From the desk of Tracy Hickman:
If women who read are dangerous, what about women who write? Following my review of Stefan Bollmann’s Women Who Read Are Dangerous, I thought I would explore its “sister” book: Women Who Write Are Dangerous, also by Bollmann.
Francine Prose, American novelist, essayist, and critic, sets the stage for Bollmann’s exploration of women writers in the foreword:
“If there is anything that the wide range of women collected in the volume have in common—besides their literary talent, and secondly their gender—it’s a certain bravery, or an unkillable impulse, or whatever it was that impelled them to put that first word down on paper, and then the next and the next.” (7)
Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Opie © National Portrait Gallery
“Consider the courage and imagination it must have taken to be Mary Wollstonecraft, to pull oneself up from a childhood marked by what we have learned to call extreme “downward mobility,” to struggle to help care for an unfortunate mother and sibling, to be an autodidact, to work as a governess, to find a mentor and model, and to invent (or ally oneself with) a whole new way of life, to entertain and realize the radical idea of being an independent woman and female intellectual…
Consider the very different sort of bravery it must have taken to be Jane Austen, to see more than you are meant to see, to turn a profoundly sympathetic but nonetheless unfemininely cool eye on the ambition and failed hopes, the hearts and minds, of one’s neighbors…
We can only marvel at the nerve it requires even now to be Arundhati Roy, seizing every available opportunity to speak out against the powerful and terrifyingly efficient forces that threaten our human rights and the future of our planet, daring to provoke the rage of one’s own government and of its political and economic allies.” (8–9)
Dorothy Parker, 1941 (133)
Stefan Bollmann begins by explaining his choice of subject matter: European and American writers, mainly from the last 250 years, with a final chapter dedicated to seven contemporary representatives of world literature. The author continues with an examination of the “feminine culture of the novel” and Jane Austen’s contribution to its evolution.
“Austen lets us see how the individual’s inner life and outward behavior—emotions, utterances, actions—relate to each other, complement or contradict each other, and reveal honesty or dishonesty, decisiveness, or thoughtlessness. Her characters are defined by their reaction to the situation in which they find themselves, rather than by a past with which the reader has first to be familiarized, or by an uncertain future the promise of which is never wholly fulfilled. Everything is viewed in the clear light of the present, with its insistent demands.
We may ask ourselves nowadays whether Austen’s synthesis of the psychological and the social novel is specifically feminine, whether perhaps only a woman could have achieved it. The expression “feminine sensitivity,” often used in this context, refers to a characteristic that is not so much biologically determined as culturally fostered. Little by little, something traditionally seen as a weakness came to be reinterpreted as a strength. Women realized that the domain of human relationships was one in which their social conditioning gave them the advantage of men.” (19)
Milena Jesenska, passport photo with signature (105)
The opening pages of Women Who Write Are Dangerous discuss the use of pseudonyms, the tension between familial duties and time spent writing, and struggles for independence, privacy, authenticity, and integrity. The writers featured in this introduction include Harriet Beecher Stowe, George Eliot, George Sand, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and Toni Morrison.
The main sections of Women Who Write Are Dangerous are organized by themes: “The Ancestors of Women Who Write: The Map of Love,” “Alternative Worlds of Feeling: Masterful Men and Womanly Women,” “The Discovery of Childhood: From Pure of Heart to Fiery Rebellion,” “Eccentric Orbits: Writing to Live and Living to Write,” “Women of Courage: Writing as Resistance,” “Reinventing a Life: In Paris and New York,” and “Women’s Voices in World Literature: Love and Art Are the Same the World Over.” The general format employs facing pages for each writer, with a full-page image opposite a page of biographical text. Picture credits for each image are included at the book.
Bozena Nemcova, painting by J.V. Hellrich (73)
Some readers may be disappointed to find that one of their favorite writers may not be included in Stefan Bollmann’s collection, but I think that as a survey of women writers, the book succeeds in its aim. I enjoyed reading the biographies, especially those I was less familiar with. And when I had finished reading, I returned to study and reflect upon the portraits, with a passage from the Francine Prose’s forward coming to mind.
“How beautiful these faces are—young and old, black and white, from every continent—and how intriguing, intelligent, and, above all, individual are the gazes that meet ours as we turn the pages!” (9)
Women Who Write Are Dangerous features several of my favorite women writers and has introduced me to many more that I plan to read in the future. Stefan Bollmann’s book would make a thoughtful gift for friends or family members interested in women’s literature and its power to describe, enrich, and transform our lives.
5 out of 5 Stars
- Women Who Write Are Dangerous, by Stephan Bollmann
- Abbeville Press (October 9, 2018)
- Hardcover (168) pages
- ISBN: 978-0789213174
- Genre: Literary Criticism, Art History
We received a review copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Austenprose is an Amazon affiliate. Cover and images images courtesy of Abbeville Press © 2018 and The National Portrait Gallery; text Tracy Hickman © 2022, austenprose.com.