Legendary Lasses in Literature
The world of fiction comprises many memorable female characters.
Some of these endure; they remain popular subjects, often spawning separate pop culture and media vehicles for their continued enjoyment by newer and younger audiences.
Hester Prynne, the colonial New England “adulteress” and social martyr, is one such woman. As envisioned by Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne is beautiful, enticing, and noble. Her character has been resurrected on-screen many times most notably in a PBS television mini-series in the late 1970s with an enigmatic, almost spectrally beautiful Meg Foster playing the part. More recently, popular film actress Demi Moore portrayed Hester in a big budget film.
Hester Prynne is immortal. But so are many other female literary characters. Women in fiction cover a broad spectrum of heroines, cheats, connivers, and adventuresses. Sometimes they are cast in stereotypical roles; other times their activities exist outside the scope of the times in which they were created. That uniqueness is what allows them to survive and continually be re-visited.
Let’s have a look at some of the quirky, fascinating women in fiction that I wish could be brought to life as real, flesh-and-blood femmes. Prepare to meet a detective, a hooker, a grubby little social climber, an unparalleled drama queen, and a Persian princess. [No talking in line. And spit that out!]
Nancy Drew is over 80 years old! Looks pretty dang good for an old gal, huh?
I actually fell madly in love with Nancy Drew when I was in the fourth grade. Yeah, yeah, laugh it up, a boy reading Nancy Drew mysteries, but here’s how it happened . . . [Insert cheesy time-travel effect here.]Credit: Vic Dillinger, 2011
The school system in which I spent my formative years (no, it wasn’t a reform school, smart guy) had odd little collections of books in every classroom. One particular English class had a nearly complete set of 1940s printings of Nancy Drew Mysteries as well as Hardy Boys stuff. I read one Hardy Boys book and never read another.
I read a random Nancy Drew, however, and fell in love with her.Credit: University of Maryland Library Rare/Sepcial CollectionsKeep in mind, for a ten-year-old, the gorgeous teenage Nancy Drew (especially the 1930’s and 1940’s version) was the height of female sophistication. As rendered in pen-and-ink graphically, Nancy was elegantly carved, looking like a cross between Carole Lombard, Lauren Bacall, and Veronica Lake, with a little Ava Gardner mystique thrown in. She was a hottie!!
And it was a major bonus for me as a reader that she was almost completely independent, both financially and in her day-to-day activities. Nancy hardly ever had to ask anyone for anything. She just took off in that blue roadster of hers, tore someone a new one, and sent guys to prison left and right. I admired her chutzpah, and having always been attracted to the glam look of female ’30’s and ’40’s icons, Nancy Drew was my gal all right. She was enchanting. Carolyn Keene wrote the Nancy Drew Mysteries.
Let’s meet Carolyn Keene, shall we?Credit: public domainYup, that's right, Nancy Drew is a guy. And not just any guy, a really old guy. A really old Victorian-era remnant that somehow had it in him to create this beloved female detective who has featured in about 79,365 books, several movies, and three television series. There’s even a successful PC game series that’s been out for several years (I’ve played some of them).
Nancy Drew is the spawn of Edward Stratemeyer, the same guy who created The Hardy Boys in 1926 (although the first Hardy Boys’ book wouldn’t see the light of day till 1927). In the wake of his Hardy Boys success, Stratemeyer saw he could make a serious buck on a girl’s version of similar mysteries. There was definitely a market – girls, too, were reading the Hardy Boys books.
Stratemeyer developed some storylines and plot devices in outline form. He hired a woman named Mildred Wirt, and she was the first ghostwriter of the series. The pseudonym “Carolyn Keene” was created for the task, and since 1930 all Nancy Drew books have been ghostwritten under that moniker (several writers have been men, even from its earliest days).
Nancy Drew was a hit right out of the gate. And the “bigness” of her explosion onto the publishing scene cannot be overstated. The publisher clamored for each new book, with each one more lucrative than its predecessor.
For starters, there was nothing like her on the market, no independent girl with her background. The original Nancy was only 16, although she was a high school graduate (that Credit: University of Maryland Library, Rare/Special Collectionswas the minimum age then for matriculation).
Her age was later revised to 18, presumably to obliterate any semblance of jailbait, sort of the same thing done with Betty Boop in the 1930s. [Betty is 16, too, but later was to be some vague older age.]
