Some of us make our own lists. In a recent issue of The Smoky Mountain News, I came up with a list of seven male authors, most of them from the 20th century, whose work has influenced my emotions and thoughts in life-changing ways. Now it’s time, as I promised, to acknowledge those female novelists whose works were crucial to my development. In no particular order, here are seven women who took me by the hand and taught me some lessons about life.
In her Church of England novels, and in associated books like The High Flyer, Susan Howatch brilliantly traces the history of the Anglican Church from World War I up into the 1990s. In addressing all manner of issues faced by the modern church — the charismatic movement, the sexual revolution, the rise of the occult, the battles between the progressive and orthodox wings of Christianity — Howatch deepened my own faith. She writes from a Christian perspective, but without the fluff we commonly associate with Christian publishers. If you want to read a psychological thriller, start with The High Flyer and then dive into her other novels. (I must add I am shocked that the BBC or some other producer of television shows has not made a mini-series of these novels).
Every year, I teach Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights to my Advanced Placement English literature students, and every year I am amazed that an author so young could spring such a tale on the world. With each reading, Bronte’s insights into the passions of human beings amaze me. The emotions of Heathcliff and Catherine shock readers while at the same time, I would suppose, filling them with envy. How many of us have loved so deeply, so desperately? Bronte’s book so impressed me — and puzzled me — that I spent two days this past summer visiting Haworth, the English village in which Bronte’s father served as an Anglican parish priest and where she grew up.
Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter I read 25 years ago when I was entering the Catholic Church. This trilogy of medieval Norway, which focused on the life, sins, and redemption of a young woman, Kristin Lavransdatter, stunned me. How had I never read Undset? Because of her opposition to Nazism, her rise from secretary to Nobel novelist, and her own conversion to Catholicism in a country where fish-eaters were as rare as apple blossoms in January, Undset became a shining light in my pantheon of literary heroes. Her insights into the Middle Ages, her ability to recreate the era so vividly, and her extraordinary wisdom regarding the vagaries of the human heart still haunt me.
Anne Tyler. Here is a writer who composes her novels in longhand not once, but twice, before submitting them to type. And this dedication to the language shows in her characters. Once, in a book club discussion, one woman complained that Tyler gave us only “eccentrics.” I protested, arguing that we were all eccentrics and that Anne Tyler had the wisdom to see us this way. I never persuaded this woman of my argument, but Anne Tyler taught me that each of us is, well, peculiar. Her novels give us the interior landscape of human beings, a place both rich and rife with complicated emotions, conflicting thoughts, joy and sorrow.
The ending of A.S. Byatt’s Possession devastated me with its truth regarding fate. Her other books I find unreadable, which surely reveals a flaw in me, but Possession, which flits back and forth between Victorian England and modern times, was a sharp reminder of the vicissitudes of love and fortune: a missed assignation, an unspoken word, an opportunity forever lost. We can often maintain control of our lives, but as Possession shows us, we also exist at the whim of “whatever gods may be.” These failures to connect — to love, to family, to friends, to work — haunt our days, even when we are unaware of them.
Lucy Beckett’s A Postcard From The Volcano: A Novel of Pre-War Germany made me acutely aware of what an easy life I’ve had. Sure, I’ve faced the death of loved ones, confronted hardship, and undergone various ordeals, but nothing like the trials of those who lived in Germany and in other Central European countries during the Second World War. Here is a novel that truly deserves a wider readership, for it reminds us, as does its sequel, The Leaves Are Falling, of the horrendous sufferings of people living under totalitarian dictatorships.
Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation” hit me like a fist holding a roll of quarters this past month. For eight years, I have taught students this story of a woman who judges those around her, placing them in various social classes to which she usually deems herself superior. For all those years, I found Mrs. Turpin contemptible, self-righteous, loathsome. Only this year did I realize that O’Connor had tricked me — and probably many other readers — with this story, for I was judging Mrs. Turpin just as she had judged others. I have come late in life to the realization that I am in so many ways a slow learner, and though I have known for a long time that I tend to judge people on meeting them, often to my chagrin and shame, I find the habit difficult to break. O’Connor’s “Revelation” is one more nailed reminder that I am guilty of such prejudice.
And there you have it.