Fiction is packed full of strong women from the fearless to the fearsome. The Green Party’s MP for Brighton, Pavilion, Caroline Lucas reveals the 10 best women in literature
Artwork: Su Blackwell
Reading has always been a great love of mine. Until the age of 12 or 13, I would devour Enid Blyton books over and over again until my despairing parents tried to wean me off with a copy of Little Women. Because in our house certain things happened at certain times every day. So after lunch (which was always at 1pm) my mum and dad would sit down with the papers and there would be silence for half an hour. Day in, day out. That’s when I would read.
Admittedly, when I first opened Little Women it was slightly begrudgingly, but in a short space of time I was completely hooked by the four March sisters, and their adventures during the US Civil War. It might have been because my own siblings were so much older than me (my brother is 7 years older and my sister is 9 years older) and after they went to university I felt like an only child, but I loved the idea of these girls who, despite ups and downs along the way, looked after and complemented each other. As I’ve done many times since, when buried in a book I love, I would daydream about which of the characters I’d best get on with, and what it would be like to be part of their gang.
From then on – whether talking passionately about Jane Eyre with my school friends or later recommending that same novel to my two sons (and failing – they still haven’t read it), my love of a good book was usually firmly rooted in the female characters. Time and again, it was the heroines who really stole my heart and had me hooked.
From Jane Eyre to Ifemelu in Americanah via Jo March in Little Women, I learned that being bolshy, having an opinion and doing things your own way wasn’t just possible as a woman, it was downright positive. And that just because you’re an outsider in some way, doesn’t mean you can’t speak up. Over the years, my favourite heroines have helped mould and shape me, enhancing my understanding of different cultures and experiences, not to mention my friends, family and even myself. So here are my 10 literary heroines who will leave you feeling totally inspired – and looking at the world just that little bit differently.
Jane from Jane Eyre
I was 15 when I first read Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. My grandmother would tell me stories about when she was 10 (this would have been about 1910) when she and a friend would steal apples from the next-door neighbour’s tree, hide them in the hem of their long skirts, then take refuge in the top of a nearby barn and read this book. Once I started reading it, what really captured me was Jane herself. A plain orphan who grows up to be a governess employed by the gruff-yet-rather attractive Mr Rochester (who eventually falls in love with her), Jane survives by living on her wits (after all, she boldly leaves him when it turns out he’s still married to his tragic, insane first wife). And as a gawky 15-year-old, I appreciated the message that a heroine didn’t have to be rich or beautiful to be attractive; there was something hugely uplifting and reassuring about that. I also loved the dialogue between Jane and Mr Rochester. Throughout the book, she refuses to just politely nod along or pay lip service to his ideas; her answers are often blunt and unexpected, even though as her employer he has power over her. In fact, Jane helped me to understand that it’s alright to stand up to the status quo. OK, so you won’t read the book and immediately chain yourself to barricades in a feminist protest, but Jane inspires a sense of confidence in believing in your position – even if you’re in a minority.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847), £14.99, Penguin Clothbound Classic
Ifemelu from Americanah
It was my husband who recommended Americanah to me – he enjoyed it enormously so I ended up reading it during the run-up to last year’s General Election. I have to say it was an excellent distraction from the ups and downs of the campaign. It’s such an incredible novel (currently being made into a film starring Lupita Nyong’o) about two very likeable, funny and intelligent Nigerian teenagers, Ifemelu and Obinze, who fall in love only to be split up after Ifemelu moves to the US to continue her studies (Obinze fails to get a green card and ends up in a grim UK before returning to Lagos). Moving across decades and continents, Adichie creates a deft, witty and moving portrait of race, class and everything in between (from North London dinner parties and blog posts to Afros vs relaxers: “You’re always battling your hair to make it do what it wasn’t meant to”). What’s fascinating about Americanah is how Ifemelu tries to navigate the US while always feeling like an outsider. As the single Green MP in the House of Commons I related to that. I’d even argue that the House of Commons isn’t really a place where anyone should ever feel like they truly belong. Yet, like Ifemelu, I try hard to understand the unwritten rules and to grapple with the question of how much of my identity is determined by the place I inhabit.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013), £8.99, Fourth Estate
Jo March from Little Women
