Unsung Female Writers (Part One)

Last week I wrote a post you might have seen about the shortage of female writers on this year’s Booker Prize longlist. One of the consequences of the post was that a discussion started on Twitter about female writers who deserve more recognition. There were so many wonderful writers mentioned (several I hadn’t heard of before) that I decided to share some of them on here. I’ve teamed up with three of my favourite bloggers – Ali from HeavenAli, Susan from A Life in Books and Antonia Honeywell and we’ve each chosen five brilliant female writers we love and think you might too. Ali and Susan’s choices are below, Antonia’s and mine will follow on Sunday.

Ali likes to read twentieth-century women writers, particularly those published by Virago and Persephone. Her blog is a treasure trove of female writers forgotten or never really acknowledged. I think I’ve discovered more writers via Ali’s blog than any other. Here are her choices:

Elizabeth Taylor 1912-1975

The author of twelve novels, five volumes of short stories, and one children’s book. She is often talked of as being one of the greatest underrated English novelists, although it could be argued that she has not been entirely disregarded as her work has never been out of print and she was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 1971 for her novel Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. She is frequently compared to Jane Austen – a subject which I think is continually debated by readers of Elizabeth Taylor – and the influences of Austen can certainly be seen in several of her novels. Elizabeth Taylor was briefly a member of the communist party, and later became a life-long Labour Party supporter. She juggled her writing with family life, a married woman with two children, who in her younger years had worked as a librarian. She was an intensely private woman, destroying before her death, the many letters she had from her correspondence with writer, critic and great friend Robert Liddell and others. She counted several literary people among her friends including the author Elizabeth Jane Howard and Ivy Compton Burnett, but generally shied away from the literary parties and publicity. Elizabeth Taylor’s work is mainly concerned with the everyday concerns and occupations of middle and upper-middle class life. Her canvases (like Austen) are small, and her portrayals are very shrewd and can be really quite sharp. She had a fine ear for the way people speak to one another, and her characterisation is first class; her peripheral characters are as deeply explored as her main characters. There is a lot of wry humour in her novels, but also a lot that is poignant and real, though firmly rooted in the upper-middle class world that she knew.

Marghanita Laski 1915 – 1988

Born into a family of Jewish intellectuals in Manchester, Marghanita Laski later worked as a journalist – but also prolifically as a writer. She wrote five novels (four currently reissued by Persephone books) a play, The Offshore Island, some stories and works of biography, as well as working as an editor on many more books. Her novel Little Boy Lost is one of the most blissfully poignant books I have ever read, and her novels The Village and To Bed with Grand Music – offer different perspectives of women during and in the immediate aftermath of WW2. She was also a compulsive contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Nina Bawden 1925 – 2012

Nina Bawden may not appear to be unsung as such – she won several awards, and seems to have had a very successful career. I just can’t help but think she is already a name that isn’t as well-known as maybe it should be. Well known for her children’s books Carrie’s War (my favourite children’s novel) and The Peppermint Pig, amongst others, Nina Bawden was a prolific writer of adult books too. Over the course of her life she published 55 books both for children and adults. She was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1987 for Circles of Deceit and also served as a Booker judge. However I don’t think she is well known as she deserves to be, (though I admit I haven’t as yet read many of her books) her often fairly slim novels offer little sharp little twists and contain powerful observations of people. In the last couple of years I have read and enjoyed: The Grain of Truth, Devil by the Sea and A Woman of my Age. In 2002 Nina Bawden’s second husband was killed in the Potters Bar train crash – while Nina herself was badly injured. Her testimony about the events became a major part of David Hare’s later play The Permanent Way.

Winifred Holtby 1898 – 1935

Born into a prosperous Yorkshire family, Winifred Holtby was a successful journalist and the author of six novels and two collections of short stories. She also wrote a critical memoir of Virginia Woolf. In 1919 she went to Oxford where she met her great friend Vera Brittain. Together with Vera Brittain she was a member of the feminist six point group and lectured (again like Vera Brittain) for the League of United Nations. Her early novels like Anderby Wold were published in the 1920s, but during these years Holtby was probably best known for her journalism. Her wonderful novels are rooted in the Yorkshire communities that she knew. Her novel Mandoa, Mandoa (not currently in print but available in ebook form) is an odd little political satire that Holtby wrote in the wake of the 1931 general election. In 1931 she was diagnosed with suffering from Bright’s disease and only given two years to live. Knowing she was running out of time she then concentrated on the writing of her best novel South Riding – a truly brilliant novel. South Riding is a novel of local politics and the community of the East Riding where she grew up. Holtby’s mother had been the first alderwoman on the East Riding county council – and she is remembered in the character of Mrs Beddows. South Riding was published posthumously in 1936.

