It was a family of women buccaneers

Dear Gladys, The Matriarch (1924) is a family saga told in a fragmented way, weaving together vignettes, sketches and anecdotes that read like a series of family legends passed on from one generation to the next. The book follows the Rakonitzes, a cosmopolitan, wealthy Jewish family, from the early 19th century to the early 20th…

G. B. Stern

G. B. Stern (Gladys Bronwyn Stern, born Gladys Bertha Stern, 17 June 1890 – 20 September 1973) was an English writer. She was schooled in England until the age of 16, when she traveled with her parents to the continent and studied in Germany and Switzerland. She was a long-time friend of Rebecca West. Born in a liberal…

Two half drowned things, clinging together in a shipwreck

Dear Elizabeth, Vera (1921) is the story of a toxic relationship which gradually unfolds into a full-blown tale of psychological horror, made ever more disturbing by the restrained way in which it is told. The story revolves around the main character, the naïve, twenty-two-year-old Lucy Entwhistle, whose father has just suddenly passed away, while they…

Elizabeth von Arnim

Elizabeth von Arnim (born Mary Annette Beauchamp, 31 August 1866 – 9 February 1941) was an Australian-born British writer. When she was three years old, the family went to England, where she was raised. After her first marriage, she became Countess von Arnim-Schlagenthin, and later Elizabeth Russell – Countess Russell, after her second marriage. She also…

What two people can make of the same view

Dear Elizabeth, In your novel A View from the Harbour (1947), we are sea watchers, guided by a faint beam. It feels very much as if we were inside a lighthouse, following the light as it shifts from one character to another. The novel centres around the inhabitants of a small seaside town in England…

Hardened to stone by the Medusa head of misery

Dear Mary, Like a daughter who never really got to know her mother, your novella Mathilda was not published during your lifetime. Written between 1819 and 1820, it had its publication denied by your father, William Godwin, because of its scandalous nature. The book only saw the light of day in 1959, after being discovered…

You know I was not born to tread in the beaten track

Dear infamous Mary, I had never read a book about you, and I confess I wasn’t even planning to. But, last month, a hefty tome came my way: somewhat unexpectedly, the blank was to be filled with Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley, by Charlotte Gordon (2015). Gordon’s dual…

Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft (27 April 1759 – 10 September 1797) was an English writer and feminist philosopher. In 1778, she left home to work as lady’s companion in Bath. Sustained by a dream of life alone with her beloved friend Fanny Blood, she founded a small school in the progressive Dissenting community of Newington Green. After Fanny’s death in 1786, and…

There was always a wind blowing

Dear Monica, Do you know this feeling of slowly being enveloped by coldness? Like at the end of a sunny day: with the faint memory of the sun on our skin, we are caught unawares by the first wind. That’s more or less how your novel The Winds of Heaven (1955) feels like: as an…

Flesh is a function of enchantment

Dear Angela, While reading your novel The Passion of New Eve (1977), I could not stop thinking to myself: this must be how it feels to go through a reverse out-of-body experience. My mind is there with you, catching the references, the twisted sense of humour, the symbolic spins, the sharp satire, and all that;…

Angela Carter

Angela Olive Carter-Pearce (née Stalker, 7 May 1940 – 16 February 1992) was an English writer. She studied English literature at the University of Bristol, worked as journalist, and was writer in residence at the University of Sheffield, Brown University, the University of Adelaide, and the University of East Anglia. She died of lung cancer in 1992. Awards 1984 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for…

We’re ourselves, and what does it signify?

Dear Elizabeth, Your book The Runaway (1872) is a Victorian children’s novel that quietly subverted everything I normally expect from the genre. The story revolves around a pair of children. The fifteen-year-old Clarice is the only daughter of a widowed merchant. One day, while strolling through her garden, she comes across a mysterious girl, Olga (the…

Elizabeth Anna Hart

Elizabeth Anna Hart (née Smedley, 1822-1890) was an English writer,  also known as Fanny Wheeler Hart. Books Try, and you Will: a Story for Youth, 1859 Mrs. Jerningham’s Journal, 1869 The Runaway: a Story for the Young (1872) A Very Young Couple, 1873 Paws and Claws: Being True Stories of Clever Creatures, Tame and Wild, 1874 Miss Hitchcock’s…

The sky was red and all my life was in it.

Dear Jean, In your novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), you seem to be holding up a distorting mirror to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847): if we look at this mirror for too long, illusion and reality will gradually lose their once sharp outlines; madness will be less a departure than a never-ending journey back home,…

Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys (born Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams, 24 August 1890 – 14 May 1979) was a British-Dominican writer. She was born and grew up in Dominica, and moved to England when she was 16. Her father was Welsh and her mother was Dominican (with Scots ancestry). Jean Rhys studied at the Perse School for Girls in…

She has done for me at last, Rachel my torment

Dear Daphne, In My Cousin Rachel (1951), you build up tension, chapter after chapter, by unravelling the personality of the eponymous character in all its complexity and ambiguity: as if it were a game of hide-and-seek, where we follow a clue, only to have it undermined a few steps ahead; much like a dog, running…

To show our scorn of pretending life’s a safe business

Dear Sylvia, Lolly Willowes (1926) is a satirical comedy of manners centred on an unmarried woman who suddenly decides to escape the claustrophobic domestic role her family tries to force on her. Funnily enough, the means she will use to fight against her family are no less morally equivocal than the life they were trying to…

Sylvia Townsend Warner

Sylvia Townsend Warner (6 December 1893 – 1 May 1978) was an English writer. She was home-schooled by her father. At the outbreak of World War I, she moved to London and worked in a munitions factory. During the rise of fascism, Warner campaigned on behalf of the Communist Party. She published novels, poetry, and short-stories. She was also a musicologist, and…