“One must always be careful of books," said Tessa,
"and what is inside them, for words have the power to change us.”
Cassandra Clare, Clockwork Angel
Good books take us to the places we have never been to, to the times in history we have never imagined, to meet, love or loathe the characters we have never come across in real life. I have not included any book from lady authors on my earlier list only because I thought, it will be better to give a separate list. I admit that it is not the best eleven available, the list is made up of my favorites which I feel will give one a reasonably good idea about the perceptions of the lady writers. So here goes my list of the ladies, being released as a gift to my wife on our 4th wedding anniversary :)
1. I would like to start with a book I had read when I was in primary school, that left my young mind confused, bruised, and astonished. "Uncle Tom's Cabin was a small log building. In front, it had a neat garden-patch, where, every summer, strawberries, raspberries, and a variety of fruits and vegetables, flourished under careful tending. The whole front of it was covered by a large scarlet bignonia and a native multiflora rose, which, entwisting and interlacing, left scarce a vestige of the rough logs to be seen. Here, also, in summer, various brilliant annuals, such as marigolds, petunias, four-o'clock, found an indulgent corner in which to unfold their splendors."
It is said that the Russian revolution was in fact started by the Mothers who took streets as they had nothing to feed their children. A similar story says that when he met Harriet Beecher Stowe at the start of the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln declared, "So this is the little lady who started this great war." Published in 1852, Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly, thus had a profound effect on the war of another type, that on slavery. Hence the first on this list is the best-selling novel of the 19th century and in fact the second best-selling book of that century, following the Bible.
2. Then comes the female version of David Copperfield, my favorite heroine from fiction. “I was dazzled, stimulated: my senses were excited; and being ignorant, raw, and inexperienced, I thought I loved her. There is no folly so besotted that the idiotic rivalries of society, the prurience, the rashness, the blindness of youth, will not hurry a man to its commission.”
Charlotte Bronte's beautiful rendering of the life of an orphan girl who struggles through her nearly loveless childhood and grows into a passionate and strongly principled young lady who values freedom and independence revolutionized prose fiction by being the first to focus on its protagonist's moral and spiritual development through an intimate first-person narrative. Jane Eyre is not only one of the most famous romance novels of all time, but also considered by many critics to be ahead of its time in its treatment of class, sexuality, religion, and feminism. The eldest of the Brontes is considered as the literary ancestor of writers like Proust and Joyce who are in my earlier list.
3. The very fact that the first-ever science fiction was told by an eighteen-year-old girl who wanted to get even with her friends who used to tell her horror stories to amuse her during their trips across Europe, merits its position high up in the list. Mary Shelley crafted the story of a scientist who created a live monster using modern experiments in the laboratory, to compete with her future husband Percy Shelley and their friend Lord Byron to see who among them could write the best horror story and she won the contest hands down with her creation of Frankenstein.
4. At different periods in time, women have been denied education, acceptance, and access. Their works were labeled as light, inconsequential, too romantic, or without intellectual merit. The kind of status women was accorded is best exemplified in Mary Anne Evans' decision to publish her works under the name, George Eliot. Set in the fictitious Midlands town of Middlemarch, her magnum opus follows a vast, sweeping narrative that encompasses subjects of religion, idealism, and political reform.
5. Ashapurna Devi's expression of the great clouds of protest that had accumulated in her mind over the years, Prothom Protishruti, the First Promise is the first Indian book in this list as the personal favorite of the lady I had known longest in my life. Set mainly in a remote village of Bengal, it tells the struggle of childbride Satyabati against family control, mental violence of the polygamy system, superstition, injustice to women, and social prejudices in a patriarchal society. She continues her fight into adulthood and rebels against the people who wanted to keep women in their traditional place of inferiority.
6. "Even today there may be parents who would doubt the wisdom of allowing a girl of fifteen the free run of a large and quite unexpurgated library. But my father allowed it. There were certain facts – very briefly, very shyly he referred to them. Yet "Read what you like", he said, and all his books . . . were to be had without asking." said Virginia Woolf about her father.
