The First Modern Heroine

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.


9 thoughts on “The First Modern Heroine

  1. Thanks so much, John, for this stimulating post! I have so many thoughts that I think I will end up responding in parts. I will have to think long on candidates for what you call the first modern heroine.

    There are two thoughts that come to mind before looking through literature to find her. First, reaching way back, the first thing that comes to mind are the many goddess myths that come from almost every culture. There are so many ancient stories that feature women in central roles that are about much bigger themes than the small stories we see women in now. The myth of Inanna comes to mind especially, the Sumerian myth recorded on cuneiform tablets 3,000 B.C. It’s the story of two sisters, the Queen of Heaven (Inanna) and Queen of the Underworld (Ereshkigal). It’s really the story of Inanna’s decent into the Underworld to visit her sister, and the shedding of her royal trappings as she goes through the seven gates. Okay, so she dies, that’s true (she’s going to the Underworld, after all, it can’t be avoided) but the story is really about resurrection. She doesn’t come back to a happy marriage, her husband is celebrating becoming King since she’s left, so she sends him back down to the Underworld in her place. It’s about going there, and coming back. Spiritual journey. A wonderful modern midwife and author, Pam England, author of Birthing from Within, is writing a new book about how birth itself can be described by this same archetypal journey. So I find that many powerful stories exist and are being successfully translated into modern life that feature women centrally. But that’s going way, way, back. And that’s not exactly your question.

    But the OTHER point, before answering your question, is one that I think gets confused often. That is, for something to be feminist does not mean it has to be independent of men. Why is a happy marriage not feminist enough? You gave a nice definition of feminism in one of our discussions, John, that it was about women having the same opportunities, responsibilities, and expectations as men (I can’t find your email or I would quote you directly!) I’m looking for the amount of agency she has in her own life, the perception her culture has of her, the respect her environment offers her. I’m not looking for her to be independent of a man. There is a common attitude of, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” and I understand why. Women have had to protect themselves from the abuses of power at the hands of the men in their lives; they’ve had to prove to the world that they CAN stand on their own, as if that is in question. But the fact that women and men want each other, need each other, is not the problem. A woman has not succeeded in being a heroine when she proves she can take the hero’s journey on her own. She succeeds when she values herself and is valued by the culture around her for the unique gifts she brings to the table.

    Too often in literature, death and madness mean exactly the opposite – the understanding of her essential nature has been frustrated to a terminal degree. And truly, marriage is often out of necessity, not agency. But not always. Getting married and having babies is not failure unless it is. It’s true that woman are not given enough options, and that is a feminist problem. And that the “feminine” in general is still disrespected (whether it’s a man that’s too feminine or a woman doing feminine work like having babies) and has been for a very long time. If doing something so womanly like getting married and taking care of a family were more valued then it wouldn’t be seen as a failure on the part of an independent woman. In that way, feminists are sexist themselves to suggest that marriage and motherhood are demeaning, which they sometimes do.

    I will think on the question of women characters in literature (in the 19th century). But really, Lizzy Bennett was feminist enough for me, even if she did marry Darcy in the end. As are all of Austen’s heroines. And the girls in Little Women. And Anne in Anne of Green Gables. And Jane Eyre. All end in marriage, but are valued for their unique gifts and marry willingly and on their own terms.

    Thanks, John, great question.

    • Whoa! I certainly did not say in my post or at any other time that getting married and having babies is not feminist! I did not use the word “feminist”, and my question has to do with feminism only in a very contingent way. I agree with nearly everything you said on the subject, and I especially liked the connection you made between death-or-madness and the frustration of the character’s essential nature.

      If marriage is deemed not to be a disqualifying criterion, my case rests on Margaret Schlegel until someone points out to me an equally strong woman with an earlier publication date. However, I’d like to go back to the original dilemma suggested by Rose’s professor. (Rose! If you’re out there, tell us this person’s name.) The point, I believe, is that 19th century heroines didn’t have any choice. They were so powerless, so completely without options that they didn’t even think of a future outside of marriage, and to have reached the age of thirty without marrying was a crisis of tragic proportions. Jane Austen’s heroines do not consider a life outside of marriage, except for Emma Woodhouse, and Austen portrays this thought as a childish fantasy. The first heroine that comes to my mind who even thinks of a life of independence is Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch (1872), although in the end she marries and pursues her reformist agenda as her husband’s helpmate. Actually, there’s an earlier George Eliot character: Dinah Morris in Adam Bede (1859). She marries too, but one of the factors that makes the marriage possible is that the men in charge of her Methodist congregation decide that she is no longer to be allowed to preach! She takes it well–in a spirit of pious obedience. You see what I’m getting at? The development of this “modern heroine” is an incremental, slow growing thing. What I want to know is, when does it flower?

