Tonight my Facebook feed is peppered with pictures posted by proud parents of their poppets dressed up for World Book Day.
In less than three hours, it will be International Women’s Day (IWD). I am hoping to see photos of kids skipping off to school as Suffragettes. Somehow I don’t think it’ll happen. Maybe it’s too progressive or not progressive enough or inappropriate or a stupid idea.
Putting that aside, it suddenly occurred to me that my life has been shaped by pioneering female novelists who set the bar, raised it, or replaced it entirely with a new one.
In honour of World Book Day and IWD 2019 I’d like to share with you my favourite female authors.
Enid Blyton. Saying you enjoy Blyton is unfashionable in some circles. I do not care a jot – I love her. Her books make me feel comforted like a well-worn pair of slippers.
Some characters also challenge preconceptions of female behaviour. Darrell Rivers (Malory Towers) is headstrong, clever but hot-tempered. Her journey towards self-awareness and managing emotions, particularly anger, see her blossom into a well-adjusted young woman. Tomboy Georgina Kirrin (Famous Five), shuns the stereotypical notion of being female, demands to be called George and redefines expectations of how girls should behave. She is adventurous, fierce and gives the lads a bloody good run for their money.
Judy Blume. A friend smuggled a dog-eared copy of Forever into our primary school class and we gleefully passed it round like black market goods. Back then, there was little focus on the emotional and social aspects of sex education and it was more about the act and functions of reproductive organs. Fun! Blume’s gentle exploration of Kath and Michael’s relationship taught valuable lessons about the various facets of sex in a stable, caring relationship and that love wasn’t always forever actually. We had hushed conversations about ‘Ralph’ and wondered if we’d ever have erotic dreams about hot tennis instructors.
Agatha Christie. Devon-born Christie kicks ass when it comes to crime writing and puzzle solving. Noone even comes close. She is the world’s best-selling author of all time. That’s insanely good. Christie deliberately leaves out grisly detail and focuses on human interaction and the relationships of characters. I find it hard to remember how victims meet their fate but you only need to say ‘moustachioed Belgian private detective‘ for people to know you’re referring to Poirot.
In our times of cheap thrills and the proliferation of sexual violence against women on screen, Christie proves compelling viewing does not mean guts and gore. Every time there’s a TV adaptation of one of her novels I cancel plans and settle in. Christie spent many years at her holiday home of Greenaway, now in the care of the National Trust. It’s well worth a visit and is almost perfectly preserved, as if she has just nipped out for a stroll.
Jilly Cooper. It’s year seven of secondary school and we have all taken in a book for an English reading lesson. My classmates rock up with curriculum-friendly paperbacks like Across the Barricades and Lord of the Flies. Quelle Horreur! I’d never heard of these books let alone had copies knocking about at home. I took in Rivals and my teacher turned pale. “Her books are a bit…” she said, trailing off. There was a short silence. I looked at her. “Yes, I know what you mean,” I said. (I didn’t. Well, not until page 33).
And then 12-year-old me discovered Cooper’s unashamedly silly world of glamour, humour and mischief. One minute characters talk in barbed sentences and wry puns, the next they’re quoting W.B Yeats. At the heart of her work is old-fashioned soppy romance which just puts a huge smile of your face. I believed deeply in her characters and longed to live in a honey-coloured cottage with rakish Rupert Campbell-Black as my neighbour.
Marian Keyes. I can’t think of another writer who has made me simultaneously laugh and cry in the space of one paragraph. Her relatable stories tackle issues including relationship breakdowns, addiction, depression and bereavement. They are deeply moving, funny and hopeful all at once. Keyes has spoken frankly about her experiences with alcoholism and clinical depression and she’s not afraid to speak out against ‘sexist imbalances’.
Shortly after I went alcohol-free I read Rachel’s Holiday again. The book’s messages about seeing the truth of a destructive habit and its links with self-esteem are so relevant. She’s ace.
So there you have my five all-time favourite women writers. Who would be in yours?