The “Dead Author Challenge” – Mansfield & Gilman: Two Authors You Should Read

So, the idea of the ‘Dead Author’ Challenge is to familiarise myself with every “classic” author possible by reading a short piece by them.

When I drew up the list of authors who I had yet to read, there was a scarcity of female authors. Given that some of the names on the list date back to the 16th and 17th centuries, this is not surprising. As any student of literature knows, in those times, most women simply didn’t write. Even those few that did – such as, Queen Elizabeth, who wrote poetry – were still not taken seriously. However, having said that, a lot of the authors are from the 19th century, a time when many women were writing. So where are those women? I intend to deal with this question at length in a later post.

Back to the ‘Dead Author’ Challenge. As luck would have it, as I was pondering on this lack of female authors from the Literary Canon, two twitter friends of mine suggested a female author for me to read, and she’s the first author I’m going to look at in this post: Katherine Mansfield.

Who was Katherine Mansfield? Well, Katherine was a bit of a wild thing, by all accounts. Born in 1888, she lived a varied and extraordinary life and fit a lot into her 35 years, cut short by tuberculosis. She was a proto-feminist; even though she didn’t take part in the push for suffrage, she lived what would have been a shockingly bohemian lifestyle for a woman at the time, including various marriages and affairs (she left one husband on the night of their marriage – take that Kim Kardashian!) and various lovers of both sexes.

  Little known fact: she had a sideline as a fortune-teller known as Madame Mansfield*

* (I may have made this up)

She also met an ignominious end – after running up a flight of stairs to show her husband how well she was, she suffered a fatal pulmonary haemorrhage and died!

I read two stories by Mansfield, both very short. The first “The Fly” [Read it here] – regarded as one of her most well-known – is the story of a man dealing with the memory of his son who was killed in the First World War. The second, “Life of Ma Parker” [Read it here] is ostensibly a story of class conflict, focusing on the eponymous figure of Ma Parker, a downtrodden charwoman. Both of these stories are extremely well-written and engaging (with the exception of a somewhat jarring back-and-forth POV switch in “The Fly”, a literary no-no nowadays, but possibly not in her time). While it’s understandable that any story written 90 years ago is going to feel somewhat dated, these stories have aged better than some of the previous stories I’ve read by other authors. Indeed, the conclusions to both of these stories – especially “Life of Ma Parker” – feel very modern.

The same twitter friend who suggested I read Mansfield also suggested I read “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman [Read it here].

Gilman: Not quite the style icon Mansfield was

While I had heard of but never read Mansfield, I had never heard of Gilman. She was another proto-feminist (perhaps one of the reasons both of these women were writers?) Written while she was suffering from postpartum depression, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is about a woman who suffers from mental illness after three months of being closeted in a room by her husband who is also her doctor. This story is shockingly modern, even more so given that it was written in 1890. It feels like it could have been written by Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton (and one must presume that these women were at least familiar with Gilman). Of all the stories I’ve read so far, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is by far the one I would urge everyone to read.

It’s interesting that out of the four authors I read in the previous two posts (all of whom were men) only two appealed to me, yet the first two female authors I’ve read, I loved both. Not very scientific, I grant you, but it begs the question: why are these women – to a large extent – overlooked by the Literary Canon?

 

(Images: Click the pics for credits)

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16 comments on “The “Dead Author Challenge” – Mansfield & Gilman: Two Authors You Should Read

  1. Cheers Derek. Thanks to you, my literary knowledge is expanding rapidly. At the back of my fuzzy mind, I have a vague memory of an Irish Times review of a book which looked at female writers down through the ages, or the lack thereof, and going into the reasons why it was she might get one book, possibly two, out there before being swallowed up by domestic duties. It mentioned one writer who wroter her one and only while hiding in a cupboard.

  2. Kelly Gamble says:

    They are overlooked by the Literary Canon because they are women.
    Hats off to the person who suggested “The Yellow Wallpaper” to you. I’m a big fan of the nineteenth century ‘feminists’ (I really am not fond of that word) writers. BTW, I’m trying to read with you, I love this idea.

