‘Bookish Broads’ is A History of the Female Experience in Literature

In Bookish Broads, writer, editor, and publisher Lauren Marino (author of What Would Dolly Do?) offers concise, thoughtful profiles of more than 50 of the most influential women wordsmiths of the past thousand years, from Lady Murasaki Shikibu and Julian of Norwich to Jane Austin and Mary Shelley to Octavia Butler and Judy Blume. Each featured writer is represented with an insightful biography, a striking portrait by artist Alexandra Kilburn, and a recommended reading list — with a sprinkling of inspirational quotes added throughout as well.

Marino’s book enlightens, entertains, and empowers by bringing women’s literature to the forefront and contextualizing these writers in the larger historical conversations which shaped their work and which their work reshaped. Representative in the best sense, Bookish Broads includes authors beloved by generations and celebrated in classrooms — like Louisa May Alcott, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Harper Lee, and Maya Angelou — as well as those who may be heretofore unexplored by many modern readers.

Pat Conroy Literary Center high school student intern Holland Perryman, who has also reviewed Bookish Broads for the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier, had the opportunity to discuss this important new volume with Marino in an engaging dialogue about the book’s origins and the author’s aspirations for how it will be read and treasured.  

Where did the idea for Bookish Broads come from? What inspired you to research and profile so many women writers? And how did you go about doing so?

As a female writer, I have always read other female writers because their stories resonate with me. As a longtime book editor, I read the daily publishing trades and I read an article in Publishers Weekly about a database in libraries worldwide that tracked the most circulated books in the world. I went to go see the results and it turned out that only 17 out of the top 100 were written by women. From there I Googled “World’s Greatest Books” out of curiosity, and all of the results were by men. I found a website called GreatestBooks.org and the same stats were there. This is a website that uses an algorithm to create a master list based on how many times a book shows up in 129 “best of” book lists from the top newspapers, literary magazines, and other credible, well established sources. I went through the list and counted: 14 of the top 100 were by women, the usual suspects: Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Emily Bronte, Toni Morrison, George Eliot, Harper Lee, Mary Shelley, Alice Walker, Margaret Mitchell, Edith Wharton, Margaret Atwood, Emily Dickinson, and Daphne Du Maurier.

As a publisher, I know that 70-80% of books are bought by women so I couldn’t understand why more female writers weren’t included in these important lists. I did some research and, outside of some feminist literary history and academic work from the 1970s and ‘80s, there was no popular book celebrating female writers. I got the Norton Anthology of Women Writers to see what was considered the female literary canon, and from there I went down the rabbit hole reading biographies, articles, and websites, as well as primary works, and I started writing profiles. In all, I consulted 400 sources, all of which are posted on my website. There were too many to fit in the physical book. It was like getting a master’s degree in female literary history — and I never had more fun in my life!

In the course of getting acquainted and re-acquainted with your many subjects, did you note any common attributes among these women writers? What does it take to become a history-making female writer? 

Women have always been writers, but they faced obstacles men didn’t. Two things that weren’t always available to women (or men, in some cases) through history were literacy and access to books and an education. Wealthy women had governesses, but they were learning what were considered feminine pursuits — pianoforte, languages, and needlepoint. Until the early twentieth century, a woman had to have a very wealthy or very progressive father with a library and read a tremendous amount to self educate. Women like Mary Shelley, Jane Austen, and even Virginia Woolf did not have formal educations or university training, but they were huge readers. Throughout most of history there were also arranged marriages — girls were married off as soon as they hit puberty and were probably pregnant and caring for children most of their lives, and of course childbirth was extremely dangerous and the leading cause of death for women.

Female writers were also ostracized or called immoral and had their reputations destroyed if they published, which is why so many disappeared from history for centuries, like Aphra Behn, whose story is in the book. They were also banned from being published. Publishers wouldn’t accept their work and writers like Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters had to have their brothers secure a publisher for them, and they had to use male pseudonyms or ambiguous initials. Even more contemporary authors like Harper Lee and S.E. Hinton used male initials because the conventional wisdom was that women are expected to read books by men, but boys or men won’t read books by women.

All of the women I profile in the book were prolific readers and keen observers of what they saw as flaws in society. They had a sense of justice, they were frustrated by many of the limitations placed on them as women, and that’s what they wrote about. They satirized arranged marriages and women’s dependency on marriage, they wrote treatises on the importance of giving girls an education equal to that of boys, and they wrote about their inner lives. They also created strong, independent characters — like Elizabeth Bennett — who are still beloved today. They had fires in their hearts, they found their voices and expressed themselves with courage and resilience, and they faced the consequences of that.

What do we as modern readers have to learn from these profiles of women writers? How do the stories of these women empower you?

