BARBARA CARTLAND the world’s best-known romance writer

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Barbara Cartland’s status as a preeminent “prolific pen” is doubtless: she wrote 623 books and sold more than 650 million copies of her novels worldwide in many languages. Even The Guinness Book of World Records named her as the world’s top-selling author! Upon her passing on May 20, 2000, she remained the twentieth century’s best-known writer of romance.

Born on July 9, 1901, this British writer went on to dominate popular fiction throughout the century. She began her writing career with a gossip column in the Daily Express newspaper, an ironic choice for a woman who would become the relative of one of the most gossiped-about women in the history of the world, Princess Diana. By 1925, Cartland had moved to full fiction with her debut novel, Jigsaw, and had been presented at court. From this beginning, she released new novels at a furious pace, with such titles as The Ruthless Rake, The Penniless Peer, and The Cruel Count, as well as several volumes of autobiography and other nonfiction works, such as The Etiquette Book; Love, Life, and Sex; Look Lovely, Be Lovely; and Barbara Cartland’s Book of Beauty and Health, for which she received strong criticism due to a very old-fashioned and rather antifeminist view of women as the “inferior” gender.

This dissatisfaction passed quickly, though, and Barbara retained her crown as the world-renowned queen of romance novels. In 1950, she moved to Camfield Place, the house built by Beatrix Potter’s grandfather, where Potter wrote The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Many movies have been based on Cartland’s beloved books, including A Hazard of Hearts, A Duel of Hearts, The Flame Is Love, The Ghost of Monte Carlo, and The Lady and the Highwayman, and her position at the top of the heap is in no danger. No other writer has written so much for so many as Dame Barbara Cartland.

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women Writers by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

SUE GRAFTON W is for writer

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What is mystery writer Sue Grafton going to do when she finishes with the alphabet? Born in Louisville, Kentucky, on April 24, 1940, she lived there through her time as a student at the local university, where she studied literature. Before she found her fortune in writing detective fiction, she worked as a cashier, an admissions clerk, and a medical secretary. While struggling to support herself and three children, Grafton wrote seven novels, mostly unpublished, before she came up with her winning formula in 1982 with A Is for Alibi. Her twenty-five alphabetical novels (she’s finished Y as of this writing) are now published in twenty-eight countries and twenty-six languages, creating reader bases in such places as Bulgaria, Estonia, and India. She has reframed the alphabet for devotees of her spunky female detective character, Kinsey Millhone, with B is for Burglar, C is for Corpse, D is for Deadbeat, E is for Evidence, and so on. Fans worry about “life after Z.”

So there I was barreling down the highway in search of employment and not at all fussy about what kind I’d take.

Sue Grafton

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women Writers by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

DOROTHY L. SAYERS mystery maven

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Born in 1893, Dorothy Sayers is one of England’s most revered writers, particularly for her twelve detective novels. But she also wrote twenty works of poetry, critical essays, and plays in addition to her popular fiction, and penned forty-four short stories as well.

Educated at Oxford, where she earned honors in medieval studies and was one of the first women ever to earn a degree, she taught for several years and then gained work as a reader for publisher Basil Blackwell. Her first publication was a volume of her poetry published during this period. Sayers changed jobs in the 1920s and went to work for an advertising agency. She also made another important shift in hobbies by joining the Detection Club. This enterprise, which included fellow member G.K. Chesterton, was dedicated to raising the reputation and quality of detective fiction.

Dorothy Sayers was most effective at improving the genre by her own efforts, and for the next twenty years became the top writer of detective fiction. Her first novel was Whose Body?, released in 1923; eight years later, she was making a good living solely from her witty, sophisticated novels.

Her recurring character is Lord Peter Wimsey, an aristocrat who did sleuthing as a pastime. Clearly a favorite of both Sayers and her readers, Lord Wimsey is present in all but one of her detective novels. Another recurring character is Harriet Vane, a woman sleuth based on the author herself, who provided equal opportunity for both genders in the genre that became her domain. After writing Busman’s Honeymoon in 1937, she turned to composing religious scripts for radio, as well as essays on a multitude of topics such as theology and—what else?—murder mysteries.

Dorothy Sayers’ Five Red Herrings is regarded as one of the classics of its kind, and her oeuvre continues to sell briskly more than fifty years after her death in 1957.