Susan Glaspell 1876 – 1948

Again a writer who may not appear entirely unsung, although she may not have been heard of by many people. She was an American Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, but she was also a wonderful novelist. Glaspell also worked as an actress and a local journalist, and it appears as if, despite the success of her novels and stories at the time, she was later best known and remembered for her plays. A lot of her work is now out of print – two wonderful novels Fidelity and Brook Evans have been re-issued by Persephone books. During her life she wrote nine novels, fifteen plays, over fifty short stories and a biography. Her fiction is often thought to be at least semi-autobiographical, frequently set in her native Iowa and concerning contemporary issues (to her time of course), such as gender, ethics, and dissent. Some of her plays, stories and other novels can be found via second hand book sites and print on demand services – it is a shame that only two are currently in print. Persephone also include one of her short stories in their Persephone book of short stories.

Susan has spent most of her working life in the book world. Firstly as a book seller, then as a freelance writer and reviews editor for Waterstone’s Books Quarterly and We Love This Book. We share a passion for excellent female writers – our love of Helen Dunmore’s work is what really got us sharing thoughts and recommendations.

You could quibble with classing Helen Dunmore as unsung – she won the inaugural Orange (now Baileys) Women’s Prize for fiction – but she’s never received the level of approbation that her contemporaries Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie attract despite her extraordinary talent and versatility. She’s an award-winning poet, a children’s author, and her fiction ranges from profoundly thoughtful novels to psychological thrillers. If I had to choose one Dunmore to press upon readers it would be Talking to the Dead. Packed with insight into the complications of family life and the power of secrets to shape and destroy lives, it has the pace of a thriller yet it reads like a long prose poem written in language which is as sensuous and languorous as the heat which seems to permeate every page.

If Helen Dunmore doesn’t qualify on the unsung front because she’s a prize winner, sadly Jill Dawson does. Accomplished and richly imaginative, the closest Dawson has got to a prize is a short listing for both the Costa and the Orange. There’s often an element of history in her fiction – she’s written about Rupert Brooke in The Great Lover, Wild Boy drew on a true story about a feral boy in post-Revolutionary France and Fred and Edie is based on the story of Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters, hung for the murder of Edie’s husband in the ‘20s. If I had to choose one, though, it would be Lucky Bunny, Queenie Dove’s story of thieving her way from Depression poverty to glamour while staving off heartbreak and guilt. Dawson weaves real-life characters and events into Queenie’s narrative, vividly summoning up London’s sleazy underworld.

Lots of time for my next writer to get the recognition she deserves: Helen Oyeyemi who at only thirty has already written five novels. In fairness, Oyeyemi has appeared on the Granta Best of Young Novelists list and won a Somerset Maugham Award but she doesn’t seem to have received anywhere near the attention her imaginative fiction deserves. She wrote her first novel, the extraordinarily accomplished and frankly terrifying The Icarus Girl, when she was studying for her A-Levels but her latest, Boy Snow Bird, is my current favourite. It’s a tale of race and identity with elements of fairy tale – a wicked stepmother, a Prince Charming or two, a girl called Snow and a richly symbolic mirror motif reflecting, or not reflecting, different images the characters have of themselves. It’s stuffed with stories, strikingly written, with a twist towards the end which will knock your socks off.

In contrast to Oyeyemi, Lesley Glaister has been writing for many years but rarely gets the kind of broadsheet coverage she deserves. Her themes are often dark – murder, madness and obsession are favourites – and she does a fine line in eccentric old women. A steely thread of tension runs through her fiction often accompanied by a healthy dollop of black humour. Sadly, many of Glaister’s books are now out of print but of the ones that are available I’d pick Now You See Me. Homeless, deeply disturbed and with a secret buried in denial and untruth, Lamb seeks safety in solitude until she meets Doggo, on the run from a crime that he also conceals. These two outcasts find a way to each other and the result is an unusual love story that steps outside the traditional bounds of romance.

