Women Writers (Through the Ages): A Discussion List

Susan Glaspell (1882-1948) typing away

"Women Writers [Through the Ages]" is a list in which the members are invited to explore all forms of art by and for women. To subscribe click here. Our aim is to be an informal cyberspace seminar on women's art.

The list was opened in April 2001 by Joanne Pope. She was listowner and I was moderator. As with the other list we ran together (Eighteenth Century Worlds), in January 2003 she made me listowner and left the list. Julie Vollgraff is now my fellow moderator. The list is meant for people who want to discuss imaginative art by and for women in an analytical and critical way. We also ask people who join this list to introduce themselves using their real names, to follow the rules for courtesy and remember that the intention of the list is to explore feminist and progressive points of view.

For about 10 years the listserv had a group of people who read and discussed books together. We no longer have a large enough group interested to support reading groups according to a schedule. At this point the purpose of the listserv is to provide an alternative place in cyberspace for discussing women's issues and art, the politics of women's lives and all things related to these vast topics. Below the interested reader will find a history of the reading and discussion groups we once had.

The list began as a continuation of something Joanne, I, and a few others had begun on a list owned by Elvira Cassel, Litalk-l. We had there read two recent novels by women, A. S. Byatt's Possession and Suzie McKee Charnas's The Vampire Tapestry, and begun to explore George Sand's oeuvre through reading and talking about Lettres d'un Voyageur and Un hiver à Majorque (A Winter in Majorca). We wanted to have a list that was discussed women's books from a feminist and progressive standpoint. So we moved and created a new list for reading women's literature. When we finished the two George Sand autobiographical-imaginative travel books, we turned to Mary Arnold Ward's 1894 Marcella.

For the first two years of the list, the active participants sort of decided (or it seemed that) this set of books became a "track" in which a group of people on the list tried to choose and then read and discuss acknowledged important or "canonical" works by women, texts which had achieved some general respect or positive fame. So after Marcella, we read and discussed Marion Evans Lewes or George Eliot's Daniel Deronda and George Sand's Indiana, Valentine and Consuelo/La Comtesse de Rudolstadt, Germaine de Staël's Corinne, ou l'Italie, Andrea Barrett's Ship Fever, and Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreters of Maladies.

Marianne von Werefkin (1860-1938), Sunday, Spring, 1910

Christine de Pisan (1363-1430) Imagined Writing

We have, however, agreed that this track and the one below, originally meant for serious romance, are not really clearly distinguishable: we have discovered that very few women's texts are clearly recognized as generally canonical, and so many novels by women are romances.

So in order to have genuinely different terrains, the first track of our group reads will now be reserved for non-fiction by a woman of any type. It can be life-writing, literary-critical, history, sociological, anthropological, scientific, verse or prose.

We began our new pattern with Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Teheran, went onto Mary McCarthy's Memories of a Catholic Girlhood and How I Grew, Dorothy Wordsworth's Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals, and Frances Anne Kemble's Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation, 1838-1839; Alexandra David-Neel's My Journey to Lhasa (1927); and Susanna Moodie's Roughing It in the Bush, Catherine Parr Traill's The Backwoods of Canada, Anna Jameson's Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canadia, and Atwood's's poem cycle, The Journals of Susanna Moodie, and Maria Diedrich's Love Across the Color Lines: Ottilie Assing & Frederick Douglas. We read the poetry and about life of Anna Akhmatova (which included discussing the memoirs by Lidia Chukovskaia and Nadezhda Mandelstam) from January through February 2006; and in the summer and fall of 2006 Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, Three Guineas, The Common Reader, The Second Common Reader, and Colette's Break of Day.

