The literary canon is jam-packed with white, male, middle-class writers, poets and playwrights, who have enjoyed great success. But here I want to give a shout out to some of the literary ladies who forged the way in unexpected genres, won critical acclaim, are best-sellers, or who represent women in all their multi-faceted glory. Ladies and gentlemen… I give to you ten literary trailblazers…
Margret Cavendish: The First Science Fiction Writer
Cavendish—or to give her proper title the Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne—was an extraordinary woman. Born in 1623, she published numerous books on philosophy and natural science, wrote poetry and plays, and most significantly, was arguably the first science-fiction writer. Her novella The Blazing World (1666) is a marvel of utopian fiction: a young woman travels to a world beyond the North Pole where she is revered by a society of talking animals. Part satire, part romance, part adventure, but most definitely science-fiction, The Blazing World scorched a path for the sci-fi as a genre.
Aphra Behn: Self Made Writer
The seventeenth-century writer Aphra Behn broke literary barriers when she became one of the first females to make a living from writing. Not only was she a self-supported playwright and novelist, but rather like a plot from one of her plays, she was a spy for Charles II and a notorious libertine. Virginia Woolf famously championed Behn, writing in A Room of One’s Own that all women should be thankful to the playwright for having earned them "the right to speak their minds". Behn’s novel Oroonoko (1688) is a comment on race and slavery, and her play The Rover (1677), was a highly profitable—and slightly bawdy exploration—of love and revenge.
Mary MacLane: Lust for Life
MacLane was an astonishingly frank, witty and pioneering writer. She developed a highly idiosyncratic form of memoir writing that vocalised her inner desires. I Await the Devil’s Coming (1909) is a sensual, yet disturbing exploration of the teenage small-town psyche. MacLane wrote the memoir at the age of 19, and it sold a phenomenal 100,000 copies in its first month. The desperation and hunger for life and experience resonates throughout MacLane’s text, and in an era of bland celebrity biographies it deserves to be read more widely.
Selma Lagerlöf: Nobel Prize First
I know I don’t really need to tell you anything about Lagerlöf… you already know that the first female Nobel Prize winner for literature was an astonishing writer. Her vividly imagined children’s story The Wonderful Adventures of Nils (1909), which earned her the well-deserved accolade, is a magical tale of a naughty boy, his goose, and their travels across Sweden. Her prose is beautifully written, and includes well-researched elements of natural history and geography.
Anaïs Nin: First Woman of Erotica
Seventy years before E L James’s Grey trilogy, Nin wrote the selection of short stories included in The Delta of Venus (published posthumously in 1977) for a man known enigmatically as ‘The Collector’. He paid Nin a dollar a page for her erotica. In Delta, her poetical descriptions of sexual encounters are passionate, empowering, and particularly female-centric, and she is known as one of the first women to fully explore this male dominated genre.
Jacqueline Susann: First Over 30 million
Susann is one of the best-selling novelists of all time, and her seminal work The Valley of the Dolls (1966) was the first novel by a female author to sell over 30 million copies. The novel deals with the grimy side of the city and working life. Completely of its time (the 1960s America) and yet prescient in the current celebrity adoring times, the characters—‘dolls’—aspire to a glamourous life but are played by the men they need to get them there. Drug taking, self-destruction, and sex, means that although the novel’s atmosphere has dated, the themes and issues remain highly relevant.
Alice Walker: First Black Female Pulitzer Prize Winner
The first black female Pulitzer Prize winner, Alice Walker is both an inspirational writer and an incredible activist. As an editor for the feminist magazine Ms. she championed the work of Zora Neale Hurston, who later inspired her own writing on civil rights and ‘womanism’. Walker’s (award-winning) triumph is the novel The Color Purple (1982). Often harsh, challenging and devastatingly upsetting, Walker’s epistolary novel expresses the difficulty in gaining an education, and an equal standing in 1930s American society as an African-American, and as a woman.
Carol Ann Duffy: LGBT Poet Laureate
In 2009 Duffy became the first female to be honoured with the position of Poet Laureate. It has been a long time coming for female poets, with the first Poet Laureate being appointed by Henry VII, over five-hundred years ago. So it seems fitting that not only is Duffy the first female, but she is the first openly LGBT Poet Laureate too. Since the accolade Duffy has produced some incredible political poetry, but it is her collection The World’s Wife (1999) that I adore. Duffy challenges the actions of historical and mythical characters using a wife’s perspective. ‘Mrs Midas’ and ‘Mrs Faust’ are delightful favourites, and provide a female voice to the traditional version of male-focused narratives.
Hilary Mantel: Award-winning historical fiction
Double Booker Prize winner Mantel is a powerhouse of historical novel writing. The scale and depth of her characterisations and research are phenomenal, and she truly is a worthy winner of the consecutive awards. If you haven’t read Wolf Hall (2009), seen the recent BBC adaptation, or witnessed the critically acclaimed stage version, then shame on you. It's dense, dark, and entirely worth it. You may brush up your English history along the way .
Rebecca Lenkiewicz: From Usher to Oscar
Lenkiewicz was the first living female playwright whose work has been performed at the Royal National Theatre. Her original play Her Naked Skin (2008) discusses the relationship between two suffragettes, one upper-class and one working-class, at the beginning of the twentieth century. Not only is Lenkiewicz a trailblazer in her achievements—moving from a job as usher at the National to staged playwright—but she also writes about women who themselves were groundbreaking and exemplary. It is also worth noting that Lenkiewicz was a writer on the Academy Award winning best foreign language film Ida. But that’s no big deal. It’s just an Oscar.
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