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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 REVIEW: Philosophy in the Garden by Damon Young

Monday, December 16, 2013

Title: Philosophy In The Garden
Author: Damon Young
Publisher: Melbourne University Press 
Age Group & Genre: Non-Fiction for Adults/Philosophy
Reviewer: Kate Forsyth 

The Blurb:
Why did Marcel Proust have bonsai beside his bed? What was Jane Austen doing, coveting an apricot? How was Friedrich Nietzsche inspired by his ‘thought tree'?

In Philosophy in the Garden, Damon Young explores one of literature's most intimate relationships: authors and their gardens. For some, the garden provided a retreat from workaday labour; for others, solitude's quiet counsel. For all, it played a philosophical role: giving their ideas a new life. 

Philosophy in the Garden reveals the profound thoughts discovered in parks, backyards and pot-plants. It does not provide tips for mowing overgrown cooch grass, or mulching a dry Japanese maple. It is a philosophical companion to the garden's labours and joys. 

What I Thought: 
I have always been interested in philosophy and have tried my hand at reading books on the subject over the years, usually to find myself baffled and even, if I’m to be truthful, a little humiliated. Why can’t anyone ever express themselves a little more clearly?  I’d think. Is it them or is it me?

Nonetheless, I continue to be interested in ideas. I am also utterly fascinated by the lives – both inner and outer – of writers and creative artists.

Plus, of course, I love gardens. I spend a little bit of time in my own garden nearly every day. I love to see things I have grown and cared for flourish, I love the sense of creating order out of chaos, and I have a transcendental longing for beauty. 

So the title of Damon Young’s new book ‘Philosophy in the Garden’ caught my eye as soon as it was released. I read it slowly – one chapter every few days or so, whilst reading other novels in between. I found it utterly engaging and most illuminating. 

Damon is Honorary Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Melbourne, and has written a number of books that bring together philosophical ideas with popular culture. His style is very readable and full of wit and personality. For example, he describes Aristotle has being known for his ‘schmick wardrobe and bling.’ Reading his work is like hanging out in a bar late at night, drinking cosmopolitans, and arguing about whether God really exists or whether He (She? It?) is just a fictive construct created to fulfil an existential human longing (whilst trying not to slur the word ‘existential’ too much). 

The premise of the book is very simple. Damon has examined, in a series of short and lively essays, the lives of half-a-dozen authors in relation to their garden (or lack of garden) with a particular focus on their philosophies. I was very familiar with some of the writers’ work (Jane Austen, George Orwell, Emily Dickinson), had tried and failed to read some of the others (Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre) and had never heard of one (Nikos Kazantzakis). 

Each chapter was full of illuminations and insights. I knew Jane Austen loved her garden but did not realise that her writing suffered when she was away from it. I was particularly enamoured of one of Damon’s points in this essay, regarding the scene in ‘Pride & Prejudice’ in which Elizabeth sees Pemberley for the first time (as Damon says, this scene is ‘known across the civilised world as the home of Colin Firth’s wet shirt’). This is the one scene in P&P that I have never liked, because I thought it made Elizabeth seem to start liking Darcy more because of the wealth of his possessions. However, Damon interprets the scene a little differently. The garden reflects Darcy’s soul – beautiful, ordered, tasteful, and serene. ‘She had never seen,’ Austen wrote, ‘a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by awkward taste.’ Damon goes on to show how this ordered and serene approach to gardening reflected Jane Austen’s own life and philosophy, and so not only made me see one of my favourite authors more clearly, but has deepened my love for one of my all-time favourite books. This is a true gift … and Damon repeated this revelation for me in the chapter on Emily Dickinson, quite possibly the poet I love the most. 

I also learnt a great deal.

I did not know Proust kept bonsai by his bed, or that Friedrich Nietzsche lived in a ménage a trois (this was one chapter when I’d have liked to have had a whole lot more details!) I also had never understood Nietzschean philosophy before and now I feel as if I could, with a little more reading and thinking. In fact, I went and googled Nietzsche, and spent a few hours reading up on him. 

I also discovered a new author, one of the greatest gifts anyone can give me.

I had never heard of Nikos Kazantzakis, one of the authors Damon examines, but just listen to this:

‘Words! Words! There is no other salvation! I have nothing in my power but twenty-four little lead soldiers. I will mobilise. I will raise an army.’

It’s something I could have written myself, so exactly does it express my own evangelist love of words and books. I am now searching out the work of Kazantzakis, so look forward to some more raving on him in the future.

Thank you, Damon!

