I’ve just finished reading a book called The Literary Ladies Guide to the Writing Life, by Nava Atlas (Sellers Publishing, 2011). It’s a beautifully designed mixture of excerpts from the letters, writings, and talks of a dozen classic female authors with summary meditations from Ms. Atlas. And it’s charming, surprising, inspiring, and an all-around must-read for any female author. Non-writing admirers of these ladies will also enjoy an intimate glimpse behind the scenes of their genius.
The authors—Louisa May Alcott, Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Willa Cather, Edna Ferber, Madeleine L’Engle, L. M. Montgomery, Anaïs Nin, George Sand, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolf—offer comments from dry to bitter to encouraging to ecstatic on subjects ranging from becoming a writer to conquering inner demons to combining writing with motherhood to rejection, acceptance, and money to handling success.
Some of their situations are notably unlike our own. From the late 19th century to the mid-20th, it seems to have been significantly easier to make a living by writing than it is now—even for a woman. Not to say these women didn’t work hard—they were their own slavedrivers, for the most part. But in that milieu, hard work, excellence, and persistence were almost sure to pay off eventually, whereas now there are no guarantees even for the most dedicated genius.
And on the flip side, these women all faced active discrimination the likes of which have almost disappeared from the current literary scene. (Atlas does quote one statistic that claims male writers still make significantly more money than female writers, but I think it would be hard to make a case that they have any easier a time getting published or are favored by readers or reviewers.)
But when it comes to matters of the pen and of the heart, all these literary ladies are completely kindred spirits to women writing today. They struggled with other responsibilities, feelings of self-doubt, sometimes opposition from family and friends. They endured rejection, personal and artistic misunderstanding, and the dark side of fame.
Some of them wrote from the heart, while others wrote what their market demanded and produced wildly popular classics—to their own complete surprise (e.g. Little Women, Anne of Green Gables). Some, notably Virginia Woolf, were literary pioneers who were never entirely confident as to whether their work was genius or garbage. Some made a handsome fortune in their lifetimes; others barely got by. But all have a lot to say that can help contemporary writers through all the rough spots of our writing lives.
(One caveat for the terminally particular like myself: This book has a lot of typos. I find that odd given the number of people credited in the acknowledgements who had a hand in making the book—was none of them a proofreader? However, the beauty of the design and the content made up for the typos in my estimation. And that’s saying a lot.)
I found the book quite inspiring. All these famous writers were regular gals—they put their petticoats on one leg at a time like anyone else. They started from nothing, with nothing but a dream and the boldness to pursue it, and they earned a permanent place in the literary pantheon. It gives me hope that if I work hard enough, I may someday be able to do the same.