But whatta gal our Nancy was! Somehow, by the age of 16, this overachiever had studied psychology (on the vanguard of pop culture at the time), she spoke French, could pilot a speed boat, drove herself everywhere, was a crack marksman, a proficient swimmer, seamstress, gourmet cook, and an apparently competition-quality bridge player.
As if that’s not enough, she was also a tennis ace and golf pro, a rodeo-caliber horse rider, and a fancy hoofer, too.
Nancy Drew had big, brass ovaries, at least in the 1930s and 1940s. She was a woman-girl somehow, superhumanly straddling both worlds. And she was fearless: she went anywhere, did anything.
Later on, she kind of became more of a wuss, I don’t really know why. The series was revamped in 2004 under the name Girl Detective. Nancy Drew has been updated routinely to keep abreast of trends (she carries a cell phone now). Her name is famous in the literature of detective stories.
She’s the eternal teen, and she’s here to stay.
The Littlest Prostitute
French author Émile Zola really took a beating for his creation of Anna Coupeau, affectionately called “Nana”. Moralists were outrage: you’ll see why.
She was introduced, with her birth, in 1877 in his novel L'Assommoir (part of a 20-volume saga). The family in this earlier book is a hot mess; the Credit: Edouard Manet, 1877first husband abandons the family, the mother then marries a guy named Coupeau (who is Nana’s father), and he and the mother become alcoholics. Nana runs off to Paris to get away from the hell of her home life.
Her character is fully developed in the next novel, Nana (1880). Nana is 15 years old and on the streets of Paris. Zola made it clear in a “family tree” of the characters in his series that she is only 15. But even the comparatively permissive French publishers of the era forced her age up to 18 in print for the same prudish reasons that any prig does – jailbait didn’t play so well then. This is a teenage runaway from a trashy background with no hope except for her feminine wiles. We all know what that translates into.
Nana somehow gets a job as a stage actress at 15, and she appears as the lead in La blonde Vénus. In the wake of her début, though she’d never been on stage before, suddenly she’s the talk of gay Paree. Our little Nana, though, has also been working the streets to make ends meet – as her star on the stage ascends, so does her position among the courtesans of the day. Credit: Vic Dillingerâ„¢, Â© 2011Early on, the stage manager where she’s playing comments that his prized star has no need to know how to sing or act. He says, “Nana has something else, dammit, and something that takes the place of everything else. I scented it out, and it smells damnably strong in her, or else I lost my sense of smell.” Pretty heady stuff for 1880!
Nana’s lovable little actress/prostitute, however, turns jaded quickly enough. Zola wrote that once her fame spread, she owned her audiences:
“All of a sudden, in the good-natured child the woman stood revealed, a disturbing woman with all the impulsive madness of her sex, opening the gates of the unknown world of desire. Nana was still smiling, but with the deadly smile of a man-eater.”
It’s all downhill from there. Nana just rips through men like she’s going through a box of Kleenex, leaving them ruined and broken in her wake. And I mean ruined. One guy intentionally burns himself up in a barn after she destroys him financially. Another man steals for her and goes to prison. A banker bleeds out all his cash for her to his destitution. Yet another man stabs himself in a suicide bid when he can’t have her. A journalist loses everything to her. But her ultimate sleazeball triumph is over a guy who just can’t seem to get enough of her rejections and constant humiliations: he actually catches her in the sack with his elderly father-in-law!
But because this is the Victorian period, she doesn’t get away with it. Karmic justice must be meted out because she is “bad”. Zola knew which way the wind blew in his day, although he made sure to throw in all the juicy, lurid stuff first (as he did with his absolutely brilliant novella, Thérèse Raquin, in 1867).
Nana, as payment for her sins, must die a horrible death to satisfy the small minds of the reading public of his day. Zola puts her down with smallpox, and the details of her decline are exquisite:
“What lay on the pillow was a charnel house, a heap of pus and blood, a shovelful of putrid flesh. The pustules had invaded the whole face, so that one pock touched the next.”
Despite her wickedness, Zola treats Nana sympathetically, and he makes you care about her, even feel sorry for her. I would like Nana to have been real so I could have saved her from herself.
And maybe found better medical attention for her.
Becky Sharp, whom William Makepeace Thackeray calls his “anti-heroine” of Vanity Fair, is perhaps the first soap-opera villainess. The novel was serialized from January 1847 to July 1848 Credit: public domain(a popular method of distribution; most of Charles Dickens’ works were presented in that format before compilation into single editions).
