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SPOTLIGHT: My List of Best Feminist Reads

Friday, March 10, 2017



I recently asked what people would like to see me blogging about on Facebook, and among some great suggestions was one asking me to list my favourite feminist literature.


So I spent some time quietly thinking about this and slowly began to put together a list of books which I felt had helped shape me as a feminist. 

After I posted my list, Stephanie Dowrick suggested that I should add a definition of what I mean by 'feminist literature' - and also quite rightly pointed out how many gaps there are in my reading. I agreed most humbly. My aim for this list was always that it would be an ongoing project, with me adding books as I read or remember them, and taking suggestions to widen my knowledge. I have already got compiled a long list of books I must read, and am hoping to add a new book or two every month. So please feel free to leave a suggestion for me in the comments section below. 

So what do I mean by 'feminist fiction'?

I was brought up by my mother - a brilliant, strong-willed and wise woman - to believe that women are entitled to the same rights and liberties as men, and have the same potential for intellectual and moral strength. I have always passionately believed in fighting to ensure the political, social, and economic quality of all humans, regardless of gender, race, spiritual beliefs or sexual orientation.   

I am proud that my books have been identified by many readers as being feminist. Most recently, Jack Zipes - the world's foremost fairy tale scholar - wrote of my work: "Kate Forsyth is one of the leading feminist writers of fairy tales in Australia. In recent years she has published a notable series of historical fairy-tale novels based on ‘Rapunzel’, ‘All-Fur’, and ‘Beauty and the Beast’. They include Bitter Greens (2012), The Wild Girl (2013), and The Beast’s Garden (2015). All of them are complex feminist adaptations that shed light on intrepid women in historical events that test their compassion and fortitude."

I love this endorsement so much because I feel it recognises something of what I am trying to do in my fiction. That is to celebrate and illuminate the lives of women, both in the past and today, to help my readers understand some of the costs and consequences of gender inequality, and to inspire them to strive harder for such basic rights as creative freedom, economic independence, political power, and universal respect. 



So - for me - this is a list of books which I feel have been important to me in my personal struggle for women's rights and liberties; and which I hope will help and inspire others. My intention is for the list to be - with your help - an ever-growing and evolving thing of beauty.

Most of these books are fiction, simply because that is my own great love, but I have decided to widen the scope of my list to include essays, poems, and non-fiction works as well. So please, help me! What should I be reading?


Five Go to Treasure Island – Enid Blyton
When I was a kid growing up, my sister and I wanted to be just like George – strong, fearless, truthful and just as good as a boy. There were not that many heroines like George all the way back then.



Emily of New Moon – L.M. Montgomery
My favourite L.M. Montgomery book, I loved it because the heroine wanted to be a writer. She was clever and determined and did not want to marry if it was going to stand in the way of her ambition.

I also love Anne of Green Gables, of course, and one of her lesser-known books, The Blue Castle, also has to be included on my list


Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
I loved the character of Jo so much. She seemed just like me – untidy, dreamy, and always scribbling away at a story. I also love Eight Cousins!




The Mists of Avalon – Marion Zimmer Bradley
This was the first fantasy book I ever read where it was the woman’s tale that was the focus. A touchstone book for me. 



The Tenant of Wildfell Hall - Anne Bronte
A powerful novel about domestic abuse in 19th century England, with a heartbreaking denouement. 


Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte 
Still one of my all-time favourite books – I try and re-read it every few years. 


The Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys
The story of ‘Jane Eyre’ retold from the point of view of the mad wife in the attic. So clever! 


Persuasion – Jane Austen
My favourite Jane Austen novel – the story of a young woman learning to speak out for herself. I would also include all of Jane Austen's other books, including - of course - Pride & Prejudice.




The Awakening - Kate Chopin
I read this in my first degree, and have never forgotten the effect it had on me. A landmark work of early feminism (published in 1899).

The Yellow Wallpaper - Charlotte Perkins Gilman
A 6,000 word short story published in 1892 that describes a woman's slow descent into madness after being confined to a room on a 'rest cure',  a common prescription for women in the 19th century. Unsettling and powerful. 

Precious Bane - Mary Webb
This is one of my all-time favourite books & am always pressing it upon my friends, insisting they read it. 

A Room of Her Own – Virginia Woolf
I carry this book in my heart. It had a profound influence on me and my determination to shape my own life.




The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
The only novel written by the American poet, and published under a pseudonym in 1963. Sylvia Plath committed suicide a month after its UK publication. I also love her poetry, particularly Ariel.

