5 Excellent Adaptations of 19th and 20th Century British Literature Featuring Strong Female Leads

To establish my status as our resident expert of late 19th and early 20th century British and Russian literature featuring strong female leads, I feel compelled to provide  a list of my favorite literary adaptations of late 19th /a early 20th century feminist(ish) novels. Some might not consider these novels to be feminist, of course, but if considered  against the context in which the novels were written (the source materials were are all written by women, by the by) and the strength and intelligence of the characters – even those who just end up getting married – compared to the strength and intelligence women were assumed to have and expected to show at the time, I think the list will serve an agreeable point of feminist measure. A few of these are miniseries (miniserieses?)  rather than films. I could write a lot on the power of the mini series, but that’s for another time. Here we go.

1.       Wives and Daughters (1999 miniseries)


Based on:  Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell, a serial published between 1864 and 1866

Synopsis: A single father raises his only daughter, Molly, to her teenage years, at which point he mistakenly believes she needs a mother figure. He marries a silly woman with a daughter who seems equally silly at first, but who turns out to be complex and so very human, embroiled in a sensitive situation with a man many years her senior. Molly, meanwhile, befriends a dying woman in the area, and sacrifices her own reputation to protect the woman’s son’s secret as well as the secret of her new stepsister. She even endures her father’s undeserved disapproval in order to protect those she deems worth protecting. This particular adaptation gives Molly the happy ending she deserves. However, the novel on which it is based ends without an ending; its author, Elizabeth Gaskell, died before she finished it (which was a horrible thing to realize after reading almost all of the existing book and becoming very attached to Molly and concerned for her welfare).  Although the contrived ending is a bit of a cliché (lovers running toward each other in the pouring rain), I love that the director didn’t make it a way over the top moment. They may confess their love in the pouring rain, but it’s done with so much restraint that it is believable for the time period and preserves Molly as the independent thinker she is (she did all of the running, in this scenario, and defied her father’s direct order). Of course, in the miniseries, her fellow is not allowed to say good-bye because he’s under quarantine, and that’s why running after him is so daring and maybe why they don’t lock lips, but I think that plot device was included only for the benefit of the modern romantic who expects them to smash together and kiss passionately in the downpour.

2.       The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1996 mini-series)


Based on: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte, published in 1848 under the pseudonym Acton Bell.

Based on: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë , published in 1848 under the pseudonym Acton Bell.

Synopsis: A mysterious woman and her son take up residence at Wildfell Hall, and gossips whisper due to the apparently single mother’s antisocial ways and oddly close relationship with her landlord. A local man will believe none of it, at first, and falls in love with the lady, until one day he witnesses a scene which causes him to doubt her virtue. She condescends to provide him with an excerpt of her diary, in which she exonerates herself and proves that she is probably the most irreproachable member of this moral little community. This miniseries stars Rupert Graves, an under-appreciated British actor, as Huntingdon, and Tara Fitzgerald as his wife, Helen. The adaptation is so true to the book that  when I picked up the book to read it afterward, I was almost convinced I had read it before (even though I was sure I hadn’t). This is one reason that I chose it for my list, even though it is an obscure adaptation of a lesser-known Brontë novel. I also chose it, however, because Helen is the strongest woman I’ve encountered in literature of this time period and any film showing her as Anne Brontë intended is going to be a favorite of mine. As she reveals in her diary, Helen is married to a profligate and a rake, Huntingdon, whose treatment of her and their son is nothing less than abusive. In a time when leaving one’s husband, no matter his behavior, was scandalous, Helen finds a way out and supports herself and her son through her art while living under an assumed name. When she hears that Huntingdon has drunk himself onto what is likely his deathbed, however, she returns to him–not out of wifely duty, but as one human being caring for another, weaker person, who has driven away all those who once cared for him. It is pity, and not duty, that sends her back to him. When he dies, she is left financially independent, and is able to lead the life she deserves, surrounded by those whom she loves and who love her in return. Tara Fitzgerald does a creditable job in her role, but it is Rupert Graves playing Huntingdon, the important foil for Helen, who makes the series memorable. His increasingly degenerate lifestyle manifests itself physically, and his sickly appearance and abhorrent behavior serve to highlight Helen’s goodness. Graves dedicates himself to this physical transformation, and over the course of the series goes from a handsome young man to a weak, bitter, unrepentant, and terribly lonely soul, who even in his final hour does not recognize that Helen does not nurse him out of condescension, but out of genuine hope for his salvation.

3.       Daniel Deronda (2002 mini series)

Based on: Daniel Deronda by George Eliot, published in 1876.

Based on: Daniel Deronda by George Eliot, published in 1876.

Synopsis: This tale has several plots, really. Daniel Deronda rescues a Jewish singer (Miss Lapidoth) and discovers his Jewish heritage.  Daniel Deronda is appealed to persistently by a lady who married for money (at her mother’s encouragement), who has trouble making peace with her situation. Gwendolen hates her husband more each day, until one day on holiday the unthinkable happens… Meanwhile, Daniel Deronda grows closer to his protege and to his own obscure origins. Let me start by saying that I heart Hugh Dancy, who plays Daniel Deronda in this film, and I might heart Daniel Deronda a little bit, too, for his willingness to help those in unfortunate circumstances, whether they be self-inflicted or not. This miniseries paints Mr. Deronda in an almost angelic light, except that he does seem to entertain the idea of an affair with Gwendolen… Let me continue by saying that, although Gwendolen becomes increasingly annoying over the course of the series by constantly moaning to Daniel Deronda about how unhappy she is, the series does a good job of reminding you that she was forced into her unhappy marriage through the loss of her family’s wealth (no fault of her own) and pressure to keep up appearances, and her husband (played by Hugh Bonneville) married her with eyes wide open and with no intent to make her happy. At the least, he is verbally/emotionally abusive. The characterization of Gwendolen and Grandcourt is such that by the time he’s knocked overboard during their sailing trip, we share her inconclusiveness as she debates whether or not to save him from drowning. At the same time, you rejoice that Daniel Deronda has not succumbed to Gwendolen’s manipulations, and that he has, after a lifetime not knowing who he was and receiving direction from a kind but strict guardian (whose relationship to him is not explained), found an identity.

