Women writers through the ages

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Flannery O’Connor –

Flannery O’Connor combines many attributes that should make her internationally famous: a combination of sharp wit, brilliant imagery, the American Southern Gothic and Catholicism. However outside of America (and the American Fiction module) she is rather forgotten, a footnote to our own guilty, conflicted Catholic Southerners, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. O’Connor used her stories to highlight the process and experience of religiosity, being utterly unapologetic and passionate about her religion. The results are completely fascinating. The impact of her religious conviction on her vivid and vicious imagery suggests the strange connections between violence and religion, and her savage mockery of human foibles emphasises the American character and is also great fun. O’Connor deserves to be read in England outside of a third year university module – two great stories to start with are A Good Man is Hard to Find and Revelation.

Jean Rhys –

Jean Rhys (1890-1979) was a novelist born in Dominica, a Caribbean island and famed for her eccentric, troubled writing and personal life. Her female protagonists, who draw parallels with her own experiences, often reveal a shattered image of womanhood, suffering alcoholism, alienation and relationship breakdowns. She is also infamous for her rule-breaking, appearing in court on charges such as biting a policeman and arguing with neighbours. Her novels include Good Morning Midnight (1939) and Voyage in the Dark (1934), but she is best known for Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), based on the life of Bertha Mason, a character first found in Jane Eyre. In reclaiming the famous ‘madwoman in the attic’, Rhys offers a postcolonial, feminist critique of Bertha’s original depiction – of this, she said ‘I thought I’d try to write her a life’. Rhys’ novel draws upon her own life living as an outsider – between 1939 and 1966, she lived in poverty and fell out of sight to such an extent that she was presumed dead. Perhaps in reviving Bronte’s Bertha Mason in a new image, she was in fact resurrecting her own self and creative talent. Her reflections on imperialism, power and identity in this novel are intertwined effortlessly with a flowing, liminal prose, unique to Rhys. In her unfinished autobiography, published posthumously, she poses the reflection – ‘I am a stranger and I always will be, and after all I didn’t really care’. Rhys’ life was complex and tragic, but her uncompromising, thoughtful literature remains relevant to this day. 

outside of America…she is rather forgotten

Angela Carter –

Angela Carter is one of the most prolific female writers of the twentieth century, encapsulating second-wave feminism through her ground-breaking and often provocative novels, essays and short-stories. Carter began publishing her work in the 1960s but started gaining notable recognition after releasing The Sadeian Woman in 1978. Partly inspired by her time working in Japan, Carter used the text to contend with the impact of pornography on female sexuality and liberation. The Sadeian Woman was also the first non-fiction monograph to be sold by the feminist publishing house Virago, demonstrating Carter’s significance in exemplifying a distinct female voice within the literary world. However, it was the short-stories Carter released a year later that proved the most successful. The Bloody Chamber was a collection that emphasised the underlying darkness of fairy tales ranging from Little Red Riding Hood to Puss in Boots. Carter was fascinated by these traditional stories and the gothic elements she could incorporate into her feminist retellings. Whilst her later novels, such as Nights at the Circus and Wise Children, arguably reflected her growing interest in surrealism, the intensity of The Bloody Chamber resulted in it becoming one of her most recognisable and profound books. Although Carter died in 1992, her legacy as an author who boldly embodied second-wave feminism’s exploration of gender, sexuality and female autonomy continues to this day. Her love of fantasy as a genre did not stop her from infusing her work with political meaning, often influenced by her own experiences with misogyny and oppression. 

Sappho –  

Just as Homer was dubbed “the Poet”, Sappho was often called “the Poetess”, illustrating the immense popularity of her works in Ancient Greece. Sappho was born around 615 BCE and the earliest of her surviving manuscripts date to the third century BCE, however, only one poem has survived fully intact. Her work, written on papyrus, survived in disjointed and damaged fragments and has proven difficult to translate due to the lack of punctuation and the dialect used. Fragments of Sappho’s poetry survived through quotation in more recent works and more fragments were unearthed in 1898 and in Egypt in 1914. More of her work has been unearthed as recently as in 2013. Sappho’s poetry inspired what is now referred to as “Sapphic” meter and her lyrics focused on the difficulties of love and are addressed to individuals as she broke away from the masculine literary conventions of epic or poetry addressed to the Gods. Many of her poems focused on the sensual and fiery love between women and this aspect of her writing has characterised her in the centuries following her death. So much so, that the word ‘lesbian’ is derived from her home of the island of Lesbos in Greece. Sappho also became associated with overt promiscuity and in 1073 Pope Gregory burned her work, illustrating the vast regressions in sexual liberty since the Ancient Greeks. However, it seems that Sappho’s poetry spoke about love universally and we can learn a lot about the flaws in placing binaries on sexuality and love and can appreciate the celebration of female desire in antiquity embodied by Sappho’s lyrics and her popularity amongst contemporaries. 

she broke away from the masculine literary conventions of epic or poetry

Daphne Du Maurier –

Daphne Du Maurier was a master of suspense. Her novels feature emotional landscapes and dramatic plotlines that completely captivate and engross the reader. She has received much critical acclaim for her most famous works, particularly Rebecca, which has been in print since it was first published. However, some of her lesser-known novels, such as Frenchman’s Creek, have often been overlooked and deserve more recognition, as they are just as striking, if not more so. Her work has had a great influence in popular culture, particularly in terms of film adaptations. The evocative Cornish settings for the majority of Du Maurier’s tales make it particularly difficult not to fall in love with her writing. Having lived in Cornwall for a significant portion of her life, many key locations in her novels were based on those she encountered herself, such as Manderley and the boathouse from Rebecca being based on locations just outside Fowey. Du Maurier had a knack for creating powerful, unruly female protagonists that steal the show in so many of her works; be it the troubled Mary Yellan in Jamaica Inn, the seductive, perplexing and arguably tragic Rachel from My Cousin Rachel, or even Rebecca herself, characters who all share experiences of misogyny and yet exert strength and eloquence in so many ways. Du Maurier is a wonderful twentieth-century female author and her work is not to be missed. 

Illustration:

Images: Carreno

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