Damon’s blog 


INTERVIEW: Jo Baker, author of Longbourn

Friday, August 23, 2013

I'm very happy to welcome Jo Baker, author of Longbourn, to the blog today. Her novel turns the world of Pride and Prejudice upside-down and inside-out in an utterly brilliant imagining of Jane Austen's famous novel for the point of view of the hard-working and usually invisible servants. 

Jo Baker

Are you a daydreamer too?
Oh god yes. I wander around in a daze half the time, I’m afraid.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Yes. As a child, I wrote all the time – writing was a kind of more intense version of reading for me. I studied English at University, and though it laid down a good grounding in literature for me, which is invaluable to a writer, it also knocked all the creativity out of me for years. I felt like I’d got lost in this graveyard crowded with monuments to Great Men: there was nowhere left for me to pitch my flimsy little tent – and I was no longer sure that I even wanted to. 

I started writing again when I was in my late twenties, when I lived in Belfast. There was – and still is – a vibrant literary community there, and I’d got to know some actual living writers, and it just started to become clear to me that this was something that I could actually aspire to. 

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live, what do you like to do? 
I was born in a little village in the north of Lancashire. Childhood full of nettle stings and swimming in the river, and climbing trees. I moved away when I was 18, and spent a lot of time in Ireland. In that weirdly circular way that life sometimes has, circumstances have conspired to bring me back near where I grew up. We live in Lancaster, which is a pretty little Georgian town in the north of England. I’m a writer, and a mum, and so I don’t have much free time– but I love going for long walks and bike rides, and really just getting out of doors whenever I can.  
How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
I’d always known my family had been in service, and this perhaps made me more alert to the servants’ presence in Austen’s novel, but the catalyst was really the line in Pride and Prejudice: ‘The very shoe roses for Netherfield were got by proxy’. I got snagged on this, couldn’t stop thinking about the reality of what it meant. I wondered who ‘proxy’ might be, and how s/he felt about having to go and fetch decorations for someone else’s dancing shoes, in the pouring rain, when none of the Bennet girls are prepared themselves to go.  And that’s when the story started to fizz. 
How extensively do you plan your novels? 
Apart from my first, which I fumbled my way through blindfolded, I always have a sense of where they go, and often will have some scenes already in my head before I start to write. But I have never actually sat and plotted a book before starting. I’d be afraid that I’d have worn it out before I’d even written it. 
Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
My dreams are often extraordinarily dull. I have a recurring one about a cafeteria where there’s no food I can eat (I’ve been a vegetarian most of my life, and a vegan for a while – I think it stems from that!) I recently had a dream about a new shop opening in town, and deciding I might go and have a look at what they stock. Really not the most thrilling material, though you could maybe make a short story out of them… I think I probably use up all the most exciting bits of the subconscious soup in my waking life, while writing. Freud described writers  as ‘dreamers in broad daylight’ – so maybe that’s why my dreams are so uninspiring – it’s all drained during the daylight hours.  

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?
There were a bundle of co-incidences around this novel, but the one that made me really feel that I was onto something was when reading Austen’s letters. I found a reference to some mantua makers she used. These were sisters who did low-paid piece work, sewing for the local ladies. The surname was Baker. Obviously, it’s a common enough name, but it did make me feel my instincts were working – it ‘placed’ me within Austen’s world.

Where do you write, and when?
I write (I am writing this now) in a little coffee shop in town. I write in the mornings – though these can often be quite long, extending to 2 or 3 in the afternoon. But once I’ve broken for lunch, I’m fit for nothing. 

I used to have a proper job too – then, I had to write at night. We called it ‘the Sylvia Plath shift’ – from 3 am, when I’d wake naturally, to 7 am, when the kids got up. It was the only way I could get any work done. Couldn’t keep that up forever, though – it was like being constantly jetlagged. 

What is your favourite part of writing?
The bit where you lose yourself completely in the other world.

What do you do when you get blocked? 
It hasn’t happened yet… I have so little time to write, that I can’t waste a drop of it, so I don’t have time to be blocked, I just have to get on with things…

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
I really don’t know…
I’m nosy, I suppose. Friends say I am a good listener; and I am endlessly fascinated by people, and speculate on lives and behaviour and motivation. I think that probably has something to do with it. 

I read constantly if erratically, and watch films, devour box sets. 

I also talk a lot with writer friends and my husband – who is also a writer. And just absorb stuff really. I’m really fascinated by the natural world too, seasonality and sensory experiences. I think you just have to be open to the world. 

Do you have any rituals that help you to write? 
It’s like getting into cold water. You can’t faff around dabbling in a toe and paddling. Take a run and jump, and you’re in deep before you know it. I walk into town, into the coffee shop, order the same coffee, sit at the same table, and just start work until  - on a good day -I’m too hungry to keep on going. 