Transformations - Anne Sexton
A dark and powerful collection of poems inspired by fairy tales. I also really love 'Her Kind':




The Color Purple - Alice Walker 
Another all-time favourite book! It never fails to dazzle and move me.




I Know Why A Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou
A heart-rending memoir of the poet’s life.



Stravinsky’s Lunch – Drusilla Modjeska

A fascinating book on the lives of women’s artists. 



Women Who Run with the Wolves - Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Myths and Stories of the Archetypal Woman - a book I have dipped into again many times. 


The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the 19th Century Literary Imagination - Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar  
Hugely influential book of feminist re-readings of writers such as Charlotte Bronte, Christina Rossetti and Emily Dickinson. Fuelled my fascination with the Victorian era.  


Alias Grace - Margaret Atwood
My favourite book by Margaret Atwood, this tells the story of a young woman accused of murder.


Prodigal Summer – Barbara Kingsolver
Such a beautiful and wise book.




Remarkable Creatures – Tracy Chevalier

The story of Mary Anning, the young woman who discovered dinosaur fossils at Lyme Regis.


Possession – A.S. Byatt
The story of a love affair between Victorian poets.




Fingersmith - Sarah Waters

The contrasting lives of two young women in Victorian Britain - a tour-de-force!


The Signature of All Things - Elizabeth Gilbert

A tour de force! Tells the story of a brilliant, unconventional woman in the 19th century who studies lichen in order to understand the world.



There are, of course, many thousands more ... and as I read them or remember them, I will add them to my list!

Please feel free to make suggestions below!

BOOK LIST: Books Read in June 2014

Sunday, August 03, 2014

BOOK READ IN JUNE

I came home from the ANZ Festival of Literature & the Arts in London with a whole bag of books and am slowly reading my way through them. Quite a few of them are by Australian writers who were speakers at the festival – it seems ironic that I had to travel 17,000 kilometres to discover books I could have bought at my local bookstore! 



Ophelia & the Marvellous Boy – Karen Foxlee
I really loved Karen’s mysterious and beautiful novel The Midnight Dress, and once I heard Karen speak about her new book Ophelia & the Marvellous Boy I knew at once that it sounded like my kind of book. I bought the gorgeous hard-back in London, and am glad that I did as the production is just exquisite.
The story revolves around eleven-year-old Ophelia who is smart and scientifically minded. She and her sister and father have moved to a city where it never stops snowing, as her father – who is an expert on swords – has taken up a position in a huge, dark, gothic museum filled with secrets and strange things. Ophelia sets out to explore, and finds a locked room hidden away in the depths of the museum. She puts her eyes to the keyhole … and sees a boy’s blue eyes looking out at her. He tells her that he has been a prisoner for three-hundred-and-three-years by an evil Snow Queen and her clock is ticking down towards the end of the world. Only he can stop her … but first he must escape.

A gorgeously written and delicate fairy tale, Ophelia & the Marvellous Boy reminded me of some of my favourite children’s writers such as Cassandra Golds and Laura Amy Schlitz, who are themselves inspired by Nicholas Stuart Grey and George Macdonald. (You can read my interview with Karen Foxlee here)


Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes – Mary M Talbot & Bryan Talbot 
Another book I bought in London was what I can best describe as a graphic memoir/biography. Told in comic book form, the story compares the life stories of Lucia Joyce, the daughter of the famous writer James Joyce, and that of the book’s author Mary Talbot, daughter of the foremost Joycean scholar, James S. Atherton. Both narratives begin with the girls’ childhood and show their struggles to grow up in the shadows of difficult and demanding fathers. Lucia wants to dance, but is confined by the petty societal rules of her time. She ends up confined in a madhouse.  Mary rebels against her father, and forges a life for herself. The book shows how she fell in love with a young artist and married him – he is, of course, Bryan Talbot, the illustrator whose incredible artwork adorns every page. The book is acutely intelligent but highly readable, illuminating both the heartbreakingly sad story of Lucia James and the work of two exceptional contemporary artists. Not surpisingly, Dotter of My Father’s  Eyes won the 2012 Costa biography award.



