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Is there an Italian Emily Brontë? Or a Russian Jane Austen?

Men created the majority of the literary classics – and that’s especially true outside of the English language. How do we acknowledge that without doing women writers a disservice, asks Viv Groskop

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By Viv Groskop on

There is one very uncomfortable thing that comes up when we talk about women and literary writing. And that’s the burden of the last – oh, how shall we call it? – several thousand years. Everyone gets very caught up in the numbers of contemporary women included on book prize lists, bestseller round-ups and lists of recommended authors. Let’s not even get started on the legendary VIDA http://www.vidaweb.org/ research on women in the literary pages of online and print media, both the reviewed and the reviewers (motto: “What do women want? Bylines”). VIDA’s most recent data showed that things have improved marginally but still only a third of the names on these pages are female.

There’s a love of moaning about representation in the 21st century – and rightly so. “You can’t be what you can’t see” and all that. But something strange happened to me recently when I wrote a newspaper article recommending classic European writers from the past few hundred years. Highlights included Guy de Maupassant, Lorca, Elena Ferrante. Alongside the column I had written were lists of the “best books” written in French, German and Italian, which I had not compiled or signed off. There were ten names for each language: Camus, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Umberto Eco, Dante, Machiavelli, Kafka, Hesse, Patrick Suskind... You can guess the rest. Thirty names representing the last few hundred years. No women. Not one.

I complained, after loads of people complained, embarrassingly enough, to me, assuming that I had written the lists myself and somehow turned overnight into a massive misogynist who had never heard of Simone de Beauvoir. And I later wrote a corrective, recommending writers like Virginia Woolf, Marguerite Duras, Francois Sagan, George Sand, Irène Némirovsky and, yes, Simone de Beauvoir. All classics. Not always recognised on the level of Dickens or Dostoevsky. But close enough.

However, the more I tried to find female examples to fit the list of greats, the more I felt weird about it. The all-male lists of classic greats irritated me profoundly but I couldn’t exactly argue with them. Certainly there are women who might deserve a place but they really are in the minority. And there is no way that you can say that, say, Marguerite Yourcenar, the Belgian-French novelist who wrote over 25 books and won many prizes during her lifetime, is regarded in the same way as Victor Hugo. And there’s no way you can say that there are many overlooked great European women writers of the past few centuries. I wish.

We can fight for parity now. And we can encourage revisionism up to a point, by reinstating women authors who were not given their dues in their own time. But we can’t change history

It’s simply not as if there are dozens of women writers from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries who remain unknown and under-rated. And while writers may be able to have impact in their own lifetime and many women – arguably Virginia Woolf in particular – were ahead of their time, many of the great male writers attained their status because they said something about the time they were living in that was viewed as significant. Because of the way things were, that will just never be true for women in the same numbers. We can fight for parity now. And we can encourage revisionism up to a point, by reinstating women authors who were not given their dues in their own time. But we can’t change history. This is very annoying.

With English language literature we are a bit spoilt in this regard because we have our anomalies: Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, George Eliot, Mary Shelley, Louise May Alcott, Elizabeth Gaskell. Even more interestingly, these women made a huge contribution by being (mostly) prolific, in some cases unbelievably so. (Austen has 40 published works next to Dickens’ 16.) In other languages, though, this isn’t the case. Where is the French Jane Austen? She simply doesn’t exist.

This must be partly to do with cultural reasons. Thank goodness for semi-aristocratic families who gave their girls some education. And thank goodness for fate, which meant that these women didn’t disappear into family life and could concentrate on their creativity instead. Perhaps the Italian Emily Brontë never had her chance because she married early and was too busy having babies and making the perfect gnocchi. Perhaps there was a broader readership in English that would accept women writers in a way that was not possible in the culture of other languages. Whatever the explanation, we are lucky with English: something about the anglo-centric culture allowed a handful of women to become great writers and provided an audience for them within their lifetime. (Arguably without that audience, we would not know who Austen is today.)

Other countries are not so lucky. And there is something very uncomfortable and unsolvable about this. Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself, so that I don’t have to feel bad about something that I have just done. I’ve written a book about my passion for 11 classic Russian authors and – guess what? – there are hardly any women in it. I kind of hate myself a bit for this.

My task was a whistlestop tour through the Russian classics: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Pasternak, Pushkin, Bulgakov, Gogol, Turgenev. The only women I felt it was appropriate to include were Anna Akhmatova, the great 20th-century poet and author of Requiem, a powerful work about Stalin’s victims (yes, feel the joy); and Irina Ratushinskaya, the late-Soviet-era poet who wrote an important and surprisingly entertaining memoir about surviving the camps of the 1980s, Grey is the Colour of Hope.

Perhaps the Italian Emily Brontë never had her chance because she married early and was too busy having babies and making the perfect gnocchi

Except Ratushinskaya is not even in my book after all. Her chapter was edited out, like so many women have been edited out of history, because I had to face up honestly to the fact that she is not well known enough and cannot be regarded as a great classic. (Also, I have a whole chapter on Solzhenitsyn and there is only so much you can read about the Gulag in a round-up that is attempting to emphasise the positive and compares Tolstoy to Oprah Winfrey.) To be fair, there was an equal-opportunities cull: I also edited out a chapter on Nabokov on the grounds that each writer was supposed to represent a “life lesson” and the main “life lesson” from Lolita is: “Don’t be a paedophile.”

Still, it stung to lose one of the only two women in the whole thing. But the reality is: in some spaces, there weren’t any women greats and there never will be. Of course, I could have tried to shoe-horn more women in. Perhaps I should have done. From Russian literature, there’s Teffi, the humourist (real name Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya) who wrote a play in 1907 entitled The Woman Question; Alexandra Kollontai, the Communist revolutionary who wrote bonkers novels like Love of Worker Bees (seen as “too sexually explicit” when it was published in 1923); Zinaida Gippius, a major figure in the Symbolist movement who wrote seven short story collections and two novels in the early twentieth century and wore trousers long before anyone else; Evgenia Ginsburg, the brilliant writer of Within the Whirlwind, who served eighteen years in the Gulag... Yes, I could have tried. But I could not pretend that anyone would have heard of these women or would have felt the same way about their work as readers feel about Anna Karenina or Crime And Punishment.

Which is a shame. Because perhaps, it occurred to me, there’s a danger of these women being ignored twice. Once, within their own lifetime because it was simply socially acceptable to give them the attention they deserved. And secondly, posthumously, because we do all writers a disservice by elevating them, after the event, to a position they never really occupied.

Sometimes we are caught between the truth and tokenism and we have to be truthful. Why aren’t there many classic women authors from different literary cultures around the world from the 18th and 19th centuries? Because it was virtually impossible for a woman to write and it was even harder for her to find an audience. We should certainly celebrate the minority of women who overcame this fact. But, however much we try to redress the balance now (during a time where there’s no excuse), we must never be allowed to forget the fact of how hard it was.

What I also realised, having thought about it all a lot, is that there’s no point in getting too angry about it. What’s done is done. Let’s remember it and use that memory as fuel to make sure women get their due now. As Ratushinskaya wrote: “You must not, under any circumstances, allow yourself to hate.” Good advice. And at least I’ve found a chance to show her some love by reinstating her right here.

Viv Groskop’s The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons From Russian Literature is published by Fig Tree

@VivGroskop

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