Female protagonists feature prominently in English literature, not only in works written by women. Their depiction reflects the state of female autonomy at the time the piece of fiction was written; works can help trace the development of emancipation from social conventions limiting women’s freedom to act according to their needs and feelings. A close look at works from the mid-19th century till the early 2000s is particularly revealing.
Margaret Hale, protagonist of Elizabeth Gaskell’s state of England novel North and South (published around 1850) is still very much restricted by norms of female behaviour, which she accepts.
The novel tells about her falling in love with John Thornton, a mill-owner in Milton-Northern, after having rejected his proposal at first. When he sees her with her brother, who is in danger of being executed for mutiny, at the station in the late evening, Thornton assumes that she has a lover. as a magistrate, he finds out that she has lied to a policeman who leads the investigation into a possible manslaughter which has happened at the same time and place; in order to protect her brother, Margaret denies having been there. When she finds out that he knows of her lie and therefore thinks badly of her, she cannot explain the matter to him, even though Thornton can be trusted not to tell on her brother.
Female readers today might get excited about her strategy of waiting for everything to fall into place; some might even get angry at her passiveness; but Margaret Hale is bound by a set of rules which forbid her to write personal letters to a man or even to visit him because she is unmarried. She never questions these rules, and they are never explicitly stated; nevertheless, the reader experiences them in the difference of Margaret’s behaviour as compared with that of many women today, who would just make the first step into a love relationship.
Soon, however, women started breaking the rules, if in danger of being driven out of respectable society. By the end of the 19th century, the ‘new woman’ emerged. One woman risking her reputation and respectability because she dares to develop into such a ‘new woman’ is Lady Windermere, protagonist of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan. Suspecting her husband to be unfaithful to her, she decides to take the offer of a family friend, who is in love with her, to run away together. When she visits him after a party, she forgets her fan in his room. Her good name can only be saved by her mother, who, already expelled from fashionable society for being divorced, claims the fan to be hers. Lady Windermere has taken the risk which lies in breaking the rules because she was unhappy, but in the end she returns into her circle of friends, changed, but not disrespected.
In fictional works of the early Naughties, many female protagonists face the question if conventions of behaviour are still relevant to them; in general, they only break the rules if they have decided that this is not the case.
Helen Reed, protagonist of David Lodge’s Thinks (published in 2001), for instance, is faced with a very attractive adulterous man, Ralph Messenger. As a widow of Catholic backgrounds and strong moral principles she fights her lust when he offers her an affair. But she is only successful in this fight until she finds out that her deceased husband has had uncountable affairs and that Ralph’s wife is infidel, too. Seeing that social norms she has always adhered to are disregarded by everybody else, she starts an affair with Messenger. If this behaviour can be generalized, women today do not so much respond to what respectable society expects of them but rather to their own set of rules, which may be dropped in case it is not shared by others.
The question remains whether this development has gone far enough. It’s easy to see that the range of possible behaviour of women has grown – it would be quite unthinkable for Margaret Hale to commit adultery and not lose her social status. Wilde’s and Lodge’s protagonists are not entirely free of moral restraints, however. Lady Windermere wants her escapade to remain secret, although all that could be read from her fan is that she has been in another man’s room; and Helen Reed, when unpleasant events take place towards the end of the novel, feels punished for her disobedience to conventions.
A further and necessary step in the emancipation of women and female protagonists will be to free themselves from the importance of their rules being shared by others. Only when women are strong enough to uphold a moral code independent of public opinion will true emancipation from mere conventions be achieved.