Heroines of Inner Beauty

As kind of a follow-up to last week’s post, I’ve compiled a Top 5 list of books that focus on inner beauty. They’re all fiction, because I believe stories are one of the most powerful teaching tools in existence. Some of the heroines of these books have been my best friends and role models since childhood. If you’ve already met some of them yourself, you know what I’m talking about.

So without further ado: a reading list for your daughters, nieces, sisters, or anyone else you might want to inspire to grow in inner beauty.

1. Anne Shirley, from Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

If I were a literary character, I’d want to be Anne. The smart, spunky, redheaded heroine often gets herself into “scrapes” because of her quick temper, but her imagination and indomitable spirit usually dig her back out again. 

2. Polly Milton, from An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott

While the author’s tone can verge on moralistic at times, the childlike Polly is impossible not to like. She grows from a little girl who enjoys being one to a responsible, kind young woman who sets the example for others.

3. Sara Crewe, from A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

A classic riches-to-rags-to-riches story, A Little Princess follows Sara from a position of great wealth to one of destitution. While she starts out as a kind, imaginative girl, poverty puts her to the test–and reveals that being a princess is something that comes from the inside.

4. Stargirl, from Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

This whimsical modern classic follows Leo Borlock’s discovery of and fascination with Stargirl, a formerly homeschooled high schooler who simply doesn’t conform to the crowd. Whether she’s carrying her pet rat around in a sunflower bag or cheerleading for the opposite team, Stargirl is always true to herself, never bending to others’ expectations.

5. Anne Elliot, from Persuasion by Jane Austen

Jane Austen’s last work (and one I just read last year), Persuasion isn’t your typical love story. Anne Elliot has lost love and never expects to find it again, filling her life instead with cheerful, humble service to friends and family. When love does reappear for her, it is sweeter than she could have imagined.

Have you read any of these books? Are there any that you’d add to this list? 


Writer/Editor

My business card says Alina Sayre, Freelance Writer/Editor. 
It doesn’t say that those two halves of my brain have separate personalities. 
But before you ship me off to the asylum with multiple personality disorder, I’d like you to meet them. 
The writer in me is named Cordelia, after Anne from Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery (played by Megan Follows in the 1985 film). At her first meeting with her new guardian, Marilla, eleven-year-old Anne introduces herself this way:

“Will you please call me Cordelia?” she said eagerly.
Call you Cordelia! Is that your name?”
“No-o-o, it’s not exactly my name, but I would love to be called Cordelia. It’s such a perfectly elegant name.”
Cordelia is a dreamy, imaginative person with plenty of capacity for feeling and believing. She watches the habits of people and observes the world with eyes hungry for detail. No nook or cranny is too obscure to find wonder there. Sometimes she gets carried away with wild schemes, like dyeing her hair green, or flies into unexpected rampages, but overall she is a poetic and reflective person. She lets beauty “soak into her soul” and makes up stories about herself, her family, the neighbors, and any interestingly unsuspecting person. Consider yourself warned.
The other half, Madame Editor, is a middle-aged Victorian woman named Aunt Josephine (played by Meryl Streep in the film version of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events). Her watchword is:
“Grammar is the greatest joy in life, don’t you find?”

Aunt Josephine’s idea of a good time is an afternoon spent adjusting commas in accordance with The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed., of course). She flinches at the improper use of their/there/they’re and goes into raptures over a sentence that diagrams correctly. Her ideal man is one who says, “Why…grammar is the number one, most important thing in this here world to me” (even if he turns out to be a sham fisherman). 

How these two people co-exist inside my head is a mystery to me. They certainly don’t get along very well. Both are high-strung and occasionally fly into a temper when their opinion is contradicted. I’ve learned that the key to a happy mental life and successful writing sessions is to keep them apart. Do not cross this line. Do NOT cross this line. 

When I’m writing, usually Cordelia gets to come out first, because Aunt Josephine isn’t actually very good at coming up with original sentences. Cordelia, by contrast, could gush out words until the moon turns blue. With over 500,000 English words to choose from and an innumerable number of life observations and human subjects to choose from, she can imagine herself into any world she chooses at any time of day. But eventually it’s time for her to come away from the keyboard and give someone else a chance.

