Sandra M. Gilbert Picks Five Underrated Women
Feminist scholar Sandra M. Gilbert picks five great books that you may have missed, starting in the 14th century.
Christine de Pizan
Author of the groundbreaking Renaissance feminist utopia The City of Ladies (Le Livre de la Cite des Dames). Widowed and orphaned at twenty-five, Christine supported three children by working as a professional writer when such a career was virtually unheard of for women. She produced more than twenty volumes of prose and verse, often winning patronage from the French court, and entered vigorously into what was at the time called the "querelle des femmes"—the argument over women's nature, condition, and position. The City of Ladies is an invigorating, pioneering book.
An excerpt appears in the Norton Anthology of Feminist Literary Theory and Criticism.
Author of (among other fictions) Fantomina, or, Love in a Maze (1724). Fantomina is the astounding story of a young woman who decides to pursue her own erotic pleasures, undaunted by contemporary morals. Masquerading in various disguises, she repeatedly seduces the feckless Beauplaisir, a young rake who thinks he is bedding a series of different women although he is always, in fact, making love to the same wily and willful heroine, whose "intrigue," writes Haywood, "considering the time it lasted, was as full of variety as any, perhaps, that many ages have produced."
"Fantomina" appears in its entirety in the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Traditions in English, vol. 1.
Author of the ambitious multi-volumed novel Pilgrimage (1915-38), which tells the life story of its protagonist, Miriam Henderson, in innovative lyrical prose, often considered the first experiment with "stream of consciousness" writing. Richardson, proclaimed Virginia Woolf, had "invented a sentence that we might call the psychological sentence of the feminine gender," and the writer John Cowper Powys thought her "the greatest woman genius of our time," though today she is little read outside of college classrooms, and even there she is accorded little attention.
Some excerpts from her writings appear in the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: the Traditions in English, vol.2.
Author of Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929), both novels exploring the dilemmas of their biracial heroines. Herself of Danish and West Indian descent, Larsen became a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance and her painful but compelling works are brilliant meditations on cross-racial impersonation as well as the intricate and subtle complexities of multi-racial identity.
Australian author of (among many other works) The Man Who Loved Children (1940), a novel based on the dysfunctional family in which she herself grew up. Although this work has repeatedly been named as one of the best fictions of the century (e.g., in TIME magazine, 2005) and in 2010 was described by the novelist Jonathan Franzen as a "masterpiece," it is not as widely known as it deserves to be.
Sandra M. Gilbert
Sandra M. Gilbert's most recent book is Rereading Women: Thirty Years of Exploring Our Literary Traditions. A prolific critic and poet, she was also co-editor, with Susan Gubar, of The Norton Anthology of Feminist Literary Theory and Criticism.
For an interview with Gilbert, click here.