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,…

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…

A woman with a mission

Dear Margaret, In your novel Miss Marjoribanks (1866), your protagonist seems to have set herself the difficult task of trying to overcome the confines of Victorian views on women. However, at the same time, she does so by remaining dutifully bound to these very narrow confines. Much like your protagonist, you seem to write from…

For this book is the talking voice that runs on,

Dear Stevie, Once I entered your Novel on Yellow Paper (1936), I immediately noticed three things: that I was being held captive; that I was complicit in my captivity; and that the thing that held me inside was neither plot nor character, but something less tangible. I had fallen in love with a voice. Yours,…

From now on I shall only wear white,

Dear Nuala, Sometimes I feel that your novel Miss Emily (2015) is haunted by the ghost of something – a bird? – it distractedly let slip out of its realm of possibilities. It centers around the relationship between the 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson and a fictional Irish housemaid named Ada Concannon. The story is set…

And it could have been any street in the city

Dear Ann, How can one write a naturalist novel and still convey strong symbolic effect? I don’t know the answer, but I think you achieved that. The Street (1946) in your first novel is both a concrete space and a distorting mirror for a perverse version of the American Dream, a thin surface impossible to…

I don’t know what my limits are anymore

Dear Irmgard, The eponymous heroine of your novel Gilgi (2013, tr. Geoff Wilkes. Original title: Gilgi, eine von uns, 1931) is a twenty-one-year-old German middle-class girl who lives in Cologne, during the rise of fascism, in the 1930s. Gilgi, short for Gisela, is independent, matter-of-fact, and ambitious: she is determined to climb the social ladder and…

They had taught her to take what she wanted

Dear Vita, I came to your book Aphra Behn: the Incomparable Astrea (1927) because of this thing called Virginia. In the fourth chapter of A Room of One’s Own (1929), Woolf claims that “all women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, (…) for it was she who earned them the right…

For she had a great variety of selves to call upon,

My dear, dearest Ginny, What stroke me the most in Orlando (1928) was the fact that you were once again so unabashedly bold – for having written a fictional novel and called it a biography; for having invented a life around a woman you had an affair with; ultimately, for having played with her body, making its…

There was so much to destroy

Dear Emma, Your fictionalization of the Manson murders, “The Girls” (2016), is a quite strong debut novel about coming of age within a structure of gender exploitation and neglect. The story is told in retrospect by Evie Boyd, now a middle-aged woman who is out of work, living in her friend’s house. When Julian, the…

Let us learn about not knowing

Querida Juana, The recent edition of your Selected Works (tr. Edith Grossman) has kept me company this month. As I found myself immersed in your ballads, redondillas, epigrams, décimas, sonnets, and letters, I was greatly surprised by your sharp portray of female resistance, your rebellious defiance against undeserved authority and your fierce defense of gender…