Is it possible to talk about strong female literary characters WITHOUT discussing characters from books written more than a hundred years ago? Sure, Jane Eyre/Jo March/Lizzie Bennett are all treasured characters, and they’re all certainly amazing, but can we please talk about some 20th and 21st century women? They’re pretty amazing too. To start this discussion off, let’s talk about a couple of amazing female detectives.
Let’s start with Nancy Drew. She arrived on the scene in her first book, The Secret of the Old Clock, in 1930. Written by Carolyn Keene (which was actually a pseudonym used by multiple ghostwriters – I didn’t know that, did you?), she was a gutsy teenage sleuth, who knew how to take care of herself. Twenty three of the original thirty books were written by Mildred Benson, and through her writing, Nancy was confident, competent and unapologetically outspoken. No surprise, editors and publishers began telling Ms. Benson to make Nancy more lovable and sympathetic, more (in their eyes) relatable. In 1959, this actually resulted in some of the original books being rewritten and reissued. New ghostwriters did in fact change her character, making her more respectful of the male characters, less tomboyish, and ultimately, less “Nancy”. The books changed as the times did. In the 1980’s, the series took a more mature turn, with romance becoming a bigger plot point for Nancy. The cover illustrations featured a more scantily-dressed Nancy. The mysteries became bigger, no longer just petty thefts around town, but instead murder mysteries. Some critics praised the new Nancy as being sex-positive, while others complained that her story basically became no better than a soap opera.
To date, including various spin-off series, there are over 300 Nancy Drew books, including graphic novels, in publication. There have been movies and multiple TV shows. Many notable women such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotamyor, Hilary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Sara Paretsky and Emma Roberts have listed Nancy as one of their influences. In 2009, the magazine Entertainment Weekly ranked Nancy as number 17 on their list of “Top 20 Heroes” AHEAD OF BATMAN, stating she was the “first female hero embraced by most little girls…”. The cultural impact of Nancy Drew is immeasurable and continues growing to this day. Look up Nancy Drew in our catalog to find lots of interesting articles about the influence of this girl detective.
For a VERY different take on female sleuths, let’s talk about Lisbeth Salander, first seen in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. In his only interview about his book series, Larsson said that he was thinking of what Pippi Longstocking would have been like as an adult when he wrote the character of Lisbeth. Having read Pippi Longstocking as well as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Pippi took a DARK turn somewhere along the line! Lisbeth is the ultimate anti-heroine, a character that is definitely not warm and fuzzy, not even really likable, and yet you cannot help but root for her at every single turn. You want her to win. You want her to succeed. A sexual assault survivor, she ultimately gets revenge on her abuser and you cheer for her when it happens. There are those who have theorized that Lisbeth is on the spectrum, with a form of autism called Asperger’s. There are those who say she is simply suffering from extreme PTSD from all the violence she experienced in her life. Whatever the reason, and Larsson never specifies, allowing the reader to make their own conclusion, Lisbeth is one of the most complex and complicated female characters in recent history. Unfortunately, Larsson, who wrote the original trilogy, passed away (just after submitting the three manuscripts, and so never got to see how wildly popular his creation would become), but the series lived on thanks to author David Lagercrantz who wrote the next three books in the series. In December of 2021 it was announced that Karin Smirnoff will take over, writing the next three. Check out the first six from our library and catch up before book seven comes out!
One thought on “It’s Women’s History Month 2022 – Can We NOT Talk About Jane Eyre?”
I always loved Nancy Drew as a preteen in the seventies — until my Dad observed that he had flipped through one of the books I had left in the car and (the nerve!) mocked how perfect everything about her was – perfect hair, perfect car, perfect boyfriend. That wasn’t how I saw her at all, but after that I wasn’t as enchanted.
Two other modern strong women mystery-solvers I do like very much are Amelia Peabody (Elizabeth Peters) and Meg Langslow (Donna Andrews). At least, Peters (real name, Barbara Mertz) published her Amelia Peabody books from 1975 through the early 2000s, though they are set in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Andrews is still churning out the cozy Langslow mysteries with plenty of fun and puns.