For our special Issue Six ‘Recommended Reading’ series, we’ve asked members of the Stella Prize (now live!) steering committee to recommend their favourite texts by women. Kill Your Darlings Associate Editor Jo Case offers her selection of female writers, from Melbourne historians to New York publicists and Hemingway’s third wife.
I’ve gone with the theme of underrated women writers, across genres: novels, science writing, humour writing and memoir/history. These writers aren’t underrated in the sense of not being recognised at all – in fact, they’ve had some extraordinary praise and accolades. But they’re not read as widely as I think they deserve to be. And they’re all terrific examples of women writers who can more than hold their own.
A Legacy and Jigsaw
Sybille Bedford died a couple of years ago, less well known than she should have been. She lived an extraordinary life and wrote extraordinarily well about it, using the material of her life in her novels as well as her non-fiction. Her first novel, A Legacy, about two intertwined upper-class German families (one bourgeois, one aristocratic) in the years before the First World War, was described by Nancy Mitford as ‘one of the very best novels I have ever read’ and by Evelyn Waugh as ‘new, cool, witty and elegant’. Hilary Mantel more recently called it ‘a fabulous monster of a book’ and declared that ‘in my novel-crowded house it’s one I could never lose’. It’s an absorbing literary page-turner, rich with eccentric character vignettes, laced with a wry wit, and boasting a plot worthy of soap opera. And it’s all based on the lives of her own family.
Equally good, in my view, is her 1989 novel Jigsaw, an almost-autobiography. She grew up with her father, after her parents’ divorce, in a crumbling grand house near the French border, where there was no money for groceries but a valuable wine cellar. From the age of ten, she lived with her beautiful, charismatic, stunningly neglectful morphine addict mother, in Italy and the south of France, where her friends and neighbours included the Huxleys (she went on to write a two-volume biography of Aldous).
I regret to say that it’s been a few years since I last read these books, so I’m short on details. But what I really love about Sybille Bedford is that she’s a master stylist, but also a master storyteller – an absolute pleasure to read, both for the gorgeousness of her sentences and the sharpness of her observations, and for the vicarious thrill of being thoroughly caught up in her characters and their stories.
Delusions of Gender
Cordelia Fine is a Melbourne-based writer (and neuropsychologist) and yet, most of the attention she’s received for her books (this one and a previous book on the brain, A Mind of its Own) has been from overseas. She’s been reviewed in The New York Times and The Guardian and interviewed by Salon. Yet, the book seems to have had little attention here. She’ll be appearing at the Melbourne Writers Festival next month and Delusions of Gender was just shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction, so hopefully this means her local luck is changing. I’m reading this book now, and so far I’m intrigued by her thesis and hooked on her style – intelligent, impeccably well researched, but also conversational and genuinely funny. Here, she looks at how the notion of biological brain differences is being used to explain and excuse inequality between the sexes, taking apart some of the oft-cited studies that are being taken seriously by social commentators and policy-makers, and shows up how flimsy the findings are. What’s most striking is that these kinds of studies and the ‘evidence’ they find are being used to structure our society, education, relationships and the way we bring up our children.
Traumascapes, Courage, Motherland
Full disclosure here: Maria is a friend. But she’s a friend I made through my love of her writing, which I’d been raving about in print for a few years before I met her. I was introduced to Maria through her first book Traumascapes, about the cultural and emotional impact of places where significant traumas have happened – including Port Arthur, the Berlin Wall, the site of the Bali bombings and Ground Zero in New York.
What I love most about Maria’s writing is the way it draws you in. Storytelling is at the heart of her books, and the stories she tells are all, variously, about aspects of what it is to be human. Her books pose questions, but don’t offer neat conclusions – they take you along on the meandering and often messy journey of discovering the answer. And she doesn’t confine herself to a particular genre: she combines memoir, history, philosophy and literary references, using them all to illustrate and explore her ideas.
In Courage, her second book, she explores the notion of courage – what it is, and what it isn’t, too – and, along the way, looks at the myth of the ‘hero’. And in Otherland, she writes about returning to the former USSR, where she lived until the age of 15, with teenage daughter Billie – wanting her to understand something of her origins. Along the way she not only learns that the country she left no longer exists, but that you can’t force someone to experience what you want them to. It’s a complex, deeply moving book about identity, motherhood and belonging.
Honestly, though, I just love the way she writes and thinks – this beautiful recent Meanjin essay on immigrants and storytelling demonstrates how good she is. As Robert Dessaix said in his review of Otherland, Maria is ‘never a bore’.
I Was Told There’d Be Cake, How Did You Get This Number
Anyone who knows me may well heave a sigh here – I love this woman’s writing and I’ve blabbed about it to anyone who’ll listen. Sloane Crosley, a publicity director at Random House, is also a terrific humorist, and her quirky, charming personal essays about muddling through everyday life and making mistakes along the way are great fun. Topics include working in a publishing company for a boss who threw manuscripts at her head and turned her into a quivering mess (and trying strange, doomed-to-fail ways to get her boss to like her, like gifting her cookies iced in her likeness); locking herself out of her apartment twice in one day; and reluctantly agreeing to be bridesmaid to an old high school acquaintance (she turns out to be a passive-aggressive Bridezilla who changes her surname, along with her husband-to-be, to ‘Universe’, so they can be ‘Mr and Mrs Universe’). HBO has optioned her first book for a series, and Crosley is writing it – they’ve tipped her as ‘the female Larry David’. Underrated here in Australia, but a big deal in her native US.
The Face of War (collected war journalism), The View From the Ground (collected peace-time journalism), The Novellas of Martha Gellhorn, Travels with Myself and Another, Martha Gellhorn: A Life (Caroline Moorehead)
Yes, Martha Gellhorn is an iconic literary figure, famous as Hemingway’s third wife, and known as a female war correspondent at a time when it was rare. But how many people actually read her? She was an excellent writer and brilliant observer whose reports, rich with novelistic detail and determinedly non-objective, often read like ‘new’ journalism, years before it was supposedly invented. In fact, it was journalism as advocacy – with a focus on the human, the lives of ordinary people and how they were affected by larger events.
After Hemingway stole her commission to cover the Allies’ landing in France on D-Day, she went anyway, stowing away on a hospital ship and landing on the beach carrying a stretcher. She was there at the liberation of Dachau. (‘Behind the barbed wire and the electric fence the skeletons sat in the sun and searched themselves for lice. They have no age and no faces; they all look alike and like nothing you will ever see, if you are lucky.’)
Though non-fiction was her strength, she also wrote novels and short stories, which you can find in second-hand shops if you’re lucky. (I highly recommend The Novellas of Martha Gellhorn.) And I loved her travel narrative, Travels with Myself and Another, about her worst travel experiences, from navigating remote islands on a small boat, to Africa, which she loved, and touring China with (an unnamed) Hemingway. It’s a window into a past world obliterated by ‘progress’.
There was so much more to her life than five years with Hemingway. If you’re interested, read Caroline Moorehead’s excellent biography, Martha Gellhorn: A Life. (And avoid Carl Rollyson’s awful Beautiful Exile.)
Jo Case’s essay on what is Australian literature appears in Issue Six of Kill Your Darlings, available here.