In January 2007 we read Janet Todd's The Sign of Angellica: Women, Writing and Fiction, 1660-1800. October and November 2007 we read Alison Light's Forever England: Femininity, Literature, and Conservatism between the Wars, along with books by and about the authors she discusses (e.g, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Agatha Christie, Jan Struthers, Daphne DuMaurier), and other histories of women's literature in the early to mid-20th century (e.g, Nicola Beauman's A Very Great Profession, The Woman's Novel, 1914-39 and Christine Jordis's De petits enfers varies: Romancieres anglaises contemporaines

February into March 2008 we read Iris Origo's The Last Attachment: The Story of Byron and Teresa Guiccioli (and other books by Origo and Guiccioli's own Vie de Byron, now available in English translation); March into April, medieval women poets in Meg Bogin's The Woman Troubadours. Books recommended alongside included Peter Dronke's Women Writers of the Middle Ages: A Critical Study of Texts from Perpetua to Marguerite Porete

We are now (winter 2009) reading alongside our Emily Dickinson poetry, biography, letters (see below), James-Edward Austen-Leigh's A Memoir of Jane Austen, to be followed by Jill Heydt-Stevenson's close reading of Austen's novels, Unbecoming Conjunctions: Subversive Laughter, Embodied History as well as The Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln and Natalie Zemon Davis's Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth Century Lives. On my own I read Iranian women's memoirs, and Susha Guppy's The Blindfold Horse: Memoirs of a Persian Childhood. Who can tire of women's memoirs?

Leonor Fini (1908-96), Cats

Laurie Simmons (b. 1949), Room Underneath (Red)

For a second track we began by reading and talking about less well-known, non-canonical works and serious romance. We have read and discussed together Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca; medieval Arthurian romance (Chrétien de Troyes's Erec and Enide, The Knight of the Cart [Lancelot], The Knight with the Lion [Ivain], and The Story of the Grail [Perceval] as well as Joseph Bédier's The Romance of Tristan and Iseult as translated by Hilaire Belloc and Paul Rosenfield); A. S. Byatt's The Biographer's Tale and Dorothy Sayers's Gaudy Night; and the anonymous 13th century French verse romance, Silence.

As of November 2003, this track was reserved for any and all kinds of fiction by women.

A still from a film adaptation of Edith Wharton's "Afterward": Mary Boyne (Kate Harper) crossing an invisible threshold into the uncanny

And these are the fictions the reading group has read and discussed thus far: Iris Murdoch's The Unicorn, and Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace. Christmas 2003 we read ghost stories by women; these included Margaret Oliphant's "A Beleaguered City", Edith Wharton's "The Lady's Maid's Bell", Mary Austin's "The Readjustment", Amelia Edwards's "Was It an Illusion?", Mary Elizabeth Braddon's "The Cold Embrace", and May Sinclair's "The Nature of the Evidence". Then we returned to George Sand for her Horace and went onto Nuala O'Faolain's My Dream of You, Lucia Longhi Lopresti's historical fiction, Artemisia (1947, pseudonym, Anna Banti), Marguerite Yourcenar's The Abyss (L'Oeuvre au Noir), Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's East into Upper East: Plain Tales from New York and New Delhi, and this past summer, Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus and Willa Cather's One of Ours. We read Suzy McKee Charnas's Dorothea Dreams this past fall (we read her The Vampire Tapestry on Litalk-l; see above and on this website, Gothics, vampires, and and l'écriture-femme); and Margaret Oliphant's Hester, The Ladies Lindores and autobiography (see Margaret Oliphant Page).

Christmas into January '05-06 we read Mary Webb's Gone to Earth and Precious Bane, followed by Stella Gibbons's Cold Comfort Farm. Spring 2006, we read Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children, Annie Proulx's Shipping News, and Anne Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant; over the summer and fall Virginia Woolf's Orlando and The Years, and fall 2006, Jeannette Winterson's Oranges are Not the Only Fruit and Sidonie-Cabrielle Colette's La Vagabonde. In 2007 we have thus far read Doris Lessing's Golden Notebook, Alice Munro's Runaway, Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage, Rosamond Lehmann's The Weather in the Streets and The Echoing Grove.

