Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Aug 31 2015 01:00PM

Another day, another artificially constructed list of literary favorites on which Jane Austen ranks high. Today’s entry is the “Top 15 of the Nation’s Favourite Classic Literary Heroines” – the nation in question being Great Britain, as you can tell from the spelling.


Seems that 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, the studio’s DVD distribution arm, wanted some free publicity for its upcoming DVD release of “Far From the Madding Crowd,” the recent film adaptation of Hardy’s novel. So it commissioned a no doubt rigorous and statistically bulletproof survey of one thousand British adults and asked them who their favorite literary heroines were.


Bathsheba Everdene, the heroine of Far From the Madding Crowd, clocked in at #13. I love the novel, and she’s a great character, but something about this result seems curious to me. Maybe I have a suspicious mind.


Needless to say, however, I suspend all such skepticism when it comes to Jane Austen’s sterling success as one of only three authors to get two heroines onto the list: Emma Woodhouse, at #15, and Elizabeth Bennet, at #1. (Woo hoo!) The other two authors, in case you’re wondering, are Tolkien (Arwen, #7; Galadriel, #10) and Hardy (Tess, #8, joins Bathsheba).


Silly and unscientific though it probably is, the list nevertheless reminds us of a fundamental truth: readers have a great fondness for ruthless, cruel, manipulative people, at least when they are safely trapped between book covers. Scarlett O’Hara (Gone with the Wind), Catherine Earnshaw (Wuthering Heights), Daisy Buchanan (The Great Gatsby) and Becky Sharp (Vanity Fair) may be the protagonists (or co-protagonists) of their respective novels, but heroines? Only if your definition is expansive.


No wonder Jane Austen was wrong in saying that Emma was a heroine “whom no one but myself will much like.” Turns out we adore these vivid, larger-than-life women with their dramatic, outsize flaws.


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