St Brigid of Kildare, a younger contemporary of St. Patrick, is quietly growing in regard in Ireland and further afield. Who knew – unless you are Irish or know a thing or two about saints – that she is one of Ireland’s three Patron Saints?
Along with the ancient pagan Irish goddess whose name she shares, she is associated with feminine spirituality and empowerment. And this year, for the first time, St Brigid has received her own public holiday. Held midway between the winter and spring equinoxes, St Brigid’s Day has been celebrated on 1st February for centuries – and before Ireland was a Christian country it was the pagan version that received attention.
So a significant and remarkable woman, St. Brigid, born in 451, associated with miracles including her power to turn bathwater into beer …so it is said. She went on to found several monasteries and a convent in County kildare.
I had already been thinking about strong, significant women when I heard about St. Brigid. My thoughts weren’t on saints, but on powerful female characters in literature.
Because it seems to me that everywhere you look, you find strong, assertive women dominating the pages of our literary canon.
Let’s start with Shakespeare. And although there may be far fewer women in the plays, they are notable – if not always for the right reasons – but I’ll stay with positive examples today!
Portia in Julius Caesar may only have a couple of scenes to her name, but she certainly delivers. When Brutus refuses to divulge what is troubling him, brushing her off with an outright lie I am not well in health and that is all she immediately challenges him and asks about the night time visits from friends:
For here have been
Some six or seven, who did hide their faces
Even from darkness.
And when he still refuses to explain to her what’s going on, not wanting to divulge that he’s just about to bump off Julius Caesar and gain a perpetual place of notoriety in history, she addresses him with splendid dignified anger, asking if her purpose is simply to comfort your bed and talk to you sometimes, finishing off with the wonderful declaration:
:Dwell I but in the suburbs of your good pleasure? If it be no more,
Portia is Brutus’ harlot, not his wife.
Suburbs might be associated with gentility and a quiet life these days, but in Shakespeare’s time it was where the prostitutes plied their trade so Portia’s metaphor is acute!
Then there’s that other Portia who, while the wet blanket of a fiancé, Bassanio, is moping around, feeling sorry for the predicament he’s got himself into, charges off to Venice and in disguise commands the court as a lawyer and gives us her The quality of mercy is not strained speech. We might heartily disagree with the verdict these days and be appalled by the sentence handed down to Shylock at her behest, but her strength and command can’t be denied.
In fact, constantly Shakespeare’s women are superior to his men. Rosalind in As You Like It is feisty and original, unlike the lovelorn writer of bad sonnets, Orlando. Viola in Twelfth Night is so superior to self-indulgent Orsino and whilst Romeo is lyrically comparing his love to the moon and various other celestial bodies, Juliet already wants to get things straight:
If that thy bent of love be honourable
They purpose marriage, send me word tomorrow
By one that I’ll procure to come to thee
Where and what time thou wilt perform the rite.
She’s already deciding on her dress whereas Romeo is still trying to think of what rhymes with love.
Hermione in A Winter’s Tale – whilst her husband Leontes is wrongly obsessing and virtually hallucinating about her adultery, throwing abusive and utterly false accusations at her, gracious Hermione stands up in court and defends herself with such clarity and dignity:
Sir, You speak a language that I understand not.
My life stands in the level of your dreams.
Fortunately, life turns out better for Hermione than for Desdemona, another Shakespearian heroine doomed to be on the receiving end of her husband’s accusations – but then luckily Hermione has the oracle at Delphi to fall back on – always useful if you want to clear your name!
19th century novels gives us more splendid women and quite a range of dull or deceiving men.
Ok, so Mr Rochester might be a gothic, Byronic type, but he still lies about the existence of a wife whereas Jane is resilient and determined.
Thomas Hardy gives us poor Tess, a victim of men if ever there was one, and it’s Angel Clare’s blinkered, intransigent attitude that prevents her ultimate happiness as well as the darstardly Alec d’Urberville’s behaviour that sets a pure woman on her downward path.
Less tragically, he also gives us Bathsheba Everdeen and Eustacia Vye – both women sporting splendid names as well as spirited personalities and well capable of holding their own against the various men who fall in their rural paths.
So St. Brigid keeps company with some splendid strong women from literature. It might have taken many centuries for women to gain the vote and achieve any degree of equality, but if only men had bothered to consider the powerful women of literature, they might have given up the game much earlier and realised that female empowerment already existed – it just needed a bit of legislation to confirm it!