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Women Who Changed the Course of English Literature

A 9-part collection by Kathleen Jones

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Sister of my Soul - Dorothy Wordsworth

Dorothy lost her mother at the age of 6 and she was sent to be fostered by a distant relative. She wasn’t reunited with her siblings until she was a teenager and formed a close bond with her brother William. They lived together for the rest of their lives, first in Somerset, and later in the Lake District where William, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey came to be known as the Lake Poets. Dorothy never married and wrote prolifically. Her journals (which she kept until she died) record her intimate daily life and the extraordinary relationship with her brother William.

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'The Blood Jet is Poetry' - Sylvia Plath

Born in America, Sylvia Plath came to England on a Fulbright scholarship. Brilliant and gifted, she suffered from depression and anxiety. At Cambridge she met the equally brilliant Ted Hughes and they formed a personal and creative partnership. Driven to write, Plath constantly struggled with the juggling act women had to perform in a culture of traditional expectations. Children, housework, and a husband who was also a major literary figure, had to compete with poetry. Her husband’s infidelities made it even more difficult. Writing spectacularly original poetry and prose that defied the convention that women shouldn’t write about ‘the personal’, Sylvia succumbed to depression and took her own life in 1963 aged 31.

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The Queen of Crime' - Agatha Christie 1890 - 1976

Born Agatha Miller in Torquay in 1890, to wealthy middle-class parents, she became the best-selling novelist of all time, writing 66 detective novels, as well as the world’s longest-running play – The Mousetrap. Her technique shaped the modern detective novel. She married Archie Christie just before the first world war. He was posted abroad, while Agatha worked in a hospital dispensary where she learned a great deal about poisons. She was already writing and had several novels rejected before The Mysterious Affair at Styles was published in 1920. When Archie asked for a divorce, Agatha mysteriously disappeared for more than a week, creating a national sensation. She later married an archaeologist and the experience of excavations in the middle east informed several of her novels.

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Maya Angelou: 'And Still I Rise'

The great granddaughter of a slave, Maya Angelou was born in St Louis, Missouri, and brought up in a segregated America, mostly by her grandmother. She had a baby at 17, and took a variety of jobs to support herself and her son including streetcar conductor, sex worker, professional dancer and actress. She married a novelist who encouraged her to write. In New York she met Martin Luther King and became involved in politics. She is best known for her poetry and autobiographies, but was also a university lecturer, broadcast journalist and film director, calling herself ‘a teacher who writes’. She dedicated her long life to campaigning for an end to ‘the idiocies of racism and sexism’.

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'Tempests Dark and Wild' - Mary Shelley 1797 - 1851

In 1816 a young girl was staying in a castle in Switzerland with her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and two friends. They challenged each other to write a story of suspense and mystery. Mary wrote the tale of Dr Frankenstein and his monster. It was a shocking story for a young girl to write and was the forerunner of a whole new genre of science fiction.

Mary, daughter of feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, lived in exile for several years, suffered the loss of three children, social ostracism, and the early death of her husband. She supported her baby son by editing and journalism, and writing five more novels. But it is for Frankenstein that she will always be remembered.

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'A Heart Like a Singing Bird' - Christina Rossetti 1830 - 94

Christina was the youngest of the Rossetti children, often overshadowed by her brother Dante Gabriel. But, during her lifetime, it was Christina whose work was better known. Anglo-Italian, Christina’s passionate disposition was moulded by Victorian convention and the religious beliefs of her mother and older sister.

The resulting conflict was expressed in poetry that was unique for its time – personal, and often erotic. Goblin Market, published first as a children’s poem, is one example. Christina’s life of self-denial was tragic, but she was regarded as one of the major poets of her time and one of the few 19th century women ever considered for Poet Laureate.

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'A Self Behind a Self Concealed' - Emily Dickinson 1830 - 1886

Emily Dickinson is one of the most quoted poets in the English language, but also one of the most mysterious. When she was alive her life, like the ‘loaded gun’ of one of her poems, remained hidden in her brother’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she wrote poems that challenged the very nature of poetry. Only ten were published in her lifetime. Almost 1,800 others were found hidden in a chest of drawers, to explode upon the literary world after her death. Forced into seclusion by what she called a ‘snarl in the brain’, which may have been epilepsy, she lived quietly and died at the age of only fifty six. Emily is now regarded as one of the greatest poets of all time.

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The "Business of a Woman's Life"- Charlotte Bronte 1816 - 1855

Charlotte was one of four brilliant siblings, the surviving children of an Anglo-Irish clergyman living at Haworth in Yorkshire. The three girls, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, grew up to become novelists and poets. Their brother Branwell wrote poetry and painted. They would all die before they were forty: Emily and Anne of tuberculosis, Branwell of alcohol addiction possibly exacerbated by tuberculosis. Charlotte died while pregnant, suffering from Hyperemesis Gravidarum. She wrote several novels, The Professor, Jane Eyre, Shirley and Villette. The poet laureate, Robert Southey, told her that ‘Literature can never be the business of a woman’s life’. The Brontë siblings published under male pseudonyms and Jane Eyre has become one of the most famous novels in the world.

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A very private passion - L.M. Alcott 1832 - 1888

L.M. Alcott is best known for her autobiographical novel Little Women and its sequels, but – like her fictional counterpart Jo March – she also wrote Gothic thrillers and stories of passion and revenge under a pseudonym. Born in Philadelphia in 1832, Alcott’s father was a teacher and her mother a social worker. Her childhood was marred by poverty and her father’s mental instability. Alcott was a feminist and remained unmarried. She confessed that she believed herself to be a man in a woman’s body. She campaigned all her life for women’s suffrage and the abolition of slavery. The Alcott family were part of the Underground Railroad that protected fugitive slaves. Alcott hated publicity and lived in seclusion until she died from a stroke in 1888 aged 55.

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