The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life
Welcome to a site celebrating classic women authors who wrote enduring literature. Here you’ll find their words of wisdom for readers and writers. Enjoy their life stories and quotations; learn more about their books; read their advice on the writing life; and enjoy contemporary voices on the writing process.
Edith Wharton (January 24, 1862 – August 11, 1937), was born Edith Newbold Jones in New York City. One of the Grande Dames of American letters, everything about her, from her wealthy background to her stately demeanor suggests a woman in possession of herself. However, beneath the surface was a deep insecurity about her talent and abilities, one she gradually overcame — in a very substantial way.
Most of us have heard the expression “Keeping up with the Joneses,” but it might come as a surprise that this doesn’t refer to a hypothetical family, but Edith Wharton’s parents. Born into the rarified late nineteenth-century world of wealth and privilege, her formative years consisted of riding, balls, coming-out parties, teas, and extended stays in Europe.
Despite having homes in New York City and Newport, and the kind of money that gained them access to the finer things in life, culture and learning weren’t particularly valued by her family. And though she lacked for nothing, it was a less-than-ideal upbringing for a bookish, dreamy girl. Read More→
The following passages are from Edith Wharton’s memoir on writing and life, A Backward Glance, 1934:
A first attempt at a novel, rejected by Mother
“My first attempt (at age of eleven) was a novel, which began: ‘Oh, how do you do, Mrs. Brown?’ said Mrs. Tomkins. ‘If only I had known you were going to call I should have tidied up the drawing-room.’ Timorously I submitted this to my mother, and never shall I forget the sudden drop of my creative frenzy when she returned it with the icy comment: ‘Drawing-rooms are always tidy.'”
This was so crushing to a would-be novelist of manners that it shook me rudely out of my dream of writing fiction, and I turned to poetry instead. It was not thought necessary to feed my literary ambitions with foolscap, and for lack of paper I was driven to begging for the wrappings of the parcels delivered at the house.” Read More→
There’s a cartoon on my bulletin board of two caterpillars creeping along, with a butterfly hovering above them. One caterpillar eyes the butterfly suspiciously, and says, “You’ll never catch me going up in one of those things!” Maybe it isn’t what the cartoonist intended, but I see it as a metaphor for the sad state of women’s self-esteem.
We’re destined to become glorious butterflies, yet we persist in perceiving ourselves as caterpillars, opting for crawling the safer but less exciting ground, instead of allowing ourselves to take flight.
It’s a tough task to attain the kind of self-acceptance that allows a writer to feel she deserves to own her talent and reap the rewards of hard work. Think of favorite classic authors such as Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, and Louisa May Alcott, with their distinct styles and personas. It’s hard to imagine that they didn’t burst forth with the kind of self-regard that would allow them to write and succeed gloriously. And yet—they didn’t. Like most of us, they struggled with self-acceptance for years, sometimes for decades. Consider: Read More→
From the original review in The New York Times, December 30, 1905: Rarely has any book aroused such universal interest or provoked such illuminating discussions as has The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. Two years ago many a quarrel originated in discussing Candida’s virtue; this year, from pulpit to parlor, it is Lily Bart who is the main theme of conversation.
What a human grip also has on our sympathy, and what a complex creature she is, with her demi-monde longing for luxury, and her fine capacity for conscience. Many consider her no better than Becky Sharp, and only attribute her refusal to sell herself to a careless disregard for consequences, while others find in her the true nobility of soul, whose many ignoble actions are due to force (or is it lack?) of circumstances beyond her control. Her final spiritual rejuvenation (and here there is no division of opinion) is due to the influence of her love for Belden. Read More→
Dear Literary Ladies,
My first novel is finally coming out, and I’m thrilled! But I’m also concerned about how to handle reviews from critics as well as readers. It’s hard to ignore reviews these days, with everything on the web and in one’s face 24/7. Any words of wisdom before my book hits the shelves?
If one has sought the publicity of print, and sold one’s wares in the open market, one has sold to the purchasers the right to think what they choose about one’s books; and the novelist’s best safeguard is to put out of his mind the quality of praise or blame bestowed on [her] by reviewers and readers, and to write only for that dispassionate and ironic critic who dwells within the breast.
— Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance, 1934
Shirley Jackson was an American author who focused on motifs of psychological horror and “prettied-up accounts of everyday family life.” Many of her works addressed the dark side of human nature. The Lottery (1948) captured an audience for Jackson and she continued to use inspiration as a mom to create her memoirs. Her novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle was made one of Time Magazine’s “Ten Best Novels” in 1961. Here are some of her quotes on writing and life.
“When shall we live if not now?” (The Sundial, 1958)
“In the country of the story the writer is king.” (Come Along with Me, 1968)
“I very much dislike writing about myself or my work, and when pressed for autobiographical material can only give a bare chronological outline which contains no pertinent facts.” Read More→