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First Ladies of Literature
Mothers of Invention
Hats and pen caps off to these pioneers who paved the way for every woman who followed in their courageous footsteps. Here are stories of their struggles, unmitigated moxie, and abject determination to express themselves and share their views with readers. No fainthearts, these women survived jailing, name-calling, and cruelest of all, having their reputations and accomplishments hidden for decades and even centuries. In addition to the women profiled here, let's also salute Lady Murasaki Shikubu, the first novelist of any gender, whose novel, The Tale of Genji, depicted court life, love, and adventure in eleventh-century Japan.
The literary laureates are rousing as well, slowly but surely knocking down barriers and opening minds in their wake (and in this category, let us not forget to acknowledge brilliant Marguerite Yourcenar, the first woman "immortal," who in 1980 was elected to the French Academy by secret ballot over the memorable objections of one member who claimed, "The Academie has survived over 300 years without women and it could survive another 300 without them.") Aphra Behn, Charles II's spy, dared to write for a living and expected to be paid for it. (She also went unacknowledged for 300 years as a precursor to the novel.) From Saint Jerome's unaccredited nuns who really "wrote" the Bible to poet-slave Phillis Wheatley, these first ladies of literature deserve credit for showing us that real inspiration can come only from being true to yourself at any cost.
§ ENHEDUANNA sacred poet of Sumeria
Any discussion of breakthrough writers must surely begin with Enheduanna, the first recorded writer of either gender. Born into the royal family of Sumeria, in the area that in the modern world is known as southern Iraq, she served as high priestess to the moon god and goddess, Nanna and Inanna. Her poem-hymns were written in cuneiform on clay tablets, and they escaped the fate of many other documents of the time, disintegrating into forgotten dust. Her portrait, carved on a limestone disk, was discovered in an excavation of the ancient city of Ur.
Her greatest work is the "Hymn to Inanna"; it is difficult to know whether she employs poetic license when she describes being sent into exile during a time of political upheaval. Readers can't help but notice that the poem "Nin-me-sar-ra" describes how Enheduanna's prayers to the moon god Nanna went unanswered and how Nanna's daughter, the moon goddess Inanna, came to her aid, exacting justice and restoring her to her rightful place as priestess. More than 4,000 years old, the poem is simple, powerful, and beautiful.
Let it be known! That this is not said of Nanna, It is said of you—his is your greatness. You alone are the High one.
§ MARGERY KEMPE medieval autobiographer
Margery Kempe herself is the best source of information on her life, having written her autobiography—the first of its kind in English—in the fourteenth century. Born in 1373, she was the daughter of the mayor of Lynn, Norfolk, England. She married late for the times—at twenty—and got pregnant right away. Undergoing a wretchedly long and painful labor, she went mad and became violent, tearing at her flesh, screaming, having visions of devils, and screaming obscenities about her husband, her neighbors and friends, and herself. She claimed to be calmed when Christ himself appeared to her in a vision, and indeed she returned to her life as a wife and mother and bore thirteen more children.
Margery Kempe was profoundly changed, however, by her vision and decided to dedicate her life to Christian mysticism, continuing to experience visitations and fits of weeping. She undertook a journey to the Holy Land, traveling alone from England across the continent to the Middle East. Her religious intentions meant nothing to those she met along the way; she was treated horribly, called a whore and a heretic, and was jailed for her efforts, forced to defend herself with no help. Her recollections of the time depict a woman heeding a calling, torn between her love of Christ and her love of family.
Despite all her tribulations, she managed to live a long life. Unable to write herself, she worked with hesitant scribes to compose her life story. Called The Book of Margery Kempe, this literary treasure was lost for nearly 500 years. Thankfully, a copy was rediscovered in 1934, and Britain's first autobiographical text is again telling the story of the extraordinary, ordinary housewife and mother.
And sometimes those that men think were revelations, are deceits and illusions, and therefore it is not expedient to give readily credence to every stirring.
§ APHRA BEHN living by the pen
It is amazing that the name of Aphra Behn, England's first professional woman writer, is not better known. While a handful of her contemporaries—Anne Finch, the Countess of Winchilea, and Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle—wrote for the entertainment of a small circle of friends, Aphra Behn was paid for her work and undertook it as her profession. Her circumstances were far different from such courtly ladies, as well. She was a widow of modest means and used her talent to survive.
Behn's parentage is unclear. We know she was born in 1640 and traveled with her foster family to Surinam in the West Indies. Some biographers say she was involved in a slave rebellion in 1663. This same year, she and her family and fellow travelers were the first Europeans to visit a tribe of Indians in the West Indies. The following year, she returned to England and married a London merchant, Behn, who died of the plague in 1665.
