Move over Lizzie Bennet – let's hear it for the unsung heroine

Fanny Price, the heroine of Mansfield Park, has been unfairly dismissed by readers and critics. To mark the novel's 200th anniversary, writers celebrate literary leading ladies who have been overshadowed by their showier sisters

John Mullan on Fanny Price
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

It is all Jane Austen's fault. In Pride and Prejudice, the novel that preceded Mansfield Park, she had created Elizabeth Bennet – a heroine to delight any discerning reader. How could we, and Mr Darcy, not fall for her? But Austen always reacted against her own creations and made a new heroine who was an antithesis to her last one. So after the irreverent, arch, daring Elizabeth, she turned to Fanny Price: dutiful, repressed and – let us sharpen the insult – prim. It is as if she was daring her readers to stay with her.

Fanny Price
‘It is as if Austen is daring her readers to stay with her' … Frances O'Connor as Fanny Price Photograph: Miramax/Everett /Rex Photograph: Miramax/Everett /Rex

Over the years, many have not. Even lovers of Austen's novels have their problems with Fanny Price. "Nobody, I believe, has ever found it possible to like the heroine of Mansfield Park," declared the great critic and Austen aficionado Lionel Trilling. Marilyn Butler, whose book Jane Austen and the War of Ideas did much to establish the novelist's intellectual credentials, nevertheless conceded "that Fanny is a failure is widely agreed". Others have been fiercer. Kingsley Amis called Fanny "a monster of complacency and pride" concealed under "a cloak of cringing self-abasement".

Modern discontent with Austen's heroine has been expressed clearly enough in the two most recent film adaptations of the novel. Patricia Rozema's 1999 film starred Frances O'Connor as a sharp-tongued Fanny who rode bareback through thunderstorms and was not averse to a snog with Henry Crawford. Rozema claimed that her interpretation had been shaped by the work of feminist academics; it certainly had little sanction from the novel. The 2007 ITV version fearlessly cast Billie Piper as a put-upon Fanny who was clearly a wild child beneath the surface, her silence legible as unexpressed rebellion.

If only she wouldn't abase herself. "I can never be important to any one," is Fanny's heartfelt response when Edmund tells her she will be a valuable companion for her Aunt Norris, one of the most beautifully drawn sadists in all literature. Fanny is introduced into the Bertram house as an inferior – a poor relation who is being done a great kindness and must always be "sensible of her uncommon good fortune", as Mrs Norris puts it. Austen shows how character and circumstance are never completely distinct. Fanny, the only Austen heroine who is seen in childhood, is shaped by the compliance that is forced upon her.

Austen's own relations and friends perhaps grasped this better than later readers, for they did not seem disappointed to turn from Elizabeth to Fanny. "Fanny is a delightful Character!" thought her brother Francis. "Fond of Fanny," said her sister Cassandra. For all her reticence and awkwardness (she blushes more often than any other Austen heroine), Fanny has to be as stubborn and resourceful as any Brontë heroine. Beneath a grand veneer of respectability, the main characters in the novel are behaving very badly indeed and she must keep her head. With the arrival of Henry and Mary Crawford, the Bertrams, her adoptive family, descend from aristocratic self-regard into deception, sexual rivalry and mutual cruelty. The family falls apart and only Fanny understands what is happening.

Our sense of how Fanny is pushed aside is also a matter of Austen's fictional method. Those who find Fanny insufficiently forceful have been duped by this method into treating her as the Bertrams treat her. Fanny is the most absent of Austen's protagonists, a heroine designed to be neglected by the reader as much as by her adoptive family. On one occasion, Edmund and Julia Bertram arrive back late on a summer's evening, after dining enjoyably at the parsonage with the Crawfords. As they enter the Mansfield Park drawing room they find a sulky Maria, a cross Mrs Norris and a comatose Lady Bertram. But where is Fanny? asks Edmund. "Is she gone to bed?" "She was here a moment ago," says Mrs Norris – before Fanny herself answers gently from somewhere in the shadows at the end of the room, "which was a very long one".

