s dysfunctional household.
The perfume business is the perfect metaphor for Victorian society, fragrant on the surface, putrid underneath, out of which Sugar emerges like a breath of fresh air.
The Story of Lucy Gault, by William Trevor (2002)
In 1921, eight-year-old Lucy Gault goes missing during violent unrest in Ireland, and her Protestant land-owning parents leave the country, believing her to be dead. This follows an incident where her father shoots and wounds a young IRA man who has intruded on his estate.
Only 288 pages long, the novel is an emotional epic revealing the loneliness, unfulfillment and limited horizons of a woman’s life due to both historic circumstance and character. Too reticent to seize her one chance of romantic love, Lucy ultimately commits herself to a self-sacrificing act of atonement when over many years she visits an asylum to care for the IRA man her father wounded.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson (2005)
Ostensibly, the protagonist of this novel is Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist investigating a murder. But Lisbeth Salander, a computer hacker he teams up with, steals the show. Salander, the tattooed girl of the novel’s title, seems to have crawled out of a deviant underground world or perhaps a cyberpunk novel.
Too disturbed to be live outside an institution without a guardian, she is raped by her minder. She outwits him by secretly filming the assault, then blackmails him into giving her control of her life and finances.
Larsson’s original title was Men Who Hate Women. There’s graphic non-consensual sex in the novel and readers must judge for themselves where the dividing between female empowerment and voyeuristic exploitation lies.
Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín (2009)
In the 1950s, Ellis Lacey leaves her native Ireland to find work in Brooklyn where she meets and marries an Italian boy, Tony Fiorello. When her sister Rose dies, Ellis returns to Ireland and falls in love with a young local man, Jim Farrell.
In this quiet and subtly modulated account of the emotional cost of emigration, Tóibín captures Ellis’s homesickness and alienation as he reveals her impressions and thoughts. Her loneliness is intensified by the fact she feels she must omit any mention of her unhappiness from her letters home to her mother and sister.
A century after Madame Bovary, Ellis is no more able to escape her ill-advised marriage than her fictional predecessor.
The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides (2011)
Eugenides brings us around full circle to Madame Bovary with a clever ending that confirms his novel as a late contribution to the “marriage plot” in 19th-century literature.
Set in 1982, the novel revolves around English major Madeleine Hanna as she graduates from US ivy league university Brown. Her subject is the marriage plot. Meanwhile, she must choose between two suitors: charismatic but manically depressive Leonard Bankhead or religion-obsessed Mitchell Grammaticus.
In his treatment of male mental illness, Eugenides reverses the gender roles in the Victorian literary trope of the madwoman in the attic. His convincing treatment of female sexuality and psychology should put the novel on the syllabus for all writers, regardless of gender.
Noel O’Reilly’s debut novel Wrecker is published by HQ (Harper Collins)
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