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?



41 thoughts on “Ideal Women of Literature: Attainable Beauty

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  1. So true. I also love Dorothea and Jane, yet there’s something unattainable about their demeanours. They’re SO strict with their emotions, appearances, and behaviour, due to social conventions, that sometimes it’s hard to feel a connection. It’s almost as if they’re super-human.

  2. What a wonderful topic. I haven’t read any George Elliot–I think I’ll read that next. One of my favorite Women in lit is Janie from Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. She is strong, imperfect, and insightful.

  3. What a fantastic post, I agree with you so much, women in books are far more inspiring and strong examples to be idolised over the glossy, unrealistic views that young girls and women are faced with on a daily basis.

  4. What about Elinor Dashwood in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility? One of Austen’s greatest novels and one of her strongest and most endearing characters! Great blog, Emily.

  5. I loved this post. Like you, I’m inspired by Jane and Dorothea, and I’ll add two of the Austen heroines into the mix – Anne Elliott, for holding fast to her sense of self-worth in the face of constant criticism, and Elinor Dashwood, for her intelligence, honour, and unfashionable common sense in a time of crisis. I also love Louisa May Alcott’s Marmee for her ability to truly see who her children are, and to help them move towards their best selves.

  6. You can never go wrong with more Austen! I also admire Anne Shirley from Lucy Maud Montgomery’s series. I like that she has many flaws that get her into heaps of trouble, but even when she is in the “depths of despair” she looks at tomorrow as “fresh, with no mistakes in it.”

    I also wonder why they even bother making up a real person. Wouldn’t it be easier to just make one up?

    1. No kidding! Why spend hours making up a person when you can just computer generate one that is “flawless” to begin with! And I’m with you in Anne Shirley. She’s got the feistiness I wish I had.

  7. I know that this may not qualify as literature but one of my favorites was always Melanie from Gone with the Wind. She stood up for Scarlette even when Scarlette did not deserve it, and was kind to everyone regardless of race or profession.

  8. I really liked Helen Huntington of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Anne is my favorite of the Bronte sisters. I found her books thoroughly readable.

    A few others that come to mind for me that I haven’t seen mentioned are: Estelle from Great Expectations, Lucy Snowe from Villette, also Irene Adler from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. I know She was in only one story but she’s so clever and dynamic, it makes her such and impactful character to me.

    That’s all I can think of for now

  9. Thank you for sharing such inspiring post! I think it is important as women to find our own role models, if it is beauty, intellect courage etc. We should be able to chose rather then someone else (the media/society) choosing for us.

  10. As usual Emily, a fantastic post, I really enjoyed reading it. I love Austen of course, but haven’t yet read any George Eliot, which is a huge gap in my reading I know. You made me think of the female characters I’ve enjoyed: Lisbeth Salander from the Steig Larrson series, who is a unique, wonderfully drawn, truly out-there character comes to mind, She is absolutely one of a kind in my mind and I loved her. Although they are thrillers and definitely not part of any literary canon as such, they are entertaining and worth a read just to get to know Lisbeth.

    1. I am so glad you reminded me of Lisbeth! I love her, and she is definitely not the norm or the ideal, but she has so many redeeming qualities and she uses her talents to help women. What a great example! Thanks!

  11. I love literature for female role models. The two that come most easily to mind are Azar Nafisi from “Reading Lolita in Tehran” for her immense courage and her understanding of the women in her reading class and their choices, whether she agreed or not. Although I read that book years ago, it sits among the highest resonating books I’ve ever read because of the character of Azar. And from a very recent read – Bethia Mayfield from “Caleb’s Crossing.” Everything that Bethia goes through internally while externally navigating a puritanistic society is simply amazing and sets her character and the entire book high in my esteem.

      1. Hurray Hermione! We just watched Harry Potter with our eight-year-old daughter a few nights ago. It was her first time. I think the best thing about Nafisi is that she’s real. What an amazing woman!

  12. The most inspiring woman I’ve read about is Mary Ingles in “Follow the River,” by James Alexander Thom. The book is based on Mary’s true story. In case you haven’t read it, she was kidnapped by Indians, but made her way home by following the Ohio River from Cincinnati to Western Virginia. I think of her often when things get tough. She really got going!

    1. Thank you! I agree. Elizabeth is worthy of our admiration, and probably mostly because of her mistakes. I need more imperfect role models so I can relax and be more gentle with myself.

  13. Two of Jane Austen’s heroines have inspired me – Elizabeth Bennett and Elinor Dashwood. Elizabeth is not strikingly beautiful everything about her is so endearing. Great post 🙂

  14. Loved this post, Emily! So true and I agree with the beauty myth and rebelling against trying to emulate it at all costs! Be real and be you!

    I love all of the books you mention. The one I might add is Maggie Tulliver in Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. People disagree about whether she is a weak character. I love her quirky style and how she struggles to fit in to society’s standards of decorum and beauty — she can’t fit in at all — reminds me of myself. Eliot calls social and physical standards for women heavily on the carpet in this book.

    I also love Psyche in C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces — She believes in the possibility of beauty even where it seems, superficially, not to exist. This in contrast to her sister, Orual, who is the epitome of shallow desires and jealous anger, which shows in her aspect and makes her ugly.

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