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Heroines of History: Fact and Fantasy

Queen Boudica in John Opie's painting Boadicea Haranguing the Britons
Queen Boudica in John Opie’s painting Boadicea Haranguing the Britons

Boudicca

Queen of all bad-ass historical heroines must be Boudicca, Chieftainess of the Iceni tribe of Celtic Britain. She lived in reluctant harmony with the invading Romans in the first century CE, but when her husband died, and the Roman procurator laid claim to all his wealth and land, Boudicca was not happy and she didn’t hide it.

The Roman response to her protest was to publically flog her and rape her two virgin daughters. In this vile act of cruelty they unwittingly ignited one of the most formidable war leaders to stand against the Roman Empire. Rallying all the latent fury embedded in the British tribes from decades of Roman oppression, Boudicca summoned an army of 100,000 warriors and led an uprising that destroyed the Roman cities of Camulodunum (Colchester) and Londinium (London). She was ultimately defeated in the Battle of Wattling Street, but her power and success caused the Emperor Nero to seriously consider withdrawing his troops from the British Province.

Two thousand years later, she remains a symbol of passion, love, freedom and courage. Bad-ass.

 

© Hammer
© Hammer

Alice Nutter

Jeanette Winterson’s fierce and beautiful Alice Nutter, is the heroine of the gothic novella, The Daylight Gate. Set in the Lancashire Witch trials of 1612, Alice gallops into this dark story—astride her horse, not sidesaddle. She has grown wealthy by her invention of magenta dye and has worked for the queen’s astrologer in plants, dyes and instinctive chemistry. Now she lives alone in the untamed, brooding hills of Pendle with her falcon familiar, tending the sick and dreaming, now and then, of her lost lover.

Through her strong sense of justice, and her shrewd mind Alice becomes implicated in the defence of the accused witches. She is at once, the voice of reason and a mistress of magic.

Alice is everything you need in a bad-ass heroine: independent, intelligent, sensual, powerful. She leaps off every page of this sinewy novel.

 

© Penguin
© Penguin

Morgaine

It is with a mixed heart that I include the complex and vulnerable Morgaine, heroine of the widely beloved, Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. The author has been accused of horrendous crimes and I have not been able to re-read her novel since these came to light. However, this character remains one of the transformative literary heroines of my early life.

Re-telling the Arthurian legends from the perspective of the female characters, this novel makes a searing critique of Christianity and evokes a pagan, goddess-centred spirituality of great depth and power.

Morgaine, sister of Arthur, lover of Lancelot, is all too human, passionate, conflicted, sensitive and courageous, and steers us through the demise of her culture with insight and illumination. This is the novel that awakened my love of the ancient British landscape.

 

Hypatia at the Haymarket theatre. Philammon declaring his love for Hypatia'. Print from the first page of The Graphic, 21 January 1893.
Hypatia at the Haymarket theatre. Philammon declaring his love for Hypatia’. Print from the first page of The Graphic, 21 January 1893.

Hypatia of Alexandria

Hypatia of Alexandria is one seriously awesome and brainy lady. She was a professor of philosophy, mathematics and astronomy at the Great Library of Alexandria in the 4th Century CE, at a time when women were barely able to become students, let alone teachers. Historiographer, Socrates of Constantinople, writes that she ‘made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time.’ People travelled from all over the world to hear her teachings.

She taught the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle and was also said to have had a pagan devotion to magic, astrolabes and instruments of music, highly dangerous at a time when Christianity was becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire.

As tensions erupted between the Jews and the Christians in 415, Hypatia was targeted as an anti-Christian agitator. Her commitment to giving public lectures on the street led to her violent demise, and she was lynched, stripped naked, dragged through the streets and slaughtered at a church.

Some think that her death marked the end of Classical antiquity. I think she was very cool.

© Bloomsbury Publishing
© Bloomsbury Publishing

Alma Whittaker

One of the great female characters of contemporary fiction, Alma Whittaker was born in Philadelphia in 1800 on page one of Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things.

Raised with material and intellectual wealth in the household of a famous pharmaceutical botanist, Alma grows up to be a formidably educated expert in moss, revelling in the scientific burgeoning of the post-enlightenment age.

What she desires even above knowledge of moss, however, is to experience sexual love. Enter the botanical illustrator who thinks Alma is completely awesome, but doesn’t quite like ladies in that way.

Alma’s tragic pursuit of her desire, her noble grappling with her own needs and nature, take her from America to Tahiti, where she attains an understanding of the world and herself with bad-ass bravery.

The juxtaposition of her scientific brilliance against her heartbreaking vulnerability, render her the most touching and inspiring of heroines.