Top Ten Girls in Fiction

Earlier this year, CMIS Evaluation Fiction Focus listed their “top 10 female protagonists in recent Australian YA literature”, to mark the occasion of Australia’s first female Prime Minister being sworn in to office. I was chuffed to see my very own Sophie FitzOsborne make the list, and it got me thinking about my own favourite fictional girls.

I found it surprisingly difficult to come up with ten of them, though. There are a lot of great girl characters in my favourite books, but often they had some fatal flaw that kicked them off my list. For example, Hermione in the Harry Potter series is clever, hard-working and loyal to Harry – but has an inexplicable fondness for Ron Weasley, a boy who spends six books mocking her intelligence, forgets to ask her to the Yule Ball and shows a complete lack of regard for her feelings (I pretend that the epilogue to Book Seven doesn’t exist). Here’s my final list, although I didn’t restrict myself to “recent”, “Australian” or “YA” fiction.

1. Myra in Apple Bough (Traveling Shoes in the US) by Noel Streatfeild

Myra broke my heart when I read this book as a ten-year-old. Myra, a “funny, solemn little thing”, is the eldest child of the Forum family, and the only one without any discernible artistic or musical talent. Her brother Sebastian is a musical prodigy touring the world and earning millions; Wolfgang is a child actor; Ettie is a celebrated dancer. All Myra wants is to live at Apple Bough, the family home, with her dog Wag, but both of these are taken away from her by Sebastian’s career – yet she still unselfishly looks after Sebastian, Wolf and Ettie for years. Myra finally starts to realise how important she is to her whole family after her perceptive grandfather tells her,

“You have a trouble which is unique in your family. You underestimate yourself.”

(Yes, Myra is finally re-united with Wag. Thank goodness.)

2. Claudia in From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg

Claudia is imaginative and sensitive enough to want to escape the “injustice” and “monotony”of her suburban life, but she’s smart and organised enough to plan her running-away down to the smallest detail. She’s also absolutely hilarious in her attempts to control her uncontrollable little brother. I love how Claudia grows up (with some help from Mrs Frankweiler and ‘Angel’) at the end of the book.

3. Cassandra in I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Cassandra can be an infuriating snob (for example, see her horrible treatment of Stephen), but she’s so honest and curious about life, and so charming and articulate, that most of the time, I can overlook her flaws. It helps that she loves books as much as I do, and that she has a couple of adorable pets in Heloise and Abelard. And that she lives in a castle.

4. Nona in Miss Happiness and Miss Flower by Rumer Godden

I just adore Nona. Despite feeling shy and miserable and lost, she devotes herself to building a dollhouse for poor, homeless Miss Happiness and Miss Flower – an authentic Japanese dollhouse, even though Nona initially knows nothing about Japan. By the end of the book, Nona has drawn together not only her new family, but half the neighbourhood. She’s such an inspiration.

5. Madlyn in The Beasts of Clawstone Castle by Eva Ibbotson

Madlyn is a “very pretty” blonde who loves shopping (which is usually enough to stop me liking a girl character), but she’s also smart, sensible and caring, particularly when it comes to her eccentric little brother:

“She soothed him when stupid people asked after his skunk instead of his skink; she stopped the cleaning lady from throwing away the snails he kept in a jar under his bed; and when he had a nightmare she was beside him almost as soon as he woke.”

Madlyn doesn’t really want to spend two months at gloomy old Clawstone Castle, but she doesn’t complain about it, and she comes up with an ingenious plan to save the threatened Beasts. She’s also very brave during the terrifying showdown with the villains.

6. Brownie in The Hole in the Hill by Ruth Park

Another elder sister (I am sensing a theme here), who’s smart, responsible, and practical. Brownie’s also quietly courageous – for example, when necessary, she grits her teeth and walks along a ledge under a gigantic waterfall, even though she’s terrified of heights. At the start of the book, her father says, “Good grief, you kids of today have no more initiative than a jellyfish”, but by the end of their adventures, he’s forced to eat his words. Go, Brownie!

