Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Why aren't women writers remembered?

Dorothy B. Hughes,
one author reprinted
by Persephone Books
As Women's History Month begins, Nicola Beauman of Persephone Books (which has reprinted US mystery authors Dorothy B. Hughes and Elisabeth Sanxay Holding) provides a thought-provoking piece on women authors: "...why are a small number of women writers remembered and given a comfortable, settled place in the great tradition while the majority suffer E. V. Thompson's 'enormous condescension of posterity'?"

Literary gatekeeping is a perpetual, much-debated topic. Although it seems to operate more aggressively against women, it also occurs with men. Fitzgerald, for one, was not recognized as a literary craftsman until well after his death. How many pulp writers were considered to be "slumming" in their lifetimes? The mystery genre suffers from the Rodney Dangerfield syndrome (i.e., receives little respect as a literary form worthy of study) and persistent perceptions that women write "fluffier" works, as can be seen in the sneering about the hugely successful Mary Roberts Rinehart. Powerhouses such as Charlotte Armstrong, Vera Caspary, Hughes, Margaret Millar, Ruth Rendell, and others would tend to refute the fluffy notion, but it would be interesting to see how many works by female mystery writers of the past are reprinted versus those by men.

6 comments:

Todd Mason said...

A systematic approach to this would be difficult, but it is clear how many are simply abandoned, female and male. Hence, in some part, the Friday Forgotten Books exercises...

Elizabeth Foxwell said...

You make a good point, Todd. When Jim Huang was compiling statistics on the numbers of mysteries published per year, we might have had a chance to look at these sorts of figures systematically, but, alas, I don't think there's been anyone to fill Jim's shoes in this regard.

vegetableduck said...

The vast majority of writers of both sexes get forgotten. History is strewn with the dead literary reputations of once much-read women and men.

Over the last forty years, writers like Jane Austen, Willa Cather and Edith Wharton have become bigger than ever. So have others like Elizabeth Gaskell and Mary Braddon. Ellen Wood and and Anna Katharine Green have been reprinted by Oxford University Press and Penguin Classics.

In the field of mystery genre history the Crime Queens dominate the histories of the British Golden Age of detective fiction, while P. D. James and Ruth Rendell have been dominating figures in English mystery for nearly a thirty years or more.

The recent Cambridge Companion to American Crime Fiction discusses Rinehart, Eberhart, Leslie Ford and Mable Seeley while omitting mention of Ellery Queen and Erle Stanley Gardner.

Critics may have sneered at the so-called HIBK at one time, but who in prominent place is sneering now?

Elizabeth Foxwell said...

Braddon is still overshadowed by Collins despite Braddon's 50+-year career in sensation. Her first work, _Three Times Dead_ (aka _Trail of the Serpent_), came out quite close to _Woman in White_. What tends to stay in print is _Lady Audley's Secret_ and perhaps _Fatal Three_; compare this to what is in print in Collins's oeuvre. Thank goodness for US-based Whitlock Publishing, which plans to reissue all of Braddon's yellowbacks.

vegetableduck said...

I would argue Collins is better than Braddon (just as he is better than all other men too in the sensation field, unless we count Dickens).

Braddon's Aurora Floyd is now in an Oxford edition.

Trail of the Serpent is available from Modern Library.

Thou Art the Man, Henry Dunbar and Wyllard's Weird are in nice editions, as are the short works The Lawyer's Secret and The Mystery at Fernside.

Braddon's in pretty comparable shape to Sheridan Le Fanu, who has Uncle Silas in print with Penguin Classics and the story collection Through a Glass darkly with Oxford and others works available from small publishers.

Benjamin Farjeon's sensation novels have not been embraced by big publishers at all. I hope that will change!

Elizabeth Foxwell said...

Collins isn't "better" than Braddon; they are apples and oranges, with different emphases such as Braddon's preoccupation with issues surrounding marriage (possibly because of her situation with Maxwell). Note that Henry James credited Braddon with creating the sensation novel with _Lady Audley's Secret_. Scholars indicate that Braddon was more responsive to the marketplace than either Collins or Wood. Sheridan Le Fanu also is reprinted by Valancourt Books, which has reissued many Gothic works.