Then Aunt Josephine comes out to play. While she may look like an ogre as she ruthlessly slashes away, cutting out whole words, sentences, and paragraphs, she actually has a huge respect for writing and language. She simply believes that language forfeits its full power if it is overused or improperly used. Brevity is the soul of wit, and good grammar doesn’t hurt either. Sometimes she bosses Cordelia into submission, but when the dust settles, they usually agree that the end manuscript is better for their joint efforts. 

I saw a cartoon where a pencil point and its eraser were having dinner together. On the phone, the pencil point says, “Can I call you back? I’m having dinner with my editor.” Life in my brain is like that. As long as the two halves of the pencil work separately and respect each other’s abilities, they continue to co-exist safely and (sometimes) happily.



Does your brain have multiple sides to it? How does it help or hinder your creative process?

Wit, Wisdom, and Castles: “I Capture the Castle” by Dodie Smith

This is a review of a book that is not for the young, but certainly for the young at heart.
I Capture the Castle, published in 1943 by Dodie Smith (her first novel), begins with all the trappings of a fairy tale, but uses them to tell a story so real that there’s nothing fairy-tale or cliché about it.
Seventeen-year-old Cassandra Mortmain lives in a castle. Perfectly romantic, yes? Picturesque towers, the idyllic English countryside—until you realize that the castle is full of leaks and the family is practically starving to death since her writer-father hasn’t penned a word in over twelve years. In addition to her hermetical father, Cassandra lives with her older sister Rose, whose great wish is to marry for money, her studious younger brother Thomas, her sympathetic but eccentric stepmother Topaz (whose former occupation was nude modeling for a London painter), and a handsome servant named Stephen. Oh yes, and a cat and dog; Abelard and Heloïse (private joke about a pair of twelfth-century scholar-lovers).  Cassandra’s aspiration is to be a writer, and the novel is structured as three of her journals, her stated purpose being “to teach myself how to write a novel—I intend to capture all our characters and put in conversations.”
The first major action mirrors the beginning of Pride and Prejudice: the neighboring manor, empty since the owner’s death, is at last re-inhabited by his two handsome grandsons: dashing young Americans who are terribly interesting and perfectly single. However, the remaining 90% of the book has absolutely nothing to do with Pride and Prejudice, and both Cassandra and Rose find out what misery is caused by trying to force life to match fairy tales. On the way, Cassandra’s views on wealth, history, God, romance, travel, and people are stretched even as she writes down these experiences and her reflections in her journal. 
The primary delight of this book is in Cassandra’s witty and wise narrative voice. If I’d read it at age seventeen (or younger), I think I would have found the vague and meandering plotline of the book uninteresting and the ending incomplete. I related to many of Cassandra’s stories, but in the middle of my teen years I wouldn’t have had have the distance to sift out the wisdom in them. But that’s because at the time I was looking for fairy tales, and this is a story about real life. In the six months Cassandra’s journals cover, we watch her grow up—from a starry-eyed child to an adult who perceives the world with a more complex awareness of both its joys and sorrows (fancy word for this genre: bildungsroman). She becomes a young woman who stands tall with maturity and self-respect, valuing her family, her integrity, and her dreams of authorship more than grubbing desperately for “happily ever after.” Anne of Green Gables would call her a “kindred spirit,” though she comes from the other side of the Atlantic. As Cassandra “captures” the castle and the people around her in words, we watch her become a “wise young judge,” a strong, funny, honest, real heroine who is ultimately very worthy of respect.
This is a book for aspiring writers, for young women who have wrestled with singleness, for those who love England. It’s for adults who can identify Cassandra’s wisdom but still remember going through the difficulties of gaining it for themselves. It’s for people who enjoy a witty narrator describing her unconventional life in vignettes both down-to-earth and poetic. It’s not quite like any other book I’ve read, but I’ll be keeping this one.
Have you read this book? Seen the movie adaptation? Does it remind you of something else? Add your thoughts to the conversation!