What is a “lost” women’s classic? How unappreciated does something have to be before you consider it lost? Also, lost to whom?
As a Virago author, I am proudly, painfully aware that my book was paid for – literally and figuratively – by the art of women who are now dead. There wouldn’t be a taste for the kind of gothic body-horror in my debut, Promising Young Women, had Angela Carter not been serving it under a cloche in the mid-80s. There wouldn’t be a space for female humour if Nancy Mitford hadn’t carved it out with a scalpel. There wouldn’t be a thirst for workplace romances if Charlotte Brontë hadn’t drawn up the template for them. My first book was written by telling all these women – and many others – to turn around so I could smooth my paper between their shoulder blades.
And yet, all of my favourite authors went through a period of lostness before they were picked up by some gutsy publisher. In many cases, that publisher was Virago: in 1978, Virago Modern Classics set out to publish either women who were out of print, or whose work didn’t get the respect it deserved, and changed the literary landscape in the process.
There are writers who are beloved within their niche, who have thriving fanbases, but still might not have a single book in Waterstones. Are they lost?
Lost until someone finds them, I guess. But lost, as a status, is a transient one. The following books have all endured some kind of success, some kind of loss, and at least a few of them will have you saying: “What do you mean, lost? I saw that in an airport WH Smith!”
To this, I have no answer. These are simply the books that I want to push into people’s hands, that they might not find elsewhere. The books, you’ll realise, that your library was lost without.
1. Kindred by Octavia Butler
This is often cited as the first science fiction published by a black woman, but you don’t need to put Kindred in the category of “firsts” to find it brilliant. It follows 26-year-old Dana, a black woman moving in with her white boyfriend, who is periodically sent back in time to a pre-civil war Maryland plantation. Here, she’s forced to protect her distant white relatives from destruction while they abuse her and other slaves. It is the marker you should judge all other time-travelling narratives by.
2. Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin
I have limited interest in adjectives, and food writing is full of them. Even good food writing I find hard going. Or at least, I did, until someone gifted me this slim little paperback. It’s full of gross references to 80s food, such as creamed spinach. Regardless, it’s a tragicomic exploration of life and friendship through food, something every food writer wants to achieve, but Colwin truly pulled out of the bag.
3. Are You Somebody? by Nuala O’Faolain
I had always wondered, when reading Nora Ephron, if Ireland ever had an equivalent. Someone witty and female who would not only call a spade a spade but acknowledge the blade, the handle and the funny way it sticks out of the earth. Recently, I discovered that person in Nuala O’Faolain. Her memoir Are You Somebody? is equal parts hilarious, tragic and wonderfully gossipy. “Years after I was in Hull, Philip Larkin apologised. ‘I was asked to look out for you,’ he said. ‘But I’m afraid I couldn’t be bothered.’”
4. Passing by Nella Larsen
Passing is one of those books you’re either obsessed with, or have never heard of. A gem of the Harlem Renaissance, it follows two black women, the married Irene and the beautiful Clare, who has committed to a life of “passing” as white and is now homesick for the culture she abandoned.
There were thousands of “tragic mulatto” narratives being peddled in Larsen’s day, and most of them had a very similar arc: light-skinned black girl tries to “become white”, fails, is rejected by both cultures and dies tragically. Most of them are worth leaving in the cultural dust. Passing both follows the genre and subverts it completely, its use of Irene as narrator making it a compelling psychological drama as well as an investigation of race and class in Harlem in the early 20th century.
5. Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady by Florence King
Republican, southern, and gay, King was the definition of an equal-opportunities hater. She was the Dorothy Parker of the American south, and because Dorothy Parker figures are much better suited to chic cocktail bars than they are to sweltering wraparound porches, she has largely flown under the radar. In her own words, “even my different drummer had a different drummer”.
6. One Pair of Feet by Monica Dickens
This wartime nurse may have been a descendant of Charles Dickens, but she had very little interest in feigning compassion at the discomfort of others. This reads more like a diary than a memoir, with none of the usual ego and self-preservation of autobiography.
7. Dolly City by Orly Castel-Bloom
When a book’s very first page includes the butchering and eating of a pet goldfish, you know you’re in for a bumpy ride. Baby stealing, grave-digging, pet-eating, Holocaust jokes – you name it, this Tel Aviv nightmare has it. A cult classic about motherhood and, in particular, Jewish motherhood, Dolly City is horrifyingly dark yet ceaselessly comic.
8. Angel by Elizabeth Taylor
It took me becoming a Virago author to finally understand that there are two very different Elizabeth Taylors. Angel is the story of a teenage girl with a preternatural taste for melodrama who ends up writing a bestseller whose success baffles even her publishers. You can’t help but think that it’s a sly wink from Taylor, who wrote a score of books and dozens of short stories, toward the industry as a whole.
What better way to fill the ninth spot on this list that with an author who was actually nine when she wrote her book? What’s fascinating about the story is that, while it was written by a child, it is definitely not a children’s book. It’s a serious society novel, and takes itself hugely seriously. It ends up being an unwitting parody not only of literature, but of adults as a class of people.
“Bring three glasses of champaigne commanded the prince and some ices he added majestikally. The goods appeared as if by majic and the prince drew out a cigar case and passed it round.
“One grows weary of Court Life he remarked.
“Ah yes agreed the earl.”
10. The Brontës Went to Woolworths by Rachel Ferguson
“I was so rasped with life that I hit Goldsmith’s tomb with my umbrella. I said, ‘I’d give five pounds if somebody’d come along and tell us both how clever we are.’”
At a certain point, you’re going to run out of Mitford novels to reread. Fear not, good sister, because if wry, absurd novels about posh sisters are your drugs of choice, this is your crack.
- Promising Young Women by Caroline O’Donoghue is published by Virago, priced £16.99. It is available from the Guardian bookshop for £14.44, including free UK p&p.
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