Not long ago I was talking with Rose Modry, and she mentioned that a professor of hers had once said something to the effect that 19th century literary heroines had only three options: to die, to go mad, or to marry happily. There is considerable truth in that, but it got us thinking that there must be, somewhere in literature, a heroine who breaks out of that mold for the first time, a heroine who finds a happy ending outside of conventional marriage.
Any thoughts? Someone suggested that somewhere in the work of Louisa May Alcott there is such a character, but couldn’t remember who. Little Women was published in 1868. Lily Dale, whose story Anthony Trollope tells in The Small House at Allington (1864) and The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867) occurred to me as a possible candidate. But these are early books–typical Victorian heroines continued to appear for some decades after.
Although she disqualifies herself by marrying, Margaret Schlegel in Howards End (1910) is a big step forward, since she doesn’t have to marry, and could be said to “conquer” her husband rather than the other way around.
Somewhere it seems there must be a heroine who really changed things by finding through her own efforts a happiness independent of men: the first modern heroine. Nominations are open.