Saturday, June 28, 2014

Nine notable unsung literary heroines

Fanny Price, the heroine of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, has been unfairly dismissed by readers and critics, says the Guardian. So to mark the novel's 200th anniversary, the paper collected nine writers' celebrations of "literary leading ladies who have been overshadowed by their showier sisters," including:
Lucy Mangan on Meg March
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Poor Meg. Poor who, you say? Well, yes, exactly. Jo was the tomboy, the embryonic feminist, the author's avatar and the bookworm's bookworm, written and received with endless affection. Beth was the one who died, with full tubercular honours, reducing generations of susceptible readers to unforgettably enjoyable tears. Amy was the vivacious glamour girl. She had the lines, the looks (despite the nose) and eventually the Laurie, even though she threw Jo's manuscript in the fire and should have been cast into the outer darkness forever.

But what were Meg's defining features? A cloud of soft hair and a pair of soft hands. She was a sensible older sister and any attempts to break out of her role saw her clobbered. As a sensible older sister myself, my heart always went out to those whom the fates, via the irrevocable instrument of birth order, so thoroughly frustrated. So what if she wanted to tie on some ear-bobs and go dancing? Why shouldn't she have one night free of darning and full of daring – silk-heeled boots, coralline salve, plumy fan and all? But no sooner has she downed her first glass of champagne than Laurie turns up to put her back in her box ("I don't like fuss and feathers"), and she makes plans to 'fess up to Marmee on the morrow.

It's not much of a life or a literary footprint. Although she marries lovely John Brooke – a far better catch than the flash, ball-ruining git next door, by the way – and acquires a beautifully stocked linen cupboard that frankly beats Amy's shimmery silk dresses into a cocked hat, she also ends up saddled with twins (one of whom, Demi(john) is easily the most sickening child in all of literature) and is berated by her mother for neglecting her husband after their arrival. All this while her sisters get to marry money and travel the world, fulfil their writerly ambitions or die acknowledged saints.

Never mind, Meg. Grab another glass of champagne and head upstairs. In the linen cupboard, no one can hear you scream.
Read about another entry on the list.

Little Women also appears among Sophie McKenzie's top ten mothers in children's books, John Dugdale's ten notable fictional works on winter sports, Melissa Albert's five favorite YA books that might make one cry, Anjelica Huston's seven favorite coming-of-age books, Bidisha's ten top books about women, Katherine Rundell's top ten descriptions of food in fiction, Gwyneth Rees's ten top books about siblings, Maya Angelou's 6 favorite books, Tim Lewis's ten best Christmas lunches in literature, and on the Observer's list of the ten best fictional mothers, Eleanor Birne's top ten list of books on motherhood, Erin Blakemore's list of five gutsy heroines to channel on an off day, Kate Saunders' critic's chart of mothers and daughters in literature, and ZoĆ« Heller's list of five memorable portraits of sisters. It is a book that disappointed Geraldine Brooks on re-reading.

--Marshal Zeringue