One of the world's most enduring literary traditions has to be the Arthurian legend, which gives us the most intriguing figure of Morgan le Fay. Mother, sister, lover, healer, and witch, she’s had to be extremely flexible to fit the changing requirements of Arthurian narratives. She’s been an ally to Arthur, the wicked witch, and she’s presently popular as an object of feminist reclamation. Let’s take a trip with the various incarnations of Morgan le Fay, and discern how such a malleable character has sustained the kind of power she has over imaginations across the centuries.
We’re going to leave the 19th century soon, but not before we’ve covered a certain breed of independent woman literary icon. At a time when divorce was the height of scandal, Louise Mallard and Nora Helmer were literary characters who looked to a better life without their husbands. And they suffered terribly for it. Let’s explore the rise of representations of women learning to live their lives far from being under a man’s thumb.
Elizabeth Gaskell’s North & South (1855) and George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1876) are two of my favorite novels. They’re both set in 19th century England, and written by women, so those are two big ticks right there. But one of the main reasons I like them both so much is that they’re not about navigating comfortable worlds of privilege so much as they are about the clash of experiences. 19th century England wasn’t all garden parties and precisely angled fans, after all, but a context full of religious and political turmoil, the beginning of the end for a particular vision of England. In the minds of Gaskell and Eliot, those clashes sent up some sparks of brilliance.
It’s time to head back to the nineteenth century, and one Miss Charlotte Brontë. Jane Eyre (1847) is, of course, one of the most widely-read books in the English language. But I wonder about the kinds of readings that are to be had here. And I wonder what I’m getting out of this book that would have gone over the head of Brontë, as a white woman from a colonising nation. These are sensibilities supplied by Jean Rhys’ parallel novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), as we will see.
Discuss the women of crime, that is. Crime fiction is still seen as very much a gentleman's genre, something at which fans of Agatha Christie and Patricia Highsmith, for a start, scoff vigorously (if scoffing can be performed vigorously). It isn’t all Arthur Conan Doyle or hardboiled detectives with endless contempt for women (hi there, Raymond Chandler), however—no, indeed. What does it mean for women to be writing crime fiction, in a world where women are subject to so much crime? Writing in a genre, furthermore, in which women characters are often cardboard floozies, or victims, or temptations, or unremarkable?
Born Chloe Anthony Wofford in 1931, Toni Morrison is one of the most iconic literary figures of the twentieth century. She was born in Ohio, to which her parents, Ramah Willis Wofford and George Wofford, moved in order to escape the racist climate of the US South. I’ll be referring to her by the name by which she is known professionally, Toni Morrison, throughout this piece, but I want to point out that Toni is the nickname, and Chloe Wofford preferred. She writes a lot about being denied one’s true self, and, as naming is a powerful determinant here, I don’t care to be one to let this writer’s true self go unacknowledged. Morrison, then, won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993–the eighth woman to be awarded this honour–and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988. Morrison’s services to literature have not just been through her own fiction, however; she’s edited writers such as Angela Davis, promoting black literature every which way she can.
Tamora Pierce is every feminist fantasy fan’s favorite, hands down. She writes engaging adventure stories with, for a nice chance, substantive engagement with social justice issues. Born in Pennsylvania in 1954, Pierce started writing her fierce teenage girl warriors when she couldn’t find them in the books she read. Thanks to Pierce, millions of readers don’t have that problem. I discovered her when I was twelve after a classmate just wouldn’t put the Alanna books down. I’m only sorry that I didn’t discover them earlier, because the intervening years have been full of fan-ish joy.
The series may be barely over, but we all knew from about the fourth book on that Harry Potter is the children’s literary icon of its time. Let’s take a look at its author, J.K. Rowling, and the young ladies of the series.
Gather around, children. It’s time for a story. Several, actually. I’ve been thinking about picture books, and how big an impact a story can have with just a few words. Get thinking about the picture book icons of your childhood while I take you through some of my experiences and what the kids are reading these days.