A Great Read For Women
A SCIENCE fiction novel in which a
totalitarian state forces females to have loveless sex with men and forbids them
to own property or have jobs, has emerged as one of the books that women find
most life- changing.
The Handmaid’s Tale, a 1986 satire by the
Canadian author Margaret Atwood, is one of the top 10 novels that transformed
women’s lives according to a poll by Woman’s Hour listeners on Radio 4.
It is a list that — not surprisingly, given
that 93% of the 14,000 voters were women — shows the war between the sexes is
Among the other chosen books is The Women’s
Room, the 1977 novel by Marilyn French, the strident American feminist. It
includes the notorious line: “all men are rapists, that’s all they are . . .
they rape us with their eyes, their laws, their codes”.
With some noble exceptions the men presented
in the novels are a motley crew. Several books on the list feature male rapists
and many shallow and pompous men attempting to crush the spirits of strong but
Another of the books is The Color Purple by
Alice Walker, the story of a young black girl’s horrific treatment by her
husband. According to Professor Lisa Jardine, the leading literary critic who
helped to run the poll: “The Color Purple is a more scary book than The Women’s
Room, because it really does say all men are s****.”
It is not, however, all so stark. The Women’s
Watershed Fiction poll asked women to pick a life-changing book that “has
spoken to you on a personal level — it may have changed the way you look at
yourself or simply made you happy to be a woman”.
Only one of the top 10 is written by a man —
Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy’s tragic tale of Tess, a country
peddler’s daughter, who gives birth to a son called Sorrow, who dies shortly
It was one of five 19th-century classics on
the list, alongside Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, George Eliot’s
Middlemarch, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë and Little Women by the American
author Louisa May Alcott.
Completing the list is Rebecca, Daphne Du
Maurier’s tale written in 1938 of a young woman who is persecuted by her
husband’s housekeeper, the villainous Mrs Danvers.
Jardine believes the type of books chosen give
an interesting insight into the minds of modern women. “We should worry that
an awful lot of women still feel the struggle between the domestic and self-realisation
is a live issue,” she said.
“These books are the ones large numbers of
women recognised themselves in.”
She held up Jane Eyre as a plain girl who gets
her man and settles for second-best. “Women said it was such a relief to have
a plain heroine,” she added.
She believes men could learn a lot from the
books. “They show that women think deeply and strategically about forming
relationships, whereas men don’t think about it much at all,” she said.
Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale is set in the
nightmarish Republic of Gilead and follows the tale of Offred, a “handmaid”
who is assigned to produce children for an elite couple. The Commander silently
has sex with Offred, while his creepy wife Serena, who sits behind Offred, holds
The Women’s Room describes the stultifying marriage and rotten sex life of
a middle-class suburban woman who is trapped in a marriage to a smug, bullying
doctor. The narrator says that in order to destroy a woman “You don’t have
to rape or kill her; you don’t even have to beat her. You can just marry her.”
Sarah Johnson, a producer for Woman’s Hour, said: “People know the ‘all
men are rapists line’ and the rape at the end, but it’s not as anti-men as
that makes it seem. It points out a lot of stark realities about the kinds of
relationships women were asked to accept in the 1970s.”
However, on an internet chat site about the book, one man, John Phillips,
recently wrote: “It is the ultimate man-hating, bigoted, ‘negative feminist’
novel. All the ills of the world are placed at the feet of men in the novel,
rather than acknowledging that the main character is socially inept . . . you
don’t have to hate men to believe in female rights.”
During the project, female celebrities were asked to nominate their own “life-changing”
books. Susan Greenfield, director of the Royal Institution and professor of
pharmacology at Oxford University, chose The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di
Lampedusa, about the fading fortunes of an aristocratic family in 19th-century
“I’ve read it so many times and each time it does something different for
me,” Greenfield said. “It touches all the things one comes back to: sex,
death, social differences, opportunity, what you do with your life . . . all set
against this wonderful, vivid backdrop of 19th-century Sicily. Every time I talk
about it, it makes me come out in goosebumps.
“It’s dealing with subjects I think have a certain resonance for women
perhaps more than men — this idea of thwarted love, misunderstandings, of a
continuing sorrow over something.”
Mariella Frostrup, the journalist, former Booker prize judge and presenter of
Radio 4’s Open Book programme, picked out Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels,
about a boy who is rescued from Poland during the second world war by a Greek
scientist and philosopher.
“It profoundly affected me,” she said. Frostrup also spoke up for The
Handmaid’s Tale and Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding. “I feel women
have a more instinctive, organic relationship with books,” she said. “Women’s
reading is often dismissed as lighter somehow and that we only read romantic
Cherie Blair chose The Golden Notebook by the feminist author Doris Lessing,
the tale of a single mother who is also a writer with writer’s block, set
during the cold war. The order of the top 10 as voted for by Woman’s Hour
listeners will be revealed on the show on Wednesday morning.