There's a certain kind of character commonly found in historical fiction set in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (though she can appear earlier or later, too). Her literary ancestress can be found in some of the best-loved novels of the Regency and Victorian eras. She's the girl who bends the rules just a little. Oh, she can dance a country dance or pour tea with the best of them, but she may also be a good walker or horseback rider. She may be the most intelligent girl in the story, and she's almost certainly the wittiest and the most outspoken, sometimes earning her the title of spitfire. She may be talented in more practical ways, as well: if given the opportunity, she may turn out to be a wise investor, and she may harbor talent for music, writing or art that goes beyond drawing room entertainment and might become a means of financial independence if necessary. In rare cases, she may even solve a murder. Though she occasionally runs into some trouble, especially if she fails to obey the powers that be, she usually comes through in the end. She will be the Veronica of a Betty and Veronica love triangle, and the hero is likely to find her more enticing than her more docile sisters.
The Spirited Young Lady has the same grace and style as the Proper Lady plus an added spark of attitude or rebellion that's missing from her more-prim-and-proper literary cousin. This is what makes her such a popular character today: she's the character modern audiences can most admire or relate to. In historical fiction, she's likely to be a proto-feminist. In nineteenth-century literature, she may not speak out for women's rights generally (a few examples do), but she will speak out for her rights pretty clearly. Her willingness to say what she wants is part of what makes her stand out. In unskillful hands, such a character may seem anachronistic, or may become a Sue, though there are many examples that are both believable and well-rounded.
To sum up, here are the defining traits of a Spirited Young Lady:
She is a young woman, usually between 16-25.
Her social standing/family background will be middle class or higher. Most often, her family comes from the landed gentry, though she may be a clergyman's daughter.
She is witty and confident in her conversation.
She is often quite intelligent, and may display other talents.
She has less interest in lady-like activities (such as embroidery) and might enjoy "unladylike" things (such as foxhunting) more than would be proper for a too lady-like lady.
She is independent and self-sufficient. She anticipates, or even expects, to marry someday, but she does not need a man to give her life purpose.
She is generally honest and frank (though she may lie for a good cause).
She may be outspoken, bold, or in some cases even defiant.
Despite the above, she generally avoids going so far beyond the rules of her society that she would be labelled disreputable: she is, after all, a lady.
Though the Spirited Young Lady is usually a heroine or positive supporting character, negative versions of this trope are possible. Only add such examples if it is clear that they are treated as spirited young ladies in universe. If you're adding a villain or anti-hero as an example, please explain how she fits this trope rather than being just a period version of another trope.
The Proper Lady and the Spirited Young Lady are frequently paired together. If the Spirited Young Lady is the heroine, the Proper Lady may be her rival. In such cases the Spirited Young Lady may serve to deconstruct the Proper Lady. On the other hand, if the Proper Lady is the heroine, the Spirited Young Lady may serve as a bad example that the Proper Lady must reject. However, the two tropes have been known to coexist quite happily together as siblings or friends, in which case their differing character traits complement each other. (See Tomboy and Girly Girl for a similar dynamic; though the Spirited Young Lady and Proper Lady both qualify as Girly Girls, in historical works a Tomboy often grows up to become a Spirited Young Lady as she conforms to the requirements of society.)
Compare Rebellious Princess, who's of a higher social standing but may behave similarly. The Spirited Young Lady may also be a Plucky Girl and/or Well, Excuse Me, Princess!, but that isn't necessary to this trope. See also Yamato Nadeshiko, which can serve as the Japanese counterpart to either this trope or the Proper Lady. For ladies that hide their 'spark' in Politeness Judo and Passive-Aggressive Kombat, see Silk Hiding Steel.
Contrast Straw Feminist—in many ways, the Spirited Young Lady is typically a highly positive/sympathetic take on feminism: she may be independent, self-fulfilled and ambitious, but she is not "anti-man" and is therefore not "afraid" to be a feminine Girly Girl.
Although Vivian is a little too young to be eligible for being a young lady, she is certainly spirited enough to become a Spirited Young Lady with a few more years. Her older sister Grace is much closer to the conventional Proper Lady.
Monica is a queer case. She does have the guts to pooh-pooh stiff propriety whenever it's necessary and my does she speak her mind; however, she knowingly play-pretends to be a fragile flower for her husband, and seems enthusiastic about getting rid of Victorian fashions and customs in India - and then again, she's a tiger when it comes to some young man breaking her dear little sister's heart.
