I always wondered why there were never any interesting female characters in world literature. Male characters are always complex and easy to identify with while female characters are brainless, whiny, and only interested in selling themselves to the highest bidder. Now that I have started reading more second-tier British and Spanish writers of the XIXth century, I have come to realize that interesting female characters abound. The only problem is that the novels they protagonize are not nearly as popular as the ones whose female heroines are boring and pathetic.
Take Jane Austen and George Gissing. Austen’s female characters are interested in absolutely nothing but selling themselves profitably. Her novels always end with a wedding because once the bargain is struck and the contract is signed, nothing else of interest can happen in a woman’s life. If married women appear in her novels, their only goal is to sell their daughters, nieces, or friends. Austen’s women think of nothing, talk of nothing and dream of nothing but handing themselves over to a man for a good price. Austen’s most popular novel Pride and Prejudice is the most unapologetic hymn I have ever encountered to the only legalized form of prostitution.
George Gissing, on the other hand, realized that making even the most profitable marriage imaginable cannot fulfill a human being. The idea that women can be happy only serving the needs of their families and having no lives, no careers, no interests of their own was invented by men who don’t see women as fully human, Gissing suggests in his novel The Odd Women. Gissing believes that women should have the right to receive the same kind of education as men do, practice all of the same professions, and have the same rights and freedoms as men because there are no differences between men and women save for the purely physiological ones. Gissing’s Monica Madden is far less educated and intelligent than Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett. Yet she manages to realize that a patriarchal marriage – be it as profitable as it may – can only make a woman miserable. And men, Gissing points out, are as unhappy as women in a patriarchal society. Women who reduce themselves to the state of complete idiocy in order better to fit the image of an Angel in the House can cause nothing but suffering to men who choose them as life companions.
Gissing’s female characters work towards the liberation of women and create clubs to help each other. They study, engage in political activism, try to achieve financial independence and professional success. They even have conversations that do not revolve around or even mention any men.
In spite of all this, nobody knows Gissing (save for a few lucky nerds here and there) and everybody knows Austen. Why do you think that happens? Why is Austin’s favorite (and only) idea that all a woman has to do to be successful in life is to get married to a wealthy man so popular? We all know who always was and still is the main reader of novels, so I think the answer is obvious.
I’m discovering such great writers through my Classics Challenge that every time I read a novel from my list, I want to set everything aside and read everything else by the author. I think I will probably reach the conclusion that the secondary classics that populate my list are better than their more famous peers.