4.       Emma (1999 film)

Based on: Emma by Jane Austen, published in 1815.

Based on: Emma by Jane Austen, published in 1815.

Synopsis: Miss Emma Woodhouse plays matchmaker for Miss Harriet Smith, and in doing so learns just how little she knows of love and true compatibility. Although this story is centered around matrimony and matchmaking, it highlights the difficulties women of the time faced in overcoming their circumstances through any means except marriage. Emma, the daughter of a gentleman, points out quite rightly that she may become an old maid, because an unmarried woman with money is respected, while those without–like her friend Miss Bates–are a burden on their family and objects of pity in the community. To avoid this future for her friend, Miss Smith, Emma tries to lift her out of her undefined position by encouraging her to reject the proposal of a good and successful farmer (whom Harriet likes very much) and instead go after Mr. Elton, a clergyman (and therefore better, in Emma’s estimation, than a farmer). Mr. Elton, however, has plans to increase his own consequence through marriage… This is a comedy of errors, first and foremost, and so we are entertained by the misunderstandings between the characters (while they are unaware of them, themselves), and the cultural criticism is limited. In the end, however, Emma learns (as perhaps we all should), that rank or wealth doesn’t necessarily reflect character, and that the influence she has as a wealthy woman  means she also has a moral imperative to use that influence to benefit the less fortunate. The 1999 adaptation of Emma is faithful to the novel, in that we don’t really like the main character too much, but we identify with her still. Perhaps it is for this reason that Gwyneth Paltrow is such a great choice for the role. Toni Collette plays the simple and guileless Harriet Smith flawlessly, and Alan Cumming is well cast for the role of the self-serving and disingenuous Mr. Elton. The best part of this film, however, is that it enhances Jane Austen’s written humor with visual comedy, lovingly teasing its characters for their idiosyncrasies.

5.       Pride and Prejudice (2005)

Based on: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, published in 1813.

Based on: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, published in 1813.

Synopsis: If you don’t already know the plot of Pride and Prejudice, then I’m disappointed in you and can probably not be your true friend. For the sake of harmony, I’ll assume that you have read the book or seen one of the film adaptations, and that it has simply been a long time and you need to refresh your memory. The Bennets – a family of five daughters – are thrown into a state of excitement when an eligible bachelor (five thousand a year!) moves into Netherfield, a local estate. This bachelor, Mr. Bingley, brings along his surly friend, Mr. Darcy (ten thousand a year!), and snooty sisters, one of whom has cast her eye on Mr. Darcy as her future mate. Over the course of the tale, the eldest Bennet sister falls in love with Mr.  Bingley, Mr. Darcy separates them due to pride and prejudice (see what I did there?). Meanwhile, Miss Elizabeth Bennet allows her poor opinion of Mr. Darcy to be further influenced by one Mr. Wickham, the local rake, and also suffers through the attentions of Mr. Collins, her cousin on whom the Longbourn estate (where the Bennets live) is entailed. Watch the movie to see how these misunderstandings are resolved. While most people are going to tell me that the Colin Firth version of Pride and Prejudice is The Best, I prefer this one (with the exception of the last few minutes, which I’ll get to in a moment). Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet has the right amount of moxy for the part, while Jena Malone’s affected acting style actually works well for Lydia, who is so entirely self-absorbed that any social interaction she has seems insincere. Mrs. Bennet is silly, yet somehow sympathetic, and while Tom Hollander is the physical opposite of the literary Mr. Collins (who is large and awkward), his characterization is spot on. My only complaint about this film is the controversial (in my mind) “Mrs. Darcy” ending. For whatever reason, the American release of this movie includes several minutes of saccharine melodrama tacked onto what I believed to be a very good ending (when Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s happiness is secured with their engagement). This last scene shows Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy post-nuptials, in supposed wedded bliss at Netherfield, staring into each other’s eyes while discussing what Mr. Darcy may call Elizabeth now that they’re married. She eventually tells him to call her Mrs. Darcy only when he is perfectly, “incandescently happy.” He then proceeds to repeatedly call her “Mrs. Darcy,” punctuating each repetition with a kiss, ending with the full-on kiss on the lips we Americans love. Knowing my love of subtlety as you do (if you’ve read the rest of this piece), you’ll understand why I quit watching this movie before its American end, and happily pretend the director thought more of my intelligence than to expose me to something so obviously not Austen.


And so we have our heroines:

  1. Molly
  2. Helen
  3. Gwendolen
  4. Emma
  5. Elizabeth

Each of these women possesses strength, intelligence, and most of all agency in her own life, in spite of the factors working against her. Emma is perhaps the weakest of these, but I think we must find her strength in her ability to grow out of the prejudice which her status has given her, and to recognize the responsibility that comes with influence. Gwendolen, although she at first looks to Daniel Deronda for help in escaping, eventually finds her own (sinister) way out. Elizabeth teaches a man to see beyond his pride, and Molly stands by her promises and her sense of what is right at the expense of her reputation (something easily ruined, and not so easily recovered). Strongest of all, a survivor and a protector, is Helen, who removes her son from the influence of his sinful father, and provides for him as a single mother in a time when ladies simply did not do that.