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Women's History Month
Celebrating Women's History Month (Pt. 2) - Top 10 Women Authors of My Misspent Literary Youth
March Story Time for Grown-Ups featured stories by Dorothy Parker to celebrate Women's History Month, as discussed in my previous blog post. During March, a lot of women's history-related lists were posted on the web: 10 powerful female fictional heroines, 10 most powerful women in history, 10 most powerful women in the world today, and top 10 hottest historical women (yes, Cleopatra made the list).
However, as a librarian of a certain age, the list that kept forming in my head as I was doing the research for Story Time was women authors that were important to me as I was growing up. Naturally I first met the authors through their fictional heroines. Liking the characters caused me to read more books by those authors, and curiosity led me to find out more about the women who created the characters.
My curiosity about their lives was partly because it was a revelation to me that women could earn their living writing. That may sound quaint now, but in rural Indiana from 1959 to 1974, the primary career path for women was marriage and motherhood (women didn't work outside the home after marriage). If you were not pretty enough or lucky enough to marry, the only career options open were nurse, teacher, or secretary. (Librarians were a rare sub-species under teacher.)
The other reason for my curiosity about the authors lies in the books themselves. There are some books that open the door to a new world, that remain with you for the rest of your life, and that stand as milestones on your journey to adulthood. Why some books are memorable to the point of eye-opening and others are merely good reads depends on the reader; consequently it varies widely (and wildly) by individual. The variability also depends on timing and availability, as in the Buddhist proverb, "when the student is ready, the teacher will appear." My reaction to a book depends on where I am emotionally when I read it. Regarding availability, I read whatever was available to me at the time. Readers younger than I would probably have a different list of newer books and authors that weren't published yet (or even alive!) in the period from 1959 to 1974.
The following idiosyncratic list meets the milestone criteria for me. I've included the authors, the first book of theirs I read, any relevant screen or stage adaptations, and any recent or acclaimed biographies.
1. Louisa May Alcott, Little Women, published in 1868. I was introduced to Jo March when I was 10 years old. Bookish tomboy Jo, with her sharp tongue and short temper, was a big step up from Heidi. Most of the books I had read so far had male protagonists, from Tom Sawyer to Tarzan, and I couldn't muster much enthusiasm for their female counterparts, Becky Thatcher and Jane, as role models. In reading about Alcott, I soon learned that much of Jo's fictional life was based on Alcott's personal experience. Both Susan Cheever's biography of Alcott, published in 2010, and Harriet Reisen's Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women, published in 2009, have received good reviews.
Little Women has been adapted to film several times; the three most well known star Katharine Hepburn (1933), June Allyson (1949), and Winona Ryder (1994) as Jo. In 2005 it was adapted for the Broadway musical stage with Sutton Foster as Jo and Maureen McGovern as Marmee. I saw and enjoyed them all, although (of course) not as much as the book. In 1998, it was adapted to an opera of the same name by American composer Mark Adamo, but I haven't seen or heard that yet. I went on to read Little Men, Jo's Boys, Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom, Under the Lilacs, and Jack and Jill. When I was in my 30s and could finally afford it, I bought a 6 volume hard-cover set, which I still re-read periodically. As a young reader, I wanted to remember forever this author who gave me so much enjoyment, so I gave her the highest honor a ten-year old can bestow — I named my cat after her.
2. Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca, published in 1938. Moving from Little Women at age 10 to Rebecca at age 12 seemed like a radical step in 1961, but that's the way it happened. It was actually my mother's book. Fortunately I grew up in a household where no limits were placed on what we read. My parents (both avid readers) made sure that all the reading material in our home was accessible. Nothing was hidden or forbidden. I guess they figured that if we didn't understand something, we would ask. And I was reading everything, including the backs of cereal boxes at breakfast. (Have you noticed that the backs of cereal boxes nowadays are not nearly as interesting as they used to be?)
I loved Rebecca from that wonderful first sentence, "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." Later I would describe the book as a mixture of romance, mystery, ghost story, and psychological thriller. However, then I was only interested in following the plot and solving the mystery. The novel won the National Book Award in 1938 and was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film in 1941, directed by Alfred Hitchcock with Joan Fontaine playing the second Mrs. deWinter. I saw the film and enjoyed it, but (naturally) the film wasn't as good as the book. Among du Maurier's many novels, my favorites were Jamaica Inn — something of a horror story, and Frenchman's Creek — historical fiction set in Cornwall during the reign of Charles II. Reading about Du Maurier's upper class early twentieth century British upbringing in a family of writers and actors was as romantic and mysterious to me as her novels. A recent biography by Nina Auerbach is Daphne du Maurier, Haunted Heiress, published in 2000.
