Rhiannon riding in Arberth. From The Mabinogion, translated by Lady Charlotte Guest, 1877
One of the joys of reading books is the discovery of characters who are so unique and intriguing that, even though they are the fruit of fancy and wild imagination from the part of their creators, they possess so much fire and life they literally leap from the pages as if actual beings of flesh and blood. For centuries, literature and storytelling has been mainly dominated by men, even though the tide has shifted nowadays. However, even when men had taken the stage, many of them managed to craft some very alluring female characters who are still worthy of much talk and admiration from readers for their stunning and highly complex personalities.
Here, I’ve singled out five female characters who have had a most profound impact on me and whose web of seduction still has a hold over my psyche.
5. Marian Halcombe
Marian Halcombe is a character from Wilkie Collins’s novel The Woman in White. Set during the Victorian era where gender roles are distinct and firmly established, Marian is a breath of fresh air with her unconventional ideas regarding the position of women in society and her refusal to conform to a male-dominated world and bend under its will. With endless amount of agency, she sticks to her guns, treading upon the path she considers the right one, choosing to honour her own values instead of the ones the status quo adheres to.
Far from a weak, spineless and meek creature, she is guided by the love she harbours for her half-sister, Laura. Ever loyal and attentive to her, she protects and defends her at every turn against the malice and wicked intentions of her husband and isn’t afraid to stand up to him when she feels her sister is threatened. Brave and courageous, she is a symbol of all these people who have the guts to be who they want to be in a society that demands uniformity and compliance.
4. Jane Eyre
The protagonist of the titular novel by Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre is one of the most celebrated female characters in the history of literature. And rightly so. A coming of age story, we get to see how Jane grows up and matures into a woman. Having suffered a lot in her childhood and greatly mistreated by her aunt and cousins, from a little girl Jane fervently wants to find people in her life with whom to share her love. Not the most physically appealing person, many of the people around her judge her solely based on that fact. However, Jane’s passion isn’t to be curbed. As she grows older, she’s shown to form a friendly attachment to Helen Burns and Miss Temple and then later to fall in love with her employer, Mr. Rochester.
But even though Jane hungers for love, she values freedom, dignity and self-respect far more. A devoted Christian who despises hypocrisy and plain cold religious sentiment without substance beneath, she refuses to allow Rochester to treat her as another one of his mistresses and rejects Reed’s bloodless and frigid proposal of marriage. Even though she loves Rochester, she doesn’t become a prey to this love. Instead, she chooses to remain true to her principles. Only when she has won her freedom and her financial independence does she come back to Rochester and accepts his proposal since now she stands on equal grounds with him.
Jane Eyre is an inspiring character because she shows that, no matter how challenging and heart-wrenching is to keep our integrity intact in a society steeped in hypocrisy and injustice, what truly matters is to lead the life our conscience dictates us to lead and not a faceless majority. Because before we live with others, first we need to live with ourselves.
Once again, the titular character from Théophile Gautier‘s short story brings to life a woman full of beauty, eroticism and seduction. A vampiress, Clarimonde falls in love with a priest, Romuald, who reciprocates her feelings, and lures him into abandoning his duties with the promise of eternal love and happiness. While not the first female vampire to grace the literary pages, Clarimonde is undoubtedly a unique conception, far removed in personality and habits from her literary vampire sisters.
While she needs Romuald’s blood to survive, she only consumes a few drops, therefore she’s a far cry from those deadly, ruthless vampiresses who’re solely consumed by bloodlust and have to murder to survive. What’s more, Clarimonde is genuinely in love with Romuald and the time he spends in her company and in her arms is filled with passion, desire and warmth. Most vampires in fiction of 19th and early 20th century involved with mortals seek nothing more than to satisfy their violent cravings with the mortals fulfilling the role of blood vessels under the guise of romantic love. But not Clarimonde.
One of the themes that permeates Gautier’s story is that of love as a power far greater than death. When Romuald is called to give last rites to a great courtesan who has fallen ill, he recognizes her as Clarimonde. When he goes to her in the castle, instead of giving her last rites and allowing her to die, he bestows upon her a kiss. With the power of his love for her passing through his lips, Romuald kisses Clarimonde and brings her back to life.
But the same thing applies to Romuald, for Clarimonde through her passion and love restores him to life and takes him far away from the coldness and stiffness his duties require, thus awaking his desires which until then were dead. An oxymoron given the fact that vampires have long been associated with death and decay.
However, the desires and fantasies she awakens in Romuald are condemned by the Church. Eroticism itself, which is the foundation and source of all life, is condemned.
Father Sérapion takes Romuald to Clarimonde’s tomb. He reveals her body is miraculously preserved thanks to Romuald’s blood. Father Sérapion pours holy water on her corpse. She crumbles into dust, but returns to Romuald later during the night and admonishes him for his betrayal, vanishing once and for all. Of particular interest are Clarimonde’s last words to Romuald which reveal her to be an innocent victim rather than the fiend Father Sérapion portrayed her to be:
Unhappy man! Unhappy man! What hast thou done? Wherefore have hearkened to that imbecile priest? Wert thou not happy? And what harm had I ever done thee that thou shouldst violate my poor tomb, and lay bare the miseries of my nothingness? All communication between our souls and our bodies is henceforth for ever broken. Adieu! Thou wilt yet regret me!
