Inspirational Women Writers

October 2, 2013 | By | 11 Replies More
Jan Merry, author of Place of Many Birds

Jan Merry, author of Place of Many Birds

When writing a short story about a family in Australia during the Great Depression, I recently found myself referencing, almost subconsciously, books I’d read in early childhood. Beatrix Potter, author of The Tale of Peter Rabbit and May Gibbs, author of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie both came to mind as I related the differences between a childhood set against an English landscape to that of an Australian childhood spent in the bush. Thinking about those influences a little harder, I realised many of those early experiences of storytelling are still informing my writing now.

I didn’t notice these were female writers at the time; that came later, and when these classics were published many females wrote under male pseudonyms, even when writing specifically about and for girls. But women write differently to men and though I read many books by male writers too, the ones who really reached me were the female voices.

Returning to those women writers who set me on the path to literature and writing has been an inspiration. Miles Franklins’, My Brilliant Career, published in 1901, particularly so because it’s written by a sixteen year old girl, who understands the concerns of girls in an unashamedly chauvinistic world. Franklin’s passion and determination to become a writer, at a time when failing to conform to social mores could subject a girl to judgemental psychoanalytical assessment, has inspired feminists and women writers around the world.

Born in 1879, Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin published the story of Sybilla, trapped on her parents’ farm near Goulburn in the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales and forced to choose between a conventional path of marriage and her plans for a ‘brilliant career’. Writing under her great-great grandfather’s name, Miles, but full of barely disguised biographical detail, her protagonist rebels against the dullness of women’s lives and what she describes as the degradation of marriage which to her is nothing short of unpaid drudgery.

Sybilla’s character is the embodiment of the fears, conflicts and torments of every girl and could well be the topic of magazine articles anywhere around the world today. She is plain and therefore not valuable in the marriage market. She equates ugliness with being unloved. She is rejected as abnormal because she is too outspoken. Sybilla is offered marriage to a man who admires her spirit and character but finally rejects him because she cannot have marriage and career.

Place of Many Birds, a novel by Jan Merry

Place of Many Birds, a novel by Jan Merry

Today when we sit down at laptops and ipads and let words run freely, it’s easy to forget the struggle faced by early women writers when it was unseemly to have an opinion. Although the prose of My Brilliant Career is a little petulant at times, identifying with Sybilla is a lesson in self awareness because as she chooses to battle against the odds, she knows she is choosing the outsider’s path, to be alone, but does so to retain personal liberty and freedom to write.

She was just a little bush girl with first-hand experience of the struggle to make a living as a writer. Now the Miles Franklin Award is Australia’s most prestigious literary prize. Established through the will of Stella Miles Franklin, her bequest honours a novel of literary merit depicting Australian life in any of its phases.

A major new literary prize celebrating great books by Australian women, the Stella Award, saw its first winner this year, 2013. Celebrating women’s contribution to Australian writing, this new legacy of Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin raises the profile of women’s writing, encourages a future generation of women writers and builds awareness of the work of Australian women.

Next time you feel uninspired facing the blank computer screen, try going back to the early writers who inspired you; read their biographies and stories, and feel inspired that you are not limited by low expectations, inferior education or intellectual aspersions. In this have-it-all age, when women writers can choose to combine marriage, children, travel and careers with writing, remember Sybilla and her cohorts had much narrower choices.

Jan Merry is a fiction and feature writer, published throughout Australia and the United Kingdom. She can be found on BlogSpotGoodReads, and on Twitter. Her novel, Place of Many Birds, is available on Amazon.



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Category: Contemporary Women Writers

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  1. Featuring Women Writers on WWWB 2013 - Women Writers, Women Books | December 31, 2013
  1. Aine Greaney says:

    Like many authors here, I cut my teeth with Enid Blyton. In fact, I remember the very first book of hers that I read, which I wrote about here:

    Later, I graduated on to read a host of writers from my native Ireland–some of them, like Edna O’Brien, previously banned. But banned made it all the juicier and more enjoyable.

    • Jan Merry says:

      I love Edna O’Brien’s short stories. She was so daring and different to many I’d read before. Country Girl was also an eye opener and I particularly love that bold photo of her with the cigarette poised and ready. Not very politically correct, I know, but it says so much about her attitude. Thank you for your comments, Aine and your article on Enid Blyton.

  2. Eileen Popp Syracuse NY says:

    Oh, thank you for your thoughts- I am a nurse who has loved reading since being a young girl – I was enthralled by ‘Little Women” , and ‘Anne of Green Gables” as a girl- and enjoyed Nancy Drew books…
    thanks, again. Eileen.

