Women Who Love Books Too Much: Bibliophiles, Bluestockings, and Prolific Pens from the Algonquin Hotel to the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

by Brenda Knight

Published by Conari Press

284 pages, 2000


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A Bluestocking Love Affair

Reviewed by Andrea MacPherson

 

Women Who Love Books Too Much is an engaging, amusing overview of women writers through time. The book showcases the women and their works as well as allowing a brief glimpse into their lives.

The book is sectioned into playful chapters, including "First Ladies of Literature," "Ink in Their Veins," "Mystics and Madwomen," "Banned, Blacklisted and Arrested," "Prolific Pens," "Salonists and Culture Makers" and "Women Whose Books Are Adored Too Much." In these subsequent chapters, Knight looks at authors such as Flannery O'Connor, Agatha Christie, Virginia Woolf, Barbara Tuchman, Toni Morrison, Emily Dickinson, Anna Akhmatova and Anne Frank, as well as the impact that their writing has had on both literature and social history.

A poet and a writer of the highest personal and literary standards, during her lifetime Anna Akhmatova was denied her deserved international reputation as one of Russia's greatest writers -- Anna's poetry was published in the late '50's with heavy-handed censorship. Now legendary to the youth of Russia for her staunch idealism and enduring dedication to poetry, budding Russian literati including Joseph Brodsky sought her out as a connection to pre-Communist Russia. A great admirer of the great lady of letters from the "Silver Age" of Russian poetry, who survived the devastation of the Communist holocaust, Brodsky named Anna Akhmatova "the muse of keening" for her elegies for the dead and for a dying culture.

"We thought: we're poor, we have nothing, but when

we started losing one after the other

So each day became remembrance day."

The reader is briefly but specifically spirited into the Russian Revolution, the Second World War and the Holocaust, as well as the strict constructs of Victorian England. These episodic chapters hold the reader's attention and lend levity to otherwise oppressive cultures with lighthearted interludes, such as inclusions of information about famous mistresses who came to visit Gertrude Stein, a list of books banned in the United States in the last 15 years and comic glimpses of terrible advice given to these women (most notably, advice to Ellen Glasgow that she should "go back to the South and have some babies: The greatest woman is not the woman who has written the finest book, but the woman who has had the finest babies"). Brief quotations are included, as well as small sidebars to give information on related books, such as "Books About Bookstores."

Additional information on beloved authors is included, as in "Vita Sackville-West: The Love That Can Not Be Spoken." In this manner, Women Who Love Books Too Much becomes not only a book about women writers, but also about their lives, and the intricacies within.

Born in Knole, Kent in 1892, Victoria Mary Sackville is best remembered now as the subject of Orlando, Virginia Woolf's 1928 novel (which was made into a critically acclaimed film) about their love affair, told through the adventures of an androgynous and aristocratic heroine. Her father was the Third Baron Sackville and, as a child, Vita was afforded the very finest private education and tutors in her ancestral home, surrounded by a beautiful garden and grounds. Her interest in writing began as a young girl with poetry, and she completed a history of her family and place, 'Knole and Sackville,' in 1922. She married diplomat and journalist Harold Nicholson, and they traveled extensively, resulting in her 'Passenger to Teheran' and her travel fictions, 'Heritage' and 'The Dark Island.' Vita Sackville-West also wrote several fine biographies of Andrew Marvell, Aphra Behn, and of the saints Joan and Teresa of Avila. She became the subject of another book when her son Nigel Nicholson describes his parents' unusual marriage in 'Portrait of a Marriage.'

Women Who Love Books Too Much is a wonderful book for any literature aficionado. It lends literature an additional depth, drawing full character portraits of women who have previously often been overlooked. | March 2001

 

Andrea MacPherson is a Vancouver-based writer who recently completed her first novel. Her work has appeared in The Antigonish Review, The Glow Within, Chameleon and Descant. She is the poetry editor for Prism International.