Penelope Maclachlan 

Writers who submit their work and aim to have it published should use a pseudonym which reveals nothing about them – above all, not their gender. Even readers who try to be objective have their prejudices. They may prefer men to women, writers from the northern hemisphere to those from the southern hemisphere, and so forth.  The focus must be on the work itself. After writers are published, and paid for their work, they may choose to tell the world whether they are male or female, married or single, with or without children and so forth. 

There are so many inspiring women writers that it is difficult to choose which ones to discuss, and impossible to generalise about them. Each has her own voice. 

I begin with Virginia Woolf, whose style is nuanced and evocative. Mrs Dalloway examines one day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, who is rich and privileged. She is planning a party for that evening. Her story is intertwined with that of Septimus Warren Smith, a war veteran who is suffering from what we would call PTSD. The two characters never meet. They seem worlds apart; one, though disillusioned,  has everything. The other lacks status and, worse, peace of mind, but is married to Lucrezia, a loyal, loving wife. A psychiatrist, Sir William Bradshaw, sees Septimus who, rather than be incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital, throws himself from  a window, is impaled on a fence and dies.  Sir William and his wife attend Clarissa’s party and Mrs Bradshaw tells everyone there what has happened. At first Clarissa is annoyed, but then she withdraws and reflects that Septimus was admirable for choosing death rather than submitting to authority. 

Virginia Woolf suffered from depression and was in hospital several times before she weighted her pockets with stones, waded into a river and drowned. 

There is no direct moralising. We have no sense of whether the author approves of disapproves of suicide. With hindsight we may guess that she approved of it. Clarissa rebukes herself because, where she has compromised, Septimus has refused to do so. 

What distinguishes Mrs Dalloway apart is Virginia Woolf’s deployment of the stream of consciousness technique. Instead of telling us what the characters are thinking, she takes us into their minds, enabling us to see through their eyes and hear with their ears.  

Could a man have written Mrs Dalloway? It seems not to have been written from a feminine point of view. Despite the author’s penetrating observation of her characters, she is objective.  

Angels Carter was a prolific writer. Wise Children is an intricate novel featuring several sets of twins, relationships between different generations, and theatre. The narrator is Dora Chance, who lives with Nora, her identical twin. They are the illegitimate children of Sir Melchior Hazard, who invites them to his hundredth birthday party. There is wry humour, disreputable behaviour, and fun. Chance and hazard are recurring themes. Every scene – it is a visual narrative, full of colour and clamour – brings us hilarity and playacting. The robust humour may seem to smack of ale-drinking and bed-swapping, but the author is a woman.   

Are women writers special? At one time they had to adopt a male pseudonym before anyone would publish their work. George Eliot’s real name was Mary Ann Evans. Middlemarch is one of her many novels of which any author should be proud to have written. 

Let us hope that writers are now respected not for their gender or other accidents of birth, but for their gifts and their ability to enlighten and entertain us.  

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