There’s something to celebrate in each fully-formed, three-dimensional female character in our favourite books
As season five of Game of Thrones debuted on television, I decided to go on a refresher course of sorts. That is, I began to read the Game of Thrones books (yes, all five of them!) in order. The first time around, I had virtually galloped through them, racing to the end, so that I could find out what happened next, and next, and next. This time around, because I already know what lies ahead, I am lingering on every page, giving myself a chance to savour the incredible skill of George R.R. Martin as a storyteller.
And what a storyteller he is! The plot twists and turns in ways you could scarce imagine, aided by the fact that Martin is not afraid of killing off some of our favourite characters. As the immortal line goes: Valar Morghulis (All men must die).
But what I like best about Martin is that he has given us some of the strongest female characters I have ever met in fiction. You may well carp and moan about the excessive sexual violence and the ‘objectification’ of women, but I am loath to impose modern standards of feminism and gender justice on a fantasy set in what most closely resembles medieval times.
I would much rather rejoice in the strength and complexity of the women in Game of Thrones. They are smart, they are cunning, they are brave, they are good, they are evil, they take no prisoners (except, of course, when they do), and they stand up for themselves in a hostile and frightening world.
There is no easy black-and-white study here, every character is delineated in shades of grey. Lady Catelyn Stark may be earth mother to her children but is the stepmother from hell, who cannot bear to even lay eyes on Jon Snow, her husband Eddard Stark’s bastard. Cersei may be an adulterous, incestuous, harpy with an alcohol problem but there is no doubting her unconditional love for her children (yes, even the monstrous Prince Joffrey). Sansa Stark may have lost her moral moorings momentarily in her infatuation for Joffrey but she recovers to show true courage and quiet grit in surviving in a court full of intrigue and malevolence.
As I read my way through the books, though, I began thinking back to the other delightful female characters I had encountered in fiction, those women/girls who had shared my growing-up years, who had served as role models, life lessons, even witty companions as I negotiated my journey from child to teenager to adult. So, here is no particular order of importance is my top five list of my favourite fictional characters.
• Arya Stark: This was a close-run thing, because with Daenerys Targaryen, mother of dragons, in the mix, it is tough choosing any one single character from Game of Thrones. But in the end, Arya made the cut, because of her indomitable spirit, her soaring courage, her refusal to stay within the confines of gender stereotypes, her water dancing, and of course, her proficiency with her tiny little sword called Needle. When it comes to dealing with life’s villains, “Stick them with the pointy end” is a philosophy I can get fully on board with.
• Scout Finch: She begins the book at five years and is only eight when it ends, but the entire story of To Kill A Mockingbird is told from her perspective. The view of the adult universe as seen from a child’s eyes brings with it a particular poignancy, as we see her struggling to understand how the world works and trying to cope with her dread of the unknown, as symbolized by the mysterious Boo Radley. If life is all about confronting one’s demons, then Scout Finch could teach us all a lesson or two.
• Elizabeth Bennet: Intelligent, spirited, lively, Elizabeth is a young lady who is convinced of her own worth. And such is her self-esteem that even the pompous Mr Darcy, with his obsession with class and station, can’t destroy it. In the modern world, I am sure that Liz would go on to have a fabulous career as a writer, make her own fortune, and live happily ever after alone. In Austen’s world, she has to make a good marriage, but she manages to do so on her own terms. And in that era, that was victory enough.
• The Grand Sophy: The heroine of Georgette Heyer’s eponymous Regency novel, Sophy is a woman to gladden every feminist heart. She rides a horse better than any man, she thinks nothing of confronting an evil money-lender with a lethal little pistol, she handles her own finances, she match-makes like the best of interfering mamas, and she does all this looking like an Amazonian vision. And best of all, she brings her young cousins the greatest present of all: a monkey called Jacko to grace their nursery. How can you not love her?
• Barbara Havers: The working-class detective in Elizabeth George’s novels, Havers is prickly, defensive, angry, and very conflicted. She is torn between the demands of her career and caring for her aged mother who is suffering from Alzheimer disease; between her class hatred of her boss, Thomas Lynley (also the Earl of Ashteron), and her recognition of his innate decency. But somehow, despite her chaotic private life, her disastrous eating habits, her very questionable fashion sense, and her hostility to all authority figures, Havers manages to make that detection gig work quite brilliantly. Full marks for that.