APHRA BEHN the first female professional writers in the English language
After the tragedy of her short-lived marriage, Aphra Behn needed an income and was fortunate to have an opportunity to enter King Charles II's private force of spies. "Such public toils of state affairs unusual with my sex or in my years," she admitted. Behn was sent to Antwerp, where she proved to be a most able spy, but she did not receive her promised payment and was sent to a London debtor's prison in 1668. While in jail, she determined never to subject herself to anyone's mercy again and vowed to make her way independently and by her own wits.
She wrote her first play and saw it published partly because of the sheer novelty that she was a woman. The play, The Forced Marriage, was staged in London in 1670. From then on, Behn's progress was rapid. Her career as a professional playwright established, she wrote and published fourteen plays, encompassing many styles from farce to drama, including The Rover, Sir Patient Fancy, The City Heiress, and The Roundheads. She also began publishing poetry and comic verse. Always skirting the edge of controversy, she wrote some very sensual poems, which shocked the readers of the day, prompting Anne Finch to comment, "a little too loosely she writ." Criticism of her work fell consistently in one of two extremes of wild praise or scorching criticism, often focusing on her femaleness: the "body of a Venus and the mind of a Minerva," the "English Sappho," or, cruelly, "that lewd harlot."
Behn's response was to carry on, pointing out that the great male writers of the day suffered no public shame at their openly erotic references. When the London theater fell on hard times after the glories of the Restoration, Behn turned her hand to writing prose fiction: Love Letters between a Nobleman and His Sister, published in 1684, followed by The Fair, Jilt, Agnes de Castro, and her opus, Oroonoko. Written in 1688, Oroonoko was loosely autobiographical, retelling a fictionalized version of her journey to Surinam as a young woman and her protest against slavery. This account is widely regarded as the first novel in English literature.
Sadly, a mere year after her triumph, she passed away, ill and impoverished. She continued to suffer denigration after her death by many who disapproved of her fiercely independent spirit. But Behn blazed the trail for every woman writer to come after her. Three hundred years later, Virginia Woolf penned this homage: "All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds."
I'll only say as I have touched before, that plays have no great room for that which is men's great advantage over women.
§ CHRISTINE DE PISAN the first woman writer to be published in English
In the same way that, according to Virginia Woolf, English women writers are indebted to Aphra Behn, Italian women writers, including Nobel laureate Grazia Deledda, are indebted to Christine de Pisan. Three hundred years before Aphra Behn set pen to paper, de Pisan was earning her way as a writer.
Born in 1364, she was the daughter of a scientist and scholar, Thomas de Pisan, a Venetian court-appointed astrologer to the French king Charles V. Her girlhood saw a rare advantage for Christine: a classical education. She loved France and claimed it as her heart's home. Her father saw to it that she was educated as well as any man, and Christine learned French, Latin, arithmetic, and geometry. She married Etienne du Castel, who was nine years her senior, at fifteen. In three short years they had three children, and du Castel died around the time of the third baby's birth. At barely nineteen, Christine de Pisan was left to support her children and several hapless relatives, and did so with her talent for prose and poetry.
She claimed to write constantly, noting "in the short space of six years, between 1397 and 1403 ... fifteen important books, without mentioning minor essays, which, compiled, make seventy large copy-books." Among her books are a biography of Charles V, Philip of Burgundy, and Le Livre de Paix. In the latter, an instruction on rearing princes and a rebuttal to the bestselling "bible of courtly love," The Romance of the Rose, de Pisan she seeks to repair a woman's reputation that had been ruined by the popular epic poem.
After a writing career that lasted twenty-nine years, Christine retired to a convent. In 1429, just before her death, she wrote a book honoring Joan of Arc. It was, writes Vicki León in Uppity Women of Medival Times, "the only French book ever written about the Maid of Orleans in her lifetime."
While she was alive, Christine de Pisan received unstintingly positive reviews for her work and was compared favorably to Cicero and Cato. Her work stands the test of time. In 1521 Le Livre du duc des vrais aman was published in England as The Book of the Duke of True Lovers, the first book published in English by a woman. Her City of Women has been rediscovered in the twentieth century and is taught in literature courses worldwide.
§ ANNE BRADSTREET Pilgrim's Progress
Fifty years before Aphra Behn shocked English society, Anne Bradstreet wrote the first book of poetry published in the American colonies. Arriving with her family in 1630, Anne Bradstreet saw the raw new America as opportunity to create a new way of being: "I found a new world and new manners, at which my heart rose," she wrote.
