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.
* (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].
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?
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