3. Edna Ferber, Show Boat, published in 1926. Yeah, I borrowed another one of Mom's books; it must have been a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. I was blown away by Ferber's descriptive language and colorful characters that jumped off the page. There I was at age 13 reading about miscegenation when I didn't even know the word. Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II adapted the novel into a Broadway musical in 1927. I saw the 1995 Broadway revival with Michel Bell playing Joe, the role tailored especially for Paul Robeson, who sang it in the 1936 film version. It was adapted for film several times, the most well-known being the 1951 version with an all star cast including Howard Keel as Gaylord Ravenal, Kathryn Grayson as Magnolia, and Ava Gardner as Julie. I loved it, but (surprise!) the book was better.
Among her other novels, I read So Big (1924), Cimarron (1929), Giant (1952), Ice Palace (1958), and Saratoga Trunk (1941). So Big won the Pulitzer Prize in 1925. It was adapted for film several times; the most well-known version from 1953 stars Jane Wyman. Cimarron was adapted for film twice, in 1931 when it won three Academy Awards and in 1960 starring Glenn Ford. Giant was made into an Academy Award-winning film in 1956; it was James Dean's last film role before his death in a car accident. Ice Palace was adapted to film in 1960 but was a critical failure despite starring Richard Burton. Saratoga Trunk was adapted for film in 1945 starring Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper. Both Giant and Saratoga Trunk were adapted into Broadway musicals.
Most astonishing to me was that Ferber, a small-town girl from Appleton, Wisconsin, moved to New York City, became a member of the Algonquin Round Table, and collaborated on five Broadway plays with George S. Kaufman in addition to writing all those wonderful novels. The best biography of Ferber, Ferber: Edna Ferber and Her Circle, was written in 1978 by her great-niece Julie Gilbert. To a 13 year old girl living on a farm in Indiana, Ferber's many literary accomplishments were truly inspirational.
4. Mary Anne Evans, writing as George Eliot, Silas Marner, published in 1861. This was required reading my freshman year in high school (age 14), and most of my classmates groaned aloud when they heard we had to read it. It was my first dip into the vast ocean of British literature, and I loved it. And that was before I knew George Eliot was really Mary Anne Evans. The complex plot interested me with its psychological overtones, but Eliot was also a master at setting the scene physically and historically. I immediately read The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch. Silas Marner was adapted for television in 1985 starring Ben Kingsley in the title role. Two recent acclaimed biographies are George Eliot: The Last Victorian by Kathryn Hughes, published in 1999, and George Eliot: A Life by Rosemary Ashton, published in 1996.
As I read about Eliot's life, two things struck me: what an unconventional woman she was for her time and the lengths she had to go to in order to be published. It was common then for women to write under a man's name or under a name that was not obviously female in order to be regarded as a serious writer (see the Brontë sisters). I couldn't imagine giving up not only your name but also your gender in order to be taken seriously as a writer, not to mention the courage it took to live openly with a married man, critic and philosopher George Lewes, in Victorian England.
5. Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, published in 1847. Brontë's fictional heroine was strong and ethical even when the man she loved was not. It was originally published under Brontë's masculine pen name Currer Bell. I was still swimming happily in British literature at age 15 (in another life, I might still be there, but so it goes), enjoying the plot, the characters, and Brontë's masterful use of language. Jane Eyre has been adapted for the screen many times, most recently in 2011 starring Australian Mia Wasikowska in the title role; the BBC television miniseries in 2006 starring Ruth Wilson was also critically acclaimed. Most baby boomers are familiar with the 1943 version with Joan Fontaine as Jane and Orson Welles as Rochester. A Broadway musical version debuted on Broadway in 2000. I saw it twice, admittedly primarily for James Stacy Barbour, who played Rochester. Although I haven't seen all the screen and stage adaptations or the opera, none so far (wait for it!) has been as good as the book.