She was at once a pioneer and a typically religious member of her Puritan community. She had come from a privileged background, afforded her by her father Thomas Dudley, who ran the estate of an earl of Lincoln. Anne Bradstreet was allowed to visit the earl's library freely and she took full advantage, reading exhaustively religious texts, poetry, and classics.
In 1628, she married Simon Bradstreet, a graduate of Cambridge who worked as a steward for the earl. Anne's husband was nine years older than she and equally educated. Life on the earl's estate was filled with ease, comfort, and security, but that soon changed. The devout religiosity of the Dudleys led them to believe they should prove their devotion to God though trials and tribulations. These they found in plentitude in the New World. The whole family moved lock, stock, and barrel to the Massachusetts colony, where Anne's father and husband both served as governors. They suffered from the cold, malaria, starvation, and the harsh, unforgiving climate of this savage new world.
Part of the Puritan ethos included stringent second-class status for all women, for it was God's will that a woman should be subordinate, a constant helpmate to man, and humble, with no personal ambitions. In these circumstances, writing was dangerous. In 1645, Massachusetts governor John Winthrop lamented the sad straying of "a godly young woman" who was mentally unstable and in a weakened, fallen state, gave "herself wholly to reading and writing, and [had] written many books." He had banished Anne Hutchinson seven years earlier for daring to interpret religious doctrine in her own way.
Anne Bradstreet's brother-in-law John Woodbridge didn't hold to the belief that women couldn't have their own intellectual lives. He had Anne Bradstreet's poetry, collected in The Tenth Muse, printed in London, where it proved to be highly "vendable," according to London booksellers. Woodbridge provided a foreword to the book, making clear that it was "the work of a woman, honoured and esteemed where she lives, for ... the exact diligence in her place, and discreet managing of her family occasions, and these poems are but the fruit of some few hours, curtailed from her sleep and other refreshments."
A devoted mother, Anne Bradstreet gave birth to eight children and, as "helpmate," saw her husband rise to considerable prosperity and power in the colony. With little time to rest or write, her literary output ceased. She suffered from continuing symptoms of the smallpox she had contracted as a child and died in 1673.
Though she was forgotten for centuries, twentieth-century poets, particularly Conrad Aiken and John Berryman, have recognized her contribution in various tributes. Adrienne Rich demands her genius be honored: "To have written ... the first good poems in America, while rearing eight children lying frequently sick, keeping house at the edge of the wilderness, was to have managed a poet's range and extension within confines as severe as any American poet has confronted."
Fool. I do grudge the Muses did not part Twixt him and me that overfluent store....
From the Prologue, Anne Bradstreet
§ MARY MANLEY the first bestselling woman author
It is amazing that Mary Manley is not better known; she was the first British woman to have a career as a political journalist, the first female author of a bestseller, and the very first woman to be jailed for her writing. Born in 1663, she was ahead of her time in her advocacy for women's rights and her willingness to take risks with her own comfortable life to fight for these rights. Manley decried the inequity that saw women punished for acts any man could do freely. Her greatest passion was that women should as writers have equal opportunity with men.
She herself was prolific, authoring short stories, plays, satires, political essays, and letters. She replaced Jonathan Swift of Gulliver's Travels fame as the editor of the Tory paper, the Examiner, yet she remains relatively unknown while he has a permanent place in the canon, widely read and widely taught. Swift's achievements seem Lilliputian in comparison to Mary Manley's feat.
Her bestselling satire, Secret Memoirs and Manners of Several Persons of Quality of Both Sexes from the New Atlantis, an Island in the Mediterranean, was aimed at the Tory opposition, the Whigs. The poison prose swiftly hit target. Manley and her publishers were thrown in jail, and the adage about any kind of publicity—even bad publicity—being good held true. Readers bought the book in droves to figure out who the real people were behind the thinly veiled biographical sketches. Clever lass, Manley's absolutely public Secret Memoirs included much to titillate and tantalize, including Corinna, the maiden who staunchly refuses to get married, and a mysterious lesbian group called the Cabal.
Excerpted from Wild Women and books by Brenda Knight. Copyright © 2006 Conari Press. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Foreword to the 2006 Edition
by Ntozake Shange
Foreword by Vicki León
Introduction Women Who Love Books Too Much
one First Ladies of Literature Mothers of Invention
two Ink in Their Veins Theories of Relativity
three Mystics and Madwomen Subversive Piety
four Banned, Blacklisted, and Arrested Daring Dissidents
five Prolific Pens Indefatigable Ink
six Salonists and Culture Makers Hermeneutic Circles and Human History
seven Women Whose Books Are Loved Too Much Adored Authors
appendix Book Groups Chatting It Up
Index of Names Cited
Index of Works and Periodicals Cited
Posted August 21, 2014