(Originally posted for Bravebird Books Publishers)
Have you ever considered what goes on in between the lines of the books that are filled with the thoughts of women who couldn’t attend university, couldn’t vote, and couldn’t divorce their philandering husbands? It’s all very well reading their words, but if you literally pretend to be the character that is behind the yellow wallpaper, or rocking away in the attic, then you will begin to understand why reading and rereading literature written by great historical women is so important. It will make you appreciate how us ladies got to where we are now (in bed, educated, and unmarried – oh how Mansfield would frantically clap her hands with approval).
There are ten seminal pieces listed below that have had an impact on the way that I wake up in the morning feeling free, as though I could read and write a novel, paint my bedroom yellow, study for a masters in literature, and learn French. My point is, that things have changed for women since the era of Woolf and we must remember and appreciate the changes that these women fought so hard for. These stories allow us to do just that through the rebellions and opinions of the female characters who tug on our emotional heart strings by inviting us into their lives within a male chauvinistic society.
1) The Yellow Drawing Room By Mona Caird – The hyperbole in the description that Mr St. Vincent gives of women is so great that it makes his ideas, and his character, quite laughable. “She shall love me, and she shall learn, through love, the sweet lesson of womanly submission” – seriously, Mr St. Vincent, your patriotic views that your sex is so right that everything else seems wrong just make you sound like an ass. Do you hear that, Mr St. Vincent? That’s the sound of an opinion, and all the women laughing at your silliness.
2) Dracula By Bram Stoker – Dracula is simply the greatest representation of the Eastern European racial other that is threatening the masculinity of the Englishman, as well as the purity of their women! He creeps along the streets of England hunting for his victims, man or woman, before impaling them in the neck while his victims slump into a state of sexual satisfaction. They are drawn to him when he is near, and the macho English hunter is emasculated as he is too weak to stop this fine species.
(Ah, I hear you exclaim,THAT’S why us women are so sexual these days, because the Victorian man struggled to stop that dam sexy Romanian, who is a real catch for impaling his victims heads on wooden spokes around his castle. My kind of man)!
3) Jane Eyre By Charlotte Bronte – Rochester, with his beastly man ways, couldn’t resist the foreign temptress Bertha Mason. Having taken her from her Creole homeland, he locks her in his attic after her behaviour becomes different to that of the prim English woman. He realises that she is not the archetypal wife that the British patriarchy created! We all know, though, that Bertha is a symbol of Jane’s naughty alter-ego. This is the ego that is trapped inside her by these dull Englishmen and their judgmental ways. We all have that naughty ego – it escapes us all! Mine jumps out from behind the curtain after a coffee or three.
4) The Yellow Wallpaper By Charlotte Perkins Gilman – This was the story that introduced me to feminism and the study of madness. I thought that I had started a revolution when I discovered men in such stories were at fault for the insanity of women. Turns out, it’s been studied for centuries! Now I read this perfect short story over and over again to envisage freeing that wild prisoner from her barricade, and to laugh at the husband’s horrified face before he faints after seeing what is ultimately a product of his own doing. Haha, you silly man. Faint away!
5) The Bell Jar By Sylvia Plath – Firstly, listen to her read Daddy on YouTube. Now you won’t be able to get her voice out of your head. As you read The Bell Jar all you will hear is her haunting, mesmerising voice whisper in your ear. You may even hear it in your sleep. This is a novel that is less like a story but rather one great encyclopaedia of Plath poetry. It is, arguably, semi-autobiographical too, which makes it all the more fascinating. Who doesn’t love an insight into the head of such a woman?
6) Mad Girls Love Song By Andrew Wilson – While we’re on the subject of Plath, have you ever thought that Ted Hughes, and his philandering ways, is the reason Plath killed herself? Or, did she commit suicide because she was actually ‘mad’? This book offers a beautiful insight. Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were a couple of two halves that became one whole, as Plath describes, and one half did not work without the other.
7) The Little Governess By Katherine Mansfield – As an Englishwoman living in Auckland, it is my duty to share with you my wholehearted love for Katherine Mansfield’s work, her lovers, and her friends. Not favoured by Virginia Woolf? She MUST be a character and a half. Any writer that can encompass the behaviour of that man (or woman) who pretends to be chivalric for the sake of a kiss, or more, in a few words definitely has an artistic talent for truly capturing the moment. Mmmm I love her.
8) An Egyptian Cigarette By Kate Chopin – As a prolific feminist writer of the Fin de Siècle it would be sacrilege to miss her out of my top ten. This story of escape is an exciting reminder of how creative and extraordinary the mind can be when freed to imagine, and how brilliant it is to have the power to conjure up a false reality where no one else has access. The greater part to this short story, though, is that the protagonist is content in her reality, and she doesn’t feel a need to smoke to experience a hallucinative escape.
9) The Woman in White By Wilkie Collins – I am never more excited to read a book than when I discover it’s about asylums and the wrongful incarceration of women. As the plot thickens, I shout at the pages BUT SHE IS NOT INSANE TAKE YOUR HEAD OUT OF YOUR ASS. These man beasts control the women from the inside of the asylum and out. I am still obsessed by the notion that wrongful incarceration was a common occurrence for the bored Victorian who wanted to start anew with his mistress, like old Mr Charles Dickens.
10) The Waves By Virginia Woolf – Throughout my degree I struggled to understand much of Woolf’s modernist style of writing. However, The Waves is one novel that I can understand and would read 100 times over. Imagine your favourite book where you become engrossed in the lives of all the characters to the point you want to cry when there isn’t another word to read. All six of the characters in this book are connected simply by their existence and extraordinary in depth reactions to love, friendship, and death; all of which you, the reader, can relate to in some way or other.
So, read them all. As it is you, the reader, keeping feminist literature alive with your wild imagination. You have the invitation to explore the extraordinary plots devised by the great women that influenced the way that we, yes us independent and brilliant minded ladies, exist as our everyday selves today.
It is important that we keep their words alive, and to do so we must all keep reading their work. We must help the woman claw her way out from behind the yellow wallpaper. Right now, while we are reading this, she is stuck behind those bars waiting for our imagination to free her. Can you imagine her trapped behind the yellow wallpaper prison scarcely being able to scrape at the walls because the story is no longer in print? That’s just cruel!
We can also remind ourselves when reading feminist literature of the roads that women took to get us here; to our post-university selves, unmarried and in bed with our lovers, concerning ourselves with our finances and low paid salaries.