A blog for everything bookish

Saturday 25 January 2014

Ten dead female writers everyone should read

I don’t know if you’ve heard, readers, but 2014 is the year of reading women. Yea-ha! It’s about time. And how rotten that it takes the likes of Twitter to highlight the under-representation of women in the literary world. I’ve said it before, so won’t labour the point, but there is an inherent sense in the literature that there is ‘fiction’ and ‘women’s fiction’. There are books that are ‘universal’ (e.g. written by men and about things that interest men and thereby everyone) and books that address ‘women’s issues’ (e.g. not of interest to men). Or put another way, half of the population take an interest (or perhaps are forced to take an interest) in the other half, and half of the population don’t. It seems to me that the latter half are losing out.

Of course I know it is not that simple. Many men read and enjoy and share and promote books by women, and many women almost exclusively read books written by men. That’s the thing with gender issues, they’re never really straightforward or easy to resolve. But what is straightforward is that there are many, many, many wonderful female writers out there and they should be read. And they’re not hard to find either (you can find many on my blog, right here). Please read them.  I am prepared to beg (or nag. I am better at nagging).

So, continuing not to labour the point, I’ve compiled a list of dead female writers that everyone, EVERYONE, should read. And if you read the list and think ‘but where are the Bronte’s and Austen and Woolf and Eliot and Agatha Christie and Doris Lessing?’ that’s deliberate as I’ve assumed most people are already familiar with the more well-known female writers (though if you weren’t I’ve sneakily mentioned them anyway. Did you notice?). So, without further ado, here’s my list. Who would you add?    

Murasaki Shikibu
Did you know that the world’s first credited* novel was written by a woman? She’s worth reading for that accolade alone, but fortunately her one, ground-breaking novel is more than just that. The epic Tale of Genji is a Japanese classic, telling the story of the ‘shining Genji’, illegitimate and favoured son of the Emperor. If you ever wondered how long that feeling that ‘things just aren’t as good as they used to be’ goes back, this tale sites it at least some eras earlier than the 11th Century. A beautiful and fascinating, and rather long, story that’s well worth the time it takes to read.  

Simone de Beauvoir
It always depresses me that the name Simone de Beauvoir is often followed by, you know Sartre’s girlfriend, because this remarkable women was much, much more than that. Perhaps most famous for her feminist critique, The Second Sex, which provides a remarkably detailed and quietly scientific overview of the problems women face in Western culture. However, for me the book that simply blew me away was the short but disturbingly powerful The Woman Destroyed which comprises three short pieces examining three women’s stories. There was something about that book that really woke me up, made me realise that it was not enough to know that the male-dominated culture made it more difficult for women to live successful and happy lives, but also women’s complicity within it made it less likely to change. In her work de Beauvoir presents the idea that women are responsible for achieving their own transcendence, for reaching beyond the limits society offers and grabbing more. She is, perhaps, the first true feminist, but don’t be misled into thinking that means her work is solely about or for women. Instead she is an insightful writer who belongs well within the Existentialist movement. Not on the sidelines, or behind her more famous partner.  

Elizabeth von Armin
Because The Enchanted April. If you can find a nicer, happier, lovelier, more wonderfully sweet and soul-cheering book anywhere I will eat my blog.

Sigrid Undset
Undset is a Nobel prize winning novelist. Do I need to say more? Well, perhaps it is worth mentioning her epic novel Kristen Lavransdatter, set in the 14th Century, which follows the life of a women from a well-to-do family who defies social expectation and marries the man of her choosing...and breathe. What follows is a love story, a story of freedom of choice over social expectations, how following your chosen path can be difficult, disappointing and yet marvellous and rewarding. It’s a whopper, but stunning, absorbing and beautiful.

Iris Murdoch
They don’t refer to her as a philosopher without reason. Murdoch was a prolific writer whose work is peppered with ideas, concepts, musings, psychology all wrapped up, often, in an engaging story. My personal favourites include The Bell, The Unicorn and the marvellous Black Prince which is a fantastic example of the unreliable narrator. Her magnus opus, The Sea The Sea is still on my ‘to read’ list. Hopefully I’ll get around to it this year. Also worth checking out the biopic movie starring the wonderful Kate Winslet and incomparable Judi Dench.

Anais Nin
A long time before Fifty Shades of Grey there was Anais Nin. In fact that’s a poor comparison because there is NO comparison between Nin and the juvenile drivel that shall not be mentioned again. Nin is a writer with her self on her sleeve. Honest, passionate, self-aware, explorative, she gained fame writing short, erotic stories which have since been bound-up in two collections – Little Birds and Delta of Venus – which explore a vast array of erotic themes (and make for quite nicely titillating bedtime reading). Her famed interactions with Henry Miller are covered in her wonderfully biographical story Henry and June. An early example of life reflecting art, or art reflecting life, or something like that. An absolute pleasure to read.    

Angela Carter
Angela Carter, I think, was my first grown-up discovery. Her writing is voluptuous, her characters often unsympathetic and their relationships awkward and combative. My absolute favourite of her works is The Magic Toyshop, a terrifying coming of age story of poor spoiled Melanie who steals her mother’s wedding dress and destroys it, only to find her parents destroyed too. Orphaned along with her brother and sister, she is sent to live with her Uncle Philip, a man she has never met, his strange, mute, wife and her brothers who live together in a degraded part of London. Philip is a toymaker, the proverbial puppet-master, and they live above the toyshop. It is a dark and magical story exploring the terror of self discovery and the unexpected places love can be found.

For a great introduction to Angela Carter, try her short story collections – The Bloody Chamber and Black Venus. In them she reworks a number of well-known stories from a female perspective: Little Red Riding Hood, Dracula, Beauty and the Beast, Puss in Boots, but it is the richness of her language which is most memorable. This from The Bloody Chamber:

Even when he asked me to marry him, and I said: ‘Yes,’ still he did not lose that heavy, fleshy composure of his. I know it must seem a curious analogy, a man with a flower, but sometimes he seemed to me like a lily. Yes. A lily. Possessed of that strange, ominous calm of a sentient vegetable, like one of those cobra-headed funeral lilies whose white sheaths are curled out of a flesh as thick and tensely yielding to the touch as vellum. When I said that I would marry him, not one muscle in his face stirred, but he let out a long, extinguished sigh. I thought: Oh! how he must want me! And it was as though the imponderable weight of his desire was a force I might not withstand, not by virtue of its violence but because of its very gravity.” 


Marlen Haushofer
I’ve read only one book by Haushofer, The Wall, which is perhaps her most well known and boy did it stick with me. A quiet tale of a woman trapped inside a valley behind an invisible wall. She suspects that everyone outside is dead. Under this bubble she wrestles with survival as well as the downsides and benefits of being outside society. Alongside her daily trials there is an unknown menace; someone else is in the dome, a man she suspects, and whilst there is no direct interaction the presence of this unexpected and unpredictable third party creates a terrifying edge. It is a powerful book which reflects interestingly on the pressures of society at large, and the ways in which we are threatened and freed by being outside of it.

Tove Jansson
Well, it wouldn’t be my blog if I didn’t mention her at least once. READ HER. I can’t say it loudly enough. She’s amazing.

*I say ‘credited’ because it probably wasn't the first novel ever written, but is often cited as being the first. 

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