Monthly Archives: November 2007

The Year of Reading Proust

I recently finished Phyllis Rose’s book The Year of Reading Proust: A Memoir in Real Time, and I felt ambivalently about it the whole way through. Have you had the experience of enjoying not liking something, or going back and forth about it? I felt that way about this book. I considered quitting after the first couple of chapters, which didn’t work for me, but I stuck with it when the topics Rose was covering became more interesting, and from there on out, I found myself both moving quickly through it with a certain amount of pleasure and thinking the whole time about how mildly annoying the book is.

On the positive side, Rose is a good storyteller, and I liked the way she wrote about herself and her life honestly, sometimes telling things about herself that weren’t flattering. She’s a good personal essayist. She also knows tons of writers and has some good gossip about them; for example, she writes about her long-time friendship with Annie Dillard that’s full of complications and ups and downs. It’s quite fun to hear about, say, a dinner party she held for Salman Rushdie.

However, if you are picking this book up to read about Proust, you will most likely be disappointed. In fact, I don’t think I did this book justice, because I went into it thinking it was one thing and it took me a long time to figure out it’s actually something else. I like reading memoir/essay type books, however, so I adjusted my expectations and found some pleasure in it. In her first chapter, she describes her project of reading Proust in a year, discussing what the experience was like and giving her impressions of the novel. Subsequent chapters begin with a quotation from Proust and then tell a story from Rose’s experiences that relate to the quotation. She integrates brief discussions of Proust into the chapters to flesh out the point she’s making. Her chapters cover such things as her history with television, her passion for collecting, her first marriage, her struggles trying to write a novel, and battles with her neighbors over landscaping. She can frequently be entertaining, especially in the chapters on sex and relationships, and she captures her academic, literary world quite well.

But her descriptions of this world — a world where well-known writers hang out in Key West and Salman Rushdie drops in for dinner parties — annoyed me too, and my annoyance stems from class issues, I think. On the one hand, I’m fascinated by this story of a literary, academic, and social insider, someone who has lots of famous friends and what appears to be an enviable academic and economic position; she taught at Wesleyan for many years and moves back and forth between Connecticut and Florida, and she seems to have plenty of time with which to pursue her writing projects and personal interests. It sounds like a life many would envy. On the other hand, I wondered why I should care about the details of her life, about her struggles with this and that, about her fights with Annie Dillard, about her difficulty writing a novel. It’s not that I only want to read memoirs of people who have led particularly hard lives, but I wondered, sometimes, whether Rose had really done enough to make me care about her. Why devote my time to reading her story? Where, exactly, does the interest for a general reader lie?

I suppose, ultimately, the book felt a little self-indulgent to me. I feel harsh for saying this, and I’m struggling to find the right words to capture my reaction. I think that it’s a very personal reaction — I’m not sure I like Rose and therefore I’m not easily going to like her memoirs. Can you enjoy reading the memoirs of someone you don’t like? I suppose so, but it would take a different kind of writer than Rose.

So, if you are considering reading this book, please don’t take my negativity too seriously; you might like the book much better than I did.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

Happy Friday Everyone!

I had a lovely afternoon hanging out with Hepzibah; we met for lunch and then hung out in one of my town’s used bookstores. There are few things nicer than spending time with a friend in a used bookstore, is there? I didn’t buy anything, but that doesn’t matter; it was just fun to look around. The shop owner now knows me well enough to inquire after Muttboy when I see him, so we had a nice conversation today about how well-behaved he is.

And then I went on a bike ride, which convinced me, although I can’t say I really needed convincing, that it’s gotten cold out. Today’s high was in the low 40s, and it was a bit windy, conditions that feel rough for me right now, although when January and February come around, temps in the low 40s will begin to sound balmy. It takes me awhile to adjust to cold-weather riding, and it’s particularly true this year, as I took a break from riding for a couple weeks, and in that time, temperatures plummeted. So I went from riding in the 60s and 70s to riding in the 40s all at once. All at once, I’m having to pile on the layers before I head out, tank-top, short-sleeved t-shirt, long-sleeved t-shirt, armwarmers, jersey, long-fingered gloves, cycling gloves, shorts, tights, heavy socks, shoes, and heavy shoe covers. Now it takes at least 15 minutes to prepare for a ride, possibly longer, if I can’t find all my clothing all at once.

