To celebrate International Women’s Day, I put together a list of literary women who made a mark through their work, imagination, creativity, and dedication to the written word.
No list of female literary giants would be complete without Agatha Christie. She is the best-selling novelist – in history. She’s sold more books than anyone else except Shakespeare.
Christie’s sister Madge claimed she couldn’t find a detective story she could get into, so, during WW1, Christie started writing detective stories, debuting with The Mysterious Affair at Styles. While writing, she was working at a hospital, finishing the Society of Apothecaries exam. Now, she knew about poisons, and they featured well in her works. Her debut novel so well-described poison uses that her work was reviewed in the Pharmaceutical Journal.
One of her goals was to travel the Orient Express (Murder on the Orient Express, anyone?) and she did so in 1928. She headed for Baghdad then went to Ur, an archaeological site, where she became friends with those who ran the dig. She returned in 1929, where she met Max Mallowan, an archaeologist-in-training, who became her second husband. Because of his career and her interests, archaeology and the Middle East featured in Christie’s works (Death on the Nile, Murder in Mesopotamia, Appointment With Death and They Came to Baghdad).
By the end of her life, Christie wrote 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections.
Born to Pakistani immigrant parents, Sabaa Tahir grew up in the Mojave desert as her parents ran an 18-room motel. She was one of the only “brown” people in her town and faced prejudice and racism because of it. Her parents instilled in her hard work and determination, and Tahir is now a best-selling author of the Ember in the Ashes quartet.
Tahir left her town to attend UCLA and ended up interning at The Washington Post during her last year at UCLA. After graduating, she worked at The Washington Post during which she wrote “A Proposal I Never Thought I’d Consider,” which gained attention, and “Being Muslim in a Mad, Sad World.”
She quit her job to write books full time, and her Ember books are inspired by her time at the Post. When working as a copyeditor, she read a story about the male relatives of Kashmiri women being imprisoned by the police and never being seen again. Kashmir is close to Pakistan, where her parents are from, and the story about the women didn’t leave Tahir. This led her to begin writing An Ember in the Ashes, about a young woman who tries to free her brother from the ruling empire, with the help of a rebel army.
Born to Iranian parents, Mafi grew up in Connecticut and says “I was an extremely angry, unhappy child.” Mafi went to Soka University, and eventually wrote five “practice” manuscripts before writing a “real” one. She’s gone on to publish the Shatter Me series, Furthermore and its sequel, Whichwood. Her book, A Very Large Expanse of Sea, a love story between two Americans: Shirin, a 16-year-old Muslim girl living in post 9/11 America, and Ocean James, her lab partner who takes a genuine interest in getting to know her. As a hijab-wearing Muslim, Shirin faces judgment and discrimination and worries if she were to become involved with Ocean.
A Muslim-American herself, Mafi draws on her own experiences for the book. Shirin is an American and has as much right to being an American as any of her classmates, but because of her faith and background, experiences discrimination, oppression, and prejudice.
Her daughter was Mary Shelley, author of Frankstein, but Mary Wollstonecraft was a writer in her own right. She wrote a pamphlet, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, and it’s considered one of the most influential works of the early feminist movement. In it, she argued that women shouldn’t be considered their husbands’ property and should be educated – and this was in the late 1700s.
By age 25, Wollstonecraft, along with her two sisters and a friend, Fanny Blood, opened a small girls’ school. It was financially difficult for them, but Wollstonecraft’s horizons broadened. Through this time, she met and became friends with a Presbyterian minister, Richard Price. She found debate forums through him and enlightened thinks, which allowed her to shape her own ideas.
Fanny Blood died in childbirth, and the school closed down. Wollstonecraft became a governess in Ireland to Lord and Lady Kingsborough in Cork. However, Wollstonecraft disliked Lady Kingsborough for her frivolity with “neither sense nor feeling.” Eventually, Wollstonecraft was fired.
