Jessie Burton, bestselling author of The Muse and The Miniaturist, knows a thing or two about literary heroines. She was kind enough to share a few of her favourites with us.
My books are full of excellent women, a fairly natural state of affairs for me, as my life is full of excellent women too.
Here are five female characters in literature, whom I have chosen for the different ways they made me think. It was hardly easy – I could have given you fifty. But here goes. In no particular order, some new, some old. All fantastic.
Matilda Wormwood in Roald Dahl’s Matilda
Matilda is the ultimate heroine you want to come across whilst growing up. Always curious, spirited and not without her fury (levitating pencils, anyone?), she taught me that reading was not just an escape, but also a marvellous augmentation of real life.
Offred in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid’s Tale
Offred is in a situation so miserable and perilous that it is barely conceivable. We hope, at the end of the ‘cassettes’, that Offred survives. She is a lucid game-player, a legacy of and witness to theocratic brutality, and to the human cost (for women in particular) in the theatre of state-sanctioned repression. Her spirit never dies. An enduring icon from an iconic writer.
Charlotte Bartlett in E. M. Forster's A Room With A View
Why do I love her so much? She is seen as a fusser, a repressive priss, a problem to be solved. But she remains elusive till the end, and I think there is so much to value in the Charlotte Bartletts of this world. It is Charlotte, after all, who remembers the pains and not just the joys of it was to be young, who holds her secrets to her breast. It is Charlotte who engineers the final reconciliation between Lucy and George. It is Charlotte who leaves Lucy all her money. She reminds me of some ways of my own character, Marin: an observer, essentially misunderstood.
Jane Eyre in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre
Yes, yes, I know it’s a bit clichéd BUT I DON’T CARE. I first discovered Jane when I was 11, and she has stayed with me ever since, getting me through a few tough times. A truer Victorian blueprint of the anti-authority heroine than Dickens ever managed, Jane is riddled with adversity from the off. Allegedly plain and stupid, poor and rejected, she undertakes no Damascene conversion in order to be accepted. She is who she is and comes to be justly vindicated. No quarter. Only love.
Harriet Burden in Siri Hustvedt's The Blazing World
I have long been a fan of Siri Hustvedt’s writing. She is a highly exploratory writer, often preoccupied with issues of gender, identity and perception. In her latest creation, Harriet Burden, she has built a crucible in which all these issues burn. Harriet is a vulnerable fighter, an artist who builds miniature rooms to maximise her message. She is loved and ridiculed by turn, self-eviscerating as much as she is proud. Harriet has never been taken seriously as a woman in a man’s world, so she decides to take on a male persona to see what happens. The result is illuminating and touching. A striver for our times.
Jessie Burton's seductive and enthralling novel The Muse is out now.
>>>Read chapter one
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