Allow me to inform you that I never at any time either sought or desired an Oxford fellowship…. Neither was I “forced” into either the publishing or advertising profession…. Nor do I quite understand why earning one’s living should be represented as a hardship. ‘Intellectual frustration’ be blowed! … It was all very good fun while it lasted.

Dorothy L. Sayers, in a 1955 letter to the Church Times, which had erroneously described her as a wannabe Oxford don

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women Writers by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

IRIS MURDOCH fiction’s philosopher

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Jean Iris Murdoch was born in Dublin in 1919. By the time of her death in 1998, she was regarded as one of the finest writers in the English language. Unlike many of her peers, she was able to cross genres and wrote philosophy and literary criticism in addition to the novels for which she became adored.

She was part of a writer’s clique with fellow upstarts William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies, and Kingsley Amis, who authored Lucky Jim. Iris’ first effort was Under the Net. She and her cohorts’ books were all published in 1954, a banner year for new British fiction. The trio took their writing very seriously, as Iris explains in several essays in which she defines their work as an important new “liberal” school of fiction following in the heritage of the “best fiction makers,” such as Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Leo Tolstoy’s “absurd irreducible uniqueness of people and of their relations with each other.” Murdoch argued very effectively that the darlings of the day, Imagists T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, confined characters and readers in a dry, feelingless vacuum. Murdoch, on the other hand, believed life as lived by real people to be much less tidy and much more filled with emotions, and that it was vitally important that this freedom be allowed experientially through fiction, written for a “community of free beings.”

Although Jean-Paul Sartre and Murdoch might seem strange bedfellows at first, she drew much philosophic and creative inspiration from his existentialism and his avowed dedication to the cause of freedom. In London, she studied economics, and at Somerville College in Oxford, did her graduate work in classical humanities, which included studying the “great” Greek and Latin philosophers. She met Sartre in Belgium during World War II, when she was a young woman working in England’s civil service. In 1947, she won a scholarship to attend Cambridge, where she met another major figure in twentieth-century philosophy, Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose beliefs were to become undercurrents in Under the Net, particularly his now-famous dictum from Tractatus, “Whereof we can not speak, thereof we must remain silent.”

Another core Murdoch tenet in both her philosophical and fiction writing is respect for other people’s differences, especially in love relationships. She claimed her novels’ raison d’être was drawn from Sartre’s “breath-taking argument” for the novel. In 1953, she wrote a tract, Sartre: Romantic Rationalist, one of several nonfiction works that also included The Sovereignty of Good and The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists, wherein she delineated her keen interest in “goodness” outside religious restrictions, a doctrine she explained late in life as “mysticism” without the presence of God.

Murdoch found such beliefs to be fertile ground for her more than two dozen novels and countless essays; indeed, her aim was to place art over philosophy, in the belief that it is art that expresses ultimate truth. She lived a peaceful life with her husband, critic John Bayley, in a small country village in England. Bayley, who shared her interests and philosophies, has written a lovely memoir of their last years together, when she began her decline due to Alzheimer’s disease, telling how he chose to care for her himself instead of installing her in a nursing home.

Now, after her death, Iris Murdoch, the friend, the wife, the philosopher, and the novelist, continues to be cherished for her uniqueness and for the gifts she so freely shared.

Art is about the pilgrimage from appearance to reality.

Iris Murdoch

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women Writers by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

MARGARET MEAD no stopping her

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Margaret Mead still stirs controversy in some circles for her pioneering work in social anthropology. Like Rachel Carson, she wrote a scientific study that crossed over into the general population and became a bestseller. For this, she received derision from the academic community. But that didn’t bother this free spirit, who was one of the first women to earn a PhD in anthropology.

Margaret was fortunate to be born in 1901 into a family of academics who disregarded convention and put learning and involvement in the world ahead of society’s rules. The firstborn of five children, Margaret was the child of Edward Mead, a professor who taught finance and economics at the University of Pennsylvania, and Emily Fogg Mead, a teacher, sociologist, and ardent feminist and suffragist. Margaret was homeschooled by her very able grandmother, a former teacher and school principal.

