Questionnaire for Women’s Classic Literature Event 2016

Elizabeth Gaskell, Jane Austen, Zora Neale Hurson, George Eliot, Rose Wilder Lane, Louisa May Alcott, & Virginia Woolf.

The folks over at The Classics Club recommend beginning the Women’s Classic Event (I sort like the idea of calling it a “Challenge”) by answering some questions about yourself. So here goes . . .

Introduce yourself. Tell us what you are most looking forward to in this event.

I teach American literature at the university level and my research interests are particularly in 19th-century women writers. I look forward to reading some books that I haven’t had the chance to teach or research, namely more children’s or YA books, which fall outside of my specialty. 

Pick a classic female writer you can’t wait to read for the event, & list her date of birth, her place of birth, and the title of one of her most famous works.

I’ve been wanting to read At Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith for a long time. I really know nothing about her. She was born in 1896 in Brooklyn, a child of German immigrants, and died in 1972.

Think of a female character who was represented in classic literature by a male writer. Does she seem to be a whole or complete woman? Why or why not? Tell us about her. (Without spoilers, please!)

Isabel Archer from Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady immediately comes to mind. James has received a lot of praise for his conceptualization of his most famous heroine, but to me she never felt complete. As his friend (and the subject of my biography) Constance Fenimore Woolson told him, we can’t tell if Isabel really loves any of the men courting her. So the whole second part of the book feels flat. We get a deep look into her mind, but never really into her heart.

Favorite classic heroine? (Why? Who wrote her?)

Jo MarchJo March from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, so much so that I gave my daughter the middle name Josephine. She seems to me the first truly individual heroine in American literature. Alcott wasn’t trying to provide a model of feminine perfection for her readers, as most writers before her were. Jo just gets to be Jo, with her anger and frustrations out there for everyone to see.

Recommend three books by classic female writers to get people started in this event.

IMG_7963#1 From a writer most people don’t know anymore, but who was one of the most important writers of the 19th century: Constance Fenimore Woolson. I would start with her novel Anne (1882). It’s long, but a real page-turner. My students have loved it! Unfortunately her works are not in print, but you can get them on an ereader. If you want to hold a book in your hand, my collection of some of her stories, Miss Grief and Other Stories, is coming out Feb. 29 (along with the biography). 

#2 Little Women (1868) by Louisa May Alcott, if you haven’t read it (or haven’t read it lately) or another one of her books. One of my favorites is Moods (1864), her first novel for adults and her most ambitious. Although Alcott was unhappy with the edited result, it’s a fascinating look at marriage and divorce, very unusual for its day.

#3 Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God  (1937), the most deliciously beautiful novel there is, in my opinion. Reading it is like eating a juicy, ripe peach. 

Will you be joining us for this event immediately, or will you wait until the new year starts?

I’ll be starting very soon. (I just have to finish grading finals.)

Do you plan to read as inspiration pulls, or will you make out a preset list?

I will make a tentative list, but I expect it to grow and evolve over the year.

Are you pulling to any particular genres? (Letters, journals, biographies, short stories, novels, poems, essays, etc?)

For me it’s going to be mostly novels. 

Are you pulling to a particular era or location in literature by women?

More American probably, but not exclusively so, and from the mid-19th century onward, with plenty of 20th-century books.

Do you hope to host an event or readalong for the group? No worries if you don’t have details. We’re just curious!

I’d love to! I don’t know the particulars of this yet, so will need to investigate. But I’m hoping to interact with other readers, not just read on my own. And although I teach literature, I’m entering into this event as a reader. (I’m not the kind of teacher who thinks she has all the answers anyway. I love hearing everyone’s views!)

Is there an author or title you’d love to read with a group or a buddy for this event? Sharing may inspire someone to offer.

Anne of Green GablesAll of them. I’ll be posting my list soon but probably starting with Anne of Green Gables or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, two books at the top of my list (which I will post soon).

Share a quote you love by a classic female author — even if you haven’t read the book yet.

For her heart had flown out of its cage and upward as a freed bird darts up in the sky. The bond, on her side at least, was gone; she was free. Now she would live a life of self-abnegation and labor, but without inward thralldom. Women had lived such lives before she was born, women would live such lives after she was dead. She would be one of the sisterhood, and coveting  nothing of the actual joy of love, she would cherish only the ideal, an altar-light within, burning forever. The cares of each day were as nothing now: she was free!” –Woolson, Anne

Finally, ask the question you wish this survey had asked, & then answer it.

Is there a particular kind of subgenre or theme you are interested in focusing on (romance, mystery, feminism, marriage, motherhood)?  I will be focusing on coming-of-age narratives, or the female Bildunsgroman. I’m endlessly fascinated with the theme of how girls figure out what it means to grow up and become a “woman” and how this has changed over time, how it differs among cultures and classes,  and how girls have wrestled with the limited options open to them.

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