I must say, I’m feeling rather unmotivated to ride right now. This is fine for the moment, as it’s still the off-season, and I can afford to take it easy. But soon enough, I’ll need to start training for spring. I’m not sure what the problem is — perhaps it’s feeling stressed about school or perhaps I’m still feeling a bit draggy from the cold I’ve had over the last couple weeks. But I hope it passes … it takes a lot of motivation to head out into the cold.


Filed under Books, Cycling, Life

18C Novels

I enjoyed reading two posts on Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, one from Smithereens and one by Danielle, with two different reactions to the book. Both bloggers pointed out all the weeping, fainting, and quaking, all the passivity and sensitive emotionalism that the heroine Emily exhibits. It’s hard as a 21st-century reader not to get a bit annoyed by all this, but it helps, as Danielle pointed out, to know that this is simply what novelistic heroines tended to do at the time. Readers at the time expected it and ate it up. Radcliffe was writing when sensibility was all the rage — when everyone was talking about emotions, what they are, why they are important, where they lead us, and how they can possibly make us better people or can possibly distract us from more important matters. You see phrases like “exquisite sensibility” and “overflowing hearts” all over the place.

And the heroines tend to be models of perfection, which can also get annoying, since we are used to much more complexity in our characters. So often plots revolve around testing the perfection of the heroine who tends to remain static, rather than allowing the heroine to have flaws and grow and change. Not all novels are like this, by any means (see Wollstonecraft or Mary Hays or The Female Quixote), but so many heroines from 18C fiction are so irritatingly perfect, that you realize Austen’s genius in creating such well-rounded people.

Given all that, I do love the 18C novel, as you know. I find all the intense emotionalism fascinating, if strange, and I love the way the genre develops though the time period, emerging out of a rich mix of biography, autobiography, history, crime narrative, spiritual narratives, travel writing, etc. I love how weird the 18C novel can be — see The Monk or Tristram Shandy for examples. And I love how you see see political and social changes reflected in the writing — class struggles in Pamela, for example, or capitalism in Robinson Crusoe.

I must say, however, that I’m struggling a bit with my latest 18C novel — Sophia Lee’s The Recess. My initial assessment is that it’s interesting for historical reasons, but not something I’d recommend for someone interested in an absorbing read or someone just starting out on the 18C novel. The book has an odd rhythm to it. I’ve read only the first part out of six, and already I suspect I’ve been given way more historical detail than I need. I’ve come across two stories-within-the-story, both of which are pretty outlandish, filled with incest, murder, lust, and betrayal. That sounds like it might be fun, but the narrator rushes through it all, it’s too much to absorb, and I’m not sure she’s really making use of all the details she throws out there. The pace of the novel is awkward; it’s so fast, I begin to feel bored, oddly enough.

It’s interesting, though, because it’s an early example of the historical novel; it’s about two (fictional) daughters of Mary, Queen of Scots, and Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Leicester are characters. If I remember correctly, the editor of Waverly claimed that Scott is the first historical novelists, and that’s simply not true. I don’t know who the first is (if there is such a thing), but Lee certainly wrote historical novels before Scott did.

I’ll definitely finish it, so I’ll see if the remaining five parts pick up a little bit.


Filed under Books, Fiction

A Post About Me

Many thanks to Charlotte for tagging me for this meme! I need a topic this evening that won’t tax my brain too much, and this is perfect, although I must say, I have been running words through my head all day, trying to come up with ones that fit. Here are the instructions for the meme:

List one fact, word or tidbit that is somehow relevant to your life for each letter of your first or middle name. You can theme it to your blog or make it general. Then tag one person for each letter of your name.

