What was the role of women in English literature? Is there anything in their lives that might teach us a lesson? What is it that made a handful of them famous beyond the narrow borders of a book?
Women have come a long way from King Arthur’s Court to James Joyce’s Dublin in the early 20th century. Here, I propose a fresh look at the shameless heroines, and quite often, depending on whom you ask, brazenfaced denizens of our beloved novels.
Casting our minds back to medieval literature, Beowulf, for example, we will find that men were apparently not very interested in women and their deeds. They were however very much bent on slashing monsters out of shape and in their busy, hectic, violent lives which were spent in mead-halls most of the time. We have no evidence of their devoting their time to the ladies which, we can only infer, were chattel to Beowulf and to his fellow warriors. Greek classics, anyone?
Times have changed and we see women in positions of power and cutting a swath in the world. There were times, we know, that they were mere appendages and just sat pretty beside their husbands on various thrones throughout history. Literature has portrayed that faithfully. Let us go now way back in history to learn of remarkable women that have populated unforgettable novels.
From the Arthurian Legends, we read of two strong-willed women who changed their world: Guinevere and Morgan le Fay. These two women left a mark in their society in that they dared to think out of the box and had the power to change their societies. In a time when people were expected to live under strict codes of conduct, Guinevere dared to have a thing going with a gallant warrior-knight called Lancelot. Their love affair sent shivers running down everyone’s spines at the time. Sadly, their dalliance led to the kingdom’s downfall. Is this a warning to women?
Morgan le Fay, Guinevere’s sister-in-law, was half-sister to King Arthur. A powerful sorceress, also known as Morgana, which some say had a child with her half-brother, may, to some feminists of the 20th century, be some sort of symbol of the female power or bear a trace of Celt spirituality and be seen as a benevolent figure with extraordinary healing powers. Read the cycles of Arthurian Legends and be the judge.
Moving further towards the future in our timeline, "The Wife of Bath", in Jeffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the 14th century, is no doubt the woman of the future. Surely she was the odd gal out in that period of the literature. With five husbands under her belt, she was the epitome of the modern, unshackled woman of today. Why can’t you look for happiness with the next guy? Alyson, you rocked, girl! The one in charge.
The Bronte sisters produced veritable paragons of virtue and good sense (if you can call it that) who ever inhabited the pages of romantic literature. The good thing in these women is that they possess that most intriguing of abilities: they think.
Thinking becomes then the thing to do and it is because of their imaginations and self-talk that Catherine (Earnshaw) Linton in Wuthering Heights; Elizabeth Bennet, In Pride and Prejudice; Anne Elliot, in Persuasion and the rebellious Jane Eyre, by Jane Austen, all wreaked havoc in that good ol’ England because the put their foot down, said they wouldn’t do it, and they all ended up married with a very good catch. They might have entered a contest to see which one of her husbands looked better in breeches. There is no record of that, however. How's that for rebellion?
These women are heroines. Through them, many women accomplished the impossible in the strict, victorian society they found themselves. Their role: to give their men a leg up in the world of colonization and imperial expansion in all corners of the Earth. Is this tiresome? There's more.
Leaping across the Irish Sea to Ireland, we will find Molly Bloom in James Joyce's Ulysses. In the modernist work, she is the arch- adulteress - her husband thinks she is. Although, in her own words, we see no recollection of such an extensive list of romantic link-ups. She is, nonetheless, a goddess lying in her bed being served breakfast by her husband all the while knowing that she will put the horns on him that very afternoon.
However, still in Ulysses, little does Molly know that slightly after she accomplishes her liaison with her lover, her very husband, wandering through the streets of Dublin, will set his sights on a most lovely girl – a real Irish beauty - Gertie McDowell. Unlike Molly, Gertie (Dirty Gertie?) will do things to Molly’s husband that will make him reach Heavens without moving and inch, or rather, he moves inches, O, when he decides to play with himself right then and there at the beach where Gertie and some of her girlfriends were babysitting their younger siblings. Incredible scene!
The women listed above have leapt out of pages into our imaginations to set them on fire. We are left with the decision of what to do now that we have taken a peek at their thoughts and been allowed into their hallowed secrets. The best that can be inferred from reading these novels is the picture-perfect look we have of times gone by and wish that women come into their own yet with more vigor and allure to make our world a better place, for Molly herself said just that. You are right Molly!