Margot Peters wrote a biography of Brontë called Unquiet Soul in 1975 that details the almost Gothic life Bronte and her sisters Anne and Emily, both published authors, lived at the parsonage in Yorkshire with their brother Branwell and their eccentric father Patrick, a curate in the Anglican church. A more recent biography is Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life by Lyndall Gordon. I discovered that Brontë experienced some of the same things as her fictional heroine (attending boarding school as a young child, the death of two older sisters from tuberculosis contracted at the school, working as a governess). I was appalled at the poverty in which the family lived and impressed with the fictional worlds they jointly created to escape it.
6. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813. I came late at age 16 to Austen's masterwork, being somewhat daunted by the title and by its classic status. I assumed it would be either too boring or too erudite (shades of Thackeray and Vanity Fair). When I finally gritted my teeth and attempted to read it, I was pleasantly surprised to find it full of humor and written in a very accessible style. I immediately read her remaining five novels: Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion. Pride and Prejudice remains my favorite. I re-read it often and still laugh aloud at the antics of Mrs. Bennett and Kitty. Many biographies of Austen have been written over the last two hundred years, despite being hampered by a scarcity of Austen's personal papers and diaries, but Claire Tomalin's Jane Austen: A Life, published in 1997, has been praised for its intelligence and humor, the same virtues found in Austen's novels.
Pride and Prejudice has been adapted to the screen many times, most recently in the 2005 film starring Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennett. Personally I preferred the 1995 BBC television series, primarily because Colin Firth played Mr. Darcy (enough said). That performance was almost as good as the book. Call me a purist, but I'm relentlessly ignoring the recent spate of Austen vampire and zombie parodies. However, I am putting full responsibility on Austen for my ongoing addiction to Regency Romances from Georgette Heyer to Stephanie Laurens and beyond.
Almost two hundred years ago a maiden lady living dutifully within the confines of her family wrote six novels that earned little money and less fame (they were published anonymously) during her lifetime. Today she is universally celebrated as a major English writer by virtue of her clear-cut observations and humorous commentary on the social customs of her day, many of them revolving around the dependent role of unmarried women. After all, as the first line of Pride and Prejudice asserts, "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." As a dependent woman, she knew the limitations of the role intimately, yet she made time amidst her daily duties to express her opinions clearly and elegantly in her work if nowhere else. In her writing, she found the freedom her circumstances did not allow.
7. Emily Dickinson, over 1,800 poems, less than a dozen published during her lifetime, 1830-1886. After her death, her sister found Dickinson's poetry and realized it was more than a hobby, it was a lifework. The first volume (highly edited) of her work was published in 1890. The first complete unaltered collection of her poems was not published until 1955. Dickinson's poetry was unusual for its time due to its brevity, short lines, and use of near rhyme. As a senior in high school, I was impressed by the way she used deceptively simple language and style to convey complex emotions. As an example of her style, one of her most well-known poems is "'Hope' is the thing with feathers."
Cynthia Griffin Wolff wrote a definitive biography of Dickinson, published in 1988. A more recent book by Alfred Habegger is My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson, published in 2001. The Belle of Amherst is a popular one-woman play written by William Luce that opened on Broadway in 1976 starring Julie Harris, who won the Tony Award that year for her performance. Dickinson lived her entire life in her father's house in Amherst, Massachusetts, as a virtual recluse for the last 20 years. Her friendships were conducted solely by correspondence. I try to imagine the strong the need to communicate what she was thinking and feeling that compelled her to write so many poems in her solitude. Today she is considered a major American poet, and at last her voice is heard.
8. Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own, published in 1929. I didn't read any of Woolf's work until my junior year in college, and that was a deliberate choice on my part. I wasn't ready to read her work until then. It was at that point on my way from being my father's daughter to becoming someone's wife that Woolf's lecture on the need for a room of one's own resonated most strongly. Woolf's literary strengths do not stem from plot, character, setting, or genre, but rather from her lyrical style and use of language. The interest is not in the actions of the characters, but in what they are thinking and why they are thinking it. She was able to present complex ideas and emotions effectively but lyrically, almost like a prose poem. In a way, Woolf's writing is more like Dickinson's than any of the other authors on this list.