Wollstonecraft returned to London but quickly found her place as an author – radical publisher Joseph Johnson agreed to publish her first book – Thoughts on the Education of Daughters. She became a regular contributor to Johnson’s magazine, the Analytical Review. At Johnson’s weekly dinners Mary met with radical thinkers like Thomas Paine, Anna Barbauld and William Godwin and thrived in this intellectual circle of friends. Godwin and Wollstonecraft argued one evening and he left, annoyed and irritated. But in typical Mary-fashion, she goes after him and renews their acquaintance.
She marries William Godwin and eventually became pregnant with Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.
Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was just 19 years old – and it was on a dare.
Shelley traveled with her lover, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and her stepsister, Claire Clairmont, who was pregnant with Lord Byron’s child. Lord Byron was considered a scandal, because he’d recently divorced his wife and there were rumors surrounding his relationship with his half-sister. Byron leaves England, and Claire convinces Mary and Percy to go to Geneva, Switzerland with her.
Percy and Byron admired each other’s work and became close friends, renting properties on Lake Geneva or staying at the Villa Diodati, a mansion Byrson rented with his dcotor, John Polidori. The group read, talked, and argued late into the cold nights.
Mary, who described herself as “a devout but nearly silent listener,” absorbed what the men were saying about about the limits of modern medicine. The weather was terrible and kept the group inside. And with the thunderstorms and lightning, it was no wonder their talks turned to whether bodies could be re-animated after death with electricity.
The friends read horror stories and poems, and one night, Byron offered a challenge: write a ghost story better than any of the ones they’ve read. Polidori wrote a novella, “The Vampyre,” about a bloodsucking protagonist which many think was based on Byron. But Mary, Mary stole the show.
Mary couldn’t decide on a subject initially. “I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative,” she later wrote. But one night, with thunder and lightning all around, Mary couldn’t sleep. “I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out,” she wrote, “and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life.”
By the next morning, she finally had a ghost story in mind. Her book, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, used Villa Diodati as setting and she wove in the group’s late-night conversations. Her book was published in 1818, and would go on to revolutionize literature, popular culture, and everything in between.
The story doesn’t end there. Polidori committed suicide in 1821. Percy Shelley, Mary’s husband, drowned in a storm in 1822. Byron took Allegra, the daughter he had with Claire, and sent her to a convent where she was educated. She died in 1822, age 5. Byron died in 1824. Only Mary and Claire live to see past age 50.
One of the most-read authors of all time, Jane Austen defined romance books. With her astute mind and observations of society, she wrote and exposed the superficialities of class, fortune, and society. But her books are more than romance for a young heart: her works examined women’s roles in society, and their dependence on husbands and marriage, an unfair position for the “other sex.”
Austen was born in a small Hampshire village – Steventon, and apart for a few years spent in Bath and Southampton, she spent most of her time in rural Hampshire.
Her father worked his way from poverty. Her mother was related to a duke but was poor. Her sister’s fiance died of yellow fever. Her aunt Philadelphia went to India to find herself a husband. Another of her aunts was accused of stealing lace from a Bath shop. One of her cousins died in an accident. Austen’s cousin Eliza, Philadelphia’s daughter, lost her French husband to the guillotine. Austen’s second-oldest brother George suffered from a disability and lived away from the family. Her other brother, Edward, was adopted into luxury. Her eldest brother inherited property from an uncle. And Henry, a fourth brother, was first a soldier, then a banker, and then a clergyman (George Wickam?).
When she was 33 years old, Austen lived in Southampton, in a house her sea captain brother rented. Southampton was heavily fortified, and during the time Jane was there, it was a port for soldiers going to fight Napoleon’s armies in Spain and Portugal. Southampton is about 20 miles from Portsmouth, where the heroine in Mansfield Park lived.
In Southampton, abductions were taking place to make sure the Royal Navy had enough men for its ships. Prisoners were used as sailors. So Southampton was likely filled with rougher men. Still, Jane enjoyed her time there and says so in letters.
Between 1811 and 1815, she wrote four novels: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma.
Two others were published in 1817, the year she died: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion
She never married.