Following from the irritating news that the designers of the new passport have decided that a fair survey of British creativity means two women to seven men, and a particularly vexing seminar in which one of the (male) students kept repeatedly interrupting another (female) student talking about a female writer to demand over and over again that she relate what she was saying back to Shakespeare, I have compiled a list of female writers (from all around the world) who were more innovative than Shakespeare.*
- Christine de Pizan
One of the earliest examples of a professional female writer. Christine de Pizan turned to writing when she was widowed at the age of 25 and left with young children to support. Some of what she wrote challenged established male authorities and demanded the antifeminist image of women promulgated by medieval works like Jean de Meun’s Roman de la Rose be challenged and revised. And of course, my personal hero.
- Margery Kempe
Late-fourteenth and early-fifteenth century professional madwoman, bride of Christ, mystic and world’s most annoying travel companion Margery Kempe earns her place on this list by writing the first autobiography in English. Of course, Margery’s texts makes lots of references to the cleric she has (apparently) paid to write her story down, and it’s very hard to prove any of the events of Margery’s life, but her book remains the earliest example of an autobiography (fictional or no) in English.
- Jane Austen
One of the great icons of British literature, Austen’s novels at the end of the eighteen century and the beginning of the nineteenth are widely credited with laying the foundations for the rise of modernism in the following centuries on account of her innovative use of free indirect discourse. Also writer of excellent tales that are basically just cover to cover witty banter and ironic side-eye. A personal favourite, of course.
- Mary Shelley
Basically invented science fiction (which is irritatingly now thought of as a ‘boy’s’ genre) when she published Frankenstein in 1818. Was the daughter of Mary Wollestonecraft who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women and emerges from the period of gothic romanticism as significantly less irritating than Byron or her husband Percy Shelley.
- Emily Dickinson
Dickinson used innovative verse forms and write poems that scandalised America in their frank depiction of female experience, depression, suffering and pessimism. She also appears in Jennifer Connelly’s excellent novel A Gathering Light which was one of my favourites as a young teenager, and remains so to this day.
- Virginia Woolf
Pioneer of the modernist novel, great thinker and defender of a woman’s right to intellectual and personal autonomy, Virginia Woolf changed the face of prose as we know it today. Among the ‘Bloomsbury Group‘ she still remains the most prominent and influential writer.
- Alice Walker
The first African American writer to win a Pulitzer prize, Alice Walker brought African-American fiction into the national (and international) consciousness.Feel free to add your own!
*Before you all cry, “But Lavinia, why do you hate Shakespeare?” I don’t actually. I like Shakespeare a lot, but oranges are not the only fruit.