∀ Gundam has Sochie Heim, a loudmouthed Tsundere born into a wealthy, high-class family.
The current Queen of England from Manga/Hellsing was apparently this in her youth. She was even called a 'spirited young woman' by Alucard when he saw her again, now as an elderly woman.
Film - Animated
Despite being dead, Emily of Corpse Bride plays the more spirited counterpart to the film's other heroine, a proper lady quite appropriately named Victoria. Emily is vivacious, enthusiastic, outspoken and fights hard for her chance to love and be loved.
Belle of Beauty and the Beast is a middle-class example: intelligent, witty, spirited in a subtly feminist way—but still feminine, refined, and gorgeous in a ballgown. Note she was, according to the film's screenwriter, based on Jo March from Little Women.
Rapunzel from Tangled. She's pretty good about following Mother Gothel's orders, but she's even better at finding loopholes around those rules.
Viper from Kung Fu Panda is, well, a viper, but she certainly qualifies. Kind to everyone, lovely, feminine, but also a skilled kung fu artist.
Princess Anna in Frozen fits most of the defining traits mentioned above. While not overtly rebellious, she's very spunky and feisty, in contrast to her demure sister Elsa.
Jane Porter in Tarzan might have tried to be a "proper lady" back in England, but she's intelligent and artistic, and while she has a Damsel in Distress scene early on, she quickly adapts to life in the jungle after that.
Film — Live Action
Outwardly, Rose DeWitt Bukater from Titanic was everything a well brought up girl should be, poised and well-mannered, but she dreams of riding, chewing tobacco, and spitting like a man. Despite her high-class upbringing she is very witty. After she tells Mr. Ismay that Dr. Freud's ideas about the male preoccupation with size might be of particular interest to him, Molly Brown calls her a pistol. When the ship is sinking she loses all her lady-like qualities and shouts that she's through being polite.
The Duchess of Devonshire, known for her beauty and fashion sense, desperately wants to make a love connection. After her husband betrays her she turns to the man who shares her political ideals, Charles Grey, whom she campaigned for. When the statesmen around her were interested to know her thoughts she expressed to them her option that the concept of freedom is an absolute.
In The Mask of Zorro Elena wants to keep the commandments and tries to behave the way her father would like her to but her heart is too wild. She can both dance gracefully with Captain Harrison Love or sword fight with Zorro. She also makes her view of politics knows at dinner.
Ever After has the lady-turned-servant Danielle De Barbarac dressed up as a courtier who climbs trees and rescues servants.
Lisa Fremont from Hitchcock's Rear Window. Played by Grace Kelly—and therefore highly feminine, elegant, and dignified—Lisa is nonetheless a professional model and saleswoman for a luxury clothing company, and is quite well-off and influential. She dotes upon the man she loves—L.B. Jefferies, played by Jimmy Stewart—but gets understandably miffed when he chafes against her efforts to "fit into" his world of "tough" photography. She defies the gender conventions he seems to take for granted—and ultimately proves him wrong as the film progresses.
Jane Austen (reportedly something of a spirited young lady herself) absolutely adored this trope:
Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice is the best-loved example. She's intelligent, witty and lively, but dutiful to her parents and loyal to her friends. She knows the rules of society, and is distinguished by her good manners, but she isn't afraid to break rules that strike her as obsolete or to say what she thinks — even to the redoubtable Lady Catherine. Her sister Jane is her Proper Lady counterpart.
Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park is witty and lively, and she enjoys horseback riding and takes pride in being physically strong. However, she also plays the harp and is interested in fashion, and she likes nothing like a life in the city. Her lack of a moral compass ultimately keeps her from being admirable.
Handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, Emma Woodhouse from Emma is a self-assured, intelligent, and snarky lady, and talented in many things like music or painting, though a bit of Brilliant, but Lazy. She loves long walks and is an excellent dancer. She isn't afraid of crossing swords with even Mr Knighley, who everybody looks up to, and importantly, she is capable of self-reflection and she can judge what is right or wrong in her character.
Jane Eyre sometimes appears to be meek and mild, but don't be fooled. She knows exactly what she wants and she is willing to go through considerable hardship to get it. She also gets a rousing "women have the same needs men do" speech early in the novel.
