March is Women’s History Month, providing a wonderful opportunity for all of us to consider the wonderful impact of women in our lives. Despite the challenges many women have faced throughout history, the impact of their lives is profound. This week we want to discuss five classic female writers you may not have heard of who are definitely worth a read. We hope you find some intriguing titles that you can add to your to-be-read pile.
Most people are aware of Anne’s sisters, Charlotte (the author of Jane Eyre) and Emily (author of Wuthering Heights). However, Anne definitely deserves a place in the spotlight as well. Due to her early death she was only able to publish two novels in her lifetime, the first being Agnes Grey. This follows the story of a young woman named Agnes Grey who seeks a position as a governess in order to “prove her worth” in the eyes of her family who view her as the baby. Though it has a much quieter plot, the exploration of being a governess in the early 1800s and of Agnes’ character provides for a short, charming read.
Her second book, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall provides a much darker tale. This story explores the plight of women in abusive marriages, the love of a mother for her child, and the strength required to protect those one loves. It’s a powerful novel that will have an impact on anyone willing to give it a try. (Full disclosure: Anne is my favorite of the Brontë sisters so really I just want everyone to read her work.)
Lovers of Jane Austen should give this lovely lady a try. Born in 1810, Elizabeth Gaskell writes stories focused on familial connections and the subtle yet profound impact of women in our lives. Some of her most famous work includes North and South, a romance similar to Pride and Prejudice, and Wives and Daughters, a story following Molly Gibson as her father remarries, forcing her to deal with a passive-aggressive stepmother and her charming yet self-centered daughter. Though unfinished, Wives and Daughters provides a wonderful look at marriage, sisterhood, and the relationship between parents and their children. Elizabeth Gaskell truly has a great deal to offer, and her prose is much easier to read than Jane Austen sometimes is.
Moving over to France, for those who are looking for a strong feminist presence, George Sand is the one for you. Her birth name was Amantine Lucille Aurore Dupin, though she utilized George Sand as a penname. At the time, Sand was more widely read than many male writers of the era, including Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac. Throughout her life she astounded many is society by preferring to wear pants due to their practicality and by smoking tobacco in public, a past-time that was reserved only for men. She had several affairs with both men and women, including on with the famous composer, Chopin. Many of her works are currently out of print, however one you can get your hands on fairly easily is Indiana, a tale following a woman of the same name who finds herself in a loveless marriage with an older man, to combat her growing illness due to lack of emotion in her life, Indiana seeks to make a connection with their new neighbor and the tale goes on from there. Even if her novels don’t intrigue you, her life is certainly worth researching.
Zora Neale Hurston
While Zora Neale Hurston is not completely unknown, several other black, female writers have come to overshadow her work. She was born in Alabama in 1891and eventually became a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Not only do her works address issues of race, they also address issues specific to black women. Her most famous work is Their Eyes Were Watching God, a story following main character Janie Crawford as she grows from a girl into a woman. Specifically, it addresses her relationships with men, as well as the relationships of other women in her family. With themes such as gender roles and woman’s liberation, this is a wonderful read for those curious about the black, female experience in early 1900s America. Her 130th birthday also occurred earlier this year, providing an extra push to give her a try.
Less well-known than Hurston (though they were both instrumental during the Harlem Renaissance), Nella Larsen was born in Chicago in 1891. Her father, Peter Walker, was mixed-race of lighter complexion. It is believed that he was often able to pass as white, a theme that would eventually provide the inspiration for her novel Passing. She eventually grew up to work as a nurse and a librarian. During that time, she began to write several pieces, including two novels and several short stories. Her most popular, Passing, explored the lives of two childhood friends, one who grows up identifying as black and the other passes as white, even marrying a racist, white man. Her first novel, Quicksand, is largely autobiographical and follows a young woman who struggles to develop an identity in the midst of a race crisis. If you find you enjoy her work, a retelling of Passing was recently published by Brit Bennett titled The Vanishing Half. This provides great further reading in a more modern context.