Thackeray’s subtitle of this book, A Novel Without A Hero, is àpropos. Every major character in this novel is flawed.
The story opens around two teen girls, Becky Sharp (the sandy-haired conniver) and Amelia Sedley (the brown-haired, naïve “good girl”). They know each other from attending the same boarding school – Amelia is from money and society, Becky is from a poor background, but she has grand aspirations.
Becky visits Amelia’s family, and tries to put the make on Amelia’s brother, hoping to get him to marry her. He’s a shmendrik, though, and doesn’t come across, so Becky goes off as a domestic in the house of a baronet, where she quickly becomes a home-wrecker extraordinaire. She secretly marries the baronet’s second son; when the old man’s wife dies, because of Becky’s ingratiating fawning, the baronet asks her to marry him. It is then the old guy finds out some other rooster got to his hen before him.
There’s a wealthy aunt in the family; no one knows who she’s going to leave her wad of dough to when she croaks, so Becky works on soft-soaping her. The old lady doesn’t fall for it, though. Becky tells her about being married to the aunt’s nephew, thinking this might get her in good. The old woman doesn’t like Becky; she disinherited her nephew, instead.
The book becomes an intriguing web of infidelities, mixed-up relationships, con jobs (by Becky and her husband), and Becky’s later financially destroying several men in the same vein as Nana. Becky falls into destitution, trying to eke out a living as a singer, turning to the booze, and at the end of the book she is reduced to selling trinkets on the street.
However, she does not really get her punishment in the same way as Nana. Becky had a son by her now-dead husband (the nephew who was disinherited, remember?). Through a convoluted lineage issue, this son, now grown into a man, assumed the old baronet’s title, all his money and lands, and he agrees to take care of his mom, Becky, in the style to which she had once been accustomed.
Amelia Sedley, the good girl of the book, has her own trials and tribulations as well, but it is Becky Sharp who remains the enduring character.
Thackeray’s thumbing his nose at conventional writing by not having Becky die or succumb to some horrible fate is awesome. She triumphs in the end, getting everything she’d wanted at theCredit: Loston Wallace (illus.) & Micah S. Harris (author) start of the book.
And as proof that we all love bad girls more than good girls, Becky Sharp has found her way into pop counter-culture as the grubby little social climber recast as an adventuress. One book re-imagines her as a heroine in an H.P. Lovecraft inspired sci-fi fantasy/adventure, sort of like a steampunk Carmen Sandiego.
Now that’s a character!
In 1856 French author Gustave Flaubert gave to the world of literature one of its most enduring female characters. And if Becky Sharp is the first soap-opera villainess, then Emma Bovary, the title heroine of Madame Bovary, is the first truly overwrought drama queen (well, maybe after Lady Macbeth, but just go with it, okay?).
Emma Bovary comes complete with wringing of hands, “woe is me” pining, and a terrific persecution complex. [“Batteries sold separately”!] She is a young hottie who enters into a marriage just to break up the monotony of her life in rural France. Unfortunately, the guy who courts her is a nebbishy country doctor named Charles Bovary, and let’s just say he doesn’t really take care of Emma’s “needs” the way he should. The malaise of her married life with Charles (he can’t really help being what he is, a bore) drives Emma to distraction. She is frustrated sexually (Charles doesn’t do his husbandly duty properly). She begins having an affair to spice up her life and to ease her humdrum days.Credit: public domain
Like Zola later with Nana, Flaubert was critically blasted for Madame Bovary because of her unrepentant adulterous liaisons. Flaubert, however, was actually brought up on obscenity charges, and the trial (in which he was acquitted) only served to sell out more copies of the newspapers in which the novel was serialized (as was Zola’s Nana). Madame Bovary was hastily collated into Credit: Carlo Chessabook form in April 1857, and because of the trial’s notoriety it was an instant best seller. Flaubert couldn’t have planned it better if he’d tried.
I truly love Emma Bovary. She is high maintenance, though, more than any other woman on this list. She is probably also the most complex – Nancy Drew is rational and glib and girly, Nana is the street-wise little hustler, and Becky Sharp is the ambitious backstabber.