When I was younger I wanted to be a writer. So when I came across Jo March in Little Women, I was amazed and heartened by the fact that not only was she a writer but that she also made money from it. This was long before I discovered Virginia Woolf, but that idea of a woman sitting down at a desk and being very independent was a revelation to me. Jo even has her own “scribbling suit” – a pinafore and matching hat in black cotton, which she wears to sit down and write. I’ve never forgotten that image. I also love that she’s a tomboy (I certainly never wanted to be the sweet Beth and come to a sticky end). Jo is forthright, she’s prickly, she has a selfish streak...in fact, you could argue she is incredibly flawed as a human being. She’s got a terrible temper, but you still love her because she’s aware of her own faults. And even though it’s been over 40 years since I read Little Women, I’ve never forgotten the scene where, desperate to help out her family, she cuts off her hair (the only physical attribute she’s proud of) and sells it for $25 – which, to my 13-year-old self, felt like a huge thing to do. I can still feel the icy grip of shock as I realised what she was doing, but also the incredible swell of admiration that followed, as I learned that even against all the odds, it is possible to redeem yourself.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1880), £5.99, Vintage Children’s Classics
Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games
I read The Hunger Games trilogy during my first term as an MP in 2010, when the battle between the forces of good and bad felt very resonant for some reason. Set in a dystopian universe in the ruins of North America, each year 12 districts are forced by a powerful central power, the Capitol, to send a pair of teenagers (“tributes”) to fight to the death in a televised competition. The heroine, Katniss, instantly captured my imagination. Her integrity, her spirit and her willingness to follow her own path, even if that means being unpopular, utterly inspired me, especially at this time in my life. She becomes a true symbol of revolution and, more importantly, believes that how you make changes should reflect the future you are trying to create (when a fellow young tribute Rue is killed, Katniss demonstrates the Capitol’s accountability for her brutal death by compassionately covering her body with flowers). What also fascinated me was that Katniss really struggles with taking up arms and continually asks questions – both literally and through her actions – about violence, power and what’s justified for the greater good. It made me think a lot about what real leadership means. In fact, she reminds me of Malala Yousafzai, who has survived Taliban violence and repression to become a global activist and Nobel Prize winner. They both have a singularity of purpose and are able to hone in on what’s most needed at any given time, and to take others with them.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (2008), £7.99, Scholastic
Celie from The Color Purple
The Color Purple has had a huge influence on me. I spent a year studying in the US in 1983 and it was one of our recommended texts. Before that, I’d never read anything so direct and raw. Set in Thirties rural Georgia, it charts the life of Celie – a black girl who faces the most heart-breaking abuse and violence, before she finds her own place in the world. At that time, I was becoming aware of how, throughout history, violence against women has been swept under the carpet, so this had a huge impact on me. What struck me most about Celie was her strength. She’s a survivor – she refuses to be defined by what’s happened to her (or as Walker writes, “I’m pore, I’m black, I may be ugly and can’t cook, a voice say to everything listening. But I’m here”) and when reunited with her children, she’s determined to enjoy the future, rather than be held back by the past. She is every woman who’s oppressed and every woman who continues to give while so much is being taken from her. I often see Celie in my work – her legacy is all around.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1982), £8.99, W&N
Lisbeth Salander from The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
“Lisbeth’s obsessive drive reminds me of some great campaigners I’ve known, but I’m glad we have judges and juries, not her dark retribution.” The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (2005), £8.99, Quercus
Blanca Trueba from The House Of Spirits
“Blanca’s fight for love in the face of violence and forced marriage is inspirational. She contributed hugely to my idea that it’s women’s right to determine what equality means to them.” The House Of Spirits by Isabel Allende (1982), £8.99, Black Swan
Marjane Satrapi from Persepolis
“In this autobiography about growing up in Iran Marjane is forced to adapt to survive but you know she’s still a good person.” Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (2003), £14.99, Jonathan Cape
Dellarobia Turnbow from Flight Behaviour
“This book was popular with climate change activists but Dellarobia won my heart. She’s flawed with a wicked sense of humour.” Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver (2012), £8.99, Faber
Connie Ramos from Woman On The Edge Of Time
“Connie’s tale of sexual abuse, racism and poverty opened my eyes to the way poor women are too often rendered invisible.” Woman On The Edge Of Time by Marge Piercy (1976), £12, The Women’s Press
My 2016 pledge to women
“This year I’ll keep up the pressure to bring about real equality. Key campaigns will include ending the tampon tax, putting mums on marriage certificates, pushing for more female representation in Parliament and campaigning against budget cuts which disproportionately affect women.”
Photography: Yeshen Venema