My Favourite Literary Heroines by Stephanie Burgis

A few weeks ago we heard from Sophia Bennett on her favourite heroines, and now we find out who Stephanie Burgis, author of A Most Improper Magick, would choose..

When I think of heroines, I think of the books I most loved as a kid: Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Anne of Green Gables, Emily of New Moon, Crocodile on the Sandbank, The Talisman Ring…the list goes on and on, but what ties them all together is the theme of strong, smart women taking responsibility for their own lives.

Elizabeth Bennet is financially and socially dependent on her father, and when he dies, if she hasn’t found a husband first, she’ll be both homeless and penniless, because his house and income are entailed to a male cousin. Moreover, since she’s never had a proper education, she doesn’t even have the skills to find a job and support herself (even if such a thing were acceptable for girls of her class, in her society).

A desperate situation, no? But she never lets financial desperation cheapen her sense of her own self-worth, and she refuses to marry any man she can’t respect – or who won’t respect her – no matter how much pressure her marriage-obsessed mother puts on her.

Even when the fabulously wealthy and handsome Mr Darcy proposes to her, she turns him down without compunction – he’s offered her love but not respect. It’s only when he learns to treat her as an equal that she finally agrees to marry him – and that priceless life lesson was imprinted on me the first time I read the book: romance is NOT romantic unless it includes equality!

A lot of people jeer at romance novels, pointing at various examples of sexism in the genre, but I learned some of my best and most powerful feminist lessons as I read the classic romances, especially Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Jane is poor and plain and starts out life as a reviled poor relation living off her (horrible!) rich aunt’s charity. Life gets even worse when her relations exile her to Lowood School, where the charity girls are treated so badly that many of them die of the poor conditions during the winter months.

When she takes the job of a governess, it’s only a small step up, and her employer’s wealthy guests are careful to remind her with every dismissive glance that she is worthless in their eyes, unfit to mingle with good society. But Jane never loses her self-respect, and she proves it when she walks away from the man she loves and all the wealth and comfort he offers her – all at a moral price she is not willing to pay. She refuses to cheapen herself by becoming his mistress.

Jane truly earns her happy ending, finishing the book not as the indulged – and socially lesser – mistress of a wealthy man, but as his true partner and wife, in full charge of both his household and her life. Again: as I devoured Jane’s gothic adventures, I absorbed the life lesson that equality and respect really are the basis of any truly romantic relationship.

Anne of Green Gables taught me to value my imagination even in the darkest of circumstances. Emily of New Moon showed me that I really could follow my dream to be a writer no matter who sneered at my aspirations. (The scene where Emily’s writing notebooks are destroyed by a contemptuous adult still burns!)

Amelia Peabody gave me a model of a strong, smart adult woman who could take on any adventure and attract the man of her dreams by the sheer force of her intellect and personality. Sarah Thane showed me that a strong woman could still be imaginative and funny and have fun with romance.

When I sat down to write A Most Improper Magick (the first of The Unladylike Adventures of Kat Stephenson), I wrote exactly the kind of heroine I wanted to read when I was a teen, the kind I still, in my heart, want to be.

Who are your favourite literary heroines?

Thanks! Good question, Stephanie – tell us, Bookbabblers! You can buy Stephanie’s book in our shop now..