These women were trailblazers and unconventional thinkers, sometimes revolutionary, in that they questioned the role of women in society and also showed the value and breadth of women’s experience, which has always been belittled or ignored. Their intelligence and courage changed the way that women were viewed, and their work paved the way for us as women writers today. Books can change lives and societies, and I think it’s incredibly important to see your own experiences depicted on the page. It makes us feel less alone, it reveals to us what we can each accomplish, and in some cases, it shows us what to avoid.

Do you also hope this book will inspire more women to pursue their own literary ambitions as well?

Absolutely! I had three goals in writing this book: The first was to celebrate these women and tell the stories behind the storytellers, which in a way becomes a history of the female experience through literature. The second was to bring more readers to their work, which is why I included suggested reading for each author I profiled. The third was to inspire aspiring and working writers to show that even the best, most well-known writers struggle with insecurities and put in a tremendous amount of hard work to express themselves clearly on the page and to find a readership. I love Maya Angelou’s quote, “Some critics review my work by saying, ‘Maya Angelou is a natural writer.’ Being a natural writer is much like being a natural open-heart surgeon.” Being clear on the page and finding your voice are extremely difficult. It is a skill, a craft, and it is learned and can be difficult every time one sits down to write. I also think it’s crucial, as a writer, to have literary role models that are somewhat relatable.

As you note in your introduction, your book is meant to be representative and not comprehensive. What was your selection process like? How did you decide which writers to include?

The list was constantly evolving as I wrote the book. I started with the “have-to-includes” and built the list out from there. I included some of my favorites out of pure selfishness. I also discovered many writers along the way as I was doing research. I wanted each woman to represent a specific time and transition in literary history or women’s roles. I wanted to profile writers who broke new ground in some way. There could have been one hundred women or more but my publisher wanted a book that was a specific length and I had to cut a lot of people. I have several essays started that didn’t make it into the book, although they certainly deserve to be there as much as any of the other women. The list of women in the book versus what was in my original proposal is quite different. It became clear to me as I was writing that this was really a history of the female experience through literature, so each woman profiled had to move that story forward in some way.

You also have several sections in your book devoted to understanding groups of writers — Medieval Mystics, Beloved Children’s Authors, and writers who made use of pseudonyms, as three such examples. What prompted you to highlight groups of women writers in these ways?

One reason was that there were so many writers I wanted to include, and I ran out of space and time. But also, there were certain periods in literature when there were bold things happening in a specific area or genre and it made sense to group those women together. For example, in the western world, the first writers were the Medieval Mystics. The nuns were the only women during that time who had access to books or who learned how to read or write. (It was in the convent where the sisters taught one another.) Being a nun also helped a literary-minded young woman escape the confines of forced marriage and endless, dangerous childbirth. They could also use divine inspiration as an excuse for writing. Since women weren’t allowed to write or express themselves, these women became influential through their writing by saying that it was God speaking through them and therefore it was accepted.

There was also a sort of Renaissance in children’s literature around the late 1800s, early 1900s where female writers wrote and published books that were written not as didactic lessons and cautionary morality tales, but stories that would resonate with younger people. Beatrix Potter and Margaret Wise Brown were groundbreaking as writers, illustrators, and publishers, and they created entirely new ways of writing for young children. Frances Hodgson Burnett and L.M. Montgomery wrote some of the early YA novels that are still read and beloved today.

The collection is also beautifully illustrated by Alexandra Kilburn, with color portraits of the featured writers. As the author, did you collaborate in this process at all? From your perspective, how do those illustrations add to the book?

Yes, I would send Alex each essay as I completed it along with some ideas regarding themes of each woman’s writing that could be integrated into the art somehow. And I would send a bunch of photographs or paintings of each writer to inspire her. I wanted the book to appeal to all ages, and I especially wanted to reach younger readers who I know respond to visual representation. I also wanted the book to be fun and accessible and to give a real sense of who these women were as individuals, so the art helped accomplish all of that.

Since this interview is for the Southern Review of Books, we would be remiss if we didn’t note that your book features several prominent Southern women writers. Who are they, and what lessons can we learn from their writing lives?

There are several, including Eudora Welty, who is one of my favorite writers due to her great sense of humor. (I highly recommend her short story “Why I Live at the P.O.” if you haven’t read it.) I adore her atmospheric writing and rich characters and dialogue. One of the things I learned about her is that she was a photographer for the WPA and that her photographic eye looking at the common wo(man)’s plight during and after the Great Depression informed her writing. She also used to edit by cutting sections of her writing, moving it around, and pinning it where she thought it worked better. This was before Microsoft Word cut and pasting!

Flannery O’Connor, a devout Catholic, saw the deep connection between spirituality and creativity, which I think is important for any artist. She wrote about human failings with a wicked, dark sense of humor, and threw some morality and salvation into all of her work.