Jane's cousin Diana Rivers is a strong woman and a natural leader who is not afraid to joke with her strict brother St. John. She's a daughter of Impoverished Patrician and her brother is a parson. Her younger sister Mary is quieter and her disposition is less cheerful than Diana's.
Amanda Fitton in the Campion novels. Her brother and sister are smart too but she is the most energetic and practical of the three. She decides she is putting Campion to "the top of her list" at age 17 and ends up marrying him in her mid-twenties when they meet up after her employer becomes involved with Campion's sister Val. She also keeps her job as an aircraft engineer after her marriage. Her sister Mary Fitton is her Proper Lady counterpart and ends up marrying Campion's friend.
Georgette Heyer used this trope in several books. One example is Frederica, who at 24 is running her younger brother's estate and bringing up her younger siblings. As one character notes, "the girl has breeding," and knows how to act in polite society —but when she's alone with Alverstoke, she peppers her conversations with boxing slang and other decidedly unfeminine references. Some of the tension in the book arises from her trying to flout what she considers stupid rules; for example, when she takes a walk alone with her dog instead of taking a maid with her.
Margaret Hale of North and South is clearly a lady in her dress and manners, but she's also a strong, determined woman who will put herself in the way of angry mob in order to protect someone in need. (Later events suggest that she's pretty good at business, too.)
The title character of The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle shows the making of a Spirited Young Lady: embarked as a tween-aged Proper Lady on a sea voyage, she is confronted with the immorality and cowardice of grown-ups she has heretofore obeyed without question, begins to defy them, and sheds her prejudices as well as learning a bit of seafaring. At the end of the story, she runs away from home to go to sea again, almost but not quite going beyond the bounds of a lady entirely.
Scarlett O'Hara of Gone with the Wind is a rare Anti-Hero specimen. She displays the strength of character and drive for success associated with this trope. She also knows how to act the part of a lady when she needs to, although her manipulation, bitchiness, and decidedly unladylike antics note such as being a coquette, stuffing her face at parties, wearing evening (=sexy) dresses during daytime, throwing fierce temper tantrums, defying conventions for fresh widows, knowingly stealing her sister's dear fiancé, indepentently running a business, weaving shrewd plots, shooting a man... suggest that she doesn't deserve that title. Her character is written much like a deconstruction of a Spirited Young Lady, as she is practically everything the trope is, just way too much so. Melanie plays the Proper Lady counterpoint to Scarlett.
Valeria Brinton of The Law and the Lady is ladylike, graceful, and devoted to her husband. She also becomes one of the first amateur female detectives in the nineteenth-century novel.
Rachel Verinder from The Moonstone is a well known example from Wilkie Collins. She is never unladylike, but she is strong-willed and independent—willing, even, to withhold vital information from the police about the theft of the titular stone.
The Woman in White has Marian Halcombe; unfortunately a Butterface, but that girl rocks. She's intelligent, plays chess, is extremely strong and physically fit, honest, outspoken and she's got spunk. Her half-sister Laura Fairlie is a Proper Lady and a great fair beauty, but she pales in comparison to Marian. They love each other dearly and are devoted to each other.
Alexia Tarobotti from The Parasol Protectorate series. She is a lady of high intellect and wit, who wears the appropriate clothing, and follows Edwardian manners to a T (except when it pleases her to break them for the purpose of moving things along because everyone else is being annoying and incompetent). In-universe, her 'spirit' is humorously attributed by her fellow Englishmen to her half-Italian blood, and her blunt and unsympathetic manner to her Soullessness. It Makes Sense in Context.
Kate de Vries from Airborn. The trope is actually lampshaded in how Kate, after petitioning the Zoological Society to investigate the existence of the creatures her grandfather saw, was told to return to "young lady's pursuits," much to her disgust.
Enola Holmes, in the Enola Holmes series, pushes this to the brink. She's a very Rebellious Spirit with an unconventional upbringing. She's very intelligent and outspoken (the true sister of her brother Sherlock), and though she understands the rules of society well, she's often manipulating them to help solve a crime. However, she does secretly crave the stability of a loving family, as long as they won't repress her spirit as well.
Emily Byrd Starr, throughout the Emily of New Moon trilogy, is intelligent and considered eccentric ("temperamental") by those around her. She adores taking long walks in nature (as usual for a LMM heroine) more than mingling in society, and by the end of her series she is able to make a living by writing stories. (She has no Proper Lady her own age, however — she's in fact proper compared to her dashing and flamboyant best friend, Ilse.)
