It was the 1980s and I was a student in London when I began to discover women writers who, despite belonging to my grandmothers’ – or even my great-grandmothers’ – generation, had voices so compelling and authentic I couldn’t stop reading them. They included Rosamond Lehmann, Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Bowen, Barbara Comyns, Rebecca West, Stevie Smith, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, E.M. Delafield, Molly Keane, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Antonia White, Margaret Kennedy, May Sinclair, and others. Most of them were published by Virago and my impoverished state was exacerbated by an addiction to shiny green paperbacks. After reading, I could not part with them. Each time I moved – which was frequently – my ever-increasing green library came with me. I once drove a very large white van from Muswell Hill – via the Archway Road and then, in a circuitous route around and about central London, taking in the sights – to Earls Court with boxes of books sliding about in the back. A terrifying but necessary ordeal, and one I’d repeat a number of times.
I didn’t realise, then, that many of these women writers had been neglected for decades, ignored or forgotten by literary history; or that the books I was feverishly devouring had only recently come back into print. Nor did it occur to me that some of these women might still be alive… And with hindsight, on a personal level, that’s the worst thing; because I could at least have written to them, could have told them how much their work meant to me.
But what was it that made these women’s writing so compelling to me, then – and now? Born at the tail end of the nineteenth century and dawn of the twentieth century, into largely prosperous, middle-class families, these women had been educated and then expected to marry, produce children and run a house. Nothing more. In an era when an educated woman was still regarded by some with suspicion, when women had few rights, were unable to vote, unable divorce men for adultery (though men could divorce women for the same offence), and when men continued to control far more than purse-strings, women had no moral power and were yet to have a voice. That some of these women became active suffragists is no surprise; that their voices are quiet, their themes domestic is also no surprise. And for me it is that quietness which enriches and, strangely, empowers the voice; that magnification of domesticity, of lives confined by gender and time, which illuminates the ordinary and makes it extraordinary. These voices, so often exquisite, belong to our early feminists, and their writing is, in my view, some of the best writing of the twentieth century.
Like most book lovers, I’m a re-reader. I go back to those writers whose prose inspires me. And though one writer inevitably leads to another, some can – and do – slip through. So it was a few years after my first foray into the green world of the neglected that I discovered Jean Rhys. And I was blown away by her writing, by her singular, quietly raging voice, and I was amazed I’d not come across her before. But with themes like adultery and abortion, Jean was destined to be at odds with her time. Her writing was just too modern for the 1930s and 40s, and, tragically for Jean, her books quickly fell out of print – and remained so for decades. Which just goes to prove how writing, even the best writing, is prone to the vagaries of timing and fashion.
In 2011, shortly before my début was published, and after I’d been told I needed to have a presence on social media, I signed up to Twitter and began tweeting about some of these women – mainly Jean Rhys, Elizabeth Taylor and Rosamond Lehmann, who at that time still seemed too little known. Then I wrote a blog post about these three and others, and posted it on Twitter with the hashtags #LiteraryGoddess #LiteraryGoddesses. Virago got involved, as did many readers and writers, and for a while those hashtags were trending on Twitter. More recently, I began adding names under another hashtag – #NeglectedLadyNovelists, and over the last few weeks the neglected ladies have had their own World Cup. Yes, I know, but… and anyway Sylvia Townsend Warner and Jean Rhys are in the final. And yes, I know Jean isn’t quite so neglected now, but it wasn’t me who put her in the final: I’m not allowed to vote. And I did say to think on that word neglected…
I’m by no means alone in my admiration of these late lady novelists. On Twitter, Andy Miller (@i_am_mill_i_am), author of The Year of Reading Dangerously, Cate Lombardo (@bleuroses), who runs a Virago Classics reading club on Facebook, Ali Hope (@Heaven_ali), a brilliant book blogger, and journalist Andrew Male (@Andr6wMale) are all great champions of the neglected. In 2015, the aforementioned Andy Miller and publisher John Mitchinson (@johnmitchinson) set up Backlisted Podcast (@BacklistedPod), reading and reviewing forgotten works of late, great writers. Though not exclusively focused on women writers, Backlisted have featured many neglected lady novelists and their wonderful podcasts are available on iTunes.
I’m not sure what the neglected and not-so-neglected lady novelists would make of Twitter, or their World Cup. They might very well shudder, tut-tut and roll their eyes. But I hope – like to think – they’d enjoy and appreciate the attention. And really, if it’s helped any one of them gain a new reader, that’s good enough for me. Meanwhile, my reading journey continues, and I have Pamela Hansford Johnson, Storm Jameson, Pamela Frankau, Dorothy Richardson and Rumer Godden to look forward to.
For a list of recommended books, see Judith’s Facebook Page Note – 20 Novels by C20th Women Writers.
Judith Kinghorn is the author of four novels: The Echo of Twilight, The Snow Globe, The Memory of Lost Senses, and The Last Summer. www.judithkinghornwriter.com