Xandie Kuenning explores classics by women in resistance to the male-dominated literary canon.
It is a clear and undeniable fact that classic literature is dominated by male authors. Sure, there are the Austens and the Brontës of the literary world, but generally speaking, most recognized writers are men. This International Women’s Day, let us look at some female alternatives which still encapsulate all the major themes of the classic literary canon.
One of the big themes within classic literature is that of gothic fiction and gothic horror. Perhaps the most famous example of the latter is Dracula by Bram Stoker, which is generally recognized as creating the quintessential archetype of the vampire. However, over 25 years earlier, the female Irish author Sheridan Le Fanu wrote Carmilla, a novella about a young woman preyed upon by a female vampire. Most importantly, the work destroys the Victorian view of women as reliant on men, and also engages with a more positive view of lesbianism.
In the 20th century, there was a wave of social exposés that became part of the classic literature canon — see The Jungle by Upton Sinclair as a great example. The majority were written by men, given that journalism and muckraking were generally seen as male domains, and not suitable for women, who were seen as the weaker sex. Enter Elizabeth Cochran Seaman, better known by her pen name Nellie Bly, an American journalist who helped launch a new form of investigative journalism. Her most famous exposé is Ten Days In A Mad-House, which is based on articles written by Bly while undercover at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. Due to her reportage, a grand jury launched its own investigation into the asylum, leading to more funding and better conditions.
Another quintessential topic in classic literature pertains to war, particularly as it is experienced and remembered by men (some famous examples include Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls and Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front). Generally underrecognized are women’s experiences during wartime, whether that includes life on the homefront or their actual involvement in conflict. To gain some new insight into wartime experiences from a female perspective, check out The Time Of The Doves by Mercè Rodoreda. Set in Barcelona, this novel follows Natalia and her relationship with two men during the Spanish Civil War and the ensuing Second Spanish Republic. For World War II fiction, look to Suite Française, an unfinished sequence of five novels about the German occupation of France by Irène Némirovsky, a French writer of Ukrainian-Jewish origin who was murdered at Auschwitz.
Dystopian fiction, much like science fiction in general, has always been the domain of men. When asked for examples of dystopias, chances are you think of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. For a new take on what the future could look like, as seen by women, try Swastika Night by Katharine Burdekin, which imagines a world where Hitler’s “Thousand Year Reich” is realised. Or try Kallocain by the Swedish novelist Karin Boye, which depicts a totalitarian state where drugs are used to detect individual acts and thoughts of rebellion.
Naturally, these are just a few suggestions of female alternatives in classic literature. There is a whole literary world to explore of classic female authors in all genres, from fantasy to memoirs — you might just have to dig a little deeper to find them.