What’s So British about Female British Writers?
A Tradition of “Great Literature” from Female British Writers
Great Britain has maintained its reputation as a literary continent for the past few centuries. Shakespeare, Donne, Dickens and the Brontës are but some of the great British writers to have graced the national stage with their literary art, social conscience, and biting critiques of society in its varying guises. The legacy of British literature is as intimidating as it is inimitable. Accordingly, the legacy of British literature is being kept very much alive and well, thanks to the carnivorous intellect and eloquence of current British writers — namely, female British writers.
Born in Persia (now Iran) during the first World War, Lessing is perhaps the most significant post-modernist female British writer of the twentieth century. Her focus in her novels and stories has been the plight of women in a variety of cultures, both real and imagined. Her most famous work, and a seminal entry into the catalogue of Feminist literature, The Golden Notebook, deals, in a fairly autobiographical way, with the legacy of a woman’s personal, political and spiritual life, detailed in metafictional segments, or “notebooks,” each a different color for each stage in the life of Anna Wulf, Lessing’s protagonist. Through Anna’s observational engagements with political movements and her travels across the globe, Lessing is able to hone her focus in on essentially every single issue plaguing English culture. Already a book whose initial release was met with immense acclaim, the novel stands today as a seminal touchstone in the literary maturation of female readers. Even at the age of 93, Lessing still finds herself being stopped on the street by young girls, who claim their lives were changed drastically. In particular, Lessing has been told on several occasions that the book has given her readers not only a better understanding of the age in which it is set, but as well the inner-workings of the female personality: namely, those of their own mothers.
Coming from Sheffield, England, hometown to a vast array of creative people, Margaret Drabble didn’t write a word until after she had graduated college. Attending Newnham College, Cambridge, on scholarship, Drabble graduated at the head of her class, while deeply immersing herself in the world of theater. A year after graduating, Drabble settled down with her husband and children and, out of the boredom of banal housewifery, produced her first novel, A Summer Bird-Cage. Regarding the transition from acting to writing, Drabble insists “I wasn’t trained as an actress in any way—I just did it instinctively. And I write in much the same way. I don’t think there’s much connection between the two. An actress can, and perhaps should, ignore the rest of the drama—she need only know her own role in it. This would be a fatal way to write.” Drabble would go on to write novels that dealt primarily with the domestic life: middle-class wives, families in extremis, parents in search of children, children in search of parents. Drabble’s novels explore the social aspects of British private life, a central topic in the writings of Forster, Woolf and the like. Her incisive glimpses into pivotal moments of women’s lives evoke the sensitivity of character found in Lessing.
The formidable — yet no less significant — older sister of Drabble, A.S. Byatt is perhaps the most important literary novelist of the twentieth century. A bibliomaniac by trade, Byatt has produced a wealth of literature in homage to intellectual creativity, social politics and the very act of reading. Also a graduate of Cambridge, Byatt strived to establish herself as an autonomous literary figure — apart from both the wealth of male critics and writers who were her co-equals, as well as her sister Margaret. Having been raised in a high-achieving household, the two women were constantly at odds with one another, and as such Byatt’s work was fueled by an equal desire to out-prove her sister. Motivated by a longing to get at the very heart of scholarship, Byatt immersed herself in literature, reading the work of literary giants such as Lawrence and Coleridge. She herself produced several novels while studying at University, and since then has always seemed to share an affinity with those whom she read at an early, impressionable age. As a writer, Byatt was concerned with the question of history, and its influence on the novel. Her books overflow with dates, chronologies and actual historical events. Her characters concern themselves with the paths taken by their predecessors, ancestors, and those whom they greatly admire. Byatt’s award-winning masterwork, Possession: A Romance, deals with just that: driven by a thirst for history and an obsession for the eroticism of the written word, Roland Mitchell and Maud Bailey comb through the past in order to unearth a hidden romance between two Victorian-era poets. Truly a book of suspense, Byatt weaves seamlessly between the past of age-old infatuations and modern-day mysteries, unfolding for her readers a tale of books and libraries, of passion and pathos. It is this interest in the literary that makes Byatt one of England’s greatest thinkers, artists and, above all else, writers.
Experiencing sensational success right from the get-go, Smith’s debut novel White Teeth was highly sought after by several different publishing houses. Set in 70’s England, the novel recounts the eventful friendship of two WWII vets, Samad Iqbal and Archie Jones. Focusing on racial tensions, mixed marriages, and other sorts of hot-button issues, Smith’s novel brings the issues of history, seen in the work of Byatt, into the 21st century, toeing the line between tradition and liberality. Smith followed this novel up with a less-successful work, The Autographed Man, and then produced what is perhaps her best novel, On Beauty, a re-imagining of Forster’s novel of class, Howard’s End. Exploring similar themes raised in White Teeth, Zadie Smith navigates the cultural circles of modern-day London with verve and wry wit. She quite effectively transfers the concerns of Forster’s crowd of the 1920’s to the early 2000’s, while maintaining a fresh, revitalizing perspective on what it means to be an intellectual in the buzzing metropolis. Both a comedy of manners as well as a sort of anti-romance, On Beauty is astute and timeless. More recently, Smith has come out with a collection of essays, Changing My Mind, and a new novel, NW.