Penguin Women Writers
By Isabel Wall
In February 2018 it will be exactly one hundred years since women first secured the right to vote in Britain. This achievement represents decades of unwavering commitment by women who campaigned to make their voices heard. I wanted to celebrate the spirit of the anniversary by finding new readers for books by women that have been unjustly neglected.
I decided to invite two of our most acclaimed contemporary writers, Penelope Lively and Kamila Shamsie, to choose and introduce four books by female writers they felt deserved to be better known in the UK (as well as to showcase the work of the artist Martha Rich, who created the striking hand-painted covers). The resulting Penguin Women Writers series is a brilliantly diverse collection of forgotten classics, all of which are, in their own way, a fitting tribute to the radical and pioneering spirit behind the anniversary.
Penelope Lively champions the work of Mary McCarthy, the fiercely intelligent and acerbic American writer and activist, whose novel Birds of America explores political issues as relevant today as when it was first written in 1971, from the threat of war to environmental destruction. It’s also a witty account of the strange and surprising nature of growing up, as her teenage protagonist discovers when he leaves America for a thrilling new life in Paris. Her second choice might seem surprising at first glance, since it comes from the beloved children’s writer E Nesbit. The Lark is one of her little-known novels for adults, first published in 1922: an utterly joyful novel about two young girls determined to earn a living of their own after their male guardian gambles away their inheritance.
Kamila Shamsie’s choices will introduce readers to writers who are renowned in other parts of the world but barely known here in the UK: Ismat Chughtai and Sara Suleri. Chughtai was India’s most controversial feminist writer who was prosecuted (unsuccessfully) on obscenity charges for daring to write about lesbian love in 1940s India. This is just one of the pieces contained in Lifting the Veil, a wickedly funny collection of short stories and autobiographical fragments which explore female sexuality in a patriarchal world. Suleri’s memoir Meatless Days, first published in 1989, is a searing memoir of life in Pakistan; the sudden death of the author’s mother and sister inspires a profound and heart-breaking meditation on love and grief.
Events like the centenary remind us of the life-changing work done by women for women. The books in the Penguin Women Writers series were written at different times by authors of different religions, nationalities and political beliefs, but all of them shared a radical and progressive outlook which captures the spirit of the women who fought for the right to vote one hundred years ago. Together with The Old Vic’s One Hand Tied Behind Us, which promotes the work of female playwrights, the centenary provides a brilliant opportunity to pay tribute to the creative achievements of inspirational women writers.
To be in with the chance of winning the complete Penguin Women Writers series, head over to Twitter to tell us about a women who has inspired you.