"That is a very foolish trick, Fanny," retorts the appalling Mrs Norris – but, of course, it is the author's trick. Fanny is our heroine yet she is always at the edge of things, almost invisible. Sometimes you will almost forget her yourself. "And Fanny, what was she doing and thinking all this while?" Austen suddenly asks, as if she is catching us out for behaving like the Bertrams. Yet this marginalised, scorned character is also a romantic heroine, possessed of the most painful secret passion. She loves Edmund, but she has to watch him being entangled by Mary. So ignorant is Edmund of her true feelings that he recruits her as his adviser in his halting courtship of the glamorous incomer. At all costs, Fanny must keep the secret of her love – or she too will be open to Mary's wiles.

Mansfield Park is singular among Austen's novels for the number of scenes in which the heroine is absent. The goings-on at the great house, for instance, are counterpointed by chilling conversations between the Crawfords and Mrs Grant in the parsonage. We hear Mary and Henry coldly discussing how they will manipulate the foolish Bertrams. Anyone who has ever fallen for Fanny's charming, amoral antagonist, Mary Crawford, would do well to heed these exchanges. Mary is set like Satan to beguile us. Every teacher of Mansfield Park will know the student who so much prefers the harp-playing temptress to timid Fanny. Yet this is part of the novel's beautiful design. Everything that Mary says to the Bertrams is with an ulterior purpose. The tactics by which she seduces even the upright Edmund into the erotic exchanges of the amateur dramatics constitute a masterclass in manipulation. As Fanny silently exclaims, "Alas! it was all Miss Crawford's doing."

"I begin now to understand you all, except Miss Price," Mary tells the Bertrams, with her mischievous frankness. Fanny is often condemned to silence, and Austen hopes that we will understand her even if none of the novel's characters do. The worldly, cynical Crawfords are intrigued. How can she resist their charms? "I do not understand her," confesses Henry. "I could not tell what she would be at yesterday. What is her character? Is she solemn? Is she queer? Is she prudish?" Over two centuries, there have been many who have thought her all these. Yet in creating a heroine condemned to suffer in secret and powerlessly to watch the follies of others, Austen managed something as audacious as the invention of Elizabeth Bennet.

John Mullan is the author of What Matters in Jane Austen?: Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved (Bloomsbury).

Tessa Hadley on Lucy Snowe
Villette by Charlotte Brontë

Lucy Snowe
‘A fascinating mixture of abjection with appetite’ … Judy Parfitt as Lucy Snowe Photograph: BBC Photograph: BBC

It isn't easy to like Lucy Snowe – she doesn't even want us to like her. She certainly doesn't want us to think she's attractive, describing herself as "thin, haggard, and hollow-eyed; like a sitter-up at night, like an overwrought servant, or a placeless person in debt". The young heroine of Charlotte Brontë's last novel, Villette, set mostly at a girls' school in Brussels, is more or less invisible to others: they don't notice her any more than if she were a serviceable piece of furniture in a room. Lucy only hints at whatever sad family history has left her destitute and friendless and somewhere on the social margins, neither a working-class servant nor a lady. Behind her invisibility, though, passion rages; she's a fascinating mixture of abjection with appetite. All by herself she travels to the continent, and finds work as a teacher. The novel's love stories and dramas happen mostly to the pretty, lucky people; Lucy's interest in them verges on voyeurism. Yet her sheer intensity intrudes all the time into the foreground, insisting we attend to the life of her extraordinary mind, to her visions and longings. The sensibility is so English, so self-righteously Protestant - and yet it is almost Dostoevskian, too, in its tormented obsession.

Would this clumsy, extravagant, eccentric and magnificent novel ever have been published, I wonder, if it hadn't been for the success of Jane Eyre? Jane Eyre had seemed to hold out a hope of happiness to the thousands of invisible women ground small in mid-Victorian England by gentility, poverty and exclusion; if there is one spark of hope in Villette, then it is snuffed out on the last page. Brontë was writing after the early deaths of all her siblings. Lucy is brutally realistic about her own prospects – the worst will probably happen. She's my heroine because she won't resign herself to it, or be at peace.

Margaret Drabble on Sue Bridehead
Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

Sue Bridehead
‘We follow her trajectory with horrified fascination' … Kate Winslet as Sue Bridehead. Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

Sue Bridehead must be one of the most unloved and neglected heroines in fiction, if heroine she be. I first read Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure when I was 17, and I was captivated by his portrait of this perverse, free-thinking, vacillating, highly emotional, highly intelligent and ill-fated woman. She is one of the great characters of the 19th‑century novel, born before her time, torn to pieces by the theological and intellectual conflicts of the day, and by her ambivalence about her own sexuality. At once impulsive and frigid, brave but masochistic, timid and impassioned, she is tossed from extreme to extreme, as she unwillingly torments her wretched good-hearted cousin Jude and her horrible husband, the elderly schoolmaster Phillotson. We know even before we meet her that she is doomed (who is not doomed, in Hardy's worldview?), but we follow her bewildering trajectory with horrified but, in my case, sympathetic fascination. Some have seen her as manipulative, but, if so, she is astoundingly unsuccessful in her machinations.

