As a 10 year old girl I idolised Jo March, the headstrong protagonist of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.
Unlike her sisters, Jo was highly intelligent, articulate, creative and just generally fierce – which was why I, as a shy and very much un-fierce schoolgirl loved her.
She was flawed and often got things wrong but that didn’t matter. Underneath it all, Jo was a good egg and that’s what mattered. A fictional heroine doesn’t have to be perfect – who is? She just has to be real.
Fast forward 30 years and I’m struggling to find my new Jo. Where are the central female characters I can aspire to or empathise with? In classic literary fiction the ‘older’ woman – especially if unmarried – tends to be depicted as a bitter, twisted old crone. I’m looking at you, Miss Havisham.
Searching for a heroine
It’s depressing because 19th century literature is awash with spirited young heroines like Lizzy Bennet, Jane Eyre and Cathy Earnshaw, all of whom enthralled me in my youth. However, as a 40 year old married mum of two I just can’t share their girlish rapture for unsuitable suitors anymore. Can you?
Of course, single women stand out in those novels because they were written by the very same: young, female authors who, unlike their older, married and thoroughly harried sisters, had the time and wherewithal to write.
Move on to early 20th century literature and it seems to offer us more mature, sympathetic and empathetic characters (Mrs Dalloway and Molly Bloom spring to mind) but they still lack aspirational appeal. Let’s face it, do I want to spend my middle years all maudlin and musing on lost children, opportunities and love whilst pacing the grey streets of London (Dalloway) or brooding in the bath (Bloom)?
Which brings us to modern ‘women’s’ fiction. I’m beyond Bridget Jones and all those thirtysomething singletons lurking between the pastel-coloured, cupcake and bunting-strewn covers of popular paperbacks.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m no literary snob and I’m a big fan of cake – and bunting, actually – but increasingly I feel their main characters lack depth. Commercial fiction aimed at the over 40s is harder to find and has been awarded its own cringemaking title of ‘henlit’ in recent years – presumably aimed at the ageing chicklit reader who feels she hasn’t been patronised enough.
However, if I’m honest, there’s no one to match my first ‘lit idol’: the indomitable Jo March. Young she may be, but in all her infinite variety she still shines as an inspirational heroine for me.
Until someone better comes along I’ll stick with good old Jo for the next 10, 20 or 30 years – or however long it takes for this little woman to grow up.
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