7. Jo in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Is there anyone who actually prefers Meg or Amy or Beth? Okay, Jo should have married Laurie instead of that old German guy, but in every other way, Jo March is awesome.

8. Sophie in Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder

Only a girl as thoughtful, inquisitive and imaginative as Sophie could possibly make sense of all those mysterious letters and postcards that arrive in her mailbox (or in her hedge, on her bedroom floor or stuck to the kitchen window). She’s not afraid to question her teachers and her mother during her search for philosophical truth, and she has a great sense of humour. I also really like Sophie’s real-world ally, Hilde.

9. Anaximander in Genesis by Bernard Beckett

All right, I’m taking some liberties with the definition of ‘girl’ here, but as Anaximander is described as young and female, I think she counts. Her compassion, intelligence and determination to uncover the truth is inspiring – or it would be, if we didn’t slowly realise where it was leading her. (Oh, that book’s conclusion!)

10. Agatha in Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler

Agatha is possibly my favourite Anne Tyler character ever, which is really saying something. She’s another eldest child, left to look after her siblings by hopeless parents, but unlike Madlyn, “Agatha never concerned herself with appearances”. She’s bullied by her classmates, but by high school, she’s “supremely indifferent, impervious” to them (“You could tell she thought prettiness was a waste of time”). However, the main reason I love Agatha is her ferocious intelligence. She’ll take on anyone in an argument – even God. Here she is having a theological debate with her Uncle Ian, who’s getting rather flustered because he’s losing:

“‘Agatha,’ Ian said, ‘there’s a great deal in the Bible that’s simply beyond our understanding.’
‘Beyond yours, maybe,’ Agatha said.”

She ends up becoming an oncologist, marries a handsome, charming doctor, and earns piles of money. I just wish there’d been a final scene where she attends a school re-union.

‘Dated’ Books, Part Two: The Charioteer

Is this book ‘dated’? Well, not in the same way as Wigs on the Green. The Charioteer wasn’t out of print for decades, it was never rejected by its author, and it continues to be discussed and admired by readers. However, it is definitely a novel of its time. It’s set during 1940, and was written in the early 1950s. The author, Mary Renault, was a nurse during the Second World War. She looked after soldiers who’d been evacuated from Dunkirk, and she worked in the same sort of hospitals described so vividly in the book. In part, the novel is about the war, about the moral (and occasionally physical) conflict between wounded servicemen and young, male conscientious objectors. However, to quote the summary on the back of my 1968 paperback edition:

“The theme of this compassionate and deeply understanding novel is homosexual love . . . Each [character] in his own way wrestles to compensate for what he feels to be biological failure.”

And doesn’t that sound like something out of a 1970s journal for psychotherapists, and make you want to avoid this novel like the plague?

'The Charioteer' by Mary RenaultBut if you did, you’d be missing out on a compelling story. Yes, this is a deeply serious book, with little of the humour that lights up Renault’s earlier novel, The Friendly Young Ladies. Yes, The Charioteer does go to ridiculous lengths to ‘explain’ (or perhaps ‘excuse’) the homosexual natures of the characters. Most modern readers will feel a bit bemused by the author’s careful explanations that Laurie, the narrator, had a philandering, alcoholic father who abandoned his family; that Ralph’s mother was a religious fanatic who had him flogged as a six-year-old after she caught him ‘discussing anatomy’ with the little girl next door; and that Andrew’s father died before Andrew was born and was probably bisexual. At social gatherings, the characters all sit around and have solemn debates about whether homosexuality should become legal, with one arguing:

“I didn’t choose to be what I am, it was determined when I wasn’t in a position to exercise any choice and without my knowing what was happening . . . I think we’re all part of nature’s remedy for a state of gross over-population . . . I’m not prepared to let myself be classified with dope-peddlars and prostitutes. Criminals are blackmailed. I’m not a criminal.”

To which, another retorts:

“[The authorities have] learned to leave us in peace unless we make public exhibitions of ourselves, but that’s not enough, you start to expect a medal. Hell, can’t we even face the simple fact that if our fathers had been like us, we wouldn’t have been born?”

