Sunday, October 8, 2017

Was there a Russian Jane Austen and What's a Classic anyway?

I have been reading books (though slowly) and I will write about one soon, but this morning I read This article on The Pool website by Viv Groskop and it's been bothering me all day. In it she asks how do we acknowledge that men created the majority of the literary classics without doing women writers a disservice.

Classic seems to be a fairly elastic term at the best of times but I'm sceptical about this article and it's statement that "It's simply not as if there are dozens of women writers from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries who remain unknown and under-rated" or that "Many of the great male writers attained their status because they said something about the time they were living in that was viewed as significant".

It may well be that there aren't many British women writers from the 18th, 19th, and 20th century remaining to be discovered, but the list of 'anomalies' is far longer than Woolf, Austen, assorted Brontës, George Eliot, Mary Shelley, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Louise May Alcott (sic). Just looking at my Penguin and Oxford classics I can add Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth, Francis Hodgson Burnett, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Mrs Oliphant, and Ellen Wood to that list. I have something over 400 Virago Modern Classics, dozens of Persephone's, yards of golden age Crime by the acknowledged queens of the genre, and all sorts of other things to carry on making the point with.

All of them were popular in their day, presumably because they too were saying something significant about the time they were living in. Books in the U.K. are relatively cheap and we're well served with reprints of English language books. My by no means comprehensive collection tells me that these women were far from anomalies, and that it's quite possible to acknowledge that they were unjustly neglected, or dropped from the canon, over the years without doing any disservice to their male counterparts who were justly recognised and remembered.

We are not so well served by books in translation, and I have no idea if there are French, Italian, Russian (you get the idea) versions of Virago or Persephone, intent on rescuing those hidden female voices, but if books by Irene Nemirovsky or Teffi have started to appear in English over the last decade or so, I'm prepared to believe there are more (Wikipedia leads me to suppose so too).

I'm also wondering how many of those canonical classics by the great male writers that fill so many bookshelves are read as opposed to representing good intentions. Their names may be better known, but outside of universities how many people really settle down with Chekhov at the end of a long day? (Readers here are not likely to be a representative sample for answering that question).

To me it seems that where we do do those great male writers a disservice is in isolating them from their female peers. I've got far more out of reading Trollope having read Oliphant's 'Carlingford Chronicles', and enjoy Wilkie Collins more for having read Braddon - and that's a list that could go on too.


  1. There are so many female writers who fall into this category. I'm of course blanking on names. Female writers are grievously underrepresented.

  2. The article had me muttering things like an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.... there may never have been a Russian Jane Austen, but I find it hard to believe that there weren't women writers, writing important/profound/interesting things. On the other hand I find it very easy to believe that the mostly male academics who got to define the literary canon throughout the 19th and early 20th century might have ignored them. I also know that the more you look the more you find. I've seen that with literature over my life time, and in the last few years a concerted effort to find and celebrate female artists too. They're there, and can be found all through history, but you have to look a lot harder for them.

    Classic really is an elastic term as well, but Oliphant's Carlingford Chronicles (possibly not the first book lumped in the series, but definitely the rest of them) are ridiculously over looked. I must read Susan Ferriers 'Marriage' as well...

  3. A big thank you for bringing the Carlingford Chronicles to my attention; I can't think why, being practically a Trollope obsessive, I haven't come across them before! So, some big treats in store, if I can get track them down...

  4. Apparently cheap on kindle and second hand copies of the virago editions are still reasonably easily come by. I really loved these (there are posts on all of them somewhere on here). As a Trollope fan they're particularly interesting because Oliphant's specifically referencing him. She even mentions him in one of the books (the last I think, along with Charlotte M Yonge. There are several plot points in common with the Barchester books, but handled differently- or possibly just seen from a woman's perspective. Anyway, they're great, and hopefully you'll love them as much as I do.