Shelley DeWees’s Not Just Jane — Rediscovering Seven Amazing Women Writers Who Transformed British Literature provides a fascinating look into seven successful, yet relatively unknown, British women writers of the 18th and 19th centuries. Born of her love of Austen and Bronte, in this book DeWees sets out to discover other women writers who were pioneers of their times. I had never heard of any of the writers featured in this book. Charlotte Turner Smith, Helen Maria Williams, Mary Robinson, Catherine Crowe, Sara Coleridge, Dinah Mulock Craig and Mary Elizabeth Braddon all enjoyed some success in their day. Their stories tell us a lot about what was going on in England during their life times. Many of them faced poverty and had few honorable options for earning a living. They might become a governess or they might become prostitutes. Faced with these options, one way or another these women became writers, and some of them became expert networkers as well. Sara Coleridge’s story is a bit different. She was well educated and didn’t suffer poverty, but her father, the famous poet Samuel Coleridge basically ignored her existence. Under those circumstances it seems a shame that so much of her work was devoted to organizing her father’s work posthumously.
I have yet to read one of their books, but I certainly enjoyed reading about their lives and their environments.
The principal characters in Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings have dubbed themselves cool and interesting. They come together as teenagers at an artsy summer camp in the early 1970’s, and the novel follows them into their fifties. The group, initially comprised of a wealthy brother and sister, a striving would-be cartoonist and the talented son of a folk star, invites Jules (previously know as Julia) Jacobson to join them. Although told in the third person, the story is largely seen through Jules’ eyes. As the story begins, Jules is a miserable teenager from a middle class New York suburb. Her father has recently died, and she feels estranged from just about everything. Awarded a scholarship by the camp, Jules is mystified as to why she has been invited to join this “cool” group of New Yorkers. She eagerly joins them, and a great story of decades of friendship ensues.
All of the other Interestings are from New York City, and Jules views everything about them as hip, fascinating and special in contrast to her own stifled life in the suburbs. She can’t believe she is part of this group and becomes known as a consistently loyal and wryly funny member. Jules’ view that the other characters are special and generally lead relatively charmed lives in contrast to her own more prosaic and periodically impoverished existence is one of the central themes of the book. Jules spends a lot of time regretting that she hasn’t been more “successful” as she stubbornly defines it and discounting her own significant, real-life accomplishments. We all know people like this, and they can get pretty annoying, but Jules held my interest. Her struggles and the decisions she made were heroic in their own way and gave structure to the book.
Whereas Jules’ backstory is pretty much laid out at the beginning of the book, Wolitzer supplies the details for the other characters as the story proceeds. The novel tracks these friends well into their fifties, through years of crazy success, economic hardships, romantics ups and downs and various highs and lows. At times each of these characters gets pretty annoying. I wanted them to suck it up and got on with their lives. Sometimes they do, but often they don’t. Whereas Jules is persistently observant and dissatisfied, the others generally seem far more caught up in the details of their own lives and more accepting of the lives they have been dealt.
In the end some of the characters have luck and others don’t; some of the characters adjust and some of them don’t; and the definition of success is probed and redefined. Wolitzer’s writing is clear and gives the reader plenty of time to think about the choices the characters make. I liked this book. It made me think a lot about past and current friendships.
Samantha Ellis is a playwright, journalist and avid reader of novels featuring intriguing women protagonists. It is a fine book that discusses Anne of Green Gables, Pride and Predjudice, Gone with the Wind, Valley of the Dolls, Franny and Zooey, and a host of other classics;and that is the feast we have been given here. Ellis, the British born daughter of Iraqi Jewish refugees, populates her book, How to Be a Heroine – Or What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much, with an energetic roster of literary heroines. Some, like Elizabeth Bennet, are pretty much completely wonderful without being annoying about it. Others, like Scarlett O’Hara, are pretty reprehensible but their boldness and determination still take your breath away. Many are insecure and of course most of them have been dealt a bad hand in life. Ellis does a masterful job of looking at all these girls and women and their stories as she describes her own efforts to break free of a confining family and learn to be bold. Ellis’s views change as she grows and makes her own way. Indeed her defense of Mrs. Bennet as an inherently practical woman has considerable merit, although I will always have a soft spot for Mr. Bennet. In any event, Ellis increasingly loses patience with the “good girls” and is more inspired by the brave and the bold, even if they are self-centered and obnoxious and their behavior is outrageous.
This book made me wish I had read certain classics, such as Anne of Green Gables. I don’t think I’ll read up on Scheherazade, but Ellis’s evaluation is intriguing. Ellis’s discussion of all these powerfully drawn heroines also gave me pause in some cases — perhaps my initial readings were too glib. It is definitely time to reread a few of these great books and to try at least a few of them for the first time.
Most importantly How to Be a Heroine reminded me how important it was for me to be able to read about strong women and their stories. They inspired me and caused me to think outside the confines of my own life. Feminism didn’t just happen — millions of us were inspired by reading about strong girls and women who dared to be brave and rescue themselves. Hopefully How to Be a Heroine will give you the same powerful memories of your own reading adventures and obsessions.