Who are ten of your favourite writers?
Oh, crikey. Ten….Okay. In no particular order:

William Blake, Ray Davies, William Shakespeare, George Herbert, Jane Austen, George Elliot, Cormac McCarthy, Joss Whedon, William Goldman, Victor Hugo, Hilary Mantel, Susan Cooper, Daragh Carville. 
(I’m not very good with numbers, did I mention?)

What do you consider to be good writing?  
Mostly, good writing is happening when you don’t notice it. 

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
(No-one else is going to do it for you)

What are you working on now?
A secret

Earlier this week Jo explained more about her inspirations for Longbourn in a guest post for me 

SPOTLIGHT: Jo Baker on why she wrote Longbourn

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

On the blog today, Jo Baker tells the story behind the writing of her brilliant novel Longbourn which reimagines Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the servants of the house.

Jo Baker

I can’t even remember when I first read Pride and Prejudice, it seems like I’ve always known that book. Jane Austen was my first experience of grown-up literature, and I have continued to return to and love her work throughout my life. I admire her books enormously, as a writer - the immaculate prose, the deft plotting. I’m also a sucker for all that buttoned-up desire and wish-fulfilment. Who isn’t?

But as I read and re-read the books, I began to become aware - I remember saying at quite a young age - that if I’d been living at the time, I wouldn’t have got to go to the ball. I would’ve been stuck at home, with the sewing. Just a few generations back, my family were in service (we still have some cutlery from this era. My great aunt maintained it was a ‘gift’ from her employer; her sisters all believed that she’d 
nicked it). I am not a gentleman’s daughter, as Elizabeth so assuredly is. (No offence, Dad.)

Aware of that - of that English class thing - Pride and Prejudice begins to read a little differently. You notice a name here and there, or an unnamed figure performing a role. Footman, housemaid. You realise that things just ‘happen’ - notes arrive, carriages are brought round, meals are served - but they actually require human agency to make them occur. I noticed these little flickers of activity 
below the surface, and was intrigued. 

But Longbourn really began to take shape when I re-read the line ‘the very shoe-roses for Netherfield were got by proxy’. The weather is far too bad for the Bennet girls to venture forth, so they send a maid to get soaked on their behalf. But she’s as real a human being as they are - insofar as any of these fictional characters can be.

And thinking about Pride and Prejudice in this way began to raise other questions. 

The Napoleonic War, and the civil unrest of the period are implicit in the book - all those handsome officers, all those troops billeted in Meryton. And that chilling throwaway line of Lydia’s, that a private had been flogged. I found myself thinking about this man. His suffering must have been terrible. 

I wanted to explore the reality of soldiering in this period, and to think about not just the dashing officers in their scarlet coats, but the ordinary footsoldiers who came back from the front lines damaged, as men are by war. 

The domestic detail in Longbourn I gathered from a lot of sources; history books, contemporary domestic guides and recipes and practical research. In the village where I grew up there was an old house that had the kinds of outhouses and kitchen I’ve imagined for Longbourn - even a ‘necessary house’, made redundant by indoor plumbing, but with multiple wooden seats still in place. We used to play in the grounds as children - it’s all been redeveloped now, but I re-occupied it in my 
imagination for this book. 

Tea-leaves as a cleaning method were still in use when my dad was a boy; I sweep my own wooden floors with tea-leaves now - my kids thought I was mad at first, lobbing handfuls of the stuff around the house, but it really works. Tea is mildy antiseptic, the tannic acid gives a subtle shine, and it’s totally ecological - no chemicals, no waste, completely free once you’ve made your tea. 

A lot of the research behind Longbourn was amassed over time, without me really being aware of it. I already knew, for example, the English law of the period in relation to slavery, and that there were quite a few former slaves in the country, often brought over as servants; in Austen’s letters she mentions 
a family friend who has a black servant. And then of course the Bingleys were in Trade, in the north - and there were slave-ports in the north of England (I live in one of them, Lancaster), and 
it just seemed right that they might have a black servant, like Austen’s neighbours. And he would seem just so fascinating to a girl who’s seen nothing, been nowhere. It all just seemed to fit.

