Girl guides: five fictional female bookworms
This column was originally posted on Killings.
While reminiscing about lunchtimes spent in my school library or burying my face in YA books, I got thinking about the various young female characters who have been pictured doing the same. So below I’ve listed some of my personal fictional girl guides lovingly labelled ‘bookworms’ – five characters I have identified with, been inspired by and still try to emulate.
This list isn’t ranked, but if it was, Daria would still be at the top. The lead from the late-nineties MTV cartoon of the same name, Daria was animated in form but not in character.
Monotone and bespectacled, Daria is a studious and intelligent high-school student. She is also gloriously cynical, with a sardonic sense of humour to match her black boots. Often opting to stay home and read, Daria’s misanthropy sees her ostracised among her chaotic family and the majority of her puerile peers. Daria’s signature sarcasm and frequent witty asides are often heard coming from behind the covers of whichever book she is devouring or the arts section of the newspaper. And most of the time, her Dorothy Parker–esque gems go unnoticed by those around her.
Not the kind to join a book club, but rather read Howl to the elderly, well-read Daria’s dark outlook is a highlight to me.
Who hasn’t read a book and been so consumed by the characters and diegetic world that the imagined world trickles over into one’s own reality? In Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, protagonist Catherine does just that – and it’s incredibly endearing. A gothic fiction enthusiast, Catherine reads in earnest and passionately discusses books with whomever will listen. But once surrounded by the darkened halls of a new estate, she also earnestly concocts hollow tales of fanciful intrigue about the world around her. Lovingly clinging to the words of Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho, teenager Catherine judges new acquaintances and scares herself by flickering candlelight, before eventually realising her bookish folly.
Rory Gilmore, the junior star of saccharine nineties mother–daughter drama Gilmore Girls, is dorky and accomplished, shy yet articulate, and, wonderfully, is always rewarded for her academic tendencies: she is socially respected for her smarts and even attracts teen romance because of her bookish tendencies. A true bibliophile at heart, Rory gets excited by the chance of encountering a first-edition Flaubert and goes through a period of reading The Russians.
While visiting Harvard University in the second series of Gilmore Girls, Rory has a mini-meltdown when she discovers the size of Harvard’s collection: ‘Thirteen million volumes? I’ve read like, what, three hundred books in my entire life and I’m already sixteen? Do you know how long it would take me to read thirteen million books?’ This is what I love most about Rory as a teenage character: reading and the quest for knowledge found her primary pursuits. I also love the fact that she voices an anxiety that plagues readers the world round – just glance at the pile on your bedside table and tell me that tower of text isn’t at once thrilling for all it contains and frightening for what it lacks?
I was going to restrict this list of fictional females to teens, but I could not overlook Matilda. Ever the inspirational bookworm, a five-year-old prodigy borne of Roald Dahl’s magnificent mind, Matilda taught herself to read at age three.
Books provide Matilda with scholarly stimulation and fictional escape from her real-life familial woes. This little girl is such an avid reader that she graduates to adult texts after finishing all of the children’s books in her local library. At once heartbreaking and heartwarming, Matilda is a classic text that promotes the power of reading and continues to do so to this very day (see this delightful comic that appropriates the Matilda myth for a contemporary audience).
Lisa is basically a mixture of all of the characters listed above: child-genius (Matilda) cartoon disrespected by ignorant parents and family (Daria), and an incredibly studious student (Rory) who gets pulled into gothic tales every now and again (Catherine – okay, that’s a stretch). Like these other young female bibliophiles, Lisa uses reading to further her education and escape her world. While she still loves horses and Itchy and Scratchy, Lisa has an encyclopaedic knowledge about most things, due to her dedication to reading. An often overlooked character in the Simpsons family, Lisa is strong-willed and intelligent, and undoubtedly serves as a role model for young bookworms everywhere.