- Dorothea Brooke
Dorothea is a character that readers tend to feel strongly about. She grates on some (most likely because she is stubborn, a religious fanatic, and quite a prude) but there exist plenty others who adore her. This is a sign that George Eliot did something right when she created Dorothea. The star of Eliot’s masterpiece, Middlemarch, Dorothea is introduced as a St. Theresa type, only born in the wrong generation. That is to say that her epic, grandiose spirit finds little application in her small, provincial life. For those who think Dorothea’s moralism and affected modesty render her a ninny, don’t think Eliot isn’t aware. As we learn early in the book, “Riding was an indulgence which she allowed herself in spite of conscientious qualms; she felt that she enjoyed it in a pagan sensuous way, and always looked forward to renouncing it.” Besides, her passion about issues other than marriage set her apart from most of Jane Austen’s characters – which I’ve always found refreshing.
I’ll include Orlando on my list of great female characters even though she only spends about half the novel as a female. Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is a strange, gorgeous, mystifying novel about a character whose life spans centuries and defies form. At its center is the eponymous Orlando, who begins the novel as a male youth in the court of Queen Elizabeth. By the novel’s end she is a woman in early 20th century London. Like most of Woolf’s protagonists, Orlando is passionate, effusive and possessed of a deep inner life. Based on Woolf’s own real life partner Vita Sackville West, the novel has been called “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.”
- Lila Cerullo
Lila Cerullo is tough, intelligent, complex, dark and powerful. She is the focus of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, starting with the first in the series, My Brilliant Friend. It’s the story of a lifelong friendship between Lila and Lena, the narrator, starting in a small neighborhood in Naples dominated by poverty and violence. Lila is like that friend so many of us have had – the one that has the power to both push us forward and hold us back, whose faults highlight our attributes and whose attributes highlight our faults. Both women in these novels are compelling, deep characters, but through the narrator’s own eyes it’s Lila who comes across most clearly as the brilliant friend of the novel’s title.
- Franny Glass
Franny and Zooey, like Salinger’s other books, was deeply important to me when I was a teenager. I’ve reread it more times than any other book, and I still love to open it up today. Franny is young, intelligent, and beautiful. She has a handsome boyfriend and goes to a great school. And yet she’s miserable. Why? Well – because she’s discovered a book about Russian Orthodox mysticism and can’t stop trying to emulate its intense prescription for non-stop contemplative prayer. For a second there it sounded like the plot of any rom-com, but Franny is more complex than that. Her complexity is that of actual humans in their teen years – who are working through intellectual, emotional and spiritual issues like these for the first time. The story of her breakdown is perfectly captured by Salinger – every gesture and cigarette lighting perfectly timed. Like Catcher in the Rye the problem of phoniness is a big theme, but Franny is half as annoying as Holden and twice as clever.
- Miss Havisham
I struggled to decide who to include on this list – Miss Havisham or her adopted daughter, Estella. Both are fascinating characters from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and are best understood together. Miss Havisham is the wealthy mistress of a dilapidated estate. She remains forever in her wedding dress, with every clock in the house stopped at twenty minutes to nine – the exact moment she discovered her fiancé would not be meeting her at the altar. She adopted Estella in order to seek revenge on the world for her sorrow, training her to break men’s hearts casually and cruelly. It doesn’t get much more macabre and fascinating than these two, even compared to other Dickens’ characters.
- Gwendolyn Harleth
Daniel Deronda may not be George Eliot’s most page turning novel, but its female lead is one of the most interesting characters in the English canon. Gwendolyn Harleth is beautiful, witty, spoiled and captivating. She hates that she must someday marry as it seems to her the most dull and miserable venture possible – but considering that few other options exist for women in her position, she seeks only to make the most splendid match possible to ensure her continued happiness. Unfortunately for her, Eliot loves squandering the expectations of her protagonists. (Spoiler Alert) The novel ends up dealing Gwendolyn some pretty harsh blows, and really gets interesting when Gwendolyn pretty much murders her husband at the end of the book. I’d like to see Elizabeth Bennet do anything half so fascinating.
- Abigail Williams
Sexy, evil, seductive, crazy, pagan, puritan. Abigail Williams is the life of the party in 16th century Salem, MA. The type of girl who can really stir up a Puritan settlement and get things going. If you ever thought Puritan life was boring, just read Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” to check out Abigail dancing naked in the woods and pretending to be possessed by spirits in the middle of town hall. Like a less funny and more chilling version of “Mean Girls,” “The Crucible” is the tale of how one young, attractive teenage girl gets a whole community to turn on one another. A bit sexist, perhaps, but that’s history.