Sunday, April 28, 2013

9 Novels that Warrant a Closer Look

 Many of my favorite novels are obscure, out of print, or only just beginning an academic re-evaluation. I decided to put together this list of nine books, many out of print or obscenely expensive, that deserve a larger readership. Almost all of them are written by women - some of these female writers never received the recognition that they merited or were swiftly forgotten; others are recognized only for one or two works, while the rest remain little known.

Work by Louisa May Alcott
Today Alcott is remembered almost solely for Little Women and therefore considered a children's author. Alcott was in fact a prolific writer who wrote novels and short stories both for young people and for adults. Her most mature novel is Work, which narrates the struggle of Christie Devon to support herself without resorting to either prostitution or suicide in 19th century Boston. Closely based on Alcott's own struggles to gain honest financial independence, this marvelous novel is the most obviously feminist of her books, as well as the most contemporary.

The Professor by Charlotte Bronte
Charlotte Bronte's first novel has been slammed by critics and dismissed as an aborted draft of her later great novel, Villette. Though it has been somewhat rehabilitated in academia, it remains largely unknown to the enormous readership of the perennially popular Jane Eyre. The Professor lacks the melodrama and romanticism of Jane Eyre, while retaining its rather bleak outlook. It tells the story of a fairly mediocre young professor in his quest for professional success. The book's bitterness may turn some people off, but its concise realism feels more modern than the romanticism of Bronte's other novels.

The Brimming Cup by Dorothy Canfield
The vast majority of Dorothy Canfield's prodigious output is out of print, even though she was one of the most popular American writers of her time. She was a brilliant writer, thinker, and activist, and I could have chosen any of her novels for this list. The Brimming Cup is a nuanced and beautifully written account of a wife and mother trying to rebuild the identity she lost when she assumed her matrimonial and maternal roles. Few novels have captured one of the most difficult feminist dilemmas so exquisitely well. 

No Name by Wilkie Collins
Wilkie Collins has been somewhat overshadowed by his friend and collaborator Charles Dickens, though a fair number of his novels remain in print. Collins was one of the earliest writers of detective novels and he invented many of the genre's formulas. No Name is the story of two orphaned sisters, who discover after their parents have died that they are in fact illegitimate and therefore cannot inherit their parents' money. The money instead passes to a distant male relative and the sisters try to get the money back by marrying the relative. The novel was written to support reform of 19th century British inheritance laws, but it is a great deal more than that. Magdalen Vanstone is one of the most fascinating, assertive, and complex heroines of British literature.

Jennie by Paul Gallico
Paul Gallico wrote many beloved books with animal protagonists, mostly cats, but the only one still widely available is The Snow Goose. This delicious novel follows a little boy who finds himself suddenly transformed into a cat. He meets Jennie, a streetwise stray, who initiates him into the feline way of life. Gallico's book could easily be a sickeningly precious story, but it is instead a absolutely unsentimental and profound vision of the meaning of life.

Letters from a Peruvian Woman by Francoise de Graffigny
According to her wikipedia page, Francoise de Graffigny was a prolific writer, but you wouldn't know that because most of her literary output remains unpublished, at least in English. Her magnificent and very early feminist novel has been fully appreciated in the academic world, but is otherwise largely unknown. The main character is a Peruvian princess, kidnapped and brought to Europe by French explorers. She keeps a written record throughout her ordeal, first with a kind of knot-writing and then on paper. She eventually has to choose between marriage and a professional life as a writer. This novel is not just a feminist landmark (and written in 1747!), it is also significant for its complex and sympathetic portrayal of a native American.

The Kelpie's Pearls by Molly Hunter
Mollie Hunter is well known in Britain, but in America all her books are out of print. She is a brilliant fantasy writer and though The Kelpie's Pearls is written for children, it's just as good for adults. The story is based on Scottish folklore and tells of the relationships between a kelpie, a suspected witch, and a young girl, in the midst of a chaos of reporters who are looking for the Loch Ness monster. Hunter's gift for magical storytelling is as great as that of Michael Ende or Lloyd Alexander. I also recommend The Third Eye.

The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery
Today, L. M. Montgomery is remembered primarily for her best-selling Anne of Green Gables and its sequels, which have been constantly in print since they were first published. The Blue Castle is one of her two novels for adults and my absolute favorite of all her warm and funny books. Valancy is diagnosed with a terminal heart condition and decides to throw over the rigid control her family exerts on her. The story largely concerns how Valancy liberates herself and develops her own identity. The novel is also extremely funny and full of the gorgeous natural descriptions at which Montgomery excelled.

Precious Bane by Mary Webb
Precious Bane was Mary Webb's only hit novel and the only one that is easy to track down without spending a fortune. Her style is simple and heavily influenced by the Shropshire dialect and she has a gift for revealing beauty in ordinary things. The novel is narrated by Prue, a farmer's daughter with a hare lip who has been taught to read and write by the local "wizard." This unpretentious novel absolutely deserves greater recognition and perhaps a good run on the book club circuit.

Hopefully, we will soon see some new affordable editions of these books!


  1. I remember reading a very entertaining book by Paul Gallico, years grandmother had a copy. It was called "The Hand of Mary Constable", about a medium who was fleecing vulnerable people. Very eerie and fun. That started me on a bit of a Gallico "kick" and I read the lovely "Mrs. 'Arris" books, and some others too. Hard to believe they are all out of print. They certainly wouldn't feel contemporary to today's readers, but they wouldn't be so terribly outdated, either. Thanks for reminding me about a fun author!

  2. I loved Blue Castle! Such a breath of fresh air from the usual period novel. These are terrific additions; I believe The Professor will be next on my list.