Especially For Young Women



A Great Read For Women

John Elliott

The Times

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 going strong.

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 downtrodden women.

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 after.

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 her hands.

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 Sicily.

“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 titles.”

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.



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