So here goes:

D: Dogs. I was not always a lover of dogs; it was getting Muttboy that changed me from a person intimidated by them to one who will approach just about any dog to say hello. Muttboy pretty much runs things in our household; his two daily walks and his meals and his snacks and his little rituals like playing in the backyard with Hobgoblin whenever he takes out the garbage give a structure to our days and weeks. How did we ever get by before we got Muttboy? I have no idea. Life must have been very boring.

O: Outdoors. I have not always been an outdoorsy person either; when I was a kid I liked to hike but didn’t do it that often, and generally I preferred to be indoors reading than outdoors playing in the yard or sunbathing or whatever. This hasn’t changed too terribly much. But upon getting older and having a car and a bit more money at my disposal, I started hiking more and took up backpacking, and, of course, began to ride. Now I try to find a balance; I’m still inclined to linger indoors, but I’ve discovered the magic of the world outdoors too.

R: Reading. What is there to say about this one? I don’t really need a justification for my choice of this word, or a description of how I love it. You already know about that.

O: Online. 10, 15 years ago I would have been shocked to learn that I would end up spending so much time online. If you go back far enough, of course, I wouldn’t know what that meant, spending time online, but even as recently as a couple years ago, I had no idea it would become so important to me. But it has — and for the most part, it’s been a very good thing.

T: Trail. I’m rather obsessed with trails, and especially the Appalachian Trail. I haven’t been on it in quite a few months, and I’m eager to go. There’s something magical about a trail that goes on for hundreds and thousands of miles, a trail you can follow for months and not get to the end of, a trail you can live on and that can sustain a whole community of hikers. I fell in love with the Appalachian Trail when I read an article about it in Reader’s Digest as a kid, and my feelings toward it have never changed. Next summer, I’m going backpacking, if it kills me!

H: Hobgoblin. I have no idea what life without Hobgoblin would be like; I can’t even begin to imagine such a thing. We’ve been married over 9 years now and have known each other for 11 years, exactly 1/3 of my life. That’s a pretty big chunk, isn’t it?!

Y: Yankee. Growing up in western New York state, I didn’t think of myself as a Yankee, tending to think that you had to be from New England to qualify, although I did have an interesting conversation when I was much younger with the family of a friend from the south; one family member asked me where I’m from and upon hearing the answer said, “Oh, you’re a Yankee! I’ve known a few good Yankees ….” Now that I live in Connecticut, I most definitely qualify.

W: Woods. I like my civilization, yes, I do, but I like a little wilderness as well. Don’t coop me up too much, or I’ll be longing for escape. Retreating to my book-lined study is a wonderful solace, but I need time out in the woods, time away from buildings and cars and all the fake plasticky things we surround ourselves with.

I’m not going to tag anybody for this meme, but if you’d like to do it, please do!


Filed under Life, Memes

Maisie Dobbs, Messenger of Truth

I recently finished listening to the latest Maisie Dobbs novel on audio, Messenger of Truth. Now I have to wait for Winspear to publish the next novel before I can read any more Maisie Dobbs! And then I have a dilemma — do I read the book when it comes out, or do I wait for the audio version to get made and delivered to my library? I’m so used to listening to these books that sitting down and actually reading one won’t feel right. And I do love to listen to the readers with their accents and inflections — hearing the book in my head in my own voice as I read quietly will be a different experience entirely. But it could be quite a while before the audio comes out. So, I have no idea what I’ll do.

You’ll probably guess from the above that I liked the latest Maisie Dobbs novel. Winspear explores a new theme in this one: art and the artist. The crime victim is a painter who painted scenes from World War I that many people found disturbing and controversial. So Maisie gets to spend some time thinking about art’s function and purpose, how people react to ground-breaking and controversial art, and what motivates artists to create what they do. She also gets to question traditional stereotypes of artists — that they aren’t practical or worldly or capable — since the artist she is investigating doesn’t quite live up to the stereotype.

She also finds herself caught up in a social scene full of artists and bohemians, and she has to think about how she does and doesn’t fit in. She feels both drawn to them and a little uncertain how to act in this new world of night clubs and parties and dancing. Experiencing this mix of emotions, she is forced to think about her longing for a little excitement and even frivolity, qualities that have been largely absent from her life.