Margaret’s apple didn’t fall too far from the tree when she started The Minority, an anti-fraternity at DePauw University, where she was attending. Bored, she transferred to Barnard College, where the academic standards were more in accordance with her needs. Originally an English major, in her senior year Margaret attended a class given by anthropologist Franz Boas, a virulent opponent of the school of racial determinism. She also met Ruth Benedict, then Boas’ assistant, who encouraged Margaret to join her at Columbia under Boas’ instruction. Margaret agreed and went on to graduate school after marriage to a seminary student, Luther Cressman. Soon after, true to her heritage as a freethinking Mead, Margaret went against her mentor Boas’ urgings that she do fieldwork with America’s First Nations peoples, a pet project of his; instead she followed the beat of her own drum, setting off for Polynesia to explore island cultures. She reasoned that the islanders were better subjects because they had been less exposed to outside cultures and were therefore less assimilated than Native Americans.

She was absolutely right. She wrote her field studies after living with and working alongside the Samoans for three years. The date was 1926. Divorcing Luther, she married Reo Fortune, and in 1928 published Coming of Age in Samoa, a groundbreaking work that shocked some circles with its frank and completely objective report of, among other things, sexual rituals and practices among the Samoans. Nearly overnight, Margaret was a superstar, which was fairly rare for anthropologists and even rarer for twenty-seven-year-old female anthropologists!

After a stint at the American Museum of Natural History, Margaret headed
to New Guinea. Her resulting book, Growing Up in New Guinea, was another huge hit in both academic and popular circles. While in New Guinea, Margaret met and fell in love with fellow anthropologist Gregory Bateson; after her second divorce, she and Gregory married, and she gave birth to a daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson. Margaret and Gregory worked together in New Guinea, but ultimately Gregory claimed she was stifling his creativity, and they divorced in 1943.

Margaret Mead spent the rest of her life working full tilt in anthropology. She was astonishingly prolific, publishing forty-four books and more than a thousand articles and monographs, as well as working as a curator at the American Museum of Natural History between trips into the field. She also sought to support the work of young anthropologists. At the core of all her work was an analysis of childhood development (she was the first anthropologist ever to study child-rearing practices) and gender roles, overturning many timeworn assumptions about personality and place in society for both sexes. Again and again, her studies demonstrated that there is nothing natural or universal about particular “masculine” or “feminine” roles; rather, they are culturally determined.

In her later years, she wrote a wonderful autobiography, Blackberry Winter, that contains her reflections on her childhood as well as on the fieldwork methods she developed. Through her prodigious output, average people came to read about and reflect on the lives of those they had previously considered “strange.”

I have spent most of my life studying the lives of other peoples, faraway peoples, so that Americans might better understand themselves.

Margaret Mead

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women Writers by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

EDITH WHARTON “historic ravager”

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Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University

I wonder what Edith Wharton, Henry James, and Jane Austen would think if they realized that, long after the span of their own lifetimes, their works rule Hollywood as favorite novels-turned-movies? Henry James, mentor to Edith Wharton, would probably not be surprised at their dominion over the current fascination with social mores. James couldn’t seem to reach high enough heights with his hyperbolic praise for Wharton, calling her “the whirling princess, the great and glorious pendulum, the gyrator, the devil-dancer, the golden eagle, the Fire Bird, the Shining One, the angel of desolation or of devastation, the historic ravager.”

Born in 1862 in New York to a wealthy family, Edith Newbold Jones was from the privileged background she described in her novels. She summered in Newport, Rhode Island, and lived abroad in Italy, Germany, and France, riding out the depression that immediately followed the Civil War and affected her family’s fortunes.

She was homeschooled by a governess and prepared for her debut into society at the age of seventeen. Unlike many of her fellow debs, however, Edith Newbold Jones was already writing. The teenager took her craft very seriously, at sweet sixteen producing a volume of poetry that her parents had printed despite their misgivings about her pursuit of writing as a career. She also read insatiably, devouring the books in her father’s library; otherwise, she claimed, her “mind would have starved at the age when the mental muscles are most in need of feeding…. I was enthralled by words…. Wherever I went they sang to me like the birds in an enchanted forest.”

In 1885, she married Edward “Teddy” Robbins Wharton, the son of an elite Boston family. Teddy was thirteen years her senior, and they quickly created a life reflecting their genteel parentage. Sadly, Edith’s husband was not her intellectual match and had few interests in that direction; he was more interested in having children, which rapidly became a major issue in their marriage. They remained childless and kept up a façade of compatibility to the world.