For December 2007 into January 2008, we spent the season a third time reading gothics by women: May Sinclair's Uncanny Stories, Daphne DuMuarier's short story, "The Birds," but this time we added a group of film adaptations too: the 1980s film series, Shades of Darkness, one hour film adaptations of Edith Wharton's "Lady's Maid's Bell's", "Afterwards" & "Bewitched", May Sinclair's "Intercessor," Elizabeth Bowen's "Demon Lover" (a Dracula story set in WW2 during the Blitz), and C. H. B. Kitchin's "The Maze" (Henry Benn). The type of film and story are female gothic. The producer was June Wyndham-Davies, credited with 8 of the first and 3 of the later series of TV Sherlock Holmess episodes starring Jeremy Brett. We then read Valerie Martin's Mary Reilly. We then read Christa Wolf's novel and four meditative essays (travel writing, work diary, reflections on her book), Cassandra, Liz Lochhead's Medea and discussed the Medea figure in various woarks.

Later summer into fall we read Jeanine Basinger's A Woman's View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women in the Moviees and May Sarton's journals, poetry and one novel, Mrs Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing. In spring 2009 we read a group of plays by women: Our basic text was an anthology: Victoria Sullivan and James Hatch, edd. Plays by and about women. We also read plays by Caryl Churchill, Susan Glaspell, and Jane Bowles.

Nell Blaine (1922-96), Cookie Shop, 1970s

For summer 2009 we had summerlong festival for Jane Austen where people will be invited to read any of her novels they want in the original or translations in any language, biographies, literary criticism and about the films and her cult.

We have continued this and now in the spring of 2011, we have a continuing Austen subgroup of readings. Thus far we have read and discussed James Edward Austen-Leigh's Memoir of his aunt; for February into March we plan to read and discuss one chapter at a time, Jill Heydt-Stevenson's Unbecoming Conjuctions, late spring/early summer, we'll move onto Roger Sales's Jane Austen and Representations of Regency England. Right now (spring 2011) I and one other person are posting on the remnant of Jane Austen's letters as they appear in Deirdre LeFaye's edition. A future hope is to expand to Austen's contemporaries and we are now thinking of reading Claudia Johnson's Equivocal Beings, a feminist close reading of books of women writers great in themselves and influential on Austen (e.g., Fanny Burney, Charlotte Smith, Ann Radcliffe).

We are not all Jane Austen all the time but we have become some Jane Austen a good deal of the time.

The Jane Austen Book Club(2007, written & directed by Robin Swicord, adapted from Karen Joy Fowler's book), members getting together: Jocelyn (Maria Bello), Grigg (Hugh Dancy), Sylvia and Allegra (Amy Brennemann and Maggie Grace), Prudie (Emily Blunt), Bernadette (Kathy Baker)

Fall 2009 we are had a similar Emily Dickinson project where for a couple of months we will be reading Dickinson's poetry and criticism, literary biographies about her and her letters. Starting in later November until after Christmas, we'll turn to Mary Augusta Arnold Ward: people will be invited to chose as they like from her novels (Hellsbeck of Bannisdale, Robert Elsmere Eleannor and David Grieve are the books we've read and discussed -- as well as Judith Wilt's Behind Her Times and John Sutherland's indispensable insightful biography of Mrs Humphrey Ward.

Spring 2010 we turned to Isak Dinesen and read collections of her tales, and for those who like, her Out of Africa, letters and/or Judith Thurman's literary biography, not to omit watching the 11987 Swedish film, Gabriel Axel's Babette's Feast

We've also had a thread on Catherine Delors's historical novel (set in later 18th century France), The Mistress of the Revolution.

In May 2010 we also read Muriel Barbary's The Elegance of the Hedgehog, some of us in the original French, others reading Alison Anderson's English translation. In June we'll have a Wendy Wasserstein festival (we will read her plays and life-writing. Come mid-summer Delors's For the King and an Edith Wharton festival (whatever novel or memoir you want, travel book, stories, biographies and film adaptations too). We also discussed Elizabeth Spencer's Light in the Piazza, Susan Vreeland's Girl in Hyacinth Blue, Susan Hill's Woman in Black.

Vanessa Bell (1879-1961), Interior with Table

Fall 2010 coming in we had a Gaskell seasons which will be followed by Linda Hughes's Victorian Publishing and Mrs Gaskell, Elizabeth Barrrett Browning's Aurora Leigh with Linda Peterson's Poetic Traditions of Victorian women's Autobiography.

