I’m fascinated by female characters who find ways to live life on their own terms within their culture’s ideas of femininity. Many of my favorite “strong female characters” from Classic literature (like those in Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Francess Burney, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s books ) already have a sense of their own worth and, while they may push against certain confining ideas on appropriate female behavior, they don’t hate their own femininity or attack other women for being feminine. When they fight for their rights, they do it as women who are inherently equal to men — not as women trying to be men.
My two latest books for The Classics Club list are both written by Elizabeth Gaskell. North and South is a re-read for me and Cranford was a new one. I decided to blog about these two books together so I wouldn’t be devoting quite so many articles here to book reviews. I’d expected them to have enough similar themes that this would be easy to do (similar to blogging about Cooper’s sea tales together). But I was pleasantly (if somewhat inconveniently) surprised to find out that the two books are very different. Gaskell is a much more versatile writer than I’d been giving her credit for in my mind.
Characters Who Need Each Other
The contrast is immediately apparent. North and South (1855) opens with a wedding while Cranford (1853) opens with the line, “In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses, above a certain rent, are women.” Men are extremely rare and viewed with much suspicion in Cranford, but in the world of North and South most of the action is driven by or centers around men. One might say Cranford is defined by the absence of men and North and South by the actions of men.
That wouldn’t quite be fair to the women of these books, though. Both stories are filled with what I would call strong female characters. They don’t punch things, shoot stuff, or walk around talking about how empowered they are while wearing sexy clothes. But I would submit to you they’re actually better-written and even “stronger” than the female characters who run around modern films insisting they don’t need anyone’s help. Gaskell’s characters model a connected community of both men and women who are stronger together.
What makes a “strong female character”? All too often, I think in modern society we slap that label on sexually “liberated” characters who will sleep with whoever they want, badass women who can beat-up any man, and women who can stand on their own against the world. But is that really what makes a character, or even a real person, strong?
I would say it’s not. There’s a greater strength in admitting that you need other people, as the women of Cranford do when they rely on each other. There’s strength in being there for people who need you without insulting them for being “weak” in that moment, the way Mrs. Thornton is there for her son in North and South. You show strength by admitting you misjudged people or situations and apologizing for it, as Margaret Hale does several times in North and South. Or by trying to stop people from fighting and building bridges between then, which is another thing Margaret does.
Strong Enough To Show Weakness
Strength isn’t determined by whether or not you can handle something bad without getting emotional or needing help. It’s much more about how you continue on after that something happens. Margaret isn’t weak for collapsing when her father died right after she’d lost her mother and one of her best friends. And she’s not weak for needing several months to get to the point where she could move on. She’s strong because after letting other people be there for her and taking the time she needs to heal, she continues living her life and carves out a way to do that on her terms even before she gets a “happy ending” in the romantic sense.
We might not initially describe Miss Matty in Cranford as “strong” because she’s so often nervous. She struggles to move on from her beloved sister’s death and is terrified of men. But as you continue reading this timid woman’s story, you start to learn other things about her. She relaxes her deceased sister’s policy against servants dating after a man Matty once loved passes away because she’s strong enough to give other people the chance to not make the same mistakes she did. She has a strong moral code that moves her to share her money with people affected when the bank she’s a shareholder in fails (leaving Matty nearly penniless). And she has the strength to accept help from other people while also starting a new business selling tea because she refuses to take too much advantage of other’s kindness.
See Me As Equal
If forced to pick just one favorite book I usually go with Jane Eyre. Though not written by Elizabeth Gaskell, I think my favorite quote from this book makes the perfect conclusion to today’s blog post.
“Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong! — I have as much soul as you — and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh: it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal — as we are!” — Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Characters like Miss Matty, Margaret Hale, Jane Eyre, and Elizabeth Benet see no need to turn themselves masculine in order to prove that they’re just as good as men. They already know they’re equal and they’ll only form close friendships or romantic relationships with other people who recognize their value. They’re not afraid to point out injustice in the world, but they’re not going to do so by setting up a different injustice that attacks men or other women. And I think that’s another aspect of being a strong woman — they refuse to see men as an enemy and instead advocate for gender equality where men and woman can join together to combat whatever oppresses or injures either gender.
If this topic interests you, you’ll probably enjoy this video:
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