Meanwhile, Edith struggled to write on a level in accordance with her own ambitions, finally getting her inspiration and footing after a voyage through the Greek Isles. She then wrote and published a series of very well-received articles for Scribner’s, Harper’s, and Century, even collaborating with a Boston architect, Ogden Codman, Jr., on a book entitled The Decoration of Houses in 1897. Despite these efforts, she fell into a severe depression she called her “paralyzing melancholy” and had to get a “rest cure” for nervous illnesses.

In 1899, two collections of her short stories were published, coinciding with the end of her nervous condition and depression. After this, she consigned herself over to writing completely and published a book a year for the remainder of her life. In 1905, with The House of Mirth, she achieved the height of her power and range as a writer. Subsequent novels, such as The Reef, The Custom of the Country, and The Age of Innocence, caused comparisons to her friend and counselor, as a “female Henry James.” She was clearly on her own track, while also making a study of symbolists such as Joseph Conrad and the modern musical compositions of Igor Stravinsky.

Edith Wharton began an affair with a member of her literary circle, James’ protégé Morton Fullerton. While the Whartons’ marriage crumbled around them, Edith and Teddy sold their stately Lenox home, “The Mount,” and moved to France. Teddy suffered a nervous breakdown and checked into a Swiss sanatorium; he divorced Edith in 1913. She remained in Europe, making a home for herself in France.

Edith Wharton found the life of a divorcée to be revelatory. She could travel, entertain, write, and have friendships with men without any interference. She also got involved in public and political affairs, and among her significant charity works, founded shelters for refugees during World War I.

In 1930, Edith Wharton was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and four years later, to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She lived to the age of seventy-five, at which time she had a fatal stroke. During her life of letters, she contributed enormously to the novel form. Her subtlety and sophistication continue to bring her books to many readers, far beyond the bounds of the new elite of Hollywood.

The books ARE in bad shape, and as some are interesting it’s a pity. I told Miss Hatchard they were suffering from dampness and lack of air…. I’m so fond of old books that I’d rather see them made into bonfire than left to moulder away like these.

Edith Wharton, from Summer

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women Writers by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

CHRISTINA GEORGINA ROSSETTI poetic pre-Raphaelite

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Well-loved poet Christina Rossetti was born to the arts. Her father, a poet in exile from his home in Italy for his politics, moved to England and taught at King’s College. Her two brothers were the equally gifted pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Michael Rossetti, a poet and editor of a widely known periodical of the day. Christina’s older sister Maria, a writer and scholar of the Italian poet Dante, joined an Anglican order and dedicated her life to serving the needy.

Shyly beautiful and alleged to be hot-tempered, Christina was used repeatedly as a model for the Virgin in the memorable paintings of her brother. Her sharp wit was appreciated by the friends her brother Dante Gabriel would invite to their home—Edmund Gusset, William Shields, Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Coventry Patmore, William Morris, Richard Garnett, and Walter Watts-Dunton, as well as writers, political thinkers, and all manner of creative, intelligent people who gathered to exchange views, artistic and otherwise.

Christina pursued poetry passionately. Influenced by John Keats, she wrote prodigiously from a young age. By age seventeen, her first collection had been published. She wrote more than 1,100 poems, many resonant with a religious fervor, while both she and her mother worked at a day school to help support the family.

One of the most widely read women writers of her day, achieving both acclaim and respect, Christina fell in love with her brother’s friend, the artist James Collinson, when she was thirty. But she ultimately turned away from the relationship because of a difference in religious doctrines. Deeply spiritual, she had ascetic tendencies, abandoning the game of chess because she was “too eager to win.” She wouldn’t attend plays (sinful), prayed several times a day, and fasted and confessed regularly. She memorized the Bible and could quote it at length. Ten years after spurning Collinson, Christina gained the affections of her father’s student, Charles Bagot Cayley. Once again, his faith didn’t garner her approval, and she refused her last chance for love and marriage.

At the age of forty-one, she fell ill with Graves’ disease. Christina kept to herself after that, always writing, until she died from cancer in 1894 at the age of sixty-four. When she was on her deathbed, her brother was shocked when she screamed out, “My heart then rose a rebel against light.” She died as her brother had portrayed her, a virgin, her passions poured out on the page.                              

