Naturally, I couldn’t settle on just one book for today’s #bookaday theme, so here are the six books I think more people should read.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Bronte
Poor Anne. She’s undeservedly thought of as the least talented Bronte sister, and while Agnes Grey isn’t great, Tenant is a wonderful novel that can easily hold its own against Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. (Though it did sell out in six weeks, so maybe Anne didn’t have it so bad). The most overtly political and feminist of the Bronte novels, this is a powerful condemnation of the oppression of women in early 19th century England.
Mountains of the Moon – IJ Kay
This extraordinary debut novel was published in 2012 to several glowing reviews in the Guardian and NY Times, but didn’t seem to gain the traction that it deserved. It’s perhaps understandable to an extent, as this is a dark and challenging, both in its style and subject. The story of a woman we know as Louise, but who has had many other names, released from prison and attempting to build a new life. We flash back to earlier periods in her life and are confronted with the hardships of Louise’s life: rape, abuse, decades of poverty. This is so much more than a misery memoir; its a deeply moving testament to human endurance and our power to forge our own identity and destiny (which sounds awfully trite, but trust me on this)
I want also to mention the prose, which is incredibly accomplished for a debut novel. The fragmented narrative is expertly controlled and only begins to break down in earnest once we are accustomed to the different time periods. The language is wonderfully lyrical – at times reminiscent of Joyce and Faulkner – and manages to convincingly evoke a distinct voice for each of the stages of Louise’s life.
Summer Will Show – Sylvia Townsend Warner
Upper-class English woman moves to Paris, falls in love with her errant husband’s mistress, finds herself embroiled in revolutionary politics, and ends up in the midst of the 1848 Revolution. Sylvia Townsend Warner was a marvel but she is yet another on the long list of under-appreciated women writers. This is a gloriously subversive virtuoso novel which revels in the potential of the historical novel. There is something brilliant on every page, and it’s the sort of novel I would love to pick apart and study as there is vast depth and richness in it.
Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend Warner
Honorable mention to another of Warner’s novels. More lighthearted than Summer Will Show, but again examining the struggle of a woman against the strictures of a patriarchal society. Featuring witchcraft as allegory for feminism and/or lesbianism, and an appearance from Satan himself (he gets some of the best lines, of course), this deserves to.
Girl Reading – Katie Ward
A series of seven short stories which tell the ‘true story’ behind paintings and other works of art (most real, some fictional) depicting women and girls reading. Think Cloud Atlas meets Girl with a Pearl Earring. The stories aren’t connected in any real sense, but share loose thematic ties in their exploration of love, grief, and the place of women in society. The prose is great – full of light and shadow, and tightly controlled – and shows great promise.
Highlights are ‘Angelica Kaufman – Portrait of a Lady, 1775’ and ‘Pieter Janssens Elinga – Woman Reading, 1668’
Wish Her Safe At Home – Stephen Benatar
This is a remarkable study of a woman going ‘quietly and genteelly crazy’. Rachel Waring could be Judith Hearne’s middle-class English cousin: mousy, unloved, and deeply unsatisfied with her. When she inherits a Georgian house from an aunt, she re-imagines herself as a lady of leisure, but as her money runs out, she slowly descends into increasingly elaborate delusions and mania. The brilliance of this book is Benatar’s masterful use of Rachel as an unreliable narrator. We spend all our time in her head and it is only when she comes into contact with other characters do we see just how detached she has become from reality and what were charming eccentricities have become grotesque, tragic distortions. Benataor combines horror and humour, but above all remains compassionate towards Rachel, who is as much a victim of a society that doesn’t value her as she is of her own delusons
Published in the early 90s and seemingly largely forgotten about since, this was plucked out of obscurity by NYRB Classics in 2007. I find myself pushing it on people incessantly because a novel this good deserves to be read.