For someone who had suffered from regular mood swings, and struggled with the illness for much of her relatively short life, she appears to have made the best use and achieved the best understanding, she could of that illness before surrendering to it as her remarkable literary output would testify. One of the most intelligent and remarkable lady writers in history, this pioneer in the use of stream of consciousness as a narrative device had been acknowledged as an influence by Margaret Atwood, Michael Cunningham, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Toni Morrison. In her monumental work, The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir counts, of all women who ever lived, only three female writers - Emily Bronte, Woolf, and "sometimes" Katherine Mansfield - have explored "the given." An iconic writer with no parallels, more postcards of Woolf is sold by the National Portrait Gallery, London than any other person. Her image is ubiquitous and can be found on tea towels to T-shirts.
It's difficult to select one work, but To The Lighthouse, described by the author herself as ‘easily the best of my books’, should be the obvious choice. A novel with little regard for the rules, with no consistent narrator, little dialogue and almost no plot - it reads more as a breathtaking and lyrical meditation on womanhood, relationships, nature, and the folly of perception.
7. Harper Lee's warm and humorous bildungsroman To Kill A Mocking Bird has to be in this list for its truthful handling of racial injustice, the destruction of innocence and the issues of class, courage, compassion, and gender roles all of which had a significant influence on arising the consciousness of a nation.
8. Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand's philosophical fiction caricaturing fascism, socialism, communism, and any state intervention in society, as allowing unproductive people to siphon off the hard-earned wealth of the productive, deserves a place for throwing up a totally different perspective on industrialists and their value to the society. Rand put forth the view that the outcome of any individual's life is purely a function of their ability and that any individual could overcome adverse circumstances, given ability and intelligence. And the book effectively advocates the author's philosophy of ethical egoism or rational selfishness, whereby all of the principal virtues and vices of a person are the manifestations of the person's basic tool for survival. The virtues such as productivity, independence, integrity, honesty, justice, pride are all applications of the basic virtue, rationality enriching the life of reason, purpose, and self-esteem.
9. The holder of the Guinness World Records for the title of best-selling fiction writer of all time, having sold over two billion copies, Agatha Christie can not be ignored from any list of lady writers. Again, it is difficult to pick one from her books, hence I would go with the author and recommend And Then There Were None described by her as the most difficult of her books to write. It is the best selling crime novel of all time, the one that gives her the record of the best selling novelist. With more than 100 million copies sold; it is also the world's best-selling mystery and one of the best-selling books of all time.
10. Baroness Emma Orczy's smooth reading, romantic, suspense thriller Scarlet Pimpernel has been included a personal feel-good favorite. Nevertheless, Orczy's portrayal of a daring hero who cultivates a secret identity disguised by a meek or ineffectual manner proved enduring and had been reenacted by several later heroes Zorro, the Shadow, the Spiderman, the Phantom, Superman, and Batman
11. I had read Svetlana Alexievich long before her Nobel Prize. In her books, she uses interviews to create a collage of a wide range of voices. With her "documentary novels", she lightens the boundary between reporting and fiction. She may not be as talented and as creative compared to the other ladies on this list. But her real-life stories of ordinary men and women who endured one of the most gruesome tragedies resulting from an Engineering failure in mankind's history is a must-read for all of us living under the increased threats from technological disasters. We may not have known about the sacrifices of those brave young men, Telyatnikov, Kibenok, Pravik, Ignatenko, Khodemchuk... Vladimir Pavlovich Pravik died a few days before his 24th birthday in 1986. His remains rest in a sealed zinc coffin in a cemetery in Moscow because it is more dangerous than a COVID19 coffin. He posthumously received the medals of the Order of Lenin and Hero of the Soviet Union. But it is said that he preferred to live and he fought hard to stay alive.
Lt. Vladimir Pravik was the duty chief of the firemen on that April night when catastrophe struck the fourth unit of the Chernobyl Atomic Power Station. He was at the forefront of his team to battle with fire and carried on as long as consciousness permitted. He received a massive dose of radiation, yet lived on for sixteen days. Only his mother was allowed to be with him in quarantine. He was in immense pain, 'nuclear' pain - atrocious, unbearable, and ruthless, bringing frequent fits of shock and unconsciousness. Lt. Pravik stoically endured the pain and would have won the battle for life had his skin not been killed in its full depth. He died one night, leaving his wife and a daughter, just a month old. He also left a final letter for them, apologizing for not doing his bit in raising his little one.
There it goes, the list of ladies, as promised. And I am sure these great writers will open before you a world as colorful, as diverse, as cruel, as compassionate as the ones you have witnessed in the books on the earlier list.