Fictional Women Writers: From Anthony Trollope to Carol Shields

I have been musing about a multitude of delightful fictitious women writers. And because I have read so many novels in which fictional women writers play a major or minor role, I began to wonder: are they more assured than their authors?   Fictional writers struggle financially, but their voices are heard.

Of course, like everyone else, I know the difference between real life and a novel. I used to pore over the VIDA statistics, which proved that too few women’s books were reviewed, there were too few women editors and reviewers, and too few women in translation.

“The sins of the goddamned fathers!” I thought.

And then I forgot, because I seem to register many women’s voices anyway, and I try to read books by both sexes.

At least women writers in fiction are strong. They don’t complain and moan about inequality.  (Of course, in real life we may.)

Here are a few of my favorite novels that feature fictional women writers.

1  The Last Resort by Pamela Hansford Johnson. Christine, a happily married writer, decides to spend some days alone in a hotel so she can finish a manuscript. But Christine also proves herself a thoughtful, observant friend as she relates the disturbing events of her friend Celia’s love affair with a married man. (Celia’s parents live at the hotel.)  This is a fascinating novel, though a bit melodramatic and slightly dated.  You will love Christine, who first appeared in An Impossible Marriage.

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope. Trollope’s masterpiece about finance and marriage begins with an introduction to the memorable character Lady Carbury, a 42-year-old widow trying to supplement her income by writing earnest but badly-researched books, her latest being Criminal Queens. She hustles to promote herself, and the letters she sends to editors are hilarious.  They work, too.

3  Some Do Not… by Ford Madox Ford.  The hero Tietjens greatly respects Mrs. Wannop, who has written a great novel but often turns to him for help when writing journalism.   Mad about making connections with the critics and aggressively trying to meet them, she follows in the footsteps of Trollope’s PR-conscious Lady Carbury.  Ford writes, “Mrs. Wannop was a woman of business. If she heard of a reviewer within driving distance she called on him with eggs as a present.”

4  Less Than Angels by Barbara Pym. Catherine Oliphant spends her days in an apartment in Bloomsbury writing short stories  for women’s magazines. While she types her formulaic stories, she  keeps an eye on the new anthropology library across the street.  Her boyfriend, Tom, has been away in Africa for two years, and now neglects Catherine for his work . But over the course of the novel, we get the feeling that Catherine is the true anthropologist

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Jo March, an aspiring writer, is  Alcott’s most famous character.  The second daughter in a family held together by Marmee while Father is a chaplain in the Civil War, Jo writes plays  when we first meet her, and continues her career writing for magazines as an adult–though her boyfriend Professor Bhaer spoils the fun of her writing blood-and-thunder stories.  (Louisa Alcott loved writing blood-and-thunder.)

6  Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood. This charming, early novel by Atwood is narrated by Joan Foster, a romance writer and poet who has metamorphosed from an unpopular fat girl into a seductive, secretive adult. Joan tells no one about her successful writing career, not even her husband, who is oblivious of the hours she spends writing.  This very funny, charming novel deserves more attention.

7  The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing. Anna, the heroine, is cynical about her mawkish best-selling first novel, and as a result is blocked.   Now she writes only for herself, in five different notebooks.  There are many layers in the notebooks, and this fragmented novel reflects society in the ’40s, ’50s, and’60s.  A masterpiece.

The Box Garden by Carol Shields. The likable narrator, Charleen Forrest, a poet and part-time assistant editor at a botanical journal, is depressed about the impact of divorce on her family life. Her husband left her and their fifteen-year-old son to live in a commune and raise organic food five years ago. Meanwhile she is dating an orthodontist—whom her friends think very unhip—and corresponding with a man whose philosophical essay on grass (not marijuana) was rejected by the botanical journal.

9 Dangerous Ages by Rose Macaulay.  In this moving, deftly-written novel, Macaulay meticulously sketches four generations of women in a family. One of my favorite characters is thirty-three-year-old Nan, a bohemian novelist.  She has decided to tell her lover she will marry him as soon as as she finishes her book. But then her 20-year-old niece Gerda gets in the way, falling in love with Nan’s boyfriend.  You can imagine the turmoil.  This is, however, one of many crises in the family.

Do you have any favorite fictional writers?  You may notice I couldn’t think of a tenth, though I like my lists to have ten.

4 thoughts on “Fictional Women Writers: From Anthony Trollope to Carol Shields”

  1. I can’t say I would recommend it as a piece of great literature, but Angela Thirkell’s first novel, High Rising, has its main character a woman writer, Laura Morland, who you can’t help thinking is a lightly disguised Thirkell herself.

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    1. Oh my goodness! That’s a great addition to the list. Thirkell’s books have disappeared seamlessly from my head. I love Mrs. Morland’s bobby pins falling out of her hair. And I never would have remembered her.

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  2. Great list! Carol Shields’ first novel also features a writer, Charleen’s sister Judith, who used to write fiction but takes up non-fiction (biography) and finds that she discovers more about her “subjects” when she looks at the novels they wrote rather than their non-fiction (her subjects are also writers). If you haven’t revisited Shields’ early novels for some time, I recommend rereading…I’m in the middle of reading through her books again and am just loving the sense of re”discovery”.

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    1. I reread Shields’ first book last year, and had forgotten those two were sisters. I do love Shields. I have found all of her books (in different parts of the house) and put them on a shelf. Finally, I know where they are.

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