My final choice is Deirdre Madden, a writer of long standing whose quietly elegant prose deserves to be ranked alongside the likes of Sebastian Barry, William Trevor and Colm Tóibin. She writes slim, understated novels in which the Troubles are often present in one form or another. In Molly Fox’s Birthday, the eponymous actor is spending her Midsummer’s Day birthday in New York while the playwright, to whom she has lent her gloriously cluttered house, struggles to start her new piece, preoccupied with questions about Molly, their friendship and their relationship with Andrew whose loyalist paramilitary brother was killed in the North. It’s a beautifully expressed novel about identity, art and friendship.

Huge thanks to Ali and Susan for their choices. How many have you added to your TBR? Is your favourite writer here? Which female writers do you think deserve more recognition? Check back on Sunday to see mine and Antonia’s choices.

40 thoughts on “Unsung Female Writers (Part One)

  1. Oh I love Susan’s choices some.authors who are.New.to me. I agree about Helen Dunmore I have only read three or four but I loved them and am.determined to read everything eventually.


  2. I think I may have read at least one book by Nina Bawden way back when, but nothing by any of the others yet! Talking to the Dead by Helen Dunmore is definitely going on my TBR list. Helen Oyeyemi is already on it!


  3. Thank you, Ali! Susan Glaspwell is new to me and I’ve been meaning to seek out a Marghanita Laski for some time. You’ve spurred me on. Looking forward to Naomi and Antonia’s choices.


  4. Thanks Ali and Susan for taking the time to put together an excellent set of profiles, and to you, Naomi, for hosting! Quite a few of these writers are new to me, and it’s interesting to get an insight into their background and style.

    I’m delighted to see Elizabeth Taylor on Ali’s list. Taylor was one of my mother’s favourite authors, and I read some of her short stories many years ago. I’ve yet to try any of her novels, but just by chance I recently bought a copy of Mrs Palfrey, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy it.

    Jill Dawson’s A Tell-Tale Heart is on my tbr pile (courtesy of your kind giveaway). I’m looking forward to seeing your and Antonia’s choices in part 2. I’m already trying to guess which writers you’ve selected…


    • Thanks for your comment, Jacqui. I’m a fairly recent convert to Taylor, I came across her when India Knight tweeted about her a couple of years ago and then a few people joined in saying how good she was.

      You should write your ideas down and then you can tell us how many you guessed in Sunday!


  5. Some of them not so much unsung as just out of fashion – I remember reading Elizabeth Taylor, Winifred Holtby and Nina Bawden YEARS ago when they were all published by Virago in those fabulous dark green editions. Good to see Deirdre Madden on the list – I’ve read a few of her books and think she’s great. Not read any Lesley Glaister so I shall seek her out.


  6. I’m a Persephone fan too and agree with so many of these choices. Susan Glaspell is terrific, and Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski is one of my very favourite novels. Nina Bawden’s books I loved as a child, The Peppermint Pig especially. I think my unsung female author is Rumer Godden, her wonderful books have inspired me so much, and I hope will continue to do so – I haven’t read them all yet, thank goodness.


  7. Happy to come acorss this post (and blog), and happier still to see Elizabeth Taylor first up on your two lists. I have blogged about each of her twelve novels in 2013-14, including Mrs Palfrey in the series on older women in fiction. (Bookword blog)
    Some new-to-me names in the list, which I will follow up on.
    I have recently finished Little Egypt by Lesley Glaiseter, and much enjoyed the 80 year old twins and the story of their childhoods. Also Little Boy Lost by M Laski.
    Thanks for this.


  8. Pingback: Unsung Female Writers (Part Two) | The Writes of Woman

  9. Can I please add Jennifer Johnston? She is woefully neglected and I’ve been championing her work on my blog since 2006.

    For an Australian & NZ angle, I’d add the wonderful Ruth Park and Elizabeth Jolley.


  10. Brilliant post Naomi and lots to add to my to read at some point in the future list! I’ve read some books by some of these authors but still many to discover. I do like Salley Vickers and Jill Dawson, and I’ve read and loved one by Lesley Glaister. Got lots of Helen Dunmore on the tar. Thanks for sharing this. Another female writer whose books I’ve enjoyed is Linda Gillard.


  11. Pingback: Unsung Female Writers (Part Three) | The Writes of Woman

  12. Pingback: Elsewhere: Unsung Female Writers and SF Masterworks | Follow the Thread

  13. Wow that was unusual. I just wrote an very long comment but
    after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr…
    well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyways, just wanted to say wonderful blog!


  14. Pingback: Paperbacks to look out for in September 2014 | A life in books

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