When Jude first meets her, in Oxford, the city of his dreams, she is selling ecclesiastical ornaments, but secretly purchasing statuettes of Venus and Apollo to adorn her lodgings. Hebraism meets Hellenism in bodily form. She yearns to be a pagan, quotes Swinburne, breaks all the rules of female conduct, jumps out of windows, refuses conventional marriage, generously takes in Jude's son from his first marriage, bears children of her own – but we all know what happened to them. I was so moved and shocked by the children's deaths – brought about by Sue's desire to be open and honest about the darkness of life – and I refused to be persuaded by a kindly schoolteacher that Hardy had gone too far. It is great stuff, tragic stuff. Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean! Jane Austen wouldn't have liked this novel at all.

Samantha Ellis on Charlotte Bartlett
A Room With a View by EM Forster

"Poor Charlotte" is what everyone calls Miss Bartlett in A Room With a View, and I never used to like this finicky, awkward spinster with her "barbed civilities". She seems incapable of joy, forever going out on rainy days, returning "cold, tired, hungry, and angelic, with a ruined skirt, a pulpy Baedeker, and a tickling cough", while "when the whole world was singing and the air ran into the mouth, like wine, she would refuse to stir from the drawing-room".

Charlotte Bartlett
‘She shows it’s never too late to become a heroine’ … Maggie Smith as Charlotte Bartlett. Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

EM Forster fills us in. Thirty years ago, "The night received … Miss Bartlett". Something happened to make her so repressed. Whatever it was made her repressive too – the opposite of her spirited cousin Lucy who gets to kiss gorgeous George Emerson on a hill of violets. But Charlotte sees the kiss and her heart opens. At first, she fights these new feelings. She squelches George and encourages Lucy to lie. But she can't help talking about it to her friend Eleanor Lavish. And later, when she realises Lucy is about to run away from love and is in danger of becoming a repressed spinster herself, Charlotte takes action. She slices through the muddle to reunite the lovers. She shows it's never too late to become a heroine.

And George, reading Eleanor's trashy novel, realises that the only good bit is the bit about the kiss, the bit Charlotte described so intensely. "There are details," says George, "it burnt … She is not frozen, Lucy, she is not withered up all through." I wonder if, after the novel ends, Charlotte, who has rescued Lucy so magnificently, might feel she can start her own adventures. I think of Charlotte when I feel disconnected from my own feelings, when I feel stuck. It's never too late to be heroic, I think. It's never too late to open up to joy.

Samantha Ellis's book How to Be a Heroine is published by Chatto & Windus.

Philip Hensher on Madame Verdurin
A la Recherche du Temps Perdu by Marcel Proust

There's something about novelists and women characters of a vulgar disposition that sets even the most open-minded of them into unjustified disapproval. Who, honestly, could have any doubt that it would be much more fun to spend an evening with Augusta Elton than with Emma Woodhouse? And I've always thought the undeclared heroine of Proust's A la Recherche du Temps Perdu was the wonderful Mme Verdurin.

Madame Verdurin
‘She’s shockingly vulgar and loves a good gossip’ … Marie Christine Barrault as Madame Verdurin Photograph: pr

She's shockingly vulgar; she's constantly scheming to set up her friends and guests with each other; she loves a gossip; she's got pots of money; and her evenings offer lots of excellent food and drink, some really good music, and people of every conceivable sort, who she (rightly) doesn't hesitate to tell if they are being bores. The narrator is always having a go at her for social climbing and liking a princess a bit too much, but, frankly, he can talk. I don't suppose she lost a lot of sleep after the boring old Queen of Naples came and ate her food before insulting her and calling her "riff-raff". It is a great puzzle as to why the narrator goes on preferring Oriane de Guermantes, with her terrible puns and her tedious husband, to Mme Verdurin, who obviously prefers men who aren't old sticks. Unlike the Duchesse de Guermantes, it is absolutely clear, too, that Mme Verdurin doesn't think she can get away with serving her guests orange squash at the end of a dinner party.

