Literary heroines: plain Janes

I’ve enjoyed making the acquaintance of Jane Carter, the shop girl who works her way up to become a shop owner, in Dorothy Whipple’s High Wages (published by Persephone). She’s a plain-spoken Northern lass, with an eye for beauty and a head for business.

Early in the book, she laments ‘for the hundredth time’ that she wasn’t given a more exciting name, like Gladys. But by the time she sees ‘Jane’ over her own shop, she’s changed her mind:

‘She gazed with ecstasy at her name hanging in bronze letters in the window: JANE. She had always disliked that name for a plain, old-fashioned one, and now it inspired her with sharpest delight. Not only was it adequate, and, by a turn of fashion, modish, but it was a symbol. Under this name the venture was launched, like a very small ship in an uncertain sea.’

She’s not the only fictional Jane to make a virtue of plain-speaking and independence. My favourite Bronte heroine isn’t the attention-seeking, hysterical Cathy from Wuthering Heights, but the eponymous Jane Eyre.

I first read Jane Eyre as a girl of about 10. From that first reading I remember sharing Jane’s outrage at her unjust treatment as a child, and weeping copiously over the death of her saintly friend Helen. As an adult, I was struck by Jane’s absolutely incorruptible independence of spirit, verging on stubbornness. (Helen I now find unbearably wet.)

But Jane Eyre, refusing to compromise for the sake of comfort, setting aside love unless on her own terms, knowing, at heart, that she’s as good as any of them and better than most – she’s a very a modern woman.

The Janes of this world don’t have it easy. I remember being most disgruntled to learn that I was born on a Saturday, as in ‘Saturday’s child works hard for a living’. Janes work hard for a living too, and people tend to take them for granted.

However, you can do all you like to make a Jane feel small, oppress her, bully her. But, it seems to me, you’ll never break her spirit. As Dorothy Whipple says in High Wages, ‘The more you trod on Jane, the more she wasn’t squashed.’ I love that line.

Then, of course, there’s the all-conquering non-fictional literary heroine, Jane Austen. She demonstrated what I’ve come to think of as the Janely qualities of hard work, independence, competence and neatness. She quietly insisted on doing her work, and knew its worth, despite all discouragement.

So, like Jane Carter, I want to celebrate the Janes of the world, taking the sharpest delight in their under-rated virtues. Literary heroines, all of them. Any other literary Janes I should know about?

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