Saturday, April 5, 2014

8 Early 20th Century Novels Every Feminist Should Read

In a culture that tends to value the new over the old and the popular over the old-fashioned, it is already too easy to insulate oneself from all cultural expressions that are not immediately relevant to one's time, place, and situation. While the major risk of such insulation is cultural sterility, a more insidious one is societal forgetfulness that simplifies history to an easy-to-digest narrative with good guys and bad guys that emphasizes progression over truth. For feminists, whose political work has barely begun and whose few gains continue to be assailed legislatively and judicially, an understanding of the past struggles of women can not but be illuminating. And so, here are eight brilliant novels, all published between 1900 and 1919, that are particularly illuminating for feminists.

Sister Carrie - Theodore Dreiser
This novel, published in 1900, was available only in a censored version until 1981, a result of Dreiser's refusal to morally condemn his sexually active and unmarried heroine. Carrie is a young innocent, freshly arrived in Chicago and eager to participate in the vivid city life she's only read about. A traveling salesman notices her pretty face and figure and tempts her away from the miserable working conditions of factory life to a far more luxurious, if decidedly less socially acceptable, position as his mistress. Sister Carrie broke all the rules - sexuality outside of marriage is presented as natural, condemned socially rather than morally, and the still potent Madonna/whore paradigm is smashed to bits.

The House of Mirth - Edith Wharton
Lily Bart, the heroine of Edith Wharton's first major work, is socially and financially ambitious, seeking a marriage with the most eminently eligible bachelor she can find. Far from being a mercenary shrew, Lily understands all too well the miseries of poverty and dependence and she recognizes that working for her living will irrevocably destroy her social standing and her marriage prospects. Her descent into squalor is vividly and heartbreakingly rendered, but not at the cost of severe critique. Wharton's acute examination of gender and class politics is one of the greatest of all American novels and absolutely essential for the feminist reader.

Anne of Green Gables - L. M. Montgomery
Montgomery's enduringly popular novel follows Anne Shirley, an orphan girl adopted by Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, brother and sister, who had hoped for a boy to help out with the chores. The irrepressible Anne is constantly getting herself into scrapes, from dying her hair green to accidentally intoxicating her best friend, but her determination, ambition, and imagination elevate her above similar girlish heroines, like Sara Crewe or Pollyanna Whittier. Anne is a genuinely feminist heroine - complex, willing to fight for what she wants and what she believes, professionally ambitious, and completely resistant to giving up those ambitions for the sake of romance.

A Girl of the Limberlost - Gene Stratton Porter
Though enormously popular in its day, A Girl of the Limberlost has gone out of fashion and is usually critically dismissed as an example of juvenilia rather than regarded as a serious novel. It would not be ridiculous to argue that this is at least partially due to the patriarchal standards applied to the literary canon. Elnora Comstock is determined to escape the squalid misery of an impoverished home with a mother who hates her. Rather than seek salvation in a male savior, Elnora chooses to attend high school, earning her way by trapping and selling rare moth specimens in Limberlost Swamp. This novel had a huge impact on literature for young girls, which thereafter tended to have far more self-reliant protagonists.

Howards End - E. M. Forster
Forster's greatest novel and one of my absolute favorites in any language, Howards End is a masterfully told story about class in Edwardian England. The Schlegal sisters are politically liberal and culturally adventurous, intellectually rigorous and relatively unswayed by social convention. While the elder sister, Margaret, becomes increasingly tangled with the Wilcoxes, a wealthy industrialist family living a rarefied existence of private house parties and luxury, the younger sister, Helen, is moved by her reckless compassion and foolhardy altruistic impulses to embrace Leonard Bast, a poor clerk with literary ambition, and his sluttish wife. Keenly compassionate and sharply critical, Forster's masterpiece is an extraordinary and essential novel.

Herland - Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Charlotte Perkins Gilman is best known today for her great short story, "The Yellow Wallpaper," a deeply disturbing depiction of a woman's descent into madness, but Herland is perhaps the more fundamentally feminist work. Gilman imagines a utopian world, discovered by a sociologist and his two friends, entirely populated by women. In this world, children are produced asexually and society is free of violence and dominance. Herland is a challenging, if flawed, work, one that demands a critical response from the reader and still, even today, poses questions so difficult that most of us are inclined to ignore them rather than disrupt our political and social thinking.

Summer - Edith Wharton
Wharton's answer to Edwardian sexual prudishness follows Charity, a young woman who, after successfully rebuffing the abusive sexual advances of her guardian, falls in love and in bed with a handsome rake who has no intention of following through. Charity's situation as a woman, already marked by her mother's past as a prostitute, without financial, social, or sexual power galvanizes Wharton's damning social critique. A brutally frank depiction of sexual double standards and gendered power dynamics, Summer remains a deeply relevant novel, especially given the frighteningly regressive political climate in the US as far as women's rights are concerned.

The Voyage Out - Virginia Woolf
Woolf's first novel, compared by E. M. Forster to Wuthering Heights for its fearlessness, is about Rachel Vinrace, a young girl on her first trip abroad, to South America. Her journey is both an emotional and intellectual one, a liberating and sensual excursion into adulthood. Woolf's original draft (which has been reconstructed and published under the title Melymbrosia) was far more politically frank, particularly about topics like women's suffrage and British colonialism, but The Voyage Out remains a powerful work, a portrait of girlhood and young womanhood at once erotic, erudite, and ethereal.

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