The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life: Inspiration and Advice from Celebrated Women Authors, by Nava Atlas – A Review

Literary Ladies Guide to the Writing Life, by Nava Atlas (2011)Guest Review by Aia A. Hussein

Judging by the number of writing guides available in bookstores today, as compared to the number of guides available twenty or thirty years ago, it would seem that there has been an increase in demand for books about writing.  Admittedly, many of these guides are similar in scope and advice although their continued consumption would suggest that they are serving their purpose to some aspiring writers out there.  Imagine, though, a writing guide written by Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë, a detailed account of where they wrote and how often, how they dealt with rejection, and how they juggled their domestic responsibilities with their need to write.  Alas, no such book exists but something close has just been written which will be of interest to aspiring writers as well as readers interested in learning more about their favorite authors.

Nava Atlas, well-known author and illustrator of cookbooks including the highly regarded Vegetariana, presents an intimate glimpse into the writing process of twelve beloved women writers in The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life: Inspiration and Advice from Celebrated Women Authors. Drawing from journals, letters, memoirs, and interviews, Atlas organizes the thoughts and advice of twelve successful women authors into eight chapters that specifically address relevant aspects of the writing process such as developing a voice, finding the time to write, and dealing with rejection.  More importantly, she includes chapters of particular significance to some aspiring women writers, such as “The Writer Mother,” which draws from the experiences of women authors who juggled the responsibilities of motherhood and writing.

In Atlas’ words, her book is not merely a “how-to of writing” but, rather, “something that might prove even more valuable – a treasury of intimate glimpses into the unfolding creative process across twelve brilliant careers” which includes that of Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, Charlotte Brontë, Willa Cather, Edna Ferber, Madeleine L’Engle, L. M. Montgomery, Anaïs Nin, George Sand, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolf.

Such intimate treasures include Charlotte Brontë’s 1846 query letter to a prospective publisher, excerpts from Louisa May Alcott’s journal where she admits that she, herself, didn’t enjoy stories like Little Women, and a spotlight on Jane Austen’s inner critic which led her to write in a 1815 letter to James Stanier “I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible Vanity, the most unlearned, & uninformed Female who ever dared to be an Authoress.”  In addition to well-placed quotes and excerpts from the writings of these twelve classic authors, Atlas, departing from many how-to writing guides, draws from original images and photos to further captivate the interest of the reader.  Such images include one of Steventon, the birthplace of Jane Austen, and a number of author photos, including one of L. M. Montgomery in a wonderful, feathery hat.  Atlas also provides her own commentary which helps gives a sense of overall structure to the book.

There is something to turning to beloved authors for advice about the writing and creative process.  Not content to merely glamorize or romanticize the writing process, which happens all too often in author biographies, Atlas makes a point to highlight the frustration and self-doubt that almost always accompanies any writing attempt, even attempts by classic authors.  Madeleine L’Engle’s assertion that a rejection letter was “like the rejection of me, myself” will resonate with many writers out there.  Admittedly, Atlas’ ambitious attempt to organize the thoughts and advice of twelve writers undoubtedly means that readers will find themselves sifting through the book to get to the parts about their favorite writers but that’s to be expected.

A small complaint, which Atlas wisely anticipates, is the conspicuous lack of writers who are not either European or of European origins.  Citing that the increased odds against any female of color in the nineteenth century as compared to their white counterparts is what ultimately led to her decision, Atlas fails to realize that these increased odds could have been a point of interest in their own right for contemporary writers and readers.  It is important to note that she does occasionally offer the insights of Zora Neale Hurston or Maya Angelou but they are embedded within blocks of text and easy to miss.

Nevertheless, Atlas’ The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life is an absorbing book that will make even those who have never dreamt of pursuing a writing life want to pick up paper and pen (or, more accurately, turn on the computer) and begin a work of their own.

Aia A. Hussein, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and American University, pursued Literature degrees in order to have an official excuse to spend all her time reading.  She lives in the DC area and is a devotee of Jane Austen and all things Victorian.