Here is a typical calendar for the way we once were: for reading Gaskell all this coming fall and winter. For the stories I list editions as well as where on the Net one may find an etext edition:

Central page for etexts:


From Cousin Phillis and other tales, ed. Angus Easson:

Sept 19: Lizzie Leigh http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/EG-Lizzie.html
The Old Nurse's Story http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/EG-Nurse.html
Sept 26: Half a Life-time Ago http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/EG-Half.html
Lois the Witch http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/EG-Lois.html

Oct 3: The Crooked Branch http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/EG-Crooked.html
Curious, if True http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/EG-Curious.html

Oct 10 & 17: Cousin Phillis http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/EG-Phillis.html (1863)

From The Moorland Cottage and other stories, ed. Suzanne Lewis:

Oct 24 & 31: The Moorland Cottage http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/EG-Moorland.html (1850)

Nov 7: The Sexton's Hero http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/EG-Sexton.html
Christmas Storms and Sunshine http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/EG-Christmas.html (1858)

Nov 14: The Well of Pen-Morfa http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/EG-Well.html
The Heart of John Middleton http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/EG-Middleton.html (1850)

Nov 21: Morton Hall http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/EG-Morton.html My French Master http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/EG-French.html

Nov 28: The Manchester Marriage http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/EG-Manchester.html
Crowley Castle http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/EG-Crowley.html

From A Dark Night's Work and other Stories, ed. Suzanne Lewis:

Dec 5th & 12th: A Dark Night's Work http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/EG-Dark.html
Libbie Marsh's Three Eras http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/EG-Libbie.html

Dec 19th: Six Weeks at Heppenheim http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/EG-Heppenheim.html
Cumberland and Sheep-Shearers http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/EG-Cumberland.html

Dec 26th: The Grey Woman http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/EG-Grey.html

Jan 2nd and Jan 9th: My Lady Ludlow http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/EG-Ludlow-1.html

Jan 9th: Mr Harrison's Confessions http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/EG-Harrison.html

And there's the Cranford stories (in print in a variety of inexpensive paperbacks or found in public libraries); these were written as separate short stories and only gradually became a book and was sold together:

The rest of January into February. 2 stories a week:

All of Crandford: http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/EG-Cranford.html

'Our Society at Cranford'
'A Love Affair at Cranford'
'Memory at Cranford'
'Visiting at Cranford'
'The Great Cranford Panic
'Stopped Payment at Cranford'
'Friends in Need, at Cranford'
'A Happy Return to Cranford'
'The Last Generation in England'
'The Cage at Cranford'

March and April: Sylvia's Lovers

Paula Rego (b. 1935) Germaine Greer (1995)

The list never existed just for people to read books together; we read a books together in order to have a shared terrain we can talk about. The goal of the list is to be a community to discuss women's art in cyberspace from a progressive and feminist point of view. Anyone can bring up any book or work of art by any woman at any time. I encourage people to suggest, read, and discuss women's poetry (from Sappho on) and anything intelligently sociological, literary, psychology or anything feminist, humane and progressive from the various disciplines about women's imagination and lives goes. Think the sort of book the Women's Review of Books characteristically chooses to flag as well as the perspective found there. People are also welcome to discuss films, pictures, music and art forms by or of interest to women. I also invite discussions of books and art by men, and only ask that people usually try to talk about how these may be seen from a woman's point of view. We keep four databases of "wish lists" for fiction and non-fiction books which help us come to choose which books to read together.

On Tuesday all members of the list are invited to send in poems by women which they find interesting or like very much. I put on the list images of women an their art (as well as biographies and bibliography), and we discuss women artists frequently.

Katherine Hepburn as Elinor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter

I announce Calls for Papers, conferences, new interesting publications and reviews online, and (in general) do what I can to keep the members of the list in contact with new developments in academic studies of women's literature, cultural studies centered on women's lives and history.

