01 January 2018

Reading a book is like being invited into the home of someone you don’t know, but when you get there you realise they want to tell you all their most intimate secrets (or, at least a version of them they want you to believe). If you don’t find them fascinating it quickly becomes tedious. For me, if all they drone on about is wanting to find a husband before they get left on the shelf at the ripe old age of 30 it’s torture. I would never spend time with a woman like that in real life, so why am I subjecting myself to it now? I feel the same as soon as the heroine in a novel feels relieved that her new boyfriend orders for both of them at dinner. Or lays out clothes he’s chosen for her to wear. ‘What are you doing?’ I want to shout. ‘Why are you being so wet?’

I always strive to write heroines who I would be happy to hang out with. Strong, independent, often feisty women. I don’t necessarily approve of the way they’re behaving. I sometimes wouldn’t want to be their friend. But they‘re good company. They’re interesting. Because if I don’t want to spend time with them how can I assume anyone else will?

The very best inhabit your life like a loved one. When you finish the book you miss them, there’s a hole in your soul that they used to fill. On occasions I have mooched around for days after coming to the end of a novel, feeling as if something’s missing, pining like a jilted lover until I discover a new imaginary friend.

Here are a few of my favourite leading ladies:

Helen Huntingdon from The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Women who live outside the conventions of their time have always appealed to me. It’s hard for us to imagine how shocking Helen Hutingdon must have appeared to Victorian society. A woman who could summon up the courage to flee her abusive husband, to set up a new, independent, secret life for herself. The fact that Anne Bronte imagined this world in 1848, without feeling she had to make Helen some kind of a villain gives the book even more resonance.

Eleanor Oliphant from Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

Stiff, curmudgeonly, awkward Eleanor. So particular, so at odds with the world. At first I couldn’t warm to her at all, but somehow, slowly, she got under my skin. And she stayed there. And that’s what’s so wonderful about this book. Gail Honeyman peels away Eleanor’s layers with beautiful delicate precision until you really begin to understand her. And then you fall in love with her, or at least I did.

Jo March from Little Women

Stubborn tomboy Jo, so often her own worst enemy, was my idol growing up. Like me she hated dressing up, being forced to be girly, making stuffy polite conversation when you could be out climbing a tree. Like me she lost herself in reading and writing. Like me she put her foot in her mouth every time she opened it. But unlike me she was brave and bold, traits I aspired to have but failed spectacularly until I became an adult (and maybe not even then). I wanted to be her.

Rachel Walsh from Rachel's Holiday

Flawed, funny and the epitome of feisty but with a dark and raw undertone. Rachel was a fantastic antidote to the perky vacuous would-be fiancées that peppered so much of Chick Lit in the early days. Here was a woman dealing with real ‘stuff’ even if she was in denial and determined to joke her way out of it. She was raucous, outrageous and real.

Nina Stibbe from Love, Nina

OK, so Nina is not a fictional character. I know this. No, really, I do. But she’s still one of my favourite book heroines. Maybe it’s because we moved to London at around the same time and about the same age. We lived within walking distance of each other. There are times when I think we might well have crossed paths. That could be why young Nina appeals to me so much but actually it’s because she’s funny and awkward and so refreshingly unsophisticated and open. I can imagine being her friend. Not just then but now. Be afraid Nina. Be very afraid.

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