Pain is not pleasure
If we know
It heaps up treasure—
Even so!
Turn, transfigured Pain,
Sweetheart, turn again,
For fair thou art as moonrise after rain.

Christina Rossetti

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women Writers by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

MAYA ANGELOU how the caged bird sings

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“You’re going to be famous,” Billie Holiday told Maya Angelou in 1958, “but it won’t be for singing.” Billie was prophetic. Mute as a child, Maya Angelou went on to become one of the most powerful voices in American society. Who can ever forget the powerful, precise voice that dominated the 1993 inauguration of President Bill Clinton as she recited “On the Pulse of Morning”?

Her journey from silence to worldwide acclaim is an amazing one, told by her in five autobiographical volumes: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; Gather Together in My Name; Singin’ and Swingin’ and Getting’ Merry Like Christmas; The Heart of a Woman; and All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes. But it is precisely one of these volumes, Caged Bird, that has garnered her the dubious distinction of being one of the most banned writers in the United States. The powerful depiction of her childhood rape has caused schools and libraries across the country to deem it “inappropriate.”

Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis in 1928. At age three, she was sent to live with her paternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas, a town so segregated that many Black children, she claimed, “didn’t, really, absolutely know what whites looked like.”

“ ‘Thou shall not be dirty’ and ‘Thou shall not be impudent’ were the two commandments of Grandmother Henderson upon which hung our total salvation,” she remembers in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. “Each night in the bitterest winter we were forced to wash faces, arms, necks, legs and feet before going to bed. She used to add, with a smirk that unprofane people can’t control when venturing into profanity, ‘and wash as far as possible, then wash possible.’ ”

When Maya Angelou was seven, while on a visit to her mother, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. She reported this to her mother, and the man was tried and sent to jail, which confused and upset the young girl. When he was killed in prison for being a child molester, she felt responsible and spent the next five years in total silence.

With the help of her grandmother and another woman, Bertha Flowers, who introduced her to literature, Maya slowly came out of herself, graduating at the top of her eighth-grade class, and moved to San Francisco to live in her mother’s boarding house. She went to school, took dance and drama lessons, and in her spare time, became the first African American streetcar conductor in San Francisco. An unplanned pregnancy made her a mother at age sixteen, and she later had a short-lived marriage with Tosh Angelos; still later, she adapted his surname and took the nickname her brother used for her as her first name.

Working at a variety of odd jobs, she eventually began to make a living as a singer and dancer. In 1954, she toured Europe and Africa with a State Department-sponsored production of Porgy and Bess. Upon returning to the United States, she created a revue, Cabaret for Freedom, as a benefit for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Later, at King’s request, she served as the northern coordinator for the SCLC.

In 1961, she and her son left the United States with her lover, Vusumzi Make, a South African freedom fighter, to live in Cairo, where she tried to become the editor of the Arab Observer. The Egyptians wouldn’t consider a woman in such a position, and her lover was equally outraged. She left him and moved to Ghana, where she lived for five years, working as an editor and writer for various newspapers and teaching at the University of Ghana. She loved the people of Ghana. “Their skins were the colors of my childhood cravings: peanut butter, licorice, chocolate, caramel. There was the laughter of home, quick and without artifice,” she wrote in All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes. But she never felt completely accepted and returned to the United States in 1966.

She began writing books at the urging of James Baldwin, who had heard her tell her childhood stories and encouraged her to write them down. (Another story has it that it was a chance meeting with cartoonist Jules Feiffer that was the impetus.) But the multitalented dynamo continued to act in both plays and films and began to write poetry and plays as well. In 1972, she became the first African American woman to have a screenplay produced, the Björkman film Georgia, Georgia, and she won an Emmy nomination for her performance in Roots. When I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was made into a TV movie, Maya wrote the script and the music. She also wrote and produced a ten-part TV series on African traditions in American life. She has received many honorary degrees, serves on the board of trustees of the American Film Institute, and is Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Her autobiographies have been criticized for not being completely factual, to which she once replied, “There’s a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can obscure the truth. You can tell so many facts that you fill the stage but haven’t gotten one iota of truth.” Despite I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings having been one of the most banned books in America, she is deeply respected throughout the country for her amazing capacity not merely to survive, but to triumph.

The ability to control one’s own destiny…comes from constant hard work and courage.