Inge Morath (1922-2002), "Pushkin country, Onegins bench"

Rules to ensure courtesy

In order to prevent discomfort, hurt feelings, trolling, flame wars and other disruptions on our list, to secure the courteous and cordial atmosphere, and to keep this list a place where serious and scholarly talk takes place, as listowner I ask everyone who joins the list to read and to abide by the following explicit rules:

  1. The purpose of this list is not a matter for debate. A listowner opens a list with a given subject matter and audience in mind. This list is meant for all people who love to read and are interested in any and all aspects of what women write and the subgenre of romance. Its goal is to have serious discussions of literature traditionally for and by women over the centuries, and of modern scholarship and artistic approaches to this. It is mainly for people who feel comfortable discussing art in all its forms in depth.
  2. No personal attacks or flame wars. Personal attacks include speculations about the motives, personal problems and/or intellectual deficiencies, background, or educational level of someone else and all veiled taunts and snide remarks.
  3. Please refrain from characterizing the kind of posts someone sends (long, short, high-toned, low-toned, high-, middle-, or low-brow, academic, solemn, intense, stupid, ignorant, simple-minded, deep, mystical, using profanity &c &c) with a view towards discussing the attitudes of the poster. You can argue with content of the posting as regards women and literature but not the attitudes of the poster as regards him or herself; that is to discuss the listmember. To argue with the kind or nature of a post itself is to bring in the personality and values of the person posting it. That is why arguing against literary theory always ends in flame wars: to bring this up is to argue against the character and outlook of someone else. The content about women, literature and romance is fair game, not other members. If a posting is overly long, or someone takes to sending many tiny messages, the listowner or moderator will discuss it with the member offlist.
  4. Similarly, please refrain from categorizing "other groups" of people on the list as different from a group to which the individual presumes he or she belongs -- often such groupings are in the mind of the poster and don't correspond to realities on lists at all. Our list is a diverse place; anyone can join; right now it is made up of teachers, readers and students, and people genuinely interested in women's literature and art. To begin to categorize one another is to invite factionalism and stigmatizing, and takes us down the road to discomfort and reified conflicts between groups
  5. No public corrections of other people's spelling, grammmar, style, tone or other formal failures on list. If you genuinely want to aid someone not to make a mistake, get into contact with him or her offlist.
  6. No one is to discuss anyone else's personality or behavior in front of all the members of the list as if that person weren't there. If you do this, you will be politely told to desist; if you do not desist, you will be unsubscribed. We also ask that members not badger anyone for a reply. If, after you have tried to elicit a reply for a second time, someone does not answer your objection for whatever reason, leave the person alone.
  7. Members are invited to discuss film adaptations of books that by and for women, in other word's films apparently intended for women and films about women's live. TV adaptations, documentaries and radio or other non-print media which directly relate to the women, literature and romance are fair game. But we discourage lengthy discussion of non- print media, movies, TV adaptations, radio shows and famous personalities which have nothing to do with women's lives and serious art. This is not meant to be a list for chat and gossip.
  8. No attachments. We have set the list up in such a way as to discard them, but don't try to put one on. Present your message as part of your regular text.
  9. Clear subject headings. We discourage "spoiler" warnings. You can preface a posting warning the reader that your discourse necessitates your telling something from the end of a book the group is reading or details from books we have not read. However, in general it will be assumed that we only begin to know a book on the first reading and that our purpose on this list is to study and analyze books. In fact on this list we welcome details from books we have not read, reviews, summaries, critical discussions of things as ways of whetting appetites for further reading ourselves. We are not reading to get to the end of a book to see how it ends; the kind of reading and talk envisaged is studious reading and analysis.
  10. No ranting against or bashing authors, characters, art, periods, literary theory, specific books or kinds of books (e.g., romance itself or other genres traditionally associated with women). Please avoid using denigrating terms for women's literature, except if you want to analyze the term. We are not here to read "chick lit" or regency romances except critically. If you object to the content of the list, feel that the kinds of issues and perspectives discussed distress, depress or otherwise leave you with distaste or offend you, please don't come onto the list to object in an effort to change the list. If you don't like the content or goals of the list, you should find another one.
  11. Finally, when you post, please sign your name (a given and last name, not an obvious or unreal pseudonym or net handle). This makes it easier for other listmembers to reply and helps build a sense of community and accountability among the members of the list.

A Woman Reading

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Page Last Updated: 18 July 2003