As always, the story is absorbing and fun, and Maisie saves the day!

At the end of the audio book was an interview with Winspear, and one of the questions was about the research she does to prepare for the books. It was quite fascinating to hear what she had to say. She described being interested in the post-WW I time period for a very long time, so that she has been doing research for the books even when not working on them directly. She described reading archival letters from soldiers writing to family back home and realizing that she might be the first person reading them after the original recipient. These letters help her in her quest to get the language just right; she works very hard to make sure the characters in her novels speak as people at the time spoke. She also works hard to get the clothing and accessories right (which explains all those mentions of clothing I was complaining about in an earlier post!), and to give the novels a sense of time and place by working historical events into the narrative.

And she spoke about how Maisie is a typical woman of her day in the sense that she is one of the many “surplus” women, left without a husband or lover after the war and forced to make a new kind of life for herself. Some women never adapted to these demands, but others, like Maisie, took on new challenges like owning businesses and becoming professionals of various sorts.

Maybe what I should do is read the book and then listen to the audio afterwards … that would be fun.


Filed under Books, Fiction

A year of re-reading?

I came across this passage from Nabokov on reading and re-reading recently:

Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader. And I shall tell you why. When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation. When we look at a painting we do not have to move our eyes in a special way even if, as in a book, the picture contains elements of depth and development. The element of time does not really enter in a first contact with a painting. In reading a book, we must have time to acquaint ourselves with it. We have no physical organ (as we have the eye in regard to a painting) that takes in the whole picture and then can enjoy its details. But at a second, or third, or fourth reading we do, in a sense, behave towards a book as we do towards a painting.

I agree with what Nabokov says here, and it bothers me that I do relatively little re-reading. Of course, I feel pulled by the lure of new books too, and that pull is almost irresistible, but reading nothing but new books (new-to-me books) feels a little bit superficial sometimes, as though I’m not really digging into my reading, really thinking about it seriously and experiencing it fully. I know I’ve written about this before, and I don’t mean to rehash old thoughts, but this feeling does stay with me.

So I’m tossing around the idea of focusing on re-reading next year. I’ll certainly read plenty of new books, but I might try to pick out some books I’d like to re-read as well, maybe some books that meant a lot to me in the past, or that I didn’t understand well the first time around, or that have continued to intrigue me. Perhaps I’ll re-read something now and then, say, once a month or so. I’m trying very hard not to commit to any reading challenges, but this wouldn’t be a challenge, exactly, and I wouldn’t set the books I’ll re-read in stone. Maybe I’ll list some possibilities, but make the final choices only at the last minute.

So, what might I re-read? Right now, these are a few books that come to mind:

  • Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. Of course I’d pick things from the 18C! I would like to know this early novel better; I’ve read Fielding’s novel Joseph Andrews quite a few times, as I’ve written about it before, but Tom Jones I don’t know as well.
  • William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. This book has defeated me so far. I’ve tried to read it at least twice, succeeded only once, and didn’t really get it where I did succeed in finishing it. But I want to get it! I really do.
  • Something by George Eliot. She’s one of my favorite novelists ever, and this re-reading would feel like pure pleasure. I’ve already re-read several of her novels, including Daniel Deronda and Middlemarch. So, perhaps I’d re-read The Mill on the Floss? Or Adam Bede?
  • Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. I don’t feel like I’ve done justice to this book; perhaps I read it when I was too young or wasn’t able to focus on it fully. I have vague memories of it, but would like to know it better.
  • Perhaps Lolita? I really love Nabokov’s writing, and I’m sure I have more to learn from this book. He’s such a wonderful writer, isn’t he?
  • Perhaps I should return to some books from my youth? Perhaps the Betsy-Tacy books, or some Anne of Green Gables.

I’m sure I’ll think of more as I go on …


Filed under Books, Reading

New books

Today I shall tell you about my new books. I have darkened the doorstep of very few bookstores lately, but the books keep coming in, mostly through Book Mooch and now and then from Amazon. Most of these books, you’ll see, I decided to acquire based on the recommendations of bloggers. Thank you, as always!