4 out of 5 Stars

The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life, by Nava Atlas
Sellers Publishing, Inc. (2011)
Hardcover (176) pages
ISBN: 978-1416206323

© 2007 – 2011 Aia A. Hussein, Austenprose

And Only to Deceive, by Tasha Alexander – A Review

And Only to Deceive, by Tasha Alexander (2006)Guest Review by Aia A. Hussein

The intriguing world of nineteenth century Victorian high society, with its ruffled skirts and disciplined social manners, is crossed with the historical suspense novel in And Only to Deceive, the first book in Tasha Alexander’s Lady Emily Mysteries series.  In fact, as author Martha O’Connor writes, “Had Jane Austen written The Da Vinci Code, she may well have come up with this elegant novel.”  Lady Emily Ashton, the headstrong heroine, finds herself acting as amateur detective in a mystery that takes her to the quiet corners of the British Museum, where she uncovers an art forgery plot involving artifacts from the Greco-Roman galleries, and the shadowy streets of Paris where a possible murder only complicates matters.  All while being pursued by two very prominent and handsome suitors, of course.

When Viscount Philip Ashton unexpectedly dies in an African hunting expedition, his young and beautiful wife, Lady Emily Ashton, finds herself a widow after only a few short months of marriage.  Eager to discover the sort of man her late husband was, Emily pursues his interests in classical antiquity and finds a man much more interesting and mysterious than she had initially thought.  More than that, however, she finds evidence to suggest that her husband may not have been as honest as she thought, uncovering a complicated plot of art forgeries involving some of the best artifacts exhibited in the British Museum.  Compounding the mystery are the two friends of the late Viscount – Mr. Colin Greaves and the son of a Lord, Andrew Palmer – who both seem to show mysteriously equal interest in both Emily and her surprisingly authentic collection of classical antiquities.

With the help of a colorful mix of female friends – who, when considered together, exhibit the right combination of intelligence, spunk, and timidity – Emily sets out to get to the bottom of the forgeries whilst also happening upon the unpleasant discovery that her late husband’s death may not have been accidental.  Unable to ascertain if she can trust the attentive Hargreaves or the charming Palmer, Emily moves forward to uncover the mystery on her own, attempting to prove to herself and to all those around her – particularly her domineering, overprotective mother – that she is capable of existing in nineteenth century Victorian England as a person in her own right.

Alexander’s first novel shows her promise, with an attention to historical detail that will only impress her readers.  Interspersing historically correct detail of Greek antiquity with accurate portrayals of societal roles in late Victorian England, Alexander creates a novel that is every bit as layered as it is entertaining. The best thing about the novel is its female characters.  Rarely straying into archetype or tired stock characters, Alexander breathes life into charismatic, intelligent females who are fully-formed and varied.  Emily’s older, Parisian friend, Cecile du Lac, happily enjoys her widowhood status as it frees her to explore the shadowy corners of Paris without too much notice.  Emily’s intellectual, American friend, Margaret, encourages Emily’s interests in classical antiquity and pushes her to attend university lectures, much to the dismay of Emily’s mother.  And, lastly, Emily’s fellow English friend, Ivy, prefers a quiet rebellion, choosing to act at home rather than on a more public scale.  Through the complexity of its female characters, the novel distinguishes itself from the countless number of modern-day reimaginings of Victorian England.

Alexander, in the novel’s afterword, points out the importance of creating a character that was both part and outside of her society.  As an unmarried woman, Emily would have been subject to Victorian society’s repressive rules concerning the appropriate interests and activities of a young woman and, consequently, Alexander had no choice but to imagine as her heroine a widow, a female figure of society with enough freedom to be able to travel and pursue interests with little consternation.  Through these sort of details, Alexander is able to create a sympathetic character for the modern-day reader who is, nevertheless, still very much a part of her era.

An admirable debut novel, And Only to Deceive is engaging and entertaining although, admittedly, some of its plot twists are predictable.  Nevertheless, the next book in the series, A Poisoned Season, also featuring Lady Emily Ashton, will undoubtedly be entertaining.  And while, strictly speaking, Jane Austen does not belong to the Victorian era, there is enough overlap for this book to be recommended to those who find this general time period of interest.

Aia A. Hussein, a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and American University, where she pursued Literature degrees in order to have an official excuse to spend all her time reading.  She lives in the DC area and is a devotee of Jane Austen and all things Victorian.

4 out of 5 Stars

And Only to Deceive, by Tasha Alexander
HarperCollins (2006)
Trade paperback (336)
ISBN: 978-0061148446

© 2007 – 2011 Aia A. Hussein, Austenprose