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Friday, 2 September 2011

Book Review: Women Who Did ed. Angelique Richardson

The full title of this collection is Women Who Did: Stories by Men and Women 1890-1914. The individual stories by authors such as Katherine Mansfield, Thomas Hardy and Kate Chopin examine the 'new woman', the turn of the century female who was beginning to demand and expect equality with men. The introduction by Angelique Richardson is well worth a read as it sets up the context nicely. There are also short biographical notes at the end of the book for the twenty-five authors included.

Most - if not all - of the stories in this collection can be described as exquisite. Even the satirical 'She-Notes' by Borgia Smudgiton (Owen Seaman) was charming because of, rather than instead of, its satire. Many of the stories have a didactic tone and the occasional lighter moments offset that quite nicely. Some of the stories I'd encountered in other collections but as a whole they point to one huge shift in the way women viewed themselves and were viewed by others.

I didn't dislike any one particular story but there were some I enjoyed more than others. 'The Yellow Drawing Room' by Mona Caird tells of a woman who has painted a room this disgusting shade of yellow but is nevertheless attractive to the male narrator who wants to marry her and change her. He courts her sister to make her jealous, something which the object of his affections could never forgive him for. A couple of the stories deal with race and the 'taint' of black blood. The most striking of these for me was 'Desiree's Baby' by Kate Chopin. A man rejects his wife on the basis of their baby obviously having a black ancestor, prompting her to walk into a river with her son. Thomas Hardy's 'An Imaginative Woman' was a story I was already familiar with but fitted into the collection perfectly. It tells of a aspiring female poet who develops an attachment to a man she has never met and the grief this causes both her and, later, her family. George Egerton (Mary Chavelita Dunne) supplies several stories, my favourite being 'Virgin Soil' where a young married woman condemns her mother for hiding from her the truth about married life.

My absolute favourites from the collection are two of the shortest. Kate Chopin's 'The Story of an Hour' tells of the reaction of a woman when learning of her husband's death. It was so potent that it stayed with me long after I'd finished the two pages it covered. My second favourite was Katherine Mansfield's 'Leves Amores', primarily because of the lesbian content and Mansfield's intense use of imagery, despite the small space in which to do so. I'd read this before, in relation to Claire Tomalin's biography of Mansfield, but included in this collection it certainly had a new resonance for me.

The most famous piece included in this book is probably Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 'The Yellow Wallpaper'. I have to say, that story never bores me. To be honest, I think that sums up my view of this entire collection - none of the stories bored me and all I would want to read again.

The twenty-five authors included in this book are: Mona Caird, Willa Cather, Kate Chopin, Gertrude Colmore, Mary Samuel Daniel, Ella D'Arcy, Rudolph Dircks, George Egerton, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, George Gissing, Sarah Grand, Thomas Hardy, Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins, Katherine Mansfield, Alice Meynell, George Moore, Clarence Rook, Saki, Olive Schreiner, Evelyn Sharp, Borgia Smudgiton, Edith Wharton, Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf and Zitkala-Sa.

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