(Actually, perhaps this isn’t so dated, after all. The same debate is being played out right now in the Australian parliament, except over same-sex marriage, rather than the decriminalisation of homosexual behaviour. Conservative politicians continue to trot out the ‘But they can’t reproduce!’ line, along with other, equally idiotic, ‘arguments’ against gay and lesbian rights.)

Anyway, the characters of The Charioteer live in England in 1940, so their lives are ruled by terror. As if the war isn’t bad enough, they’re also terrified of attracting the wrath of the police, their commanding officers, their families and God. Not surprisingly, many of them are suicidal, alcoholic or drug-addicted. Also not surprisingly, they have enormous difficulties being honest with each other. It’s the sort of book in which many of the characters’ problems would be solved if they simply sat down and talked about how they felt. But no, Ralph can’t tell Laurie he’s in love with him, because he thinks it will turn young Laurie gay. Laurie can’t tell Andrew he’s in love with him, because he thinks Andrew is too religious to cope with the knowledge. Ralph still can’t tell Laurie he’s in love with him, years later, because he knows Laurie is in love with Andrew. Andrew can’t tell Laurie he’s attracted to him because . . . Arrgh! It made me want to smack them all over the head. Still, I kept turning the pages, desperate to find out what would happen next. And the writing is superb – thoughtful, rich, beautifully-paced. The only issue I had with it was the coy fade-to-black whenever anything sexual happened, which again, is probably due to when the book was written. Perhaps the publishers censored it; perhaps the author censored herself? Still, after Laurie obsessively describing every thought, word and eye twitch during his interactions with Ralph and Andrew, it seemed bizarre that when he finally went to bed with one of them, there was a big blank in the narrative. I doubt a modern writer would have flinched at describing the scene (for example, see The Night Watch by Sarah Waters, set during the same period but published in 2006). Surely how these two men interact in bed is just as significant to the story as how they act when they’re eating a meal together in public?

So, yes, The Charioteer is ‘dated’. However, it’s an authentic depiction of the experiences of gay men during the Second World War, and I found it impossible to put down.

More ‘dated’ books:

1. Wigs on the Green by Nancy Mitford
2. The Charioteer by Mary Renault
3. The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault
4. Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham
5. Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner
6. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
7. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
8. Kangaroo by D. H. Lawrence

The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard

This series is one of my favourite comfort reads, and has the added benefit of being set before and during the Second World War (this means that I can pretend I’m re-reading it for ‘research purposes’).

It won’t be to the taste of those who expect novels to be tightly plotted, with a single protagonist whose goal is clearly stated on the first page and achieved by the last. However, for those of us who love rambling, realistic family sagas set in a fascinating period of history, these books are just about perfect.

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane HowardThe first book, The Light Years, introduces the Cazalets, a middle-class English family who are rich enough to own houses in both London and Sussex; to send their sons to expensive ‘public’ schools and hire a governess for their daughters; and to have a large number of maids, kitchen staff, gardeners, chauffeurs and secretaries. The story is told from the point of view of all three generations of Cazalets, as well as various servants, friends and mistresses, which does make things confusing at first. Who is the eldest out of the Cazalet brothers? Is Christopher the cousin of Teddy or Simon? On my first (and even my second) reading, I often found myself having to refer to the family tree and the list of characters at the front of the book. However, once all that was sorted out, I was drawn to the teenage Cazalet girls: melodramatic Louise, who longs to be an actress; kind-hearted Polly, who dreads the idea of another war; and plain, clumsy Clary, who hates her stepmother, brother, cousins and practically everyone else in the world, but has a vivid imagination and a wonderfully honest outlook on life (as you can tell, she’s my favourite). The girls’ worries, resentments, dreams, tragedies and triumphs are beautifully portrayed. Their parents are equally realistic, but less easy to like. They vote Tory, believe the British Empire will last forever, think of women as weak, intellectually-inferior beings, have a vague dislike of Jews . . . all typical attitudes of their class and time, but it doesn’t make them very endearing to most modern readers. However, this attention to historical accuracy is one of the strengths of the series. The author describes everything, from what people ate for breakfast, to how they reacted to the Munich Crisis of 1938, so clearly yet so unobtrusively. (This may be because a lot of the story is autobiographical.)

