This is a list from the heart and not the head. It’s an acknowledgement of the women writers who belong to my own personal canon and a whistle-stop tour of turning-points in my life as a reader.
Many years ago, when I was a teenager down the pub, I had a conversation with a boy who maintained that women couldn’t write fiction. He honestly believed that not a single woman had ever written a novel worth reading. (He liked Thomas Mann.) I failed to change his mind, but I know that if I’d missed out on any of the writers mentioned here, I’d have been the poorer for it.
Inevitably, a list such as this is full of omissions, but I have tried to include the writers who have taken me out of myself, who introduced me to new worlds and gave me new ways to see my own. As Winifred Holtby observes in South Riding – or her narrator does, or one of her characters – ‘We all take, we all give: this is what it means, to belong to a people.’ (I’m paraphrasing. I haven’t read it since I was 17 or so, and don’t own a copy – but as you can tell, it made an impression). Here are some of the women writers I have taken from, in more or less chronological order.
In spite of the omissions, the list is still rather long, so I’ve split it into three parts. To follow: Daphne du Maurier, Susan Howatch, Stevie Smith, Jean Rhys, E. Annie Proulx, Jayne Anne Phillips, Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Claire Messud and Curtis Sittenfeld.
Enid Blyton. For Malory Towers. I was gripped and shocked in equal measure by the scene in the first book in which Darrell pushes Sally over during a fight – she is plagued by guilt when Sally becomes seriously ill afterwards (naturally, Sally and Darrell become best of friends later on). Girls fighting – and then making up! Well – who said we were nice all the time?
I so wanted to go to Malory Towers. I was obsessed. I loved the idea of sitting at a desk rather than a table, and wearing a tunic, and the old-fashionedness of it all. (The red rooftops and Cornish rock pools sounded good too.) When I finally did go to a school that did all that traditional stuff, though, I didn’t love it anything like as much as the Enid Blyton version. Sometimes fiction really does have the edge over life.
@AlisonLMercer Malory Towers feels even better second time around. A crash course on anti-femininity, like bravery and not showing emotion.
— Helen Rumbelow (@HelenRumbelow) March 20, 2014
Charlotte Brontë. For Jane Eyre, really, which I came across almost by accident. I was quite young (but precocious), visiting my step-grandmother, who had a beautiful flat in Bath with a big bookcase on the landing. When it was time to leave I was found perched on the chair next to the bookcase, completely absorbed in a fine old edition of Jane Eyre – the kind with a frontispiece and pages of tissue paper to protect the illustrations.
The Gateshead and Lowood sections hooked me in – I was into school stories, but Miss Scatcherd/Miss Temple/Mr Brocklehurst/Helen Burns were something else. There’s nothing quite like injustice to pull you into a narrative – and for a child, the figure of the unfair teacher is an especially potent one. The death of Helen Burns was almost certainly the first death I had ever come across in fiction. I still think it is one of the most devastating.
But the whole book sank in deep. Jane is so testy with Rochester, so assertive of her equality. I love the scene where she upbraids him for dressing up as a gypsy and trying to trick everybody, and the survivalist bit where she wanders the moors after fleeing her own wedding,and is reduced to begging for pigswill. (When I read about Katniss struggling to find water in The Hunger Games, I thought of Jane.)
And so my very first attempt at writing a novel was a homage, though I didn’t realise this at the time. The climax featured a dangerous woman setting fire to a house and dying in the blaze. Having got shot of her, at The End there was a wedding.
Jilly Cooper. I learned a lot from Jilly. For example: that if you go on a boat holiday, someone else will use up all the water and you won’t be able to wash your hair. Also: that animals can be better companions than people. And: a true hero will see your gorgeousness even if it’s not apparent to you, and even if he doesn’t always make it obvious that he likes you. (There are bound to be a few crossed wires and mismatches, and also, some adventurous or disastrous wardrobe choices. And sex. ‘You know how some men maul you for years and nothing happens, and then someone touches you and it’s as if a thousand volts just went through you?’ I’m paraphrasing and I can’t remember which book it’s from, but there it is: the weirdness of chemistry.)
Mary Stewart. There was the trilogy about Merlin, and lots of romances, almost invariably in exotic overseas locations. They were vividly written, escapist and seasoned with literary references. My Brother Michael, which is set in Greece and dotted with quotes from the classics, opens with the heroine sitting in a cafe and writing: Nothing ever happens to me. What better invitation for adventure could there be?
Antonia White. Four brilliant novels: Frost in May, The Lost Traveller, The Sugar House and Beyond the Glass. The convent (and the cutting of the novice’s hair), the retreat (the heroine cannot bring herself to write anything about Hell), Les Fleurs du Mal, the consequences of her novel about sinners coming to light, the difficult mother (‘A mother goes down to the gates of Hell for her child’), the father who makes a pass at her friend, the unconsummated marriage, the Chelsea artist who attempts to paint and seduce her, the insanity, Clive, the Hail Marys, the rosary at the end… If you haven’t read them… just do. They were televised in the early 80s, and I read them sometime after that. Trivia fact: Patsy Kensit played Nanda and is pictured on the cover of the paperback I have.
@AlisonLMercer Excellent list in every regard. I have that edition of Frost in May, didn’t realise it was Patsy Kensit on cover
— Harriet Lane (@HarrietLane_) March 20, 2014
— Samantha Ellis (@SamanthaEllis27) March 20, 2014
@AlisonLMercer I too wanted to go to Mallory Towers and become au fait with such exotic things as lacrosse sticks and tuck boxes
— Rebecca Mead (@Rebeccamead_NYC) March 20, 2014