Classics Week 3: Women in Classics – Writers and Characters

Hi all,

On my first Classics Week post, @bambiquim made a very important comment about the role of women in Classics. Although this won’t be a direct response to her comment, I thought it was important that I did make a post dedicated to Classics written by women and strong Classic female characters.

I wanted to start with sharing with you just a few of my favourite female Classics writers. They all offer brilliant portrayals of the life and struggles of women during their respective time.

The Brontë Sisters

Charlotte, Emily and Anne are three sisters who lived in England in the first half of the 19th century. They all had fairly short lives but produced great works that have influenced women through the years.

I had to read most of the Brontës’ works for one of my university courses dedicated to their novels. I have read Wuthering Heights by Emily, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne, and Jane Eyre, Shirley and Villette by Charlotte. I have to admit that I wasn’t a fan of all these novels but I did appreciate the representation of complex female characters striving to get away from the status quo.

In their works, the Brontë sisters illustrated, among many things, the difficulties for modest women to find a situation and the restrictions that noble women had to face regarding the activities they were able to perform.

Every Brontë novel is centred around a romance which often highlights the complexities of heterosexual relationships when a gigantic societal gap separates both genders and forces women to choose a situation over love.

Jane Austen

I am pretty sure that Jane Austen needs no introduction. I mentioned her in yesterday’s post but I had to mention her again today as she represents such an important figure of female literature. I’ve only ever read Pride and Prejudice but I was completely hooked by Austen’s storytelling abilities. She takes the very well-known marriage plot trop and manages to make it fun and fresh.

Through the character of Mrs Bennett, Austen illustrates how much pressure young noble women were facing to find a suitable husband and how ridiculous the process was at times. I love Lizzie because she is to me a perfectly balanced character, conscious of her individual qualities and her need for self-realisation but also able to accept her wish for companionship.

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf wrote during the early part of the 20th century. She produced numerous influential works before her suicide in 1941. Her essay A Room of one’s own, published in 1929, is a great explanation of what it means to be a woman writing fiction. I had to read it in high school and the 16 year-old me found it absolutely eye-opening. Her argument is so well-presented, the entire text reads easily and had a very strong impact on me as a female reader, wannabe writer and as a woman in general.

I really want to read Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway because I’ve only heard amazing things about it. Woolf was a member of the Bloomsbury Group, an association of writers and artists. I live just by Bloomsbury so I’m thinking about doing a tour of where they all used to go. That will definitely make the reading experience a little more special.

Toni Morrison 

Toni Morrison is an American writer who is thankfully still among us. She has published amazing novels like Beloved and The Bluest Eye. I’ve raved about the latter on many occasions on this blog but I don’t think I will ever be done trying to sell it to you.

In The Bluest Eye, Morrison shows the difficulties of being a black, poor and ugly young girl in the USA in the 1940s. It’s an extremely hard story but one that needed to be told. Pecola is only 10 and she is already facing more struggles that most women will ever have to go through in their entire lives. If there is one book you need to read this month, it should be this one.

Two other female Classics writers I would really love to read are George Eliot and George Sand. Both used male pseudonyms to publish their works (I wonder if the fact they both used the name George is a coincidence or not) and both have produced very influential novels.

Feel free to extend this list in the comments below.

In terms of complex female characters, Classics are full of them. I’ve already mentioned a few in My Favourite Classics post yesterday and in the above list as well but I thought I’d include a couple more.

I wanted to mention Blanche from A Streetcar Named Desire, the 1947 play by Tennessee Williams. Much like Edna Pontellier and Emma Bovary, Blanche is an enigmatic character whose fate, although not as dramatic as the others’, is still a strong illustration of women’s difficulty to assert themselves as individuals in a society that needs them to retain their motherly identity.

The last character I will mention (otherwise this post may go on forever) is Carrie from the novel Sister Carrie written by Theodore Dreiser and published in 1900. Carrie is a young and naive country girl who moves to New York to make a life for herself. Despite all the struggles she encounters along the way, she manages to become what she always wished for. However, once she does reach her goal, she starts to question if she wasn’t made for a more traditional life. The fact that the title identifies Carrie as a sister right away and not as her own self says a lot about the vision of women having to assume their family role before being their own selves. Along the same lines, Madame Bovary is referred to as a wife in the title and not as Emma which makes her role as a wife take over her identity.

I find it interesting that both Blanche and Carrie are juxtaposed with a sister who is already or about to be a mother. This only makes the self-realisation/motherly duties dichotomy more evident.

I want to hear from you know:

What are some of your favourite classic female characters?

I’m also eager to know if you have anything to say on the topic of Women in Classics as it is a subject I feel I could learn a lot more about.

See you tomorrow!




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