Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

15 Classic Books With Female Protagonists

Want to read more classic books, but sick of reading about white men saving the day? Never fear! I’ve got you covered with this list of classic books with female protagonists.

15 Classic Books With Female Protagonists - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

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Charlotte Brontë has been called “the first historian of private consciousness” for the way she wrote the narrator in her novel Jane Eyre. It’s a moving and elegant depiction of a woman’s inner world in a time period not that far removed from our own, all things considered. A young woman endures loss and loneliness to forge her own path of independence, working as a governess. A man – the enigmatic Mr Rochester – thinks he’ll save the day by marrying her, only to have his own nefarious schemes unveiled and ruin it all. In the end, it’s Jane who saves the day, her lover’s and her own. Read my full review of Jane Eyre here.

Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen

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Jane Austen wrote a stack of classic books with female protagonists – in fact, it’s all she really wrote over the course of her short life. The most prominent in her oeuvre remains Pride And Prejudice, the story of a woman who has to overcome her first impressions and preconceived notions for a shot at happiness. There’s a lot of critical analysis of P&P, and debate as to whether it could be construed as a feminist text still rages, but for me it comes down to this: Elizabeth Bennet tells a man she wants nothing to do with him unless he pulls his socks up, and he does. That feels like a win for women. Read my full review of Pride And Prejudice here.

Tess Of The d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Tess Of The D'Urburvilles - Thomas Hardy - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you’ve got the stomach for classic books about women being treated badly, you can give Tess Of The d’Urbervilles a go. Tess Durbeyfield is raised in poverty, and claims kinship with the wealthy d’Urberville family in order to secure part of their fortune. Her new cousin, Alec, is a real piece of work, and he ‘ruins’ her (in the Victorian sense of the word). She moves on as best she can, but she soon finds that she can’t escape her past as easily as she hoped. It’s widely regarded as the most moving and poetic of Hardy’s novels, but it’s also one of the most disheartening and depressing.

Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Gone-With-The-Wind-Margaret-Mitchell-Book-Laid-on-Wooden-Table-Keeping-Up-With-The-Penguins

If you needed proof that classic books with female protagonists can still be deeply problematic, you’ll find it in Gone With The Wind. This classic of American literature (and film, of course) depicts a laughably romanticised view of a woman’s journey to self-actualisation against the backdrop of the Civil War in the South. Never mind the slavery, look at the outfits! This can be a tough one to read for a contemporary reader, but if you can quiet your qualms, you’ll find that Scarlett O’Hara is a fascinating character. She’s selfish and vain, she makes terrible choices, and she manipulates the men in her life to get what she wants – and yet, she’s undoubtedly the heroine of this story.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

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The titular protagonist of Leo Tolstoy’s epic Anna Karenina is the mother of all self-destructive girls with main character syndrome. Her story entails an extramarital affair with cavalry officer Alexei Vronsky. They make a half-hearted attempt to keep it a secret, but Anna impulsively confesses to her husband and they go public, in a move that scandalises their friends and family. Anna and Vronsky move to Italy, hoping to escape the fall-out, but they’re eventually pulled back to Russia and their lives totally unravel. It’s the ultimate fuck-around-and-find-out story, with Anna bearing the brunt of her bad decisions in the end. Read my full review of Anna Karenina here.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

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I have a rule for recommending Little Women to first-time readers: you can only pick up this book if you have a good understanding of the context in which Louisa May Alcott wrote it, and the subtlety of her subversion of societal norms. Without that background knowledge, it’s all too easy to write off the story of the March sisters as sentimental stuff “for girls” (which is, indeed, what Alcott’s publishers asked her to write). When you read between the lines, however, you’ll find one of the fiercest classic books with female protagonists in the American canon, with Jo March representing all women who choose a career for themselves in spite of society pushing them towards more ‘womanly’ pursuits. Read my full review of Little Women here.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter - Nathaniel Hawthorne - Reviewed on Keeping Up With The Penguins

Hester Prynne has got to be one of the most hard-done-by female protagonists in classic literature. In The Scarlet Letter, she makes the terminal mistake of having an affair with a priest in Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony. She can’t even deny her indiscretion after giving birth to a child (the most annoying child I’ve ever encountered in fiction, just by-the-by), but she keeps the name of her suitor under wraps. She’s punished, and cruelly, by her community, forced to wear a large red A on her clothes to identify her to all and sundry as an adulteress. The priest gets away with it all scot-free… or does he? Read my full review of The Scarlet Letter here.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

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Madame Bovary is one of my favourite classic books with a female protagonist, if for no other reason than Emma is relatable as all heck. When she gets married, as women of her station are expected required to do, she quickly finds that it’s not the fairytale she was sold all her life. Rather than meekly accepting her fate, she goes off the deep end and she does it in style. She drinks heavily, she overspends on luxury clothes, she has disappointing affairs with even more disappointing men. Perhaps some might read it as a cautionary tale, but I love to see a woman set her shitty life on fire in fiction. Good for her!

