Brave Dames, Great Hearts
There are too many Anna Kareninas in fiction. Frankly, too many Cinderellas as well, women who may not throw themselves onto the train tracks, but who nonetheless cannot help themselves. They require a SWAT team of fairy godmother and prince. Literature, like life, is filled with victims of oppression, misogyny, and abuse. A protagonist need not triumph. But to hold my interest, she has to put up a fight for her own survival or for her beliefs. So here are five brave dames, some of my favorite fictional women with guts.
Artwork by James Eads
I Capture the Castle
Ignore the “young adult” designation. This coming-of-age novel about seventeen-year-old, level-headed, brave-hearted Cassandra Mortmain and her impoverished, eccentric British family belongs on any list of Great Twentieth Century fiction. Cassandra has no dragons to slay, yet her wisdom and courageous view of the world will make her your friend for life.
Lila Mae Watson—prim, annoyingly self-assured—is an elevator inspector who lives in a parallel universe that strongly resembles New York. In her world, elevator inspectors are divided into two schools: empiricists who go by the manual and methodically observe the gears and cables, and those like Lila Mae, intuitionists who simply enter an elevator and somehow “know” what is wrong. When an elevator she declared safe goes into freefall, she becomes the target of both factions, a seemingly easy fall-guy for politicians of all stripes. But in this novel about racism and responsibility, Lila Mae is the quintessential brave dame, willing to fight the first and embrace the second. In this book, the elevators rise: So does she.
A Handmaid's Tale
Consider the handmaid Offred the older sister of The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen. Both live in an America that has become foul, corrupt, and tyrannical. In Offred’s case (she has no name, only “of Fred,” her master), she is one of the dwindling number of women still capable of bearing children. That is her sole role. The United States has become the Republic of Gilead, a radical right “Christian” country in which most women are forbidden to read and to live freely. Offred learns of Mayday, a resistance movement, and…. Well, just know the plot is riveting, as is the protagonist’s growing daring in the face of ruthlessness, peril, and soul-shriveling subjugation.
An Unsuitable Job for a Woman
When Cordelia Gray, age 22, finds herself as the heir of a London detective agency after the suicide of her partner, she has the choice to quit or take on an investigation of the death of a Cambridge dropout. This being crime fiction, there is no way she would quit. But in this marvelously smart 1972 novel, P.D. James paved the way for the next forty-plus years of the great women detectives in the fiction of Linda Barnes, Nevada Barr, Amanda Cross, Linda Fairstein, Elizabeth George, Sue Grafton, Laura Lippman, Barbara Neely, Sara Paretsky, Elizabeth Peters, Lisa Scottoline, and Valerie Wilson Wesley.
What the strong women of fiction have in common is that they’re passionate about something besides passion. Yes, Jane Eyre loved Edward Rochester, but her lifelong quest was not for love but for justice. A stout-hearted hero like Jane is self-sufficient, active, dynamic, and three-dimensional, an individual with vision to see past the picket fence. Strong female protagonists may be interested in men—and are often successful in their relationships with them—but mooning over a man is never a full-time occupation. They reject the role of full-time victim, either of circumstance or of villains. The message of the novels inhabited by protagonists like Jane is that while a woman can be traditional and romantic, she is also obliged to acknowledge the complexity of a wider world and uphold a system of ethics. Jane Eyre stood up to injustice and was willing to leave civilization and face the wild, even death, rather than violate her moral principles.
Susan Isaacs, novelist, essayist and screenwriter, was born in Brooklyn and educated at Queens College. Her novels include Compromising Positions, Close Relations, Almost Paradise, Shining Through, and Past Perfect. Susan is a recipient of the Writers for Writers Award and the John Steinbeck Award. She serves as chairman of the board of Poets & Writers and is a past president of Mystery Writers of America. She is also a member of the National Book Critics Circle, The Creative Coalition, PEN, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the International Association of Crime Writers, and the Adams Round Table. Besides writing innumerable book reviews, Susan has also written about politics, film and First Amendment issues. She lives on Long Island with her husband.