      Jane’s (Jane Austen’s) ladies, and all the others you mention (except Jane Eyre–back to her in a minute) are worthy heroines–I absolutely agree with you there, but they are not the seminal, mold-breaking heroine I’m looking for.

      One question that has not been discussed, but which suggests itself as important to the quest is what do I mean by a “happy ending.” To clarify, I will say this: we come to the end of the book and we feel good about the future of our heroine, this person we have come to love over the days or weeks we’ve spent watching her life unfold. She’s not dead, nuts, or married, but we feel she has no regrets, and that the life before her is one she will find meaningful, fulfilling, and with her just portion of joy. I will stipulate that she is not more of a heroine than Anne Elliot or Esther Summerson, but she is a different kind of heroine in a fundamental way.

      This little disagreement I have to voice: Jane Eyre. If someone will explain to me why this character is so beloved of modern women readers and writers, feminists even, I will be very grateful. She has never even had a conversation with a man before meeting Mr. Roch–she is a complete innocent. He abuses her verbally and psychologically, lies to her in the cruelest way, and then humiliates her literally at the alter. And she sticks with him. Cleaves to him, I suppose would be the phrase. The whole thing makes me queasy. One can only be grateful he is a helpless invalid at the end, since otherwise death or madness would indeed seem the most likely outcome for poor Jane.

      ‘Nuff said. Back to Little Women…

      • I will continue to think on the flowering of the heroine you describe…I have to look up the story of a fantastic woman pirate, but she was real, not fictional.

        No, you didn’t say marriage and babies weren’t feminist or use the word feminist. But if marriage disqualifies a heroine’s fate as independent enough, that’s the logical extension of that thought, in my mind. I understand your point that women in 19th century literature had no real choices. However, so often the hero’s journey is about love or ends in love too. Why doesn’t that bother us in the same way?

        Lastly, for now, I think you stop too short with Austen’s heroines. I think Emma, Lizzy, and Anne, no wait, ALL of them, Dashwoods and Fanny too, consider seriously the reality of not getting married rather than marry the wrong man. Being willing to marry anyone for security (like Charlotte Lucas) is the characteristic of a woman with no choices.

        I’m interested to see where we find this break-out role in literature but I’m just as interested in the ideas around that question. Like the fact that Jane Austen herself was a heroine like the one you describe. When I can stop thinking about these interesting diversions, I’ll think on women characters in literature that define their lives in less traditional ways.

      • I have to admit that it’s difficult for me, too, to consider this question without thinking of it in terms of feminism. It isn’t stated in the question at all, but I do feel that it’s sort of implied and maybe even somewhat at the heart of it. Simply because it’s being asked in the first place. And because, as John says, 19th century heroines didn’t have too many options outside of marriage.

        Within the realities of the social constraints they faced, however, the 19th century literary heroines that we love and read today embody a kind of feminism that I embrace because they are morally self-reliant even if economically they must be reliant on men—or independently wealthy. Can you even be a self-made, independent woman in that time period? But as Michelle says, they (the heroines we’re discussing) maintain a respectable degree of “agency” over their own lives, to the extent that this is possible.

        What isn’t possible is for most 19th century women to truly have the same opportunities as men. Intelligent and engaging women like Elizabeth Bennett or Elinor Dashwood, if they failed to marry well, would be very limited in their prospects. They could become poor spinsters like Miss Bates or governesses like Jane Eyre (a more likely fate than that of the fortunate Mrs. Weston and one that Jane Fairfax certainly hoped to avoid) or maybe dependent relations like Fanny Price. Even if they were extremely talented in some area, like Austen herself, that was no guarantee of success or economic independence.

        So is it a question of literature? Or is it a question of history and the history of women’s rights and equality? Maybe there are no 19th century examples to be found in literature of heroines breaking the marriage/death/madness mold simply because very little else was possible in real life.

        Which us brings us back to the question of when did that change. I would say—and I think John and Michelle are saying this, too—that the heroines of 19th century literature are no less heroic because of the restrictions that are imposed upon them. So when do we see a heroine who happily achieves, not necessarily independence from men, but her own goals that may or may not be independent of men, but are simply her own goals and desires? I don’t think the idea of having to choose a career or adventure over marriage or children is a modern idea anymore. Women, like men, can and do have both, and men in literature have always had both.

        Why on earth is this question so difficult to answer? It’s either because I don’t read enough books with happy endings, or because happiness is nearly universally understood to mean love, for men as well as for women.