Of course, the tale concludes with these words from Romuald who admits that the love he shares with Clarimonde is a far greater power than anything on heaven and earth:
Alas! she spoke truly indeed. I have regretted her more than once, and I regret her still. My soul’s peace has been very dearly bought. The love of God was not too much to replace such a love as hers.
Now that is what I call a singular female creation.
Brunhilda is a character from Ludwig Tieck’s Gothic tale Wake not the Dead. Badass, merciless, cold, stunning, lethal and yet utterly tragic. Once dead, her husband, Walter, decides to bring her back to life with the help of a sorcerer only to realize that the magic has gone horribly right. Thoughtless and impetuous, Walter ”pierces the deep abyss that separates earth from heaven”. Brunhilda returns to life but not as a mortal. She’s nothing but a corpse that requires blood to reanimate itself. A far cry from her warm and inviting kin, Clarimonde, Brunhilda exhibits a cold eroticism that scatters only death in its wake.
And yet, she’s not acting out of spite or malice or hatred for humanity. She didn’t choose to be a vampiress, condemned to this torment for all eternity. But now that is her nature and she must obey her thirst for living blood. Wake not the Dead is a tragedy and the reader cannot help but feel both terror and pity towards Brunhilda who’s trapped in this never-ending hell.
In fact, there’s a deep sense of justice and satisfaction when Brunhilda turns against Walter and calls him out on his actions, sharply reminding him that it’s him who is the true monster and not her.
When Walter returned home in the evening and laid him down to repose as usual by Brunhilda’s side, the magic power of her breath produced no effect upon him; and for the first time during many months did he close his eyes in a natural slumber. Yet hardly had he fallen asleep, ere a pungent smarting pain disturbed him from his dreams; and. opening his eyes, he discerned, by the gloomy rays of a lamp, that glimmered in the apartment what for some moments transfixed him quite aghast, for it was Brunhilda, drawing with her lips, the warm blood from his bosom. The wild cry of horror which at length escaped him, terrified Brunhilda, whose mouth was besmeared with the warm blood. “Monster!” exclaimed he, springing from the couch, “is it thus that you love me?”
“Aye, even as the dead love,” replied she, with a malignant coldness.
“Creature of blood!” continued Walter, “the delusion which has so long blinded me is at an end: thou are the fiend who hast destroyed my children–who hast murdered the offspring of my vessels.” Raising herself upwards and, at the same time, casting on him a glance that froze him to the spot with dread, she replied. “It is not I who have murdered them;–I was obliged to pamper myself with warm youthful blood, in order that I might satisfy thy furious desires–thou art the murderer!”–These dreadful words summoned, before Walter’s terrified conscience, the threatening shades of all those who had thus perished; while despair choked his voice.
“Why,” continued she, in a tone that increased his horror, “why dost thou make mouths at me like a puppet? Thou who hadst the courage to love the dead–to take into thy bed, one who had been sleeping in the grave, the bed-fellow of the worm–who hast clasped in thy lustful arms, the corruption of the tomb–dost thou, unhallowed as thou art, now raise this hideous cry for the sacrifice of a few lives?–They are but leaves swept from their branches by a storm.–Come, chase these idiot fancies, and taste the bliss thou hast so dearly purchased.” So saying, she extended her arms towards him; but this motion served only to increase his terror, and exclaiming: “Accursed Being,”–he rushed out of the apartment.
Brunhilda, despite her bloodlust and killing spree, is a profoundly sympathetic character, one who suffers unjustly due to having her agency violently stripped from her. A character whose dark charm is meant to haunt the reader the way it has haunted Walter.
Rhiannon is a character from the first and third branch of the Mabinogion, a medieval Welsh collection of prose stories. An Otherwordly woman, she is beautiful, strong-minded, intelligent, politically strategic, generous, very magically potent and of great physical strength. Well-spoken and a deadpan snarker, she chooses Pwyll, prince of Dyfed, as her consort, in preference to another man to whom she has already been betrothed by orchestrating an elaborate plan to fulfill her wish. The couple has a son, Pryderi, but the babe is abducted and Rhiannon is wrongly accused of infanticide. She’s unjustly punished, though her punishment is lifted when the child is found and returned to his parents. As a widow, she marries Manawydan of the British royal family, and has further adventures involving enchantments.
From the moment her character appeared in the Mabinogion I fell in love with her. She’s the embodiment of all the positive qualities in a woman: beauty, strength, will and agency. But the fact that she suffers for years unjustly helps make her even more appealing because she bears it all with great patience and a majestic grace that speak volumes about her fortitude and the magnitude of her personality.
So, who are some of your favourite female characters and why? Please, share your views.