There have been many biographies published since Woolf's death by suicide in 1941, some focusing on the sexual abuse she suffered in her youth, others on her relationships with women, the madness and depression that led to her suicide, or her place in the Bloomsbury Group. The most recent biography, Virginia Woolf, is by Alexandra Harris, published in 2011; it gives an objective overall view of her life. Another acclaimed biography is by Nigel Nicolson, notable in part because of his personal reminiscences (Nicolson's mother was Vita Sackville-West, Woolf's lover). Woolf's nephew Quentin Bell wrote an acclaimed, authoritative account of her life, Virginia Woolf: A Biography, in 1972 that won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Perhaps a better way to learn about Woolf is in her own words directly from her extensive diaries, The Diary of Virginia Woolf.
In 1998, Michael Cunningham wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel called The Hours about how three generations of women were affected by Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway. In 2002 his novel was adapted into a film of the same name; Nicole Kidman won an Academy Award as Best Actress that year for her portrayal of Woolf.
9. Gloria Steinem, co-founder Ms. Magazine in 1972. It wasn't until 1983 that Steinem's book Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, a collection of essays on her life and feminist issues, was published, which is why it isn't on my list. However, I read every issue of Ms. cover to cover beginning in 1972, thrilled to read a news magazine written for women by women with articles on feminist issues instead of the recipes and relationship advice that filled the pages of most women's magazines of the time. It was in Ms. that I first read articles by authors like Letty Cottin Pogrebin (Free to Be You and Me, Stories for Free Children, Getting Yours), Barabara Grizzuti Harrison (Visions of Glory, Off Center), Barbara Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed, Bait and Switched), and Susan Brownmiller (Against Our Will). I learned about breast cancer, DES, abortions, female circumcision, and domestic violence. The magazine also contained feminist book reviews, poetry, and career and health advice columns.
Ms. Magazine is still in publication forty years later, now published by The Feminist Majority Foundation, a non-profit organization headquartered in Virginia. Mary Thom published a history of its first 25 years, Inside Ms.: 25 years of the Magazine and the Feminist Movement. Steinem is still active in feminist causes. She did an interview in December 2011 for Bloomberg.com about the Occupy Wall Street movement. Her official website lists all her work and current news. Years later when I was divorced, I was proud to claim Ms. as my title, one that didn't belong to daddy's little girl or my ex-husband's wife, only to me.
10. Erica Jong, Fear of Flying, published in 1973. At the time it was published, Jong's book was sensational. It addressed female sexuality, specifically female sexual fantasies, something whose existence was barely acknowledged and certainly a topic never to be spoken of aloud. Jong asserted not only that women have just as many (or more) sexual fantasies as men but also that women have as much right to talk about them as men do, and even, as her main character Isadora Wing did, to act on them. It was Jong who introduced the phrase "the zipless f***" to American pop culture. Jong's 1980 novel, Fanny: Being the True History of the Adventures of Fanny Hackabout-Jones is set in 18th century England. It is Jong's re-telling of John Cleland's erotic novel Fanny Hill with a bit of Henry Fielding's picaresque The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling and Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders. Jong's latest book, published in 2011, is Sugar in My Bowl. Her website lists her recent activities and books.
Although I didn't necessarily agree with Jong's (or Isadora's) fantasies, I applauded her courage in insisting on a woman's right to have them and to talk about them out loud if she wanted. Not talking about something doesn't make it go away or mean it doesn't exist. I learned from my marriage what silence can and cannot do. Of all of the books on this list, Fear of Flying is most dependent on the time it was pusblished. A young woman reading it today might call it a good read but not a milestone. Sexual attitudes in today's culture are more open, and gender equality is something young women now expect as their right. Fortunately reading this book did not engender in me a lifelong quest for sex with strangers on trains.
- Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights, published in1847, Catherine — hated her, Heathcliff — hated him
- Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind, published in 1936, great read but not a milestone book for me, Scarlett — talk about divisive heroines!
- Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960. To me Lee's novel transcended gender because its main theme went beyond male or female identifiers directly to the heart of humanity. While it opened my eyes in terms of racial injustice, I didn't feel compelled to find out about the author. As Lee herself said, she didn't need to write another book because she had already said what she wanted to say in Mockingbird. The one writer I would have liked to include in this list is Alice Walker for The Color Purple, published in 1982, for all of the reasons that the others made the list: plot, character, setting, use of language, strong female characters, plus it was a great story.
Since this is a highly individual list based on what was available and of interest to me in that specific time period, I'm sure other people have many different books that were milestones for them. I'd love to hear about them. I'm still on my journey and could use a few more milestones.