The Story Girl in Montgomery's books. Unconventional, the leader of her gang of friends, and frequently squabbling with her Proper Lady cousin, Felicity. At the end of The Golden Road her remarkable talent for elocution turns into her vocation, and it's never even stated that she marries.
Montgomery most famous work Anne of Green Gables has Anne Shirley, who, at first, is all catastrophes and accidents, but slowly the mistakes get smaller, and by the end of the first book, Anne is quite a graceful and accomplished young lady. Even as a child, outspoken Anne longs to fit traditional models of ladylike beautiful (i.e. the "alabaster brow" and raven hair she desires). She matures to the point of forgiving Gilbert for the wrong that he committed when they met even though she was determined to never accept his apology. Her best friend Diana is her Proper Lady contrast.
Cecy has a keen eye for fashion and is intensely jealous that her cousin gets to have her London season while Cecy stays behind, holds a very low opinion of her love interest's ability to sneak around (she can do much better), and arranges for magic lessons behind her aunt's back.
Kate thoroughly enjoys the London social scene, worries quite a lot about embarrassing herself by being clumsy, has an incredible talent for telling believable lies, and has very little patience for her fiance's attempts to protect her from his enemies.
In Paladin of Souls, Cattilara is a slight subversion in that she does need a man to give her life purpose. Specifically, she needs her husband Arhys to give her life purpose. This also makes her a villainous example (or at least an anti-villain example) of the trope when her determination to keep Arhys as her husband rises to Well-Intentioned Extremist levels after he is killed.
Referenced by Cassandra in I Capture the Castle, when she compares herself and her sister to the Bennet sisters of Pride and Prejudice.
The world of A Brother's Price has very few men, so many gender roles are reversed and skewed about. In some senses it is a Romance Novel, and Jerin is in many ways a Spirited Young Gentleman, helped along by a more egalitarian upbringing than is common. He knows how to read and write, ride horses (though badly), break coded cyphers, pick locks, and use a gun (though firing it utterly horrifies him), while still cleaving neatly to how men in his world are expected to dress and act.
The A Song of Ice and Fire series has a few examples of women from noble houses who are quite spirited, active, and tomboyish.
Lyanna Stark was fair and beautiful, if unconventionally, but she was realistic about her Arranged Marriage to Robert, voicing her belief of his probable infidelity. Ned said also she had a bit of the wolf blood and was proficient in horseback riding, among other things.
Dacey Mormont of the Bear Islands. She's fought in every battle with Robb Stark, but is just as comfortable in a fancy gown as she is in armor.
Julia Valerian of The Mark of the Lion is a well-bred wealthy aristocrat’s daughter, intelligent if somewhat naïve, but she desperately wants control over her own life and tends to act out in small ways. She gradually begins growing out of the “lady” part of this trope as the series continues, though since the setting is Ancient Rome, her increasingly promiscuous behavior that would be considered abominable by Regency or some modern standards is not as reprehensible.
Molly Gibson is a seventeen-year-old daughter of a respected country doctor. She's intelligent, well-read, and later takes an interest in science. She loves fresh air, gardens and is often outdoors, and is not very good at needlework. She's not afraid to speak her mind even to people who are of higher social rank and she has a bit of a quick temper. However, her character has also strong shades of Proper Lady and English Rose. She's very domestic, caring and devoted to her family and friends.
Lady Harriet, the youngest daughter of Lord and Lady Cumnor. She's twenty-nine, but doesn't consider herself Christmas Cake a bit. She enjoys her high position, being a lady of great influence and consequence, and treats Molly with refreshing kindness and interest. She even acknowledges Molly to be her "little mentor".
Lady Barbara Wellesley from the Horatio Hornblower book series. Although she's out of the 16 - 25 age bracket, she fits all the other qualifications. She's traveling without a male companion, doesn't mind the tiny accommodations, and is basically described as being so capable that it aggravates Hornblower, who thinks that a properly feminine woman should at least be a little incompetent.
Lady Sandrilene fa Toren of Circle of Magic is the equivalent of a countess, but her unconventional upbringing (first by globetrotter parents and then by temple mages) gives her an elegant bearing and zero hesitation about defending others or going into danger if she has to. Her thread magic makes her very good at dealing with tough situations, because everyone who wears clothes is vulnerable to her power.