Emma is more complicated. Her emotions make her a monster almost. She feels everything deeply. What makes me wish she were real (other than her hotness based upon her description in the book and her hyper sex drive) is the very thing that also makes her annoying. Everything is a crisis with this woman, and her histrionics could keep me amused for weeks. Her completely self-absorbed, staged suicide at the end of the book is brilliant in its execution, and ranks as one of the best written death scenes in literature.
I think I could tame her hysterics and take care of her “needs”, though. If you haven’t made the commitment to read Madame Bovary, do it – she’ll get under your skin, too.
A good bookend for Nancy Drew is Scheherazade, a quick-witted, clever girl whose ability to tell a good story saved her life. It only took her a 1,001 nights to do that, but she did it.
For those so fetus-y or otherwise so clueless you have no idea what’s going on around you, the collection of stories known as The Thousand and One Nights is second only to the Holy Bible as Credit: public domainthe oldest and most widely distributed literature in humanity’s recorded history.
We all know the stories; they’ve been covered hundreds of times, reworked, re-imagined, and retold again and again. They have a certain timeless charm, evoking the spirit of ancient Persia (specifically) but also of other cultures.
The oldest stories in the collection are some of the adventures of Sindbad the Sailor (he features more than once). Sindbad is not Persian – he is Egyptian in origin, and a papyrus fragment of one of his stories is the oldest piece found of the collection, dating from almost 2000 BC. The Arabian Nights stories were first anthologized in about 1450, with the earliest translations from Arabic done into the French language in 1704.
The eclectic nature of these tales is amazing, and they are multi-cultural. For example, Aladdin (he of magic lamp fame) is a Chinese peasant. Betcha didn’t know that, sizzle chest!
There are 250 tales. One of many astounding things about them is how the female characters are treated. Invariably, it is the women in the stories who outsmart the bad guys and who come out looking more heroic than their male counterparts. The classic Ali Baba story is a prime example of this. Ali Baba’s female servant, a real Middle Eastern hottie named Morgiana (who looks like Sofía Vergara by the way – hey, it’s my story!), saves his dopey tukhes on more than one occasion.
And the uncensored versions of the stories in the collection are amazing, adventurous, and full of sex. I’m serious – everybody seems to “know” everybody in these stories!
But at the core of the 1,001 Nights is its story-within-a-story format. The real story of all these sub-tales (Sindbad, Aladdin, etc.) is the meta-story of Scheherazade, a clever girl if ever there was one.
The plot of the big picture is simple. A powerful ruler marries women. He deflowers them on the wedding night, then he has them beheaded the next morning. Why? So, they can’t cheat on him. Embittered Credit: Shruti Haasanby having caught more than one of his wives in adulterous liaisons (one with an orangutan, I kid you not) he’s down on all women. He figures the only way to keep them faithful is after he’s done the dirty deed is to have them executed.
Poor little Scheherazade comes into this trap of certain death voluntarily. She hates the fact women are being murdered once a day. She is a vizier’s daughter, and she is well read and loquacious. She tells her father she’s going to spend the night with this crazed Bluebeard to make him break this chain of death. Scheherazade is a tender young morsel (I imagine her looking like the stunning Indian actress, Shruti Haasan), so there’s no way this potentate is going to turn her out. Against her father’s wishes she approaches the blow-hard and offers herself up. Knowing of her post-wedding night execution awaits, she forges ahead, confident she can restore this man’s faith in women. And since she knows she’sCredit: Alberto Vargas going to get beheaded the next morning after sleeping with Shahryar (the bad guy), she begs to be allowed to say goodbye to her beloved sister, Dinazade.
Of course, old Shahryar’s thinking some sexy three-way action is in the making, so he doesn’t deny the request. However, the sister (rather than making for some extra sexy time with Shahryar) comes in and asks for a story.
And Scheherazade tells one. But she doesn’t finish it that night. Instead, Shahryar has to wait for the next night to hear the end. So, she finishes that story the next night and starts an even better one, which she doesn’t finish until the following night.
This goes on for 1,001 nights. In the meantime, things aren’t just all story-telling during the almost 33 months it takes before she runs out of yarns. I told you Scheherazade was hot, and during this time she gave birth to three sons for Shahryar. [Irish triplets I guess; he must’ve been hittin’ that stuff back-to-back to knock out three kids in a bit under three years.] In the end, Shahryar falls in love with her over this period; instead of having her beheaded, he makes her his wife, and she becomes Queen of Persia.
That’s a clever girl: Becky Sharp couldn’t have willfully connived a better ending.