    • Jan Merry says:

      Hi Eileen,I found Little Women especially moving and involving. My elder sister used to read it to me and we quickly started to identify with the characters.
      I read an interesting article about the author Kate Mosse, the co-founder of the Women’s Prize for Fiction (UK) who argued that children’s authors portray female characters as brave and strong and in charge of their own destiny. Yet when it came to adult novels, female characters were often relegated to ‘love stories’.
      “My perception as a writer of adult fiction is that, absolutely, female heroes abound in writing for children…when girls hit puberty those brave, strong girls don’t grow up into fiction with brave strong women,” said Mosse.
      I think there is some truth in her observation. I haven’t read the continuation of the life of Anne of Green Gables, but from the little I have seen, she did seem to go on to love, motherhood, grandmother and life focused around Gilbert. Of course we’re talking about a different era and please correct me if I’m on the wrong track. Not all the characters in Little Women were husband mad, if I remember rightly. But perhaps that was the exception. Thank you for your comments. You really sent me on a new train of thought.

  3. Interesting article – made me think of my own favourite authors from childhood. Being from the UK, it’s perhaps not unusual that I loved Enid Blyton. Malory Towers, The Adventurous Four, The Mystery Stories – all of them including, of course, The Famous Five and The Secret Seven.

    Have started to read some of them to my own children – they loved The Faraway Tree, though the children’s names had been changed in our edition! sign of the times, I’m afraid. And yes, whilst some of Blyton’s phrases jar and do not sit easily with a reader today, the stories themselves have lost none of their ability to take the reader away on an adventure. I did read up about Blyton’s life and it sounds as though it was very complicated – but my kids and I forget all about that when the kids climb up the Faraway Tree to see Moonface and go exploring.

    • Jan Merry says:

      I loved Enid Blyton too, Rebecca. As you say, she may not have been politically correct, but she did instil in so many children a love of reading. Her adventures were a great source of comfort and escapism for one of my young friends when he was experiencing difficulties settling in at school. Boys loved the books as much as girls.
      Enid Blyton has not been an inspiration for me as a writer, though those simple books are much more difficult to write than you’d think, but she definitely contributed to the big picture with her ‘lashings of treacle’ and ‘lashings of poisonous snakes’.Shame the names have been changed. Hope George has been preserved.

  4. Jackie Crawford says:

    What a great article! I’ve been looking for a few “must reads” for women, written by women and in reading your post Miles Franklin’s books sound really interesting; I might have to look in to them. You might like a book I’m reading right now called “The Children of Gavrilek” by Julie Kirtón Chandler, It’s a great read and perfect for my female peers! Thanks again for the wonderful article.

    • Jan Merry says:

      Thank you for your comments Jackie. The book you recommend sounds interesting. I’m intrigued by the setting, the coast of 1920s Georgia. Sounds full of possibilities. Regards and happy reading.

  5. Paula Cappa says:

    Interesting post! And this comment is not a challenge to this site; I admire your work. Jan, in one way I get what you mean by “the ones [authors] who really reached me were the female voices.” I think sometimes that can be true especially in the classics. But … story is story, writers are writers, art is art, and I’m not really convinced that these days gender of the writer is important or even necessary to know. Women authors are certainly under-represented today in literature and many genres. I’m actually doing a Women in Horror on my blog for October in an effort to shine a light on some of the overlooked women horror authors in this genre because it is so dominated by men. But as I read the fiction that I want to feature, I’m finding that the voices, the stories, are not gender-revealing at all. When we promote ourselves as women writers, or female voices (or gay voices, or black voices, etc.), are limiting our art by such labels? Honestly, I’m conflicted. Men don’t pitch their fiction as “male” writers.

    • Jan Merry says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Paula. I guess I’m really referring to those authors who influenced me, almost by stealth, and I’m looking at things retrospectively. Like many women, my parents and grandparents gave me books they thought I’d like and that meant ‘books for girls’. These books gave me great enjoyment and started me on the process of a life entwined with literature.
      There are so many issues surrounding gender etc when it comes to literary awards, newspaper columns and just what sells well and women are still using male pseudonyms to make themselves more appealing to readers. I agree that labels are limiting and a story should stand on its own strengths. Sometimes voice matters and sometimes it doesn’t. Hard to pin that one down. Men may not present themselves as ‘male’ writers but do write some very masculine literature and newspaper columns. I’m thinking of Norman Mailer. But I read many books without noticing the gender of the author too.
      I think I’m going around in circles here. Thanks for your insights and best wishes for your Women in Horror project.

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