When you have had enough of something, it’s time to stop. I don’t mean to sound like public warnings issued by betting sites in their advertisements. But I can’t see the point of continuing with a series on my blog when I am feeling tired of it.
So it’s goodbye to the Decades Project, which I have run on different themes for several years.
- Novels by women (2017)
- Non-fiction by women (2018)
- Children’s fiction (2019)
- Women’s fiction published by Virago (2020)
Every year I picked eleven books, one chosen from each decade since 1900, reviewed each month from January. I often think like a historian and I am interested in change and how books relate to the times in which they were written. The project allowed me to notice how things changed over the century and to follow themes that emerged.
In 2020 all the choices were written by women, most published by Virago and ten were featured in the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood.
The collection Brilliant Careers reproduces an extract from one hundred books, one published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago. I own copies of and had previously read many of the books featured. Others I had heard of but was not familiar with. The choices were easy, given the extracts and my desire to extend my familiarity with the Virago back catalogue.
The most obvious theme was of protagonists struggling to control their own lives, especially in the early years. The world wars changed women’s ability to become independent. No longer struggling against their families or against society’s expectations, they began to find opportunities such as entry to higher education and the professions.
The eleven books of 2020 (with links)
My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901)
Mary Olivier: A Life by May Sinclair (1919)
Passing by Nella Larsen (1929)
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)
A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn (1940)
The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy (1958)
The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (1967)
Benefits by Zoe Fairbairns (1979)
The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard (1980)
In a Country of Mothers by AM Homes (1994)
Wave me Goodbye: stories of the Second World War, Edited by Anne Boston (1988)
Three books were especially significant for me.
A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn (1940) was new to me. The novel was written out of the great pain and suffering of the Czechs in 1938-9, and their betrayal by the Allies, especially the French but also Chamberlain with his ’kid-glove fascism’. Martha Gellhorn was writing from her first-hand experience as a journalist in Europe. It’s a novel raw and stricken.
The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (1967) was not the first book by her that I had read, but it made a big impression on me for its boldness, its ability to shock with teenage sexuality, and for the quality of the prose. I promised myself to read more of her work, and have done. Watch out for a post about The Bloody Chamber.
Wave me Goodbye: stories of the Second World War, Edited by Anne Boston (1988) was a collection that impressed me greatly. After I had posted in November I discovered I had previously bought and read the earlier version. So good I read it twice! The stories reveal the multitude of ways in which war was experienced and written about by women.
Perhaps it’s a result of reading that collection, Wave me Goodbye, that I feel inclined to read more books from the first half of the Twentieth Century. Not only was it a time of great change for women, but also a time when excellent women were writing.
In the last few decades publishers have reintroduced readers to some of the most distinguished writers of that time: for example Rose Macaulay by the Handheld Press. Persephone Books continues to publish books by neglected writers from the middle years of the century. Virago’s back catalogue will continue to delight for years.
So next year, that’s what I plan to do some of the time on Bookword Blog.