Margaret Mitchell wrote only one book, Gone with the Wind, which has become controversial but needs to be read in context. She grew up on the knee of her grandfather, who fought in the Civil War, and she heard all of his stories. Her research was so meticulous and detailed that she could accurately write about how far a bullet from a Confederate gun would fire and explain Victorian-era architecture in exquisite detail.

Harper Lee grew up in small town Alabama. Her father was a lawyer, like Atticus Finch, and her best friend was Truman Capote, who became the basis for Dill. The incredible success of To Kill A Mockingbird created a level of fame and expectation that haunted her, and she was never able to write another book. She destroyed her other manuscripts, or meant to. The lesson from her doesn’t have an easy answer but the question is, how do you write your sophomore work when the first was such a sensation?

Carson McCullers suffered from undiagnosed rheumatic fever and had lifelong health issues as a result. She wrote about her sense of isolation and being an outsider to great effect. Unfortunately, the way she dealt with that isolation also destroyed her ability to write: alcoholism, smoking three packs a day, a dangerous and volatile marriage. She became the toast of the town after publishing The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and her party lifestyle got in her way. I think the lesson from that is don’t let your success or your lifestyle kill your writing. Literary celebrity is not as glamorous as it’s been portrayed.

One of the great strengths of your book is its inclusivity, particularly with regards to writers of color. What do you hope your own readers will glean from seeing so many diverse female writers in these pages?

Women have always been oppressed throughout history and that oppression has been harsher and more soul-crushing for some cultures than others. It’s one thing to rebel against being a Southern belle, it’s quite another to be enslaved and commit an ultimate act of sacrifice as a mother to kill your own child to spare her from a life of slavery. It’s one thing to be Virginia Woolf and not be allowed to get a university education, despite your brothers and stepbrothers getting theirs, and it’s another to be Malala Yousafzai and be shot in the face for trying to go to elementary school. It’s one thing to be called bad names for publishing something controversial; it’s quite another to have your life threatened by a communist regime and be forced to leave your own country because of the books you write. Despite these differences in race and cultures and time periods, I think there are universal experiences women have that are of an emotional nature, that are about women’s inner lives and the importance of finding your voice and speaking not only of your own experience but having empathy and understanding for the experiences of others. That’s what literature can do — it can bring people together.

 Were you given the opportunity to study many of these writers when you were younger? How did that shape your own writing life?

I studied some of them in college — Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Willa Cather — but just their short stories, and they were viewed from a literary point of view as opposed to a contextualized historical perspective. I majored in the romantic poets and wrote my senior thesis on Lord Byron’s poem Don Juan, but we didn’t learn anything about Mary Shelley, who was an important part of that group for many reasons, not the least of which is that she preserved, edited, published, and gained recognition for Percy Shelley’s poetry after his premature death. She is known only as the author of Frankenstein, but she is so much more! And Frankenstein really is a masterpiece. It’s shocking that it was written by a seventeen-year-old young woman.

I’ve always read female writers on my own, though. And, of course, all of my favorite childhood books had strong female protagonists, and I’m sure that having those role models shaped me as a writer and a person. I mean, Scarlett O’Hara is not necessarily the world’s greatest role model, but she was so strong, so independent, and such a force of nature that I couldn’t help but want to be like her. Jane Eyre may have been poor and plain but she, too, was strong minded and stood up for herself. Jo March was a writer and independent spirit whom I think all young girls relate to. She gave up what would have been a beneficial marriage in order to pursue her writing career.

Why is it essential to learn about the women in your book, as well as other inspiring women throughout history?

Women are more than 50% of the population and, until the past century or so, our stories weren’t being told or valued. That creates a very one-sided version of history, which is incomplete and therefore misleading. It’s important for literature to reflect the experiences of all of humanity. Silence and ignorance are what perpetuate misunderstanding, misinformation, prejudice, and inequality. One of the first female writers, Hildegard von Bingen, said it pretty succinctly in the 1100s: “we cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted home is not a home. Part of the terror is to take back our own listening, to use our own voice, to see our own light.”

Thank you so much for this interview. In closing, what books by women writers have you enjoyed recently that you would like to recommend to the readers of the Southern Review of Books?

So many that it’s hard to narrow down! And as a book editor, I am constantly reading book proposals and a ton of nonfiction by all sorts of writers. I keep fiction for myself, for when I’m on vacation or want an escape. To me reading fiction is a beautiful luxury, a treat for myself, so I choose it carefully, sometimes depending on my mood, so it’s very subjective. The Nightingale lives up to the hype. Last summer I read Passing by Nella Larsen and The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet as an interesting comparison. The House of Mirth will always be one of my favorite books. And any of the books or stories mentioned in this interview are great places to start a reading list as well.

NONFICTION
Bookish Broads:
Women Who Wrote Themselves into History

By Lauren Marino, Illustrated by Alexandra Kilburn
Abrams Image
Published February 9, 2021