A friend of mine, who is also a writer, lent me her copy of a beautiful book, Women Who Write, by Stefan Bollam. a celebration, an acknowledgement, a history of female writers.
Many names in the book are instantly recognizable, Jane Austen, Toni Morrison, The Bronte Sisters, Dorothy Parker. But there are many whose names were not known to me, which may say more about my ignorance than anything else.
The book is not only a recognition of the extraordinary legacy of women writers, it is also a reminder that a woman’s ability to choose a writing career has never been easy and was often socially unacceptable.
In her foreword, Francine Prose argues, ‘everything that a woman is traditionally supposed to be – retiring, submissive, reassuringly unobservant, endlessly forgiving, deaf, dumb and blind … is precisely the opposite of the personal qualities required to be a writer.’
Many women writers have to fight for the space, both physically and mentally, to be able to write as they juggle motherhood, work and the expectations of those around them. As Francine Prose so eloquently states, ‘the ability to describe the world or to create another world, to tell the truth worth telling, has, after all, everything to do with talent and intelligence, spirit and soul, and nothing to do with our reproductive organs.’
So, in honour and praise of women who have gone before me, who struggled not only with words, but for their right to make their mark on paper, here is my list of 10 of the women writers I discovered reading this book.
- Christine de Pisan (1364 -1430). Christine de Pisan could well have been the first professional female writer. Widowed, she needed to support her family and began work as a copyist. She moved on to become an author, running her own scriptorium. She is regarded as the forerunner of women in writing, from writers to publishers.
- Rahel Varnhagen (1771 – 1833) As a young German Jewish woman, Rahel Levin travelled and published anonymously. She didn’t marry until she was 43. Although her salons were frequented by aristocrats and artists, it was not until after her death that she became more widely known through her book Rahel: A Book of Memory and Friends. Of her writing she said, ‘Our language is our life as we live it; I have invented my own life, and so I have not been able to use ready-made expressions … mine are often clumsy … but always genuine.’
- Bettina Von Armin (1785 – 1839) Married to German writer, Archim Von Armin, Bettina did not ‘come out’ as a writer until four years after his death. She was 50. She edited and published her correspondence between Goethe and his mother, the writer Karoline Von Gunderrrode and her brother, the writer Clemens Brentano. The Brothers’ Grimm dedicated their collection of Fairy Tales to her. She used her childhood as inspiration, a time when her soul could ‘leap to some dance music within myself, which I could hear but others can’t.’
- Bozema Nemcovà (1820 – 1862) Nemcovà’s first language was German, but she married a Czech when she was 21 and taught herself to read Czech and learn its spelling and grammar. Although she had many lovers, she never found real love with men, ‘the emptiness in her heart’ was filled by writing, ‘It lighted the way for me, and I followed it.’ Her most famous book is The Grandmother. After her death, Nemcovà became a Czech national legend.
- Else Lasker-Schüler (1869 – 1945) Lasker-Schüler was an eccentric, a poet and part of the Expressionist movement. She gave herself, and her friends, fantasy names and loved dressing up, ‘we can play – playing is everything.’ But there was a darker side to Lasker-Schüler, she once said of herself, ‘I am the last nuance of desolation.’ In May 1933, her books were thrown on the Nazi bonfires. A ‘degenerate’ and Jewish she fled to Switzerland and lived out her life in Jerusalem. Her last collection of poetry is My Blue Piano.
- Milena Jesenská (1896 – 1944) Jesenská, from Prague, worked as a journalist in Vienna. Her articles were on culture and society and were written in a style derived from letter-writing. Of her writing, she said she could really only write love letters, ‘ultimately, that is what all my articles are.’ Her work had drawn her into a left-wing, avant-garde circle and her writing became increasingly political. In 1940. she was deported to Ravensbrück for writing for a banned journal. She died there 4 years later. ‘She is a living fire such as I have never seen.’ – Franz Kafka.
- Ingeborg Bachmann (1926 – 1973) Bachmann was an Austrian poet, who was not only a comtemporary of Sylvia Plath, she shares many of her essential features as a writer. Bachmann said of Plath that she was one of those writers ‘who have experienced hell’, recognizing a kindred spirit. Her poetry considered the pain and suffering of humans, in Songs of Exile she wrote – ‘But I lie alone/Hemmed in by ice and covered in wounds.’ The Ingeborg Bachmann Prize is awarded annually and is one of Germany’s most prestigious literary prizes.
- Carson McCullers (1917 – 1967) One of the leading writers of American Southern Gothic Literature. She had success at a young age with The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. At the age of 24 she suffered her first stroke, followed by several others. From the age of 31, she was entirely paralysed down her left side. McCullers finished her final novel, Clock Without Hands, but died before finishing her autobiography, Illumination and Night Glare, which she was dictating.
- Assia Djebar (b.1936) Fatma-Zohra Imalayen adopted the pseudonym Assia Djebar at the age of 20 when she was first offered a contract with a Paris-based publisher. She is an Algerian writer and film maker who in an interview said,’Writing about yourself puts you in mortal danger.’ Educated in the French education system, she eventually left Algeria in 1980, ‘because I, as a woman, wanted to write’. She was made a member of the Academie Française in 2005.
- Zeruya Shalev(b.1959) Is an Israeli author. She has an MA in Biblical Studies and works as Literary editor at Keter Publisihing. Shalev has published 5 novels, a book of poetry and children’s book. Her trilogy, Love Life, Husband and Wife and Late Family, all received critical acclaim. Love Life was listed in Der Spiegel’s list of “20 Best Novels in World Literature” in the last 40 years. Husband and Wife was included in the French Fnac list of the “200 Best Books of the Decade.”
And here is a list of my favourite women who write:-
- Jane Austen
- Margaret Atwood
- Lily Brett
- The Bronte Sisters
- Elizabeth Jolley
- Margo Lanagan
- Hilary Mantel
- Dorothy Parker
- Beatrix Potter
- JK Rowling
Women Who Write is available through the Book Depository
Images are taken from the book.