  2. Wow, great question, great discussion so far. Where to jump into the conversation?

    My initial thought on reading the original post was to wonder what qualifies as a happy ending for a hero in literature? I think, in most cases, I come up with love and marriage. Adam Bede, Daniel Deronda, Pip, Ivanhoe, and Gilbert Markham from The Tenant of Wildfell Hall—and all the men who might not be the main character but are major characters, like Will Ladislaw, Levin from Anna Karenina, or Walter Hartright in The Woman in White. Their happiness comes about through their marriages, too. Not to mention all of Jane Austen’s heroes. While her books are truly about the women, who often (but not always, see Emma) seem to have limited futures outside of finding worthy (and wealthy) husbands, we also know that Col. Brandon, for example, is only made completely happy by winning Marianne. There certainly is the sense that most of Austen’s men would go on being successful and mostly satisfied, or find other marriages, without the heroines (Knightley, Wentworth, Darcy, etc.), but their true happiness is attained through them.

    Jane Eyre kills me! I love that book, and I cringe at the same time because Mr. Rochester seems so ridiculously unworthy, although I’d take him over Heathcliff any day. The thing that makes Jane a heroine, to me, is her uncompromising nature and her self-knowledge. She refuses to be less of a person even though she is poor, dependent, and a woman. She believes in her right to her feelings and thoughts and morals, and she won’t let anyone tell her otherwise, even the man she desperately loves—for whatever reason. The idea that I choose to believe each and every time I read that book is that Jane and Rochester meet in a place beyond all the boundaries and rules society puts between people, and they connect deeply as individuals in a place where none of that matters. I don’t think too hard about how or why they love one another—that’s the mystery of love, after all! And Jane is a heroine because she chooses to give all that up, to walk away from the most meaningful relationship of her existence, the thing that has made her feel most alive in the world, because she knows it would take something away from herself as a complete and moral person who is deserving of love like that. She won’t compromise herself for the sake of the relationship. She would rather die than to do what she believes to be wrong, and she nearly does.

    I find Dorothea Brooke to be heroic on a grander scale than Jane. She’s heroic because she chooses love even though it’s the inconvenient thing to do and makes it appear to all that she has compromised herself, when in fact she is acting upon her most honest instincts. Her choice marry Will is incredibly brave because of the position it puts her in with regards to her family and her entire community, but she chooses not to deny the truth of her love for him. She could have walked away from him and retained her dignity and probably still be a heroine who made a different choice, but that wouldn’t have been a happy ending.

    I would say that marriage does not disqualify Margaret Schlegel, in part because it occurs halfway through the book and is not the conclusion of her journey. She succeeds and finds happiness in the house, in the retention of her sister and illegitimate nephew, and through the triumph of her ideas. She does “conquer” her husband in that way, and I think she would have conquered had she left him, too. She is shown to be right in her philosophy of life. What’s more heroic than that?

    Most likely not the first modern heroine, but Hana in The English Patient does not die or marry, and the book is her journey of recovery from a temporary sort of madness. I’m not sure it can be said to be a happy ending, but it’s hardly a tragic one for her, or least it ends up less tragic than it began.

    • Thank you for all these excellent comments! Too many things to respond to in detail, but Sarah we have to talk about Jane Eyre sometime. And Michelle, we need to sort out those Jane Austen women! I see a lot of coffee in my future.

      A couple of things I wanted to go back to just to clarify my own position. First, getting married ONLY disqualifies a character from being the one we’re looking for based on the criteria set out by Rose’s professor in my first post. It certainly doesn’t disqualify her from happiness or heroine-hood. Marriage is the most common kind of happy ending, and the only one available to 19th century heroines according to this thesis. My interest in finding the first happy, unmarried heroine is academic, and my method will be just to ask for nominations from anybody I know who reads If I can, I’ll read the suggested book and discuss it. It may be that there is no single perfect first modern heroine who changed the game; certainly the process of developing the modern heroine was an incremental one, and included Dorothea Brooke, Lily Dale, and Margaret Schlegel as milestones along the way. Yeah, again, I’m inclined to place the wreath on Margaret’s brow despite the marriage because of the enormous power shift that takes place between her and Mr. Wilcox at the end of the book, but because of the original criterium… well, let’s keep looking and reading. It’s fun and very interesting.

      Second, I wanted to warn anyone against inferring that I would prefer an unmarried heroine. By no means. My personal favorite kind of ending is the one where the hero and heroine get married at the end and are presumed to live happily ever after. Seriously. I agree with Michelle that men and women want and need each other, and my desire for order and closure is best satisfied when the right people find each other. Real life has quite enough of loneliness and frustration and disappointed expectations. As I said, my interest in finding the first modern heroine is academic, not because I’m looking for someone I’d like better than Elizabeth Bennett. Very unlikely to find anyone I’d prefer to her!

