4 Books with Headstrong Female Characters to Pair with Emma by Jane Austen

One of the things I adore about Jane Austen’s Emma is the variety of complex female characters in the novel. Obviously, there’s quite a variety of personalities among the women in this story. To name just a few, we have Emma herself, who is outgoing and headstrong; we have Harriet, who is meek and uncertain; we have Jane, who is reserved and well-mannered; and we have Isabella, who is affectionate and family-oriented. It’s particularly interesting to consider these personalities against the backdrop of the Regency era, where societal expectations were quite strict for women. Whenever there’s a novel with women and strict societal standards, there always seems to be the trope of the women who conform versus the women who rebel.

Chelsey and Sara’s Emma pairings included books with romantic heroines, strong female friendships, and women who buck tradition. I’m thrilled to be offering you four additional pairings for Jane Austen’s Emma each with a complex but lovable heroine of its own.

Emma: A Modern Retelling by Alexander McCall Smith. This take on Emma sticks very close to the original story but makes the context accessible for today’s readers–all of the characters are the same but their lives have been updated. In Austen’s novel, Emma is a young lady from a wealthy, mid-19th century family who enjoys finding her friends significant others while she herself plans to remain single. In Smith’s book, Emma is a modern woman who has just graduated from college and is on the prowl for matchmaking jobs. To me, this is the type of novel a modern Jane Austen would write because her works are largely based on her observation and critique of 19th-century courtship and society. Smith follows this exact style, only he’s looking at the 21st century. 

The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner. I suppose this book could technically be a pairing for any Jane Austen novel, but it feels like Emma is mentioned a little more often than Austen’s other novels. Jenner offers just the right amount of Austen background while also weaving her own story about a group of people who come together in the name of preserving Austen’s legacy. I really enjoyed the female characters in this one. Like Emma, the story incorporates women with varying perspectives and age ranges, from a Hollywood starlet to a young girl to an older “spinster” and more.

Dear Mrs. Bird by AJ Pearce. In England during WWII, Emmy Lake is doing what she can to support the war effort, but her real dream is to become a lady war correspondent. She takes a job writing for the local newspaper, thinking this will get her one step closer to her goal. But the job turns out to be a surprise—she ends up writing for a women’s advice column where she can only respond to the most benign of inquiries. Frustrated, Emmy decides to secretly reply to the letters that are too uncouth for the magazine, but she has to make sure that her boss, Mrs. Bird, doesn’t find her out. Emmy reminds me a lot of Emma because she is independent, determined, and does what she believes is best, even if it means breaking the rules. While Emmy does have a love interest, he is not central to the plot and she gets along just fine without a man. Her best friend is equally strong (unlike Harriet) and their friendship makes this book even more special.

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney. Set in New York City on December 31, 1984, the plot follows the elderly Lillian Boxfish as she reflects on her life and career as the highest-paid woman in American advertising of the 1930’s. As Lillian enjoys her leisurely New Year’s Eve stroll, she meets bartenders, bodega clerks, security guards, and a variety of other people. She both learns from and imparts wisdom on those she meets all while reviewing the major historical movements she has experienced in her lifetime. Lillian and Emma Woodhouse have a lot in common–they are both brave, intelligent, opinionated, and ahead of their time. They don’t let anyone tell them to change who they are. (TW: suicide)   

And we can’t forget about a bonus pick of the week…

  • Clueless (1995, Directed by Amy Heckerling). This movie is another modern retelling of Emma. Cher and her best friend Dion rule their high school but decide to give the unpopular, fashion-challenged, new girl a makeover when she transfers to their school. Cher is so busy with this project that it takes her a while to remember she has needs, too.

Readers, who are your favorite headstrong literary heroines? Leave a comment below!

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