Mme Verdurin ends up, in her third (at least) marriage, as the Princesse de Guermantes, at the top of the tree, and this, I think, is something that the novel secretly celebrates as it pretends to throw up its hands. The novel loves dynamism as well as the defeated; the spirit of colossally audacious vauntings and of minute distinctions, of plotting, above all, unites the monstrous anti-heroine and the supposedly fastidious figure of the novelist. The world is Mme Verdurin's work of art, as her characters and guests (mostly) fulfil her demands. Her final apotheosis fills me with utter joy, and I bet Proust felt much the same.

Kathryn Hughes on Margaret Hale
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

At first glance, Margaret Hale seems to be a bread-and-butter, milk-and-water kind of literary heroine. She has those mysterious good looks that only people of real discernment can spot and a self-possession that means no one is going to mistake her as a trollop. When her pretty, silly cousin gets married in grand style at the opening of the novel, Margaret is obliged to return home to the gentle home counties village where her father is vicar. The stage seems set for an Austenish tale of slight misunderstandings, good houses and at least one scene where men and women line up on opposite sides of the room and country dance themselves into everlasting love.

Margaret Hale
‘She is the toughest of all Victorian heroines’ … Daniela Denby-Ashe as Margaret Hale. Photograph: Mike Hogan/BBC Photograph: Mike Hogan/BBC

But within four chapters Margaret's expectations – and the reader's – have been flipped upside down. Relocated to Milton (Manchester), where her family is obliged to live in reduced circumstances, Margaret reveals herself to be the toughest, most resourceful and emotionally generous of all Victorian heroines. She argues trenchantly with manufacturer John Thornton – Mr Darcy with flat vowels – over the morality of treating his workers simply as units of cost. And yet, at the same time, she is prepared to throw herself between him and a lynch mob of striking workers. At home, Margaret is obliged to sort out her hopeless parents. Mr Hale (imagine Mr Bennet in a clerical collar) is too weak to explain to his wife why they have all got to go north. It is left to Margaret to gloss his difficulties with the 39 Articles to her querulous Mama who is appalled at the idea of life among the chimney stacks.

Victorian novels always end with a reassertion of the principle of Separate Spheres. The hero carries on his active public life, while the heroine, no matter how plucky she's been in the preceding 40 chapters, is happy to pick up her needlepoint and disappear into the land of happy ever after. But Margaret is different. True, she inherits the obligatory unexpected fortune. But just look at the small print. She has actually become the owner of Marlborough Mills, previously owned by Thornton. At a stroke, Margaret has become her new husband's boss. It would be like Lizzie Bennet finding that the deeds to Pemberley had been tucked away in her ribbon drawer all along.

Rachel Cooke on Rhoda Nunn
The Odd Women by George Gissing

Rhoda Nunn
‘I defy anyone not to fall in love with dear Rhoda’ … Clare Lawrence Moody as Rhoda Nunn. Photograph: Marc Marnie Photograph: Marc Marnie

Rhoda Nunn, star of George Gissing's provocative and heartfelt 1893 novel The Odd Women, has been outshone by virtually every other Victorian and Edwardian heroine for the simple reason that hardly anyone reads Gissing any more (if they pick up a book of his at all, it tends to be New Grub Street, that pitiful tale of poverty-stricken writers). But it's still in print in several editions, and I defy anyone not to fall in love with dear, proud Rhoda, a straight-backed, "fine-eyed" girl with a fantastic line in stirring, lump-in-the‑throat speeches, whose boots were made not for sitting prettily on a chaise longue, but for striding across the fells, preferably alone.

Virginia and Alice Madden, cruelly impoverished by the death of their father, are growing old together in a genteel boarding house, a fate their younger sister Monica has been spared thanks only to a loveless marriage. All three are desperate, too poor even to take the bus, their meagre suppers consisting of little more than some mashed potato and milk. But then they renew their association with their childhood friend Rhoda Nunn, "tall, thin, eager-looking … with a promise of bodily vigour", and by now a daring feminist. She works for a living and believes that women should be educated so that they might be self-supporting. Will Rhoda's example encourage them to escape their prison? Or is she, having fallen suddenly and unexpectedly in love (until the advent of her dogged suitor, Everard Barfoot, Rhoda has been vociferously opposed to marriage on principle) about to bow out of the great struggle herself? What follows is, to me, a grand page-turner. But The Odd Women is also a book that asks important questions. In the end, it is about self-esteem: how it is won, and how easily it is lost. By the end of the novel, the reader feels about Rhoda much as her friend Mary Barfoot does: proud of her "magnificent independence" in spite of her flaws and occasional extravagances. She is clever. She is brave. Her heart is impatient.