      Finally, men. Of course, they have options, so if things don’t work out for them romantically we don’t worry that they will not be able to find something meaningful and fulfilling to do with their talents. They aren’t going to end up like Miss Bates. This business of having other options to fall back on makes their situation less desperate and also less interesting. For women it’s literally all on the line. We feel Lizzie Bennet’s terror when whe realizes she has misjudged Darcy and may have blown it with him. However for men there is even the cliché of the Lonesome Hero Riding off into the Sunset. What does he need with women? He has his six-gun, his horse, his Destiny. (Don’t make too much of the horse.) Although he has his roots in epic poetry, and is still a staple of genre fiction, this dime novel hero is seldom met with in serious fiction these days, thank god, and we are not looking or his female counterpart. Male and female characters are both more nuanced, more complex, and so it may be that no one heroine will emerge who fits the bill and pleases us all. By the way, I realize my definition of happiness in my last post depends a lot on what the reader brings to the book. It’s the best I can do. Of course we don’t know with certainty what happens to any of the characters after the last page, so we will have to rely to some extent on our intuition. Which is a problem for me and poor Lily Dale…

      I’d like to say more about Trollope’s Lily Dale, but I don’t want to write anything that would spoil the books. You never know, 20 years from now you might find yourself giving The Small House at Allington a try.

  3. Although we discussed it at our last book group meeting, I just wanted to put it in writing that a friend of mine, who may or may not ever actually comment on this blog herself, suggests that the answer to this question is Alexandra Bergson from O! Pioneers by Willa Cather. It was written in 1913. We should definitely add this our list of books to read in the future.

    Also, I had a middle of the night thought on this issue, which is this: might we be missing another obvious answer? Helen Schlegel? While the book is Margaret’s story, Helen is a secondary sort of heroine. She does not marry, die, or go mad. She has a baby and remains unwed. Margaret’s triumph is at least in part Helen’s triumph as well. Their shared ideals win out in the end–both within a more traditional sort of marriage end for Margaret and in a very nontraditional independent (of men) existence for Helen. They have each other, they have other people, they have Howards End, they have what matters. Their outlook and approach to life is proven to be the right one.

    I would even maintain that had Margaret not asserted herself in her relationship with Henry and not chosen to live according to her ideals, Helen still would have and would have been her own sort of heroine. If she had returned to Germany and had her child there, it would have been its own sort of victory. Even if she had lost Margaret, she would kept other important things and lived an uncompromising existence not involving marriage, madness, or death. It may not be as happy an ending as she actually gets in the book, but it would have been her choice, and not necessarily an unhappy one.

    So what do we think? Helen Schlegel, candidate for first modern heroine?

  4. Excellent points. Helen is definitely a candidate.

    I read O, Pioneers on your recommendation–just finished this week–and loved it. Alexandra does marry at the end, however she has, by that time, already had an unconventional life as a New Heroine. Great book. Did you know I was born in Nebraska? Willa Cather is to us as Robert Frost is to Vermonters: our principal bard.

  5. When we met last week to discuss Pride and Prejudice I read this little bit from Rachel Brownstein’s book Becoming a Heroine. I think one or two people were out of the room at the time, so I am posting it here. Her definition of a heroine (and very interesting contrast with hero!) is particularly relevant to the traditional 19th century heroines of Austen, Trollope, and Dickens, but is also relevant to our search for the change in how we define heroines that occurred… well, when? That’s what we want to know.

    Brownstein says (page 82): “The paradigmatic hero is an overreacher; the heroine of the domestic novel . . . is overdetermined. The hero moves toward a goal; the heroine tries to be it. He makes a name for himself; she is concerned with keeping her good name. (But at the end of the story, when it’s happy, she takes her husband’s name.) A hero is extraordinary, exempt from the rules of society; a heroine must stick to the social code and then some. She is governed by constraints as rigid as the ones that make a sonnet. The instructive contrast is between Richardson’s good girls and Fielding’s bad boy, Tom Jones, who proves the neighbors were wrong when they said he was born to be hanged. What the neighbors say can ruin a girl’s life and run like water off duck’s back off a boy’s. A heroine must be perfectly well-behaved, well-spoken, and well-spoken-of. She must be just like other girls and also she must be better, to be singled out once and for all by the best of men.”

    Excellent book, by the way, especially the chapter on her own relationship with literature as a girl growing up in the 50’s, and the chapter on Jane Austen. Recommended.

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