Maya Angelou

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women Writers by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

NADINE GORDIMER the alienist

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South African Nadine Gordimer’s unstinting literary resistance and refusal to back down is a testimony to bravery. She dared to face powerful opposition to her writing about government-sanctioned racial oppression, repressive policies that normalized daily beatings, jailings, and murder. Three of her books were banned, but she never stopped exercising her right as an artist to openly state her condemnation of apartheid. Beloved by anyone who had read her fiction and hated by anyone who feared the polemic potential of her writing, this defiant woman helped create the post-apartheid future she envisioned in her novels.

She was born in 1923 in the East Rand town of Spring, the daughter of a Latvian jeweler father, who had been drawn to the diamond mining money in the southern Traansvaal tip of Africa, and a hypochondriac British mother. Nadine was frequently kept home from convent school by her housebound mother, and at age nine, felt the urge to pick up a pen. By the time she was fifteen, Forum magazine had published a story by the gifted girl.

Through her father’s business she came to learn of the terrible conditions in the diamond mines. The mines, which were managed by whites who sent Black South Africans into the hot and dangerous shafts, quickly taught the sensitive and observant Nadine about the stratified society ordained by the white Afrikaners in power. The sense of injustice that informed her sensibility as a young woman only developed with time as the incongruity of colonial cruelty increased in a country straining toward modernity.

Gordimer claims as a major influence Georg Lukacs, a Hungarian philosopher and essayist whose writings at the turn of the century and beyond helped shape European realism. Gordimer’s first book, The Lying Days, was published in 1953 and traced the impact of Europeans in South Africa. From this historical beginning, her short stories and novels amplified her complaint against acculturated segregation and a caste system enforced upon the people native to Africa. Reviewer Maxwell Geismar declared her fiction “a luminous symbol of at least one white person’s understanding of the black man’s burden.”

The novels that have emerged as a legacy for this outcast writer include
The Conservationist, July’s People, and Burger’s Daughter. Readers praise Gordimer’s painterly quality of rich detail, full characterization, and symbolic setting, though a few object to the mechanics of her narratives, judging it as unfashionable to see a story through to completion. A few critics even carp at her attention to race and lack thereof to feminism, but her own insistence is to speak to the issues of humankind, inclusive of race and gender.

Decried by whites in her home country, Nadine Gordimer continued to live in Johannesburg despite pressure to leave. For a time, recognition of her skill as a writer and the validity of her message only came from abroad. The New Yorker published her often, and she taught in American universities during the politically restive ’60s and ’70s. After the Soweto uprising in South Africa, her powerful novel Burger’s Daughter was banned for its potential to inflame insurrectionists. In response, Gordimer focused with greater intent on her political opposition to apartheid and cofounded the Congress of South African Writers. She went on to work in documentary films along with her son, Hugo Cassirer, and published nonfiction about subjects specific to South Africa. She refused the Orange Award because of its restriction to women, but joined the exclusive ennead of Nobel-winning women in 1991. The academy had previously passed her over a number of times, and she herself stated, “I had been a possible candidate for so long I had given up hope.” Gordimer said upon accepting the prize that as a young writer, she feared that the isolation of apartheid separated her from “the world of ideas,” but eventually came to realize that “what we had to do to find the world was to enter our own world fully first. We had to enter through the tragedy of our own particular place.”

At great personal risk and in spite of the constant threat of ostracism, this woman’s pen marked the dividing line between white and Black South Africa and the ways of life on either side. With unmatched lucidity, she examined the rituals of persecution and life under the fist. Her Nobel Prize for Literature was a tribute to her singular courage and life’s work of telling the truth through fiction.

Perhaps more than the work of any other writer, the novels of Nadine Gordimer have given imaginative and moral shape to the recent history of South Africa.

Jay Dillemuth, The Norton Anthology of English Literature

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women Writers by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

DORIS LESSING observant eye & fearless fighter against racism and war

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Doris Lessing was a British-Rhodesian (Zimbabwean) novelist, essayist, and playwright who won the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature, with the Swedish Academy particularly recognizing her epic work in writing about “the female experience” with “skepticism, fire, and visionary power.” Lessing, for her part, when previously under attack as “unfeminine” for having expressed female anger and aggression, responded, “Apparently what many women were thinking, feeling, [and] experiencing came as a surprise.” She explored the politics of race as well as gender in her writing and examined the role of the family and the individual in society in new ways.