Tamora Pierce's Saraiyu Balitang from Daughter of the Lioness in the Tortall Universe. She's the daughter of Duke Mequen and the scion of the raka royal house and fits every trait on the list: she's a skilled rider, used to learn swordplay until her stepmom vetoed it, is smart and confident, and rather too outspoken for the rebel leaders' comfort. She also elopes with a healer rather than face the prospect of an arranged marriage.
Among the March sisters in Little Women, Jo is one who best fits this trope, given her outspoken, tomboy nature and her intellectual gifts. Though she starts off as more of a Tomboy, she gradually conforms a bit more to society's standards as she ages: witness her very domestic mending of Professor Bhaer's clothes as an adult.(Meg plays the Proper Lady in contrast and younger Beth is another little "angel of the house".)
Simona Ahrnstedt usually has a Spirited Young Lady as female protagonist of her novels.
Beatrice Löwenström from Överenskommelser might be the best example, as she lives in 1880s. After her father dies, she has to fight against her Evil Uncle for her right to be intelligent, competent and assertive. She has a Proper Lady contrast in her beautiful but docile cousin Sofia.
Illiana Henriksdotter from Betvingade is a 14th century version of this trope. She's a brilliant medicine woman and clearly intelligent. She also has moments when she speaks for women's and children's rights.
Magdalena Swärd in De skandalösa is a 17th century example. She's not a Plucky Girl, like Beatrice and Illiana. Instead she's a Broken Bird and a Stepford Snarker. But she too is an intelligent proto-feminist. She has a Proper Lady contrast in her beautiful but docile friend Venus.
Laura of Little House on the Prairie is an example who is a tomboy as a child but who conforms a bit more to society's gender standards as she ages. She still chafes against having to wear a corset as a teenager, and she always prefers horses to sewing, but in the last few books she shows a decided interest in fashion.
Diane Chambers from Cheers is a "modern-day" (during The Eighties, when it first aired) example of this trope—while she as a rule retains the classic characteristics: spirited and at times quite feisty, Diane is nonetheless typically well-mannered, proper, and very ladylike. Ironically enough, she is actually on the opposite end of the typical female "pairing" described at the top of the page, as the show's other female regular (her Friendly Enemy) is The Lad-etteand relative tomboy Carla Tortelli.
Lady Mary, the earl's oldest daughter, is in most ways a textbook example of this trope because she's a self-assured and outspoken lady, though her selfishness and occasional malice are subversions.
The youngest daughter, suffragist Lady Sybil. In her case "spirit" may reach Rebellious Princess levels.
Lady Morgana from Merlin, at least before her Face-Heel Turn. Graceful and dignified, but also feisty and outspoken.
Katherine Pierce/Katerina Petrova from The Vampire Diaries is an example of this both in the books and the series. Charming and intelligent, yet conniving, outspoken, and bold, she's not a lady you want to mess with.
Xiao Yan Zi in Princess Returning Pearl sweeps into the palace, shouts in the Emperor’s face, calls him out on his bad treatment of his concubines and generally causes chaos everywhere she goes, capturing the heart of a Prince Charming in the process.
Lydia Martin from Teen Wolf counts as a modern, high-school example. She's feisty, passionate, intelligent, and ambitious.
Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing counts, despite predating the Regency Era quite a bit: she is independent, intelligent and has quite the rapier wit with a sharp tongue. While not being a man-hater, she doesn't need a man to complete her life, and no one would (dare) suggest that she wasn't anything but an exceptional lady.
The Takarazuka show A Second Fortuitous Meeting features Sylvia, an outspoken young girl from an aristocratic family who makes clear her unhappiness at having to marry and switches places with her maid to spy on her potential suitors (but wears a gown that would be the envy of any Disney princess and does marry a suitable man at the end).
Asami Sato from The Legend of Korra. Sweet, polite, daughter of the wealthiest man in the city, also an expert driver and martial artist.
In 1908, The Women's Social and Political Union, in it's campaign for Women's suffrage in the United Kingdom, encouraged it's members to dress a certain way. It was important to the women to be feminine in their appearance and not to appear manish, as the opposition like to render them. They would often wear dresses of white delicate fabrics, with purple and green sashes.