Top 3 most unbearable literary heroines from pre-1900

Pamela Andrews, from Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740)

Any 21st century readers of Richardson’s novel Pamela will most likely find the eponymous heroine hard to warm to. The novel is written in an epistolary style from Pamela’s perspective, and tells the story of a pious young servant whose master, Mr B, makes continual unwanted sexual advances towards her. However, rather than escaping his service immediately, Pamela insists on continuing her work in the house out of some misguided sense of duty towards her master. In a bizarre twist, she then chooses to marry her would-be rapist, despite clearly being averse to his previous attempts to seduce her. As a result, Mr B receives no punishment for his frankly rather creepy behaviour. For a modern-day feminist, Pamela therefore makes for a rather infuriating read, partly due to Richardson’s presentation of a heroine so obsessed with her virtue and societal duty that she ignores her own sexual rights.

Lydia Bennet, from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813)

The youngest of the five Bennet sisters in Austen’s novel, Lydia is also by far the most insufferable. Her behaviour is no doubt influenced by her mother, Mrs Bennet, an excitable, self-obsessed hypochondriac who is desperate to marry her daughters off to wealthy gentlemen. However, this is no excuse for the selfish and impulsive way Lydia behaves over the course of the book. From the start she is an embarrassment to her elder sisters as a result of her flirtatious and frivolous behaviour, which demonstrates her immaturity. She then goes on to cause a potential scandal when she runs away with the villainous Mr Wickham, who is only persuaded to marry her after Mr Darcy comes to the rescue, offering a great deal of money as her dowry. Even when she returns home she brags about being a married woman, suggesting she has not learnt her lesson even by the novel’s end. While her sister, Elizabeth, is arguably one of the greatest female literary heroines of all time, Lydia is far from being a favourite among readers.

Amy March, from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868)

Although Amy does mature as the story progresses, she is arguably the least likeable March sister in the first half of Alcott’s novel Little Women, which tells the story of four poverty-stricken sisters during the American Civil War. Despite her family’s financial struggles, Amy has a taste for high society, and is prone to vain and self-centred behaviour as a result. She spends much of the earlier chapters obsessing over her appearance, particularly her nose, and throwing tantrums, making it hard for readers to warm to her. However, her most unforgivable action has to be when she burns the manuscript for the book her sister Jo has been working on, leaving her sister devastated. She then has to rely on her neighbour Laurie and Jo to rescue her when she falls through the ice while skating on the lake, despite her previous reprehensible treatment towards Jo. By the end of the book, Amy is a much more compassionate character, partly due to the death of her sister, Beth, and marriage to Laurie. Nevertheless, it is still hard for readers to forget her earlier selfishness and immaturity.

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