While “popular culture,” as separate from “folk culture,” rose steadily following the invention of the printing press, the period of the late 1800s is arguably the period when pop culture most assumes a distinct character, as various authors—Verne, Stevenson, Wells, Doyle, Stoker, and Haggard—coalesce the mythic scenarios and characters that comprise fiction slanted toward mass appeal. I credit the last-named one, H. Rider Haggard, with the feat of creating the first major Femme Formidable of popular fiction.
A year or so after Haggard published his most enduring male archetype, Allan Quatermain, in Year 1886 he published an even more influential female character: SHE-WHO-MUST-BE-OBEYED, in the novel simply entitled SHE. (The full novel was published in 1887, but in 1886 it began serialization in a magazine entitled THE GRAPHIC.) This immortal queen of a lost city—possessed of quasi-magical powers that never seem to appear in any cinematic adaptations—combines two older archetypes: the woman as regnant queen, able to order men to carry out her will, and the woman as sorceress, able to perform acts of literal magic.
Over the next forty years, the majority of femmes formidables tended to be either witchy magic-makers or queen-commander figures. The following mini-history no doubt omits many figures, but for my money the most noteworthy are:
YEAR 1886—The same year SHE appears, Sherlock Holmes’ father Arthur Conan Doyle also tries his hand at a woman with sorcerous powers, albeit in the contemporary setting of Victorian England, as an evil woman named KATE NORTHCOTT enslaves men with hypnotism in the short story “John Barrington Cowles.”
YEAR 1893—In George Griffith’s “scientific romance” OLGA ROMANOFF, OR THE SYREN OF THE SKIES, the titular villainess commands a fleet of air ships as part of a mission to subjugate the decadent West for the glory of Mother Russia.
YEAR 1900—One of pop fiction’s most persuasive witch-figures, THE WICKED WITCH OF THE WEST, appears in L. Frank Baum’s novel THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ. A couple of film adaptations appear during the silent era but though both have witch-villains, neither explicitly uses the Witch of the West.
YEAR 1903—Bram Stoker creates one of his foremost witch-villains, QUEEN TERA, in his horror-mystery THE JEWEL OF SEVEN STARS.
YEAR 1904— YUKI-ONNE, the “snow-fairy” of Japanese folklore, is translated into literature in a short story, “Yuki-onne,” published in Lafcadio Hearn’s collection KWAIDAN.
YEAR 1905 – A vampiric ghost, known only as CHRISTINA, appears in F. Marion Crawford’s “For the Blood is the Life,” first published in Collier’s Magazine.
YEAR 1911—Bram Stoker scores another formidable femme in the novel THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM: a woman named LADY ARABELLA MARCH, able to change herself from woman to serpent.
During this year there also appears the first filmic adaptation of SHE, starring Marguerite Snow. A 1899 Melies short was labeled “Haggard’s She,” but two contemporary reviews assert that it has nothing in common with the Haggard novel. Better-known film versions of the story appear in 1925, 1935 and 1965.
YEAR 1913—In RETURN OF TARZAN, Edgar Rice Burroughs creates the priestess LA OF OPAR, whose very name marks her as something of a SHE-knockoff.
YEAR 1915-- Sometimes-costumed criminal IRMA VEP appears in Feuillade's serial LES VAMPIRES.
YEAR 1919—The “female Bluebeard” QUEEN ANTINEA debuts in Pierre Benoit’s novel L’ATLANTIDE.
YEAR 1920—Sax Rohmer creates a peculiar half-cat, half-woman NAHEMAH in THE GREEN EYES OF BAST.
YEAR 1921—The first cinematic adaptation of ANTINEA appears in the film L’ATLANTIDE.
In addition, yet another prose-born "queen of a lost race," LA OF OPAR, makes her first appearance in the serial THE ADVENTURES OF TARZAN.
YEAR 1924 – In A. Merritt’s THE METAL MONSTER, explorers stumble across a city of living metal, which is entirely under the mental control of NORHALA, a human foundling raised by the city.
YEAR 1926— In the silent film DON JUAN, Estelle Taylor portrays a fiendish fictionalized version of LUCRETIA BORGIA. There were indubitably filmizations of the real-life Lucretia before DON JUAN, but this is the first I've found in which Lucretia is seen as a figure of power rather than a romantic figure.
YEAR 1928— A “soldier-girl” named WILMA DEERING appears in Philip Francis Nowlan’s sci-fi novel ARMAGEDDON 2419 A.D. Wilma doesn’t appear in the novel as much as the hero, one “Tony Rogers,” but she’s clearly a female able to fight on her own behalf.
Wilma’s prose advent marks a turning point in the development of the pop-cultural archetype of the femme formidable: the “fighting femme formidable.” I don’t suppose that Wilma was the first of her kind, but she seems to be the first to have garnered some measure of lasting fame, though not in the prose format. Her fame came about thanks to the medium of comic strips, though she would also gain fame through other media-adaptations. Given the importance of this breakthrough, I begin my solo character-posts with the comic strip incarnation of this character.