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Classic Celebration of Women

By Megan Powell and Magali Prel


In honour of International Women’s Day earlier this month, the classics team wanted to showcase some of their favourite and most influential female writers of classic literature. From Mary Shelley to Octavia E. Butler, these women have significantly impacted the world of literature with their tales. All have their own distinct styles, but their common denominator is how impactful and important their works have been to classic literature. With genres ranging from gothic fantasy to science fiction, these women have been major figures in re-inventing the genre and creating revolutionary novels with themes such as abuse of power, discrimination, greed or revenge.


Mary Shelley


Born on 30 August 1797, Mary Shelley was an English novelist, notably known for her work Frankenstein which was considered to be one of the first works of science fiction. However, Shelley’s novel overlapped with themes from the gothic genre, with elements such as the sublime spread across the pages of her novel. At age eighteen, she wrote Frankenstein, a tale about a scientist’s thirst for knowledge turned into an important morale of taking responsibility for one’s actions.


Shelley’s life is reflected in some parts of Frankenstein: her miserable marriage to Percy Bysshe Shelley is reflected in the character of Victor Frankenstein, who mirrored many of Percy’s personality traits and behaviours. Furthermore, the creation of Frankenstein’s Monster is also indicative of Shelley’s wish for a successful childbirth, as most of her children died at birth or in early infancy.


Arundhati Roy


Arundhati Roy is an Indian author best known for her novel The God of Small Things, an influential, semi-autobiographical modern classic about fraternal twins whose lives are destroyed by the “Love Laws” prevalent in 1960s India. The novel demonstrates how seemingly insignificant events can actually have a wider impact on one’s life.


While The God of Small Things is a work of fiction, many believe that it contains autobiographical elements. Some of these similarities between the novel and Roy’s own life include her Syrian Christian and Hindu lineage, the divorce of her parents when she was a young girl and her education in architectural school.


The novel portrays the injustices that Indian society (at the time) placed upon its people for being born under different circumstances and discusses important themes, such as love and sexuality, social class, betrayal and family.


Angela Carter


Angela Carter is a powerful author, poet, journalist and feminist. Through her mastery, Carter weaves intricate themes of magic and realism to often present her “radical libertarian feminism.” Adopting this narrative style boldly allows Carter to critique the patriarchy and conventional gender roles that have oppressed women throughout history. Throughout her life, Carter was surrounded by forward thinkers, her father was a journalist and her grandmother was a suffragist. There is no doubt in understanding the radical narrative style of Carter and how inspiringly bold she is in her feminist writing.


Her most notable work is The Bloody Chamber, published in 1979. This novel retells (or perhaps updates) famous fairy tales through a contemporary feminist perspective. This anthology of short stories really captures the essence of Carter and is a must read.


Octavia E. Butler


Born in California, Octavia E. Butler pioneered the way for female African American writers in the science fiction genre. Butler was the first to successfully publish her science fiction novel Kindred that weaves the sci-fi element of time travel with slave narratives. Through Butler’s skilful and powerful writing, the novel focuses on imperative themes of race and gender, to name a few. Her subsequent novels also explore these crucial social themes of racial injustice, women’s rights and global warming. She is an inspiration and was deservedly awarded the MacArthur Fellowship, the Hugo award and Nebula award. Her novels are essential reading and are often used as a stable piece on the literary curriculum. It is clear to understand why Butler’s work is so important, inspiring and should continually be celebrated.

Edith Wharton


Edith Wharton was born in 1862 to a high society family in New York. Her prestigious family meant that Wharton was able to travel frequently and was able to become fluent in many languages. Her experiences in upper class society and as a debutante lent its way to informing her work, exposing the truths and repression of the Gilded Age in these social circles. The themes of her novels often reflect this quest for moral freedom, independence and sexuality. She skilfully uses setting and location to place her social themes at the forefront of her novels.


She wrote extensively, her repertoire including fifteen novels, eighty-five short stories, seven novellas and a large amount of poetry. Edith Wharton is most famous for her novel The Age of Innocence, which earned her the Pulitzer Prize Award in 1921. She was the first woman to achieve this and was later inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

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