Rachel Cooke's book Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties is published by Virago.

Kamila Shamsie on Paulina
The Winter's Tale by William Shakespeare

She is one of literature’s great truth-tellers’ … Sinead Cusack as Paulina. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian Photograph: Tristram Kenton/Guardian

Keep your Portias, your Beatrices, your Lady Macbeths. If there's one woman who towers over all her sisters in Shakespeare's plays it's Paulina in The Winter's Tale. A true friend, a fearless advocate – and also a woman who can keep the largest possible secret for 16 years. When Leontes flies into a murderous rage, Paulina swears she'll speak truth to power and "If I prove honey-mouth'd let my tongue blister." The idea of staying quiet to save herself while Leontes is attempting to litter the stage with corpses doesn't occur to her, and when she encounters courtiers with a different view she is appalled: "Fear you his tyrannous passion more, alas / Than the queen's life." Well, yes, most people might answer, but Paulina is one of literature's great truth-tellers – never more so than in the glorious, biting monologue in which she lists the king's crimes, practically dares him to punish her for doing so, and ends with news of the queen's death – and a threat: "The sweet'st, dear'st creature's dead / and vengeance for't / Not dropp'd down yet." This is Paulina's idea of vengeance: holding a man accountable. For 16 years she stays at court and reminds him of his crimes. And in the end she's the one to bring a statue to life and restore the queen to her position at court. I'm sure she'd rather have sailed off on a grand adventure with her friend Hermione at the start of those 16 years. But for the sake of friendship and justice she stays. I don't believe she really marries the man who Leontes pairs her off with at the end. He's trying to get her to stop talking about the husband for whose death he's responsible. Paulina of the un-honeyed, un-blistered tongue isn't a woman to stop talking.

Lucy Mangan on Meg March
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Poor Meg. Poor who, you say? Well, yes, exactly. Jo was the tomboy, the embryonic feminist, the author's avatar and the bookworm's bookworm, written and received with endless affection. Beth was the one who died, with full tubercular honours, reducing generations of susceptible readers to unforgettably enjoyable tears. Amy was the vivacious glamour girl. She had the lines, the looks (despite the nose) and eventually the Laurie, even though she threw Jo's manuscript in the fire and should have been cast into the outer darkness forever.

Meg Marsh
'Attempts to break out of her role saw her clobbered’ … Frances Dee as Meg March. Photograph: Courtesy Everett Collection/REX Photograph: Courtesy Everett Collection/REX

But what were Meg's defining features? A cloud of soft hair and a pair of soft hands. She was a sensible older sister and any attempts to break out of her role saw her clobbered. As a sensible older sister myself, my heart always went out to those whom the fates, via the irrevocable instrument of birth order, so thoroughly frustrated. So what if she wanted to tie on some ear-bobs and go dancing? Why shouldn't she have one night free of darning and full of daring – silk-heeled boots, coralline salve, plumy fan and all? But no sooner has she downed her first glass of champagne than Laurie turns up to put her back in her box ("I don't like fuss and feathers"), and she makes plans to 'fess up to Marmee on the morrow.

It's not much of a life or a literary footprint. Although she marries lovely John Brooke – a far better catch than the flash, ball-ruining git next door, by the way – and acquires a beautifully stocked linen cupboard that frankly beats Amy's shimmery silk dresses into a cocked hat, she also ends up saddled with twins (one of whom, Demi(john) is easily the most sickening child in all of literature) and is berated by her mother for neglecting her husband after their arrival. All this while her sisters get to marry money and travel the world, fulfil their writerly ambitions or die acknowledged saints.

Never mind, Meg. Grab another glass of champagne and head upstairs. In the linen cupboard, no one can hear you scream.

• This article was amended on 10 May 2014. Meg March's surname was originally misspelled as Marsh. This has now been corrected.


John Mullan, Tessa Hadley, Margaret Drabble, Samantha Ellis, Philip Hensher, Kathryn Hughes, Rachel Cooke, Kamila Shamsie and Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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