Diversifying your bookshelf: Heroines, past and present

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There is something inescapable about the nostalgia that has permeated every aspect of lockdown. When clearing out boxes of old books, I came across a well-loved copy of Little Women. Instantly, I remembered the excitement I felt when my mother and I would delve into the lives of the March sisters on a nightly basis. This prompted me to reach for the books that defined my formative reading years and revisit the lives of my childhood heroines. During this rediscovery, I found myself looking upon these women with a new admiration and it opened my mind to what I had once defined as ‘being a woman’. The themes of marriage, family and duty seemed inescapable in these novels, however with hindsight I now saw strong-willed feminism, survival and a pursuit of the creative. 

The themes of marriage, family and duty seemed inescapable in these novels, however with hindsight I now saw strong-willed feminism, survival and a pursuit of the creative. 

This time around I interacted differently with Pride and Prejudice’s ‘it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’. As a young woman in the 21st century, I sympathised with the struggles of relationships and how certain boundaries must be overcome in order for them to flourish, in this case mainly common decency (Yes – Mr Darcy really was just rude. Sorry Colin Firth!). I had a new-found appreciation for Elizabeth Bennet’s determination and commitment to maintaining one’s authentic self. Once I marvelled at her union with the dashing Mr Darcy, now I rejoiced that a young, intelligent woman was able to overcome social prejudices to find love on her own terms. 

I immediately felt reunited with the ‘hunger, rebellion and rage’ that filled the pages of Brontë’s masterpiece, Jane Eyre. Not only did I find myself keenly in tune with Brontë’s determination to publish in a patriarchal industry (originally printed under the name Currer Bell), but I admired her eponymous heroine who used her education and freedom of thought to liberate her from societal oppression. There was something refreshingly modern about Jane’s feminism; when presented with the reality of Rochester’s insane wife, she chose the side of her fellow woman and refused to marry the man she loved. Moreover, Jane’s vivid interiority highlighted the importance of expressing one’s feelings, something that is so vitally important in our modern world. 

Arguably, the book that brought the greatest comfort was Little Women. The novel opens with a family separated by something out of their control, a poignant reminder of the need for connection during these current times of distance. I experienced a palpable familiarity and felt at home around the table of their Massachusetts homestead. Once again, the novel invited me to accept my childhood whims and I realised that my formative years were defined by a collective sense of unbreakable sisterhood. In my youth, I was regularly reminded that my fiery passion mirrored that of Jo March and, indeed, I now resonated with her struggles as a woman in the publishing industry. Just as the March sisters pursued different dreams and supported each other throughout, I realised that my own sense of duty to my fellow ambitious female friends stemmed back to my childhood literature. 

This nostalgic comfort has brought about a reinvention of my childhood heroines and in turn I have found new ones to form the basis of my early adulthood.  

The novel’s feminist contribution to my formative years aided a smooth transition to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists in my teenage years. Undoubtedly, the work of these women showed me the importance of caring for women I will never know, certainly something we have all experienced during lockdown. To know I was part of a global community of readers and strong-minded women, not just in my childhood but in the present day, was an even greater comfort. This rediscovery has forced me to open books I never thought I would in search of new heroines. I no longer fear leaving the pages of a Penguin Classic, and still I find myself just as enthralled in the pioneering research of astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt in Krauss’ A Universe From Nothing. Not only did the rediscovery of childhood books act as a comfort during lockdown, it has shown me how of this literature illuminated my early feminist values. This nostalgic comfort has brought about a reinvention of my childhood heroines and in turn I have found new ones to form the basis of my early adulthood.  

Image: Gresham College via Flickr

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