  3. Susie says:

    nice post! nice to see lesser known writers featured. To be fair, I think you might consider Mary Astell and Aphra Behn. I think they’ve been well recognized by scholars as important, even if they’re not as well known to the general public (not part of the “canon”). But Aphra Behn’s plays are performed frequently–try her!

  4. I so look forward to your dead author lessons laced with your endearing sense of humor. More info for my brain and a chuckle for my heart. Thanks 🙂

  5. Love this Post, Derek. The questioning ease, the writing, a different era. I liked reading about the poor fly. The POV shift didn’t bother me so much (and Haruki Murakami, one of the greats of our modern age, shifts POV like a master in his newest work 1Q84 – It’s a strong matter of preference right now & worth several posts all on its own) and, again, the poor fly . . . why do I care so much for the mistreatment of this creature when son’s are lost to war?

  6. Hi Derek. So glad you chose these two writers. The Yellow Wallpaper is one of my favourite stories of all time and still has the capacity to shock and stir readers today. It’s a memorable story, chilling and often explored in women’s studies, rather than in literary courses. You are right about the literary canon, being dominated by men. It will be interesting to see how that canon evolves, given that more women are writing now. It was also good to go back and read Mansfield. Great job. My favourite post, yet. Also, really interesting details about these writer’s lives. 🙂

  7. Julia Stagg says:

    Brilliant post Derek. (Love the idea that Mansfield was a fortune teller – even if you made it up.) It’s also interesting to pit these extraordinary lives against the male counterparts of their time. So glad you went for these two – they both deserve more light to be shone upon their work. Can’t wait for the next instalment.

  8. Emma says:

    I had never heard of Katherine Mansfield so thanks for bringing her to my attention. Have you read Mary Shelley’s novel Valperga? It was one of my favourite books I read at college.

  9. Amy Eyrie says:

    I love this post, Derek. The Yellow Wallpaper seems to answer the question you posed at the end of your article: Why are these women – to a large extent – overlooked by the Literary Canon?

    Because they were locked in a friggin’ room, sadly.

    You also bring up an interesting point about literary trends, such as the current “no head hopping” or single POV trend. As in all techniques, POV shifting can be done well or badly. One of the most famous examples of beautifully orchestrated POV shifting is Stephen King’s The Stand. There are seven major characters and an assortment of minor characters whose perceptions serve as filters for the end of the world. In The Stand, POV shifts occur chapter by chapter, but there are critical, momentary shifts within chapters from person to person, which underscore the emotional current or essence of the story.

    I use the term orchestrate pointedly, because accomplished POV shifting is all about composition in the musical sense. To POV shift in a skillful manner, one must be aware of rhythm, transition, pacing and thoroughly understand the emotional arc of the story.

    So the word jarring was very apt. When POV shifts are abrupt or percussive, or fulfill no emotional purpose, they can be startling.

    Actually, I would love to read an article from you at some point about the connections between musical composition and writing.

  10. Power to your (reading) elbow, sir – and, well said.

  11. Love these posts Derek.

    Hadn’t heard of Mansfield but will definitely be checking her out.

    The Yellow Wallpaper is a particular favourite of mine, I can read it over and over and still be moved by it.

  12. alisonwells says:

    Great post and great series. The Yellow Wallpaper is one I was familiar with and I love the points made by you and the the commentators.

  13. jamhenry says:

    Reblogged this on jamhenry and commented:
    Great post Derek. Love these authors and their works. Read “The Yellow Wallpaper” a long time ago and remember thinking it was very similar to Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected, which I loved as a youngster (weird youngster?).

  14. Wow, these women were amazing!

  15. […] blush.   Kat from Dolly Rouge asks if foundation brushes are really necessary. Back with Derek, this time he’s discussing Katherine Mansfield and Charlotte Perkins Gilman as part of h…   Shameless plug time, I wrote a guest post over on It Only Encourages Them about Equal Rights […]

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