The second book, Marking Time, begins when war is declared. The women and children move into the family’s country house and most of the men join the forces. By the third book, Confusion, tragedy has hit the family hard and the girls are embarking on adult life with various degrees of success and happiness. Both books examine war from the perspective of women and girls, and are absolutely fascinating. I also like some of the new characters who appear – for example, Stella Rose and her family, who moved to England from Austria before the war.

The final book, Casting Off, is set in the immediate post-war years, and wraps up the story for each of the characters, not always realistically. I devoured this book, just as I did the others, but it does consist mostly of ‘then X married Y’ – unless X had been unhappily married, in which case it’s ‘then X divorced Y’. Polly’s story is particularly silly, but even Clary’s happy ending doesn’t seem all that believable to me. Still, the male characters who’d been getting away with horrible behaviour for years (specifically, Edward and his nasty son Teddy) do get their comeuppance in this book, which made me very happy – however unrealistic it might have been.

The Cazalet novels were made into a BBC television series, which I haven’t seen, and I’m also curious about Elizabeth Jane Howard’s memoir, Slipstream.

EDITED TO ADD: BBC Radio 4 is broadcasting a series based on the Cazalet books in 2013 (thanks to Jed for the link). This interview with Elizabeth Jane Howard also says, “It looks as if 2013 will be the year of Howard’s maturation: while the nation tunes into the story of the Cazalets, Howard will be finishing the fifth volume of the Chronicle.”

See here for my thoughts on All Change, the fifth volume of the Cazalet Chronicles and Elizabeth Jane Howard’s final novel.

Top Ten YA Books

Earlier this year, Adele from Persnickety Snark ran a poll asking readers to nominate their favourite Young Adult (YA) books of all time. The final Top 100 had a lot of predictable titles (Twilight), as well as a few books I’d thought were either adult (Pride and Prejudice) or children’s literature (Harry Potter). There were also some books that made me think, ‘Oh, why didn’t I remember to add that one to my list?’ (for example, Little Women). Anyway, here are the books that I nominated this year as my favourite YA books of all time:

10. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
Possibly the funniest book I have ever read. Flora decides to improve the lives of her unfortunate relatives, whether they like it or not.

9. I am David by Anne Holm
A boy escapes from a concentration camp and makes his way across Europe in search of his mother. Devastating, but ultimately, there’s a message of hope.

8. The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault
They live on a houseboat. Leo writes cowboy books for a living and Helen gets paid to draw gory operations. What’s not to like?

7. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
A fabulous adventure. Pirates, buried treasure, a marooned sailor, a brave teenage lad – and Long John Silver, one of the scariest villains ever, because you never quite know whose side he’s on.

6. The Hole in the Hill by Ruth Park
I nearly chose Playing Beatie Bow instead, but this book is special. A group of smart, resourceful kids get lost in a mysterious cave system in the wilds of New Zealand and discover something amazing.

5. Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder
A history of philosophy for teenagers. No, wait, don’t run away! It’s funny and exciting and very accessible, with a great twist in the middle and two terrific female narrators.

4. The Shape of Three by Lilith Norman
Only Lilith Norman could make ‘twins separated at birth’ into this kind of convincing, emotionally-wrenching drama. She also paints a wonderful portrait of Sydney in the 1970s.

3. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
One of the loveliest coming-of-age stories ever (even if I still can’t understand how Cassandra could treat poor Stephen the way she did). And it’s set in a castle.

2. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
An adopted teenage girl gives up her religion, her family and her whole community after she falls in love with another girl. But it’s not depressing! It’s funny, warm and smart, and a real inspiration for anyone who’s ever felt different.

1. Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You by Peter Cameron
A teenage boy in Manhattan anxiously contemplates adult life, meanwhile managing to alienate everyone around him. Brilliant, hilarious, touching – the best book about a teenager that I’ve ever read.