  • Jonathan Coe’s The House of Sleep. I may need to read Rosamund Lehmann’s The Echoing Grove before I read Coe’s book, as that’s where he found inspiration for it. I almost began this one yesterday after noticing the epigraph from Lehmann’s novel, but decided it wasn’t quite right for me at the moment. I’m prepared to enjoy this greatly when I’m ready, though, as several bloggers have told me how much they like Coe’s writing.
  • Goethe’s Elective Affinities. Litlove recommended this one to me, and I’m excited about it, as I’ve read some Goethe in the past (Sorrows of Young Werther and Faust), but had never heard of this novel. Here is a description: Elective Affinities is a “penetrating study of marriage and passion, bringing together four people in an inexorable manner. The novel asks whether we have free will or not and confronts its characters with the monstrous consequences of repressing what little ‘real life’ they have in themselves, a life so far removed from their natural states that it appears to them as something terrible and destructive.” It’s from 1809.
  • Werner Herzog’s Of Walking in Ice. This book tells the story of Herzog’s three-week walk from Munich to Paris. He walked to see his friend Lotte Eisner who was sick and near death; he believed that she wouldn’t die as long as he was walking to meet her. I’m kind of fascinated by Herzog, although I haven’t actually seen many of his films. But after seeing Grizzly Man and hearing some interviews with him, I want to know more. And, of course, this is an example of walking literature, which I’m always looking out for.
  • Gabriel Josipovici’s Goldberg: Variations. After reading Imani’s posts on this book, I couldn’t resist. I own Josipovici’s The Book of God, which I read parts of in college, but I don’t know anything about his fiction. I should take another look at The Book of God, now that I think of it; I do like reading books about the Bible.
  • Finally, The Owl Service, by Alan Garner. This is a young adult book, and it is the next Slaves of Golconda book, which we’ll be read at the end of the month. I don’t read much young adult literature, so I’m looking forward to this one.


Filed under Books, Lists

Rosamund Lehmann’s A Note in Music

Rosamund Lehmann’s A Note in Music fascinated me; not much happened in it, and yet so much happened — Lehmann is excellent at capturing inner worlds, the way moods shift and feelings come and go, and the way other people impinge upon our consciousness, often making us unhappy as they do.

The novel tells the story of Grace Fairfax, a 34-year-old woman living in a town in the north of England; she is married to kind but bungling Tom, who loves her but is also mystified by her. Grace figured out early on in their 10-year marriage that she made a mistake when she married Tom, but she has tried to make the best of it and they have muddled along, not happy, although not perfectly miserable either. Their life together feels indifferent, as though it means little or even nothing. In fact, Grace’s life is full of nothingness, which Lehmann makes clear from the very beginning; when Grace’s friend Norah tries to persuade her to see a fortune-teller, she refuses, fearing she will see only nothingness in her future:

For the truth was that she was afraid of the fortune-teller. She had a vision of the woman, scrutinizing her palm and saying finally:

‘This is a most curious case. There is nothing here: nothing in your past, nothing in your future. As for character — lazy, greedy, secretive — without will or purpose.’

The novel also tells Norah’s story; she too is unhappily married, in her case, to Gerald, an emotionally distant professor who retreats to his books to avoid any complicated human interaction.

Into this stew of discontent comes Hugh and his sister Clare; Hugh is a young, attractive man who is being groomed to inherit the company where Tom works as a clerk, and Clare is an old friend of Norah’s. Both of them bring life and energy into Grace and Norah’s small world, and Hugh quickly becomes an object of desire for both of them, with his handsome blonde hair and his charming, casual manners.

One of the most painful parts to read — in a book that is full of painful and yet at the same time pleasurable descriptions of emotional turmoil, pleasurable because of the accuracy with which they are detailed — occurs when we realize just how oblivious Hugh is to the impact he has on Grace and Norah both. For the women, encountering Hugh is a life-changing event that will give them food for thought for years and decades to come. For Hugh, his time with them is a brief interlude between much more exciting events in his life, a way of passing the time until the next episode begins. When Grace and Hugh develop a friendship that surprises them both, Grace feels that … well, that she is living up to her name, that Hugh’s presence and the love she feels for him have descended upon her as though they were gifts from heaven. Grace knows that these gifts are fleeting things, and that soon she will return to her quiet life with Tom, but they have changed her.