Doris May Lessing (née Tayler) was born in 1919 in Persia, now known as
Iran, to British parents; her father, who had lost a leg during military service in World War I, had met her mother, a nurse, at the hospital where he recuperated from the amputation. Her family moved to the south of Africa, and Doris grew up on her parents’ farm in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Her mother was very strict and eventually sent her to a convent school, then an all-girl high school, from which Doris, age thirteen, soon dropped out, ending her formal education. But she read, and then read some more: Kipling, Stevenson, Scott, and Dickens; then Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Stendhal, and D.H. Lawrence. To free herself from her hidebound mother’s sphere of influence, she left home at fifteen, taking a job as a nursemaid and reading further in sociology and politics. She also began to write and sold two stories to South African magazines that year. In 1937, she moved to Salisbury (now Harare), where she worked
as a telephone operator for a year. Then at nineteen, she married and had two children; but feeling trapped, she left her new family in 1943. Doris joined a local leftist reading club, a group of people “who read everything, and who did not think it remarkable to read.” She was drawn to Gottfried Lessing, one of its central members; they soon married, and in 1946, had one child.

When her second marriage ended in 1949, Lessing was done with colonial Africa. She moved to London with her young son; her first novel, The Grass is Singing, was published there in 1950. The novel established Lessing’s reputation: it explores the shallowness, complacency, and contradictions of white colonialist society in Southern Africa. Her Children of Violence novel series (1952–1969) was majorly influenced by her involvement with communism and rejection of the wifely domestic role; like many of her fiction works, the five novels were influenced by her own life experiences to the
point of being semiautobiographical. She was banned from South Africa and Rhodesia in 1956 due to her frank writing about the dispossession of Black Africans by white settlers and her anti-apartheid activist work. She also actively campaigned against nuclear arms.

In 1962, she broke new ground with The Golden Notebook; according to Natasha Walter of The Independent, it “rip[ped] off the masks that women were accustomed to wearing, and…show[ed] up the dangers and difficulties that many women encounter if they try to live a free life in a man’s world.” The protagonist, Anna, eventually goes through a nervous breakdown. Only through disintegrating is she is able to come to a new and more authentic wholeness. Lessing returned to the theme of pressures to socially conform in her next two novels, Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971), an amnesia story, and The Summer Before the Dark (1973); Kate, its heroine, comes to a degree of enlightenment through another breakdown process. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, she further explored the role of the family and the individual in society in her five-volume Canopus in Argos series of “space fiction.” The fourth of these speculative fiction works was adapted as an opera by noted composer Philip Glass, with Lessing writing the libretto. They later collaborated again on a 1997 opera adaptation of the second Canopus in Argos novel.

She returned to realistic fiction with Diary of a Good Neighbour (1983) and If the Old Could… (1984); but in a twist, submitted them for publication under the name Jane Somers. After numbers of rejections, they were printed, but only in small runs that did not receive much reviewer attention. Naturally, when their true authorship was revealed, the books were reissued and much more warmly received. In 1985’s The Good Terrorist, Lessing returned to politics with the story of a group of political activists who set up a squat in London. 1988’s The Fifth Child carried on her themes of alienation and the dangers of a closed social group.

In 1995, she received an honorary degree from Harvard, and that year, she visited her daughter and grandchildren in South Africa, the first time she had been there in four decades; in an ironic twist, she was acclaimed there as a writer on the very topics for which she had been banished in 1956. She also collaborated with Charlie Allard on an early SF graphic novel, 1995’s Playing the Game. Her autobiography was published in two parts: Under My Skin (1994), followed by Walking in the Shade: Volume II of My Autobiography 1949–1962 (1997). In 2007, Doris Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The entire lecture she gave to the Swedish Academy when accepting the prize was published under the title On Not Winning the Nobel Prize (2008). She also produced a book of essays based on her life experiences and the novel Alfred and Emily (2008), which explored the lives of her parents. She lived to be ninety-four, publishing more than fifty novels in total.

There [was] a whole generation of women, and it was as if their lives came to a stop when they had children. Most of them got pretty neurotic—because, I think, of the contrast between what they were taught at school they were capable of being and what actually happened to them.

Doris Lessing

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women Writers by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.