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë

Agnes Grey - Anne Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

If you’re looking for classic books with female protagonists that are also quick and easy reads, Agnes Grey will sort you out. Most editions of this novella run only 100 pages or so, and the story isn’t exactly tough to follow. A young woman chooses to contribute to her family’s finances, against their strenuous objection, by becoming a governess. She thinks it’ll be all finger-painting and nap time, but instead she discovers that children are awful and working for rich people is the worst. Still, she persists, and eventually forges for herself a situation where she relies on no one else to put food on her plate, which is as good as a happily-ever-after for any woman in Victorian times. Read my full review of Agnes Grey here.

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

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The two female protagonists of Vanity Fair represent the duality that we see throughout a lot of classic literature. It’s the Madonna/whore complex, the meek and mild lady versus the outspoken and brash harlot. Naturally, your own personal inclinations will lead you to side with one or the other, but it’s a fascinating read whichever way you turn. Sweet Amelia Sedley is on the up-and-up, and yet she doesn’t get half as far in life as the scheming Becky Sharp. Their relationship waxes and wanes across the course of the epic, as they each choose to deal with the restrictions placed on their gender in Regency England in their own way. Read my full review of Vanity Fair here.

Picnic At Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

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Lovely young ladies in white linen dresses setting out for a picnic on St Valentine’s Day in the year of Australia’s federation. It hardly sounds like the stuff of classic horror novels, but for anyone who’s read Picnic At Hanging Rock, that one-sentence summary will send shivers up the spine. Three girls, under the blaze of an afternoon sun, decide to climb into the shadows of the volcanic outcropping – only to disappear, never to be seen again. This mysterious (and, it must be said, strangely slightly horny) novel ends on a massive cliffhanger, and proves that schoolgirls aren’t always squealing over nothing.

The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James

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Henry James, by his own admission, was bored with the ghost stories of his day. That’s why he wrote The Turn Of The Screw, where the scares come from the ambiguity of the events that unfold. Was his governess protagonist really seeing ghosts, or was she quietly insane? The choice of a woman as protagonist is telling, as the long history of women not being believed or written off as “hysterical” is what really sells it. If you’re going to read any of James’s work, it should be this classic book with a female protagonist (because it’s one of the shortest, and he could get real wordy). Read my full review of The Turn Of The Screw here.

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

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The protagonist of My Brilliant Career is a 16-year-old girl, mostly because Miles Franklin herself was a 16-year-old girl when she wrote it. That’s not all Franklin and her character Sybylla had in common, either. Both were headstrong, energetic, and frustrated with the boredom of living in a small outback town. Franklin wrote the story mostly as a way to entertain her friends; she sent it to acclaimed poet Henry Lawson without even a hope that he might enjoy it and pass it on to a publisher. In the end, she had to revoke the rights to publication until after her death, because too many of her loved ones and community members recognised themselves in the pages (and didn’t much like what they saw). Read my full review of My Brilliant Career here.

North And South by Elizabeth Gaskell

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In North And South, Elizabeth Gaskell uses the life story of a young woman from Southern England to critique the ravages of the Industrial Revolution on society. Margaret Hale is, for lack of a better term, a country bumpkin, forced by economic hardship to move to the turbulent North. She witnesses the origins of the fight for workers’ rights, with the first occupational strikes and the rise of the nouveau riche. She has a soft spot for John Thornton, a cotton mill owner who sees nothing wrong with exploiting his workers, and so her principles must do battle with her heart. It’s a lofty novel disguised as a love story, as many of the best classic books with female protagonists are.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - Anita Loos - Books Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’ve saved Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for last, because in my mind, it’s the best example of classic books with female protagonists being overlooked and disregarded because they have female protagonists. This story is styled as the diary of socialite Lorelai Lee as she drinks champagne and seeks a husband in Jazz Age America. It’s fun, it’s sexy, it’s hilarious – and it’s a blazing social satire of the gender roles of the time. But being about a woman, and written by a woman, it’s relegated to the dusty bottom shelf while stinkers like The Great Gatsby are lauded and forced upon unwitting high-schoolers. So, fight the patriarchy, and read Anita Loos. Thank you for coming to my TED talk. Read my full review of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes here.

2 Comments

  1. Love this list, and I’ve actually read most of them, hoorah! I’ve had my eye out for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes ever since you first talked about it around this blog. And I just recently read The Scarlet Pimpernel which would be a great addition to this list. Cheers, Sheree!

    • Sheree

      March 5, 2024 at 1:14 PM

      Ooooh yes Hannah, that’s a good one! For some reason, Scarlet Pimpernel and Scarlet Letter always get combined into one big red book in my head 😅 Got my fingers crossed that a copy of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes manifests for you soon!

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