Lehmann uses a shifting perspective that gives us glimpses into the minds of all of the major characters at one point or another, including Tom and Gerald, so that we see just how the various characters are making sense of what occurs. This technique increases the emotional impact of the novel, as, for example, Tom’s earnest love for Grace is contrasted with Grace’s barely civil tolerance of Tom, or Norah’s good-natured attempts to please Gerald are contrasted with Gerald’s irritation at her fumbling and bumbling about. All the characters seem at odds with one another, which makes moments of emotional connection that much more meaningful.

I love this sort of book, although I can imagine people reading my description and thinking the book sounds claustrophobic and boring — but, in my opinion at least, it’s not; it’s a book that describes the type of life that many people lead, one where not much happens, and yet so much is happening, at every moment.


Filed under Books, Fiction

Revision pays off

Good news — I got word that an article of mine will be published next year. This is an article I sent to another journal a year or two ago, which got rejected because they weren’t terribly impressed with the argument, and which I then sent out to another journal immediately without changing a single word. This journal asked me to revise and resubmit it, and, interestingly, the reader’s report didn’t say a word about the argument, but instead asked me to work on describing the argument more fully in the introduction and then revising the prose, cleaning up sentences and wording and such. I just needed to find the right place, apparently. I got word today that they’re accepting this revision, and the report included these marvelous sentences: “I think the author has done an admirable job of revising this essay,” and “I would like to congratulate the author for working so hard to revise the essay to bring it to its full potential.” Woo-hoo!

Actually, I should change the post title to “Sometimes revision pays off,” as I’m glad I didn’t revise the essay after the first journal rejected it but happy I revised it for the second journal.

Oh, if you’re interested, the article is on Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey.


Filed under Writing

Totally pointless post

Don’t say I didn’t warn you. If you’re reading this and you start to get annoyed because you’re discovering that I’ve got absolutely nothing to say, don’t get mad at me about it. You probably shouldn’t be spending your time reading this anyway.

It’s only the second day of NaBloPoMo and I’m faltering! It’s not that I don’t have things to write about. I do, as a matter of fact — I want to write about Rosamund Lehmann’s A Note in Music now that I’ve finished it and I also want to write about Seneca. But I’m still sick, all coughing and sniffly and woozy, and I’m not sure I can think straight to write about something serious. And I just got terribly annoyed because I read through some student essay revisions and found that they hadn’t revised at all. After ten years or so of teaching writing, why this would surprise me, I don’t know, but I am still always surprised when it happens. I mean, why would anyone think it’s a good idea to hand in an essay revision that is almost exactly the same as the first draft? Don’t they realize I will get frustrated at them, which is, surely, the last thing they want? So I’m more in the mood to vent than to write something thoughtful and smart.

I have discovered over the years that the best approach for me to take in the classroom is to be all happiness and cheer all the time. Somehow I’ve never figured out how to make any other teaching persona work for me. If I let myself show frustration or annoyance, things go downhill fast. Given that I am by no means a cheerful person generally, staying so cheerful might sound hard, but since I see students only for three hours a week, I usually do okay. But what it means is that I have a powerful need to vent when the students aren’t around! Not that teaching is so hard or unpleasant, or that my students are so terrible, let me clarify. Most of the time they are a pleasure to teach. It’s just that … well, I’m a perfectionist and was a perfectly obedient, perfectly diligent student myself, and I (still) don’t understand why students aren’t more like I was. I have to remind myself that, yes, occasionally, even I skipped the reading now and then or asked for an extension or took the easy way out in an assignment. I think this is one of the hardest things to learn about teaching — so often (although not always) those who end up teaching were the model students of their day, and they have to learn that not all students are perfectly-organized perfectionists like they were. (But why not? why not?? Don’t they see how much easier things would be if they were?)

