Ideal Women of Literature: Attainable Beauty
There’s a reason why I’d rather read a book than look at a fashion magazine. In case you didn’t know, the women in fashion magazines aren’t real. I know. Newsflash! I cannot compete with that sort of fake, outward beauty so I’ve stopped trying. I still shower, curl my hair, and wear makeup (and I love to go shopping), but I have realized that my greatest goal during a day shouldn’t be to have my hair look just as great in the evening as it did in the morning. Yes, I used to strive for this. In high school. That should explain things, but I think my goal was a symptom of these toxic images. The women in the magazines and on Baywatch (which I saw almost every episode of while I spent three months on the couch with mono) looked good all of the time. I figured that if these “famous” women could look that great, then so could I.
Of course, I learned that my thinking was wrong. Part of this is growing up and part of this is realizing the trickery and deception used in advertising. My evolving attitude was also influenced by Dove’s campaign for real beauty. They produced a video called “Evolution.” (Watch it here if you haven’t already.) It shows the transformation a model undergoes in order to be in a magazine or on a billboard. The change in her image is quite shocking. And the truth is that the final image—perfectly coiffed, smooth skinned, large-eyed, and red-lipped—is not real. None of the images is, so why should I have to compete with them? I don’t.
Enter literature. In my reading, I am constantly bedazzled with the beauty of the women on the page. There are no pictures, there is no makeup, and there are no fancy lights or computer programs to increase their attractiveness. These women are attractive for their brains, their courage, their convictions, their spirituality, their goodness, and their character. I find them to be among the most beautiful women in the world, despite the fact that they, too, are not real. However, I contend that their beauty is attainable and lasting. They are models we can successfully emulate and feel empowered about doing so. They are worthy of our adoration.
Here are a few of my favorites.
Dorothea Brooke from George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1874).
Dorothea marries an older, uglier, and much smarter man than herself because she admires his character. She attempts to build this marriage on mutual interests that center around religion and education. Although this marriage is an ultimate disappointment to her, she does not become bitter or adulterous or cruel. She avoids gossip and judging others. She’s pure of heart and the best friend anybody could hope for. She lives a life of resplendent goodness, and uses her influence to help others, even those whose marriages are struggling. She does not try to destroy others’ happiness despite her own disappointment. She lifts others up and eventually this good karma comes back to reward her. She is described as an angel and as the perfect woman, and I tend to agree.
Helen Huntingdon from Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848).
Helen, whom we become first acquainted with as Mrs. Graham, is a single mother supporting herself on artist’s wages. Before bravely leaving her cruel husband, she is subjected to his constant emotional and verbal abuse. He is malicious, adulterous, childlike, and unpredictable. There are times that his words and actions reminded me of a rapist, and he certainly cares nothing about her or his child. He encourages his young son to drink, gamble, swear, and wound his mother with unkind words. Helen endures all of this, constantly hoping that she will be able to bring her husband back to a better life. She is patient with him, gentle with him, and tolerant of his long absences and raucous behavior. She prays for him, clings to her love for him, and even nurses him when he’s dying despite all that’s happened. She is forgiving and kind. Her patience and long-suffering are qualities that I admire much, for my patience is often tested and I often fail that test. It’s something I’m working on, and Helen Huntingdon gives me the will to continue doing so.
Jane Eyre in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847).
There’s something about the Bronte sisters that produced strong and wonderful female protagonists, and Jane Eyre is no exception. She has a hard childhood, which includes becoming an orphan, enduring cruelty from her aunt, and living in a rigid and spare home for orphan girls. Despite all of this, Jane grows up to be a caring and educated person. She leaves the past behind and moves on with her life. That life ends up becoming more complicated than I’m sure she’d like, but she sticks to her convictions even in the most trying and tempting circumstances. She refuses to let go of her virtue for love, although love is all she’s ever wanted. She stands up for what she knows to be right and waits for her time to come. Her time does come, and I suspect that’s because she is so brave and strong in standing up for what is right.
Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady (1881) by Henry James
Isabel is not perfect. She’s not like Dorothea nor is she like the Brontë heroines. She’s flawed, but beautiful. However, her beauty isn’t what gets her a husband. It’s her money. She’s the victim in this relationship from the start, despite being so careful in choosing a mate and in wanting to explore the world before settling down. I feel sorry for her. But the reason I admire her and see qualities worth emulating is her courage. Once she gets the courage to leave her bad marriage, she also has the courage to go back. She doesn’t go back to save the relationship, for there’s nothing to save. She presumably goes back to fend for her step-daughter, who is also suffering at the hands of her selfish father. Isabel is selfless and courageous when it counts, and although her situation remains unresolved at the novel’s close, there is hope that she will find her own happiness, but not before she tends to another’s needs.
I’m sure I could go on in this vein of esteem for female heroines in literature. There are so many. This list tends to focus on white, Victorian, Christian heroines, but I’m sure there are those of different persuasions and backgrounds as well. I feel another blog post coming on in which I focus on women of color or non-Western women. However, this is enough for now.
I’d like to get to your comments because I’m curious about the women in literature that you admire. Who are they, and why are they worthy of our admiration and emulation?