Walking Through the History of Women’s Writing

I left my Classics Club list behind when I left my old home and moved to this one. It wasn’t that I didn’t love the whole idea, it wasn’t that I didn’t want to read classics, it was just that I needed to step away for a while, so that I could work out what was important to me and what wasn’t.

Guy Cambier 1923-2008It wasn’t long before I missed the community – especially when I had to stand on the sidelines for the last spin – and I found that I was reading the books on my list much more than I had when I was in that old home, and I found myself looking back, to tick books off the list and to remind myself.

I was so tempted to pick up the threads.

And then along came the Women’s Classic Literature Event. It calls for what I most love to read – what I most want to go on reading – and of course I couldn’t possibly resist it.

You can choose any genre you like: Gothics, sensation fiction, sentimental novels, children’s classics, letters, journals, essays, short stories, female writers from the American South, Irish classics by women, African classics by women, Australian classics by women, poetry, plays. You can do all Persephone titles, all Virago, all forgotten nineteenth century letter-writers, all journals, all novels, all essays, all feminist works — or a mix. You could do a deep exploration of a single author’s work, or pick a couple authors whose works you’d like to compare and contrast. You could set up your own dueling authors: read three by one author, and three by the other, and see who comes out on top. Really, you can get as creative as you want with this event. If the title was penned by a female and written or published before 1960, it counts.

I knew though that I had to do things a little differently. Working from a set list doesn’t work for me, and so my list has to be fluid. That’s why I’m starting with a list of books that I might read, to give me ideas; but my focus is on building a list of classics that I have read and want to celebrate. I may lose books that don’t work for me; and I may add books that I forgot or books that I discover along the way.

I hope that isn’t stretching the rules too much.

My list is here.

I’ve been reading classics almost as long as I’ve been reading grown-up books. I started with the Brontes and Jane Austen; then I discovered Edith Wharton; I picked up a Virago Modern Classic in the library and it was the start of a wonderful voyage of discovery; Virago led me to Persephone and to other interesting presses; Honno and Victorian Secrets are particular favourites now; and I’ve leaned to always pick up old books with interesting titles and intriguing author names.

I am very aware that there are authors I’ve been wary of and really want to understand better. The names in my mind are Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Richardson.

There are also authors I want to revisit; some because it’s a long time since I read them and their books have faded a little in my memory; and some because I think I will see them differently with a little more accumulated age and experience.

And the more I read, the more I discover that I want to read. There are intriguing titles by women being reissues, there are fine women writers who are still out of print, and I know that there are others still to be found.

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I’ve made another list of books for next year. They may not be books that I’m saying should be part of the canon; but I believe that they are books that have stood the test of time and speak well for their times and for women’s history.

  • The Story of Lily Dawson by Catherine Crowe (1847)
  • The Semi-attached Couple and the Semi-detached House by Emily Eden (1859)
  • The Village on the Cliff by Anne Thackeray Ritchie (1867)
  • A Struggle for Fame by Charlotte Riddell (1883)
  • The Three Miss Kings by Ada Cambridge (1891)
  • Grania by Emily Lawless (1892)
  • A Superfluous Woman by Emma Brooke (1894)
  • Marcella by Mrs Humphrey Ward (1894)
  • Crossriggs by Jane and Mary Findlater (1908)
  • A Pin to See the Peepshow by F Tennyson Jesse (1923)
  • The Battle to the Weak by Hilda Vaughan (1925)
  • William by E H Young (1925)
  • The Knight of Cheerful Countenance by Molly Keane (1926)
  • The Happy Tree by Rosalind Murray (1926)
  • Broome Stages by Clemence Dane (1931)
  • Saraband by Eliot Bliss (1931)
  • Peking Picnic by Ann Bridge (1932)
  • Hostages to Fortune by Elizabeth Cambridge (1933)
  • Dew on the Grass by Eilunned Lewis (1934)
  • The Phoenix’s Nest by Elizabeth Jenkins (1936)
  • Pray for the Wanderer by Kate O’Brien (1938)
  • The Uninvited by Dorothy Macardle (1941)
  • Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp (1944)
  • My Bird Sings by Oriel Malet (1946)
  • The Bull Calves by Naomi Mitchison (1947)
  • The Gentlewoman by Laura Talbot (1952)
  • Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns (1954)
  • Ask Me No More by Pamela Frankau (1958)
  • Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting by Penelope Mortimer (1958)

It’s not a set reading list, but a list to remind me how many interesting possibilities there are. They are all either on my shelves or within easy reach.

Walking through the history of women’s writing ….

30 thoughts on “Walking Through the History of Women’s Writing

  1. That looks like a fascinating list of books. A lot of those titles and authors are new to me so I’ll have to do some investigating! I’m participating in this event too but haven’t made any set plans and am still considering the possibilities.

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  2. What an exciting project! So many names here that are new to me; I couldn’t resist a smile at ‘Jane and Mary Findlater’…sounds like a permanent acquisition to my TBR pile. I will look forward to your reviews, for sure!

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  3. What a lovely concept, Jane! There are so many wonderful books written by women that really we could read nothing else! But you’re right about the fluidity – I’m the same and I need to be able to read what my mood dictates. Good luck and happy reading!

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  4. Many fantastic books on the list above, deserving of recognition. Some there I don’t know.
    I have altered my CC list as I have gone along. It needs to work for the individual.

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  5. I really hope your re-working of your Classics Club list and this new Women’s Literature event work out well for you 🙂 I have also signed up for this new event. I am hoping it will encourage me to read the classic female authors and their works which are still on my list.

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  6. I loved the sound of this when I saw it but have been fairly rubbish on my classic club list so not sure I should take it on. You make it sound so exciting though so I am going to think about it again. Either way, good luck!

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  7. I’ve been working on my Classics List as well, since the Women’s Classics event made me realize that only 20% of my original list were by women. I haven’t finalized my new list yet, but I will have A Pin to See the Peepshow on it, because I love the title. I do hope your new, fluid list will work for you!

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    1. I picked up ‘A Pin to See the Peepshow’ for the first time – many years ago – for exactly the same reason. It’s a wonderful book, and one of the first few Virago Modern Classics that I read and that left me with a taste for them.

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  8. I like your thoughts on keeping your reading list flexible and fluid. Reading from a set list doesn’t work for me either – it can starts to feel a little like a chore rather than a pleasurable experience. The Women’s Classic Literature event is a great idea – I’m hoping to read one or two classics from the 20th century before the year is out.

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    1. I haven’t ruled her out but as I’ve read her most famous book – ‘Joanna Godden’ – and her most acclaimed book – ‘The End of the House of Alard’ – I wasn’t sure which to pick. I have a few on my shelves so if I find a good one I’ll happily add her in.

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