So, this has turned into a post about teaching, which is something I rarely write about. But at this point in the semester with all the grading I’m doing, it’s hard to think about much else. I do have the pleasure of choosing a new novel now; perhaps that will cheer me up after that disastrous grading session …


Filed under Blogging, Life, Teaching

Mothers of the Novel

Charlotte invited me to participate in NaBloPoMo (National Blog Posting Month [wait — why national? Shouldn’t it be international?]) this year, so here I am, officially posting every day this month, instead of following my usual most-likely-but-not-necessarily-posting-every-day method. We’ll see how it goes. I’m feeling a tiny bit anxious about this, as though actually committing to posting every day is so much harder than making no commitment but doing it anyway.

So, I’ve finished Dale Spender’s excellent Mothers of the Novel and can say that it’s well worth the read, even though it’s over 20 years old and tons of research has been done on these novelists since Spender wrote. But it’s an excellent overview and gives information about tons of authors and if you pick it up, it will most certainly add to your reading list. You’ll find Spender’s list here, along with some other writers thrown in for good measure.

What I liked best about the book, besides the information on new writers it’s given me, is its description of the strength of an 18C tradition of women’s writing and the accompanying disappointment that this tradition has largely disappeared. Spender stresses over and over again how vibrant women’s writing was in the 18C and how well-respected many of these writers were. She also describes female critics from the 18C and 19C who wrote about these women writers, trying to acknowledge their strength and establish a lasting tradition — which didn’t work, as we now know. Now, I knew there were a lot of women writers from the 18C, but I’m not sure I quite realized how important they were in their time and how seriously they were taken. Here is what Spender says:

Jane Austen read ‘women’s novels.’ So too did the reverend gentleman, her father. What is frequently ‘forgotten’ is that he also made his regular visits to the circulating library for the latest novel by a woman, who explored the implications of many a moral question of his time. And Mr. Austen’s reading habits were by no means unusual for a man in his position.

She also argues that over time women’s novels have tended to be lumped into one big category, that of the romance, in spite of the fact that there is great variety in their writing, both of subject matter and of quality. On the other hand, while men often wrote (and write) novels that are about romance, these works are rarely described as romances and aren’t so easily dismissed.

This dismissal happens mostly in the 19C. By the time the 19C got going, women had experienced enough success that male writers were getting nervous:

If we want to explain the dismissal of early women novelists from the literary heritage it is necessary to go much further than the misleading accounts about mass audiences and sensation, sentimental ‘blotterature.’ For in the eighteenth century, many of the women novelists who were writing for a small, refined and morally conscious audience, were held in very high repute. It is only since their time that the pervasive notion of silly novels by silly women novelists has held such sway.

The systematic devaluation of women writers and their concerns is more a product of the nineteenth century. By this time women’s position as novel writers was so well established that there were more than mutterings among the men about the dangers of women’s preeminence in the genre.

It’s a depressing story, yes, but I also find it heartening to know more about this tradition, and particularly the way women writers read and refined each other’s work, commenting on and responding to the writers who had gone before them, thereby doing much to extend what the novel can do.

Ann has asked about where to start with lesser-known writers, and while definitions of “lesser-known” will vary and while I haven’t actually read tons and tons of this stuff, I’m happy to list some of my favorites. I’d definitely read Sarah Fielding’s novels, including The Adventures of David Simple. I’ve read and enjoyed Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote, Eliza Haywood’s Love in Excess, Charlotte Smith’s The Young Philosopher, Mary Hays’s Memoirs of Emma Courtney and The Victim of Prejudice, Mary Wollstonecraft’s two novels (Mary and The Wrongs of Woman), Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda, and Elizabeth Inchbald’s A Simple Story. And also Frances Burney’s Evelina and Ann Radcliffe’s gothic novels.

As for ones Spender has inspired me to read, they include Mary Brunton’s Self Control and Discipline (Austen admired Brunton greatly and learned much from her), Amelia Opie’s Adeline Mobray, and anything by Maria Edgeworth I can find. I hope to read more novels by the women listed above, as well as authors discussed in my post here, if I can find copies in print.


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