The Spare Room – Helen Garner
I heard Helen speak in London and thought she was warm and funny and beautifully articulate, so I was very pleased to have her sign my copy of her first novel in sixteen years, The Spare Room. Published in 2008, the novel won a swathe of awards including the Barbara Jefferis Award. It reads more like a memoir, being told from the first person point of view of a writer named Helen living in Melbourne and being inspired by events that actually happened in Helen Garner’s life. However, no doubt many of the people and incidents have been changed during the writing process. The story is driven by the narrator Helen’s fear and distress, after a dear friend who is dying of cancer comes to stay with her for three weeks while undertaking some kind of quack treatment. The writing is crisp and strong and poised, and the characters spring to life on the page with only a few deft strokes. I loved it. 


Goddess – Kelly Gardiner
I’m been a big admirer of Kelly Gardiner’s gorgeous historical novels for young adults, Act of Faith and The Sultan’s Eyes, both of which are set in the mid-17th century, one of my favourite historical periods for fiction. Goddess is Kelly’s first novel for adults, based on the fascinating true life story of Julie d'Aubigny, a woman out of step with her own time (The court of the Sun King, Louise XIV, in Paris during the 1680s) Raised like a boy by her swordsman father, Julie likes to dress like a man and will fight a duel with anyone who crosses her. One night she fights three duels back-to-back, winning them all. She elopes with a young nun and is sentenced to be burned at the stake, but escapes and becomes a famous opera star. The story of her adventures seems too incredible to possibly be true. The book is told in Julie’s voice – witty, intelligent and wry - and the whole is pulled off with wit and flair. 


A Stranger Came Ashore – Mollie Hunter
Mollie Hunter is a wonderful Scottish writer for children who is not nearly as well-known as she deserves to be. I have many of her books – some collected when I was a child and some (including a signed first edition) collected as an adult. I first read A Stranger Came Ashore when I was about eleven, after borrowing it from my school library. I’ve been looking for it ever since, but could not remember its name. Then, a month or so ago, I read a brief review of it on an English book blog and at once remembered how much I had loved it, and orderd a copy straightaway. 
It’s a Selkie tale, set in the Highlands of Scotland sometime in the 19th century. The novel begins with a storm, and a shipwreck, and a handsome, young stranger washed ashore. As his sister begins to fall in love with the stranger, forgetting her childhood sweetheart, 12-year old Robbie Henderson finds himself becoming more and more suspicious. He remembers an old tale his grandfather used to tell him about seals that turn into humans, but cannot believe it could be true. Soon he is caught up in a dark and suspenseful adventure as he tries to save his sister. A Stranger Came Ashore was rightly acclaimed when it was published in 1975, winning many awards including the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award. 


The Color Purple - Alice Walker
I saw Alice Walker speak at the Sydney Writers Festival in May, and bought The Color Purple which I had read and adored about thirty years ago (it was first published in 1982 – impossible to believe it’s been so long!) I read it all in one gulp and loved it just as much as I did when I was a teenager. I loved the movie too. This book will always be on my list of all-time favourite books.


Burial Rites – Hannah Kent
I finally had a chance to read this brilliant historical novel by debut author Hannah Kent. Burial Rites been a critical and a commercial success, and deservedly so. The writing is so precise and vivid, and the story so compelling. I found myself stopping to read certain sentences again, just for the pleasure of the words: ‘it is as though the winter has set up home in my marrow.’ Burial Rites is set in Iceland in 1830, the last year in the life of a woman condemned to be executed for murder. The use of real historical documents as epigraphs at the beginning of each section adds to the sense of truth and awfulness. A clever and truly beautiful book.  


Meanwhile, my research into Nazi Germany continues. Two stand-out books I read this month: 



Some Girls, Some Hats & Hitler – Trudi Kanter
Sifting through a second-hand bookshop in London, an English editor stumbled upon this self-published memoir of a young Jewish woman in Vienna and – enchanted by her romantic love story and vivid writing style – republished the book.
In 1938 Trudi Kanter was a milliner for the best-dressed women in Vienna. She was beautiful and chic and sophisticated, travelling to Paris to see the latest fashions and selling her hats to some of the most wealthy and aristocratic ladies of Europe. She was madly in love with a charming and wealthy businesseman, and had a loving and close-knit family. Then the Nazis marched into Austria, and everything Trudi knew was in ruins. She and her new husband had to try and find some way to escape and make a new life for themselves … and Trudi would need all her wits and panache just to survive.  


Sophie Scholl: The Real Story of The Woman Who Defied Hitler – Frank McDonough
The heart-breaking story of Sophie Scholl and the White Rose, a group of young university students who protested against the crimes of the Nazi regime and paid for it with their lives. 

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!





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