by Lesley Hall
This year I made a start on the massive, almost overwhelming, task of culling my bookshelves. I look at them, and I am increasingly aware that there are an awful lot of books there that I am never going to re-read. However, a by-product of this process was coming across books and authors that I realised I did want to re-read, and hadn’t for some time, with the consequence that I fell down several rabbit-holes of rediscovery, which was rather the keynote more generally.
In particular, I re-read all the Amanda Cross (pseudonym of Carolyn Heilbrun)’s Kate Fansler mysteries. I must have started acquiring these when one could occasionally find the US mass-market paperbacks in certain London bookshops – Compendium just off Camden Market, Sisterwrite on Upper Street Islington – long before any of them were picked up by Virago Press and published in the UK.
I wish, in retrospect, that I had taken more trouble to read them in publication order rather than picking them randomly off the shelf as I could reach them: I think I would have gained a clearer sense of how Cross was increasingly engaging with the rise of ‘second-wave’ feminism and the rediscovery of women writers and women’s literary traditions.
There are certainly ways in which they were ‘of their period’ and written from a particularly situated perspective, but still, there are some very acute takes on the academy and male academics (did, one wonders, Cross/Heilbrun enact on the page the murders that she felt tempted to in life?). Glancing at some of the reviews on Amazon and GoodReads I gleaned a sense that readers who came to them with conventional mystery genre expectations were sometimes somewhat baffled. My own take on Cross’s increasingly cavalier way with the conventions of the genre was that she was riffing with it. Further, I surmised that, in fact, she had chosen to write within genre for the plausible deniability ‘o, it is only a novel’ reasons that women (and other marginalized groups) have used for generations to be able to write what they want, to play with story and ideas.
One of her influences was surely Dorothy L. Sayers, and among the new books I read this year, I must strongly recommend Mo Moulton’s The Mutual Admiration Society: How Dorothy L. Sayers and Her Oxford Circle Remade the World for Women (Basic Books, 2019). While I may have a few qualms about the claims made in the subtitle, I found this an excellent study of a friendship network formed between a group of dissimilar women drawn together as contemporaries at Somerville College, Oxford, in the period just before women could even be awarded degrees. Particularly subtle on issues around sexuality and gender identity.
Another rediscovery this year of an old favourite: Marta Randall issued Mapping Winter, the restored version of her novel The Sword of Winter (1983) (which in its original publication was subjected to various undesired changes at the editor’s behest), along with an entirely new sequel, The River South. Randall was one of those women writing sf and fantasy active in the 1970s and 80s who seems to have fallen off the radar – that editorial attitude may explain why? – but perhaps will now be having a renaissance.
In the realm of other arts, recovering/rediscovering women was also a theme. This year saw several striking and memorable exhibitions in London recuperating the work of women artists. I managed to catch Lee Krasner: Living Colour at the Barbican and the Dora Marr retrospective at the Tate Modern: two women whose careers began well before their association with the male artist whose reputation has alas, so long overshadowed theirs, and continued long after that ended. Also the Cindy Sherman retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery. In an era where so many artworks seem to come accompanied with ‘artist statements’, Sherman’s entitling her autoportraits ‘Untitled [number]’ is provocative and intriguing, leaving interpretation up to the viewer, though framed within overarching sequence descriptions such as ‘Film Stills’, alluding to generic tropes of female representation that Sherman played with.
Only last week I went to a concert at which was performed the very impressive 3rd Symphony in G minor by Louise Farrenc (1804-1875), who I discover not only had a distinguished professional career (let no-one tell you it is ‘unrealistic’ to have a woman professor at the Paris Conservatoire…) but is also having something of a revival of her oeuvre moment.
Lesley Hall was born in the seaside resort and channel port of Folkestone, Kent, and now lives in north London. She recently retired from a career as an archivist of over 40 years. She has published several books and numerous articles on issues of gender and sexuality in nineteenth and twentieth century Britain, and is currently researching British interwar progressive movements and individuals. She has also published a volume in the Aqueduct Press Conversation Pieces series, Naomi Mitchison: A Profile of her life and work (2007). She has been reading science fiction and fantasy since childhood and cannot remember a time when she was not a feminist. Her reviews have appeared in Strange Horizons, Vector, and Foundation, and she has been a judge for the Tiptree and Arthur C. Clarke Awards. She has had short stories published in The Penguin Book of Modern Fantasy by Women (1996) and The Penguin Book of Erotic Stories by Women (1995) and, most recently, is the author of the series The Comfortable Courtesan: being memoirs by Clorinda Cathcart and Clorinda Cathcart's Circle: https://www.clorinda.org. Visit Lesley's website.