In her letters, Austen mentions two sisters who worked for her as seamstresses. They were called Miss Baker. Okay, it’s a common name, but still, the co-incidence was striking. It confirmed that my first thought was right: I’d have been stuck at home with the other servants, with the cleaning and cooking and 
the mending. And I wanted to explore the reality of that, to show that real human 

That’s why I wrote Longbourn

BOOK REVIEW: Longbourn by Jo Baker

Monday, August 19, 2013

: Longbourn
Author: Jo Baker
Publisher: Knopf
Age Group & Genre: Historical novel for adults
Reviewer: Kate Forsyth 

The Blurb:
If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.
In this irresistibly imagined belowstairs answer to Pride and Prejudice,the servants take center stage. Sarah, the orphaned housemaid, spends her days scrubbing the laundry, polishing the floors, and emptying the chamber pots for the Bennet household. But there is just as much romance, heartbreak, and intrigue downstairs at Longbourn as there is upstairs. When a mysterious new footman arrives, the orderly realm of the servants’ hall threatens to be completely, perhaps irrevocably, upended. 

Jo Baker dares to take us beyond the drawing rooms of Jane Austen’s classic—into the often overlooked domain of the stern housekeeper and the starry-eyed kitchen maid, into the gritty daily particulars faced by the lower classes in Regency England during the Napoleonic Wars—and, in doing so, creates a vivid, fascinating, fully realized world that is wholly her own. 

What I Thought: 

What a brilliant premise this book has! Did you ever wonder – when reading Pride & Prejudice - about the lives of the servants toiling away quietly downstairs? 

No, me either. 

Jo Baker did wonder, however, and from that imagining has spun a beautiful, intense, heart-wrenching tale. Do not expect the wit and charm of Jane Austen; do not expect the well-beloved characters to be lauded. In fact, most of the cast of Pride & Prejudice come off badly – some are selfish and narcissistic, others merely oblivious. 

Do expect to have your understanding of the world of Jane Austen turned upside down and inside out, and made richer and truer as a result. Longbourne is driven by a strong sense of social justice, and we see just how hard life in Regency times could be for the poor and the weak. Much as I love Jane Austen, I always wondered why we heard nothing of the political turmoil of her times, nothing about the impassioned debate over slavery, nothing about the Napoleonic wars, nothing about the Luddites and the costs of the Industrial Revolution. 

Jo Baker has attempted to engage with many of these gaping holes in Jane Austen’s world, and has achieved a work of great beauty and serious intent. Longbourne caused an international bidding war and has already sold film rights, and I can certainly see why. 

Jo Baker's website 


BOOK REVIEW: Keeping the Castle by Patrice Kindl

Monday, July 22, 2013

Title: Keeping the Castle

Author: Patrice Kindl

Publisher: Viking Children's Books

Age Group & Genre: YA historical romance

The Blurb:

Seventeen-year-old Althea is the sole support of her entire family, and she must marry well. But there are few wealthy suitors--or suitors of any kind--in their small Yorkshire town of Lesser Hoo. Then, the young and attractive (and very rich) Lord Boring arrives, and Althea sets her plans in motion. There's only one problem; his friend and business manager Mr. Fredericks keeps getting in the way. And, as it turns out, Fredericks has his own set of plans . . . This witty take on the classic Regency--Patrice Kindl's first novel in a decade--is like literary champagne!

“Take one Austenian heroine in desperate financial straits.  Put her in a crumbling castle, give her two evil stepsisters and some very unsuitable suitors.  Make it funny!  Patrice Kindl’s Keeping the Castle is an absolute charmer!”  -- Karen Joy Fowler, author of The Jane Austen Book Club

What I Thought: 
I thoroughly enjoyed this light-hearted and utterly charming Regency romance. It has been described as a cross between Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle, two of my all-time favourite books. It's lighter and sweeter than either of these books, and much less serious in intent. The tone is comic, the characters are exaggerated for humorous effect, and the plot is one of mishaps, misunderstandings and muddles.

The heroine Althea Crawley is only seventeen, beautiful, impoverished, and a little too quick to voice her opinions - sometimes with disastrous attempts. She must marry well if her family is to keep their crumbling old castle  ... but all Althea's plans to charm rich Lord Boring keep going awry.

Complicating her life are selfish step-sisters, a troublesome younger brother, a naughty puppy, miserable weather, a sweetly ineffectual mother, and the odiously interfering Mr Fredericks ...

Although the book is really a funny and romantic romp, there is just enough of an edge to give it gravitas. Althea is an intelligent and independent-minded young woman who really does chafe against the strictures of her society and her voice rings all too true:

I keep forgetting how ridiculously sensitive and illogical men were. He assumed that his fortune would buy a beauty; I assumed that my beauty would procure me a rich husband. It seemed much the same thing to me, but evidently what was permissible in a man was not in a woman. 

Keeping the Castle was written with a teenage audience in mind, and so it is a swift and easy read (I read it in a matter of hours). However, I'd recommend it for adults as much as for teenagers, particulalry if you feel like a little sunshine in your day.  

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