Our favorite female characters are universal archetypes and uniquely flawed individuals all at once. Once or twice in a generation, a brilliant author will create, almost stumble upon this kind of masterpiece, unearthing a character of such dazzling originality and truth that she will resonate with readers for all time. Characters like Clarissa Dalloway or Emma Bovary, whose charms and quirks and foibles will linger with us long after we have closed the book. We sympathize with them, we admire them, we might even hate them--we see ourselves in them.
Ultimately, readers bring their own imagination, their own hopes and fears and experiences, to bear in envisioning these legendary women. But as an artist consumed with and fascinated by the female form, I could not resist the challenge of bringing each of the greatest women in literature (in my own opinion, of course) to watercolor life, as I saw them spring forth in my mind while reading (and re-reading) these beloved works. Painting them in all their captivating beauty and pairing them with hand-lettered quotes from their dialogue connected me in a profound way to each of these characters. Having completed my book, "Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction's Most Beloved Heroines," I feel as though they are each as familiar to me as a close friend. Whether you have read only a handful of these stories or you know them all by heart, I hope you will enjoy gazing into the eyes of all of these powerful, damaged, beautiful, incandescent women.
Edna Pontellier from Kate Chopin’s "The Awakening" struggles to find a voice and to have control over her life in a way that women just didn’t at the end of the 19th century. She rebelled against societal constraints to express herself as an individual outside of the paradigms of marriage and motherhood. She rebels against everything and risks everyone in her life to escape the expectations of others.
Dolores “Lolita” Haze is to me one of the most tragic characters of all time. Hollywood may have made her a coquettish minx, but in Nabokov’s great work I see her as a little girl begging for unconditional parental love from selfish and sick adults who twist and corrupt her innocence.
Virginia Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway struggles with so many fundamental questions about life and love and friendship. We can all relate as she attempts to navigate societal norms, keep up perfect appearances, all the while probing deeper into her own fragile inner life.
Flaubert’s Emma Bovary is a woman so constrained by society and her own discontent that she is dangerously compelled by her emotions and passions to risk everything she is supposed to value as a wife, mother, and woman simply for the opportunity to feel.
Esther Greenwood from Sylvia Plath’s "The Bell Jar" is another example of a young woman dissatisfied with societal constraints and prohibitions—especially sexual ones. Struggling with mental illness, she is simultaneously mindful of the world and mindless of her impact on those who love her.
Mina Harker from Bram Stoker’s "Dracula" is loving, faithful, and above all plucky. In a male-dominated novel, she manages to stand out for her compassion, intelligence, and adroit navigation of some very life- and soul-threatening situations.
Nora Charles from "The Thin Man" by Dashiell Hammett epitomizes light-hearted fun. Beneath her glamorous and boozy facade, she is clever and resourceful. Unlike so many female characters in literature, Nora is in a happy marriage where she is and has a loving partner. She would be a great best friend.
Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse trifles blithely with the love lives of her friends while steadfastly denying herself. She only stops her cheerful meddling when she allows herself to discover a love of her own.
Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly is the paradigm of chic in his novella "Breakfast at Tiffany's." She’s an outspoken dreamer who escaped an unpleasant life in a disagreeable place to chase happiness and fantasy in New York City. Despite her seemingly frivolous and shallow interludes with wealthy men she’s a woman who lives independently during a time when women typically did not.
All images from: Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction's Most Beloved Heroines by Samantha Hahn, published by Chronicle Books 2013.