By: Mary Ickes
The Literary Ladies Guide to the Writing Life:
Inspiration and Advice from Celebrated Women Authors Who Paved the Way
By Nava Atlas
Nava Atlas reports in her introduction that she intended to create . . . a treasury of intimate glimpses into the unfolding creative process across twelve brilliant careers. To attain her goal, Ms. Navas . . . pored through letters, journals, memoirs and interviews and chose those who had a great deal to say about the creative, practical, and emotional components of the writing life. Writers meeting her criteria were Americans Louisa May Alcott, Willa Cather, Edna Ferber, Madeleine L’Engle, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Edith Wharton, and Anaïs Nin (emigrated from France as a child); Canadian: L. M. Montgomery; English: Jane Austin, Charlotte Bronte, and Virginia Woolf; and French: George Sand. Female standards and mores for Jane Austin (Pride and Prejudice) and Charlotte Bronte (Jane Eyre) in the early nineteenth century differed so greatly from the era of Madeline L’Engle (Wrinkle in Time) and Anaïs Nin (The Early Diary of Anaïs Nin and The Diary of Anaïs Nin) in the twentieth century that common bonds seem impossible, but all twelve endured rejection from publishers or from their family and friends.
Though Jane Austin’s father and brothers corresponded with publishers, success long eluded her; one publisher returned Pride and Prejudice, unopened, by the next mail. Charlotte Bronte submitted Jane Eyre under the pseudonym Currer Bell to fairly good reviews until critics discovered that the author was female; then they . . . weighed the merits of the book on the basis of the gender of its author. Amantine Aurore Lucile Dupin (George Sand), born between Austin and Bronte, lived with such glorious disregard for standards and mores that she created her own era.
At the other end of the book’s time spectrum, so many publishers rejected Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time that her agents gave up and returned the manuscript. Publishers pronounced her confrontation between good and evil much too dark for children. Since C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, published a decade earlier, was already a children’s classic, L’Engle knew better. Submitting the book to one more publisher won children another classic and L’Engle every genre award possible. For Anaïs Nin, rejection, literary or personal, was never a serious concern: Decades of writing accompanied by scant publication success is ample proof that passion was the main ingredient in her steadfast devotion to the craft.
Authors between Austin’s era and Nin’s shared a writing advantage that provided training and background: . . . a wealth of paying outlets for the written word. That’s where writers, male and female, honed their skills.
Long before she married, at age 25, a preacher rich only in . . . Greek and Hebrew and Latin and Arabic . . . Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) earned money publishing . . . sketches, poems, religious tracts. Husband’s meager income barely enough to support seven children, Stowe’s writing income purchased the necessities. Beginning at age 16, Louisa May Alcott (Little Women) supported her family with published articles, thrillers, and Gothic stories. Bored with the story genre, her publisher suggested that she write a story appealing to young girls. In less than six months, Little Women was a best seller. Willa Cather (O Pioneers!) intended to become a doctor, until college friends submitted an essay that was published . . . what youthful vanity can be unaffected by the sight of itself in print! It was a kind of hypnotic effect. From the Nebraska State Journal in college, Cather progressed to managing editor of McClure’s magazine in New York City. McClure’s serialization of Alexander’s Bridge, her first novel, marked the beginning of her brilliant career in fiction. The editor of Appleton, Wisconsin’s, paper was so impressed by Edna Ferber’s writing that he hired her as a reporter while she was still in high school. After graduation, she worked at the Milwaukee Journal until So Big, her first novel, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1924 and was released as a movie later that year. L. M. Montgomery (Anne of Green Gables) traded her teaching job for writing time until, funds depleting and rejections flourishing, she found work as a publisher’s proofreader. Discouraged by the rejections for Anne of Green Gables, Montgomery hid the manuscript, determined to desert Anne forever. A year later, Montgomery decided that Anne deserved another chance and sold her to the first publisher approached.
Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf were exceptions to working in the publishing industry, but not to rejection. Born to society parents who established the adage keeping up with the Joneses, Wharton’s greatest accomplishment was expected to be a good marriage. Bored by their vapid society life, she devoured literature, history, science, and philosophy in her father’s library. Her first writing attempt, at age eleven, was so brutally condemned by her mother that she secretly wrote on paper begged from servants. Wharton served her apprenticeship under the tutelage of a friend who helped her transform piles of paper into The Decoration of Houses (1895), still in print. Though devastated that her family and friends never acknowledged her successes, she persevered. Edith Wharton was the first woman awarded the Pulitzer Prize—in 1921 for Age of Innocence.
For Virginia Woolf (A Room of One’s Own), born into a learned and literary family, writing dominated her life from an early age. Rejection for Woolf came not from publishers or friends, but from within as she battled depression to produce her enormous legacy of essays and short stories, letters and novels. After her death by suicide in 1941, Woolf’s husband edited and published her journals, a tribute to Woolf’s genius and perseverance.
Rejection and Acceptance, Reading Friends, is just one of the eight engaging chapters in Ms. Atlas’ book. After a brief biography of each author, she progresses through the major aspects of writing, including Developing a Voice and Tools of the Trade. Since discussing each author in every chapter would have produced a tome of encyclopedic proportions, Ms. Atlas deftly allocated them throughout so that readers finish with an overall perspective of each Literary Lady.
Her book’s appearance enriches the topics. The small photographs on the cover’s banner indicate within which author’s journals or letters are quoted on that particular page. Each author’s photographs range from childhood to various stages of adulthood. Ms. Atlas’ drawings, some whimsical and others serious, add a delightful dimension to the text and photographs: wadded paper beside a typewriter as though a discouraged Literary Lady fled the scene; Wharton’s house, The Mount; dignified leather-bound books, and the first edition cover of Woolf’s Jacob’s Room. Much of the book’s joy is discovering a drawing or photograph as if opening to that page for the first time. Writers and artists will enjoy learning about each other’s genres and their own!
In her prologue, Ms. Atlas writes: Even as a small child, I was rarely without a pencil in my hand, with which I wrote and drew in equal measure. As an adult she succeeded splendidly in both endeavors. Vegetariana, her first book on vegan and vegetarian eating, is already a classic. She is also . . . a visual artist, specializing in limited-edition artists’ books and text-driven objects and installations. Museums showing Ms. Atlas’ works include the Museum of Modern Art (NYC) and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Please visit her on the web at 1) VegKitchen.com; 2) navaatlas.com to enjoy her Altered Books and Readable Objects, and 3) her blog: dearliteraryladies.blogspot.com
View from My Catio
(Tuxedo Cat Par Excellence)
Not that I know much about Literary Ladies, but I firmly believe that Mary should have been included in this book. One thing I do know is that she’s Keeper of the Food so I bow, grovel, wheedle, flatter, fawn, brown-nose, entreat, implore, plead, and prostrate myself in whatever manner possible. I can’t think of anything more exalting to her than to be considered in the same category as these twelve women. There! That should get me an extra helping or two—maybe even three.