Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The overwhelming list, version...4.0? 6.0? 10.0? (I've lost count)

One of many lovely covers I'll be sharing--certainly
ballroom dancing is a scandalous enough topic!

At long last, a new version of my Overwhelming List has gone live.  This one took nearly three months to complete because, contrary to expectations, the number of writers I'm coming across seems to have increased of late rather than slowing to a trickle.  This update sees a net gain of 157 writers, for a grand total of 1,095, a number that quite astonishes me (and the PDF version is up to 172 pages).  Would anyone have expected that in a given 50 year period there could have been well over a thousand British women publishing literary prose?  Certainly not I. And the fact that more than 100 are waiting in the wings for the next update makes me wonder just how many there could have been in all!  2,000?  3,000?  I doubt that this is a project that can ever be truly "finished," but it's certainly great fun for now.

In addition, while I would have expected that by now I might be into the "dregs"—stray writers who wrote, say, one very bad novel in 1947 and then vanished from view—on the contrary this update contains a variety of quite interesting women. One of them (I won't say which just yet) I am reading at the moment and enjoying immensely, and there are many more I'd like to sink my teeth into.  Of course, there may well be some dregs too, but who am I to judge which those might be?  One reader's dregs are often another's page-turners, after all.

By all means read Edith Templeton, even
though I've had to remove her from the list

There was one traumatic loss to the list this time around, as I had to remove one of my favorite novelists—the wonderful Edith Templeton—who, as I should have realized long before now, was born and spent her formative years in what was then Czechoslovakia.  However, you really owe it to yourselves to read her lovely and hilarious early novels, especially her debut, Summer in the Country, which are charming and subtly cynical and completely unique.

And another author disappeared from the list before she ever even appeared on it.  I was rather intrigued by Mary O'Connor's 1957 novel Fool's Question.  Although religious themes in fiction often put me off, a description of this novel as focusing on the "daily round" of an ordinary Catholic woman caught my eye.  O'Connor was initially a bit of a mystery, but the indomitable John Herrington came through with information about her, including that she was, in fact, Canadian.  She wrote one additional novel, The Blue Guitar (1966), about which I couldn't find any details. Perhaps a treasure for a future Canadian edition of the Overwhelming List?

By the way, I must give my usual thanks for the many suggestions I've gotten from interested readers.  Two in particular made a big difference this time around.  

The aforementioned John Herrington has not only suggested numerous writers he's come across in his own researches, but has on many, many occasions been willing to come through for me when I've hit a brick wall in tracking down information on an author.  Dozens of entries in this update have benefited from his expert unearthing skills.  Thank you, John!

The rather glamorous Rena Terrington, one
of Tina's many suggestions

And I also owe a large debt to Tina Brooker, who has provided me with lists of authors from advertisements in old books she comes across, tables of contents from story collections, and even photos of book shops and book sales she visits (one of which I'm going, with her permission, to share here soon—I spent an hour or more studying it and came up with several new names for my list!).  Dozens of names on the list come to you courtesy of Tina's efforts (and there's a bunch more coming in the next update). Thank you, Tina!

More generally, thanks to everyone who has commented, emailed, recommended my blog to others, linked to it, or have otherwise been supportive of or taken an interest in my peculiar and obsessive project here.  I'm still always excited to see a new comment or email!

By the way, coming soon (finally—I've mentioned it several times in the past few months as a work in progress) is a new "short list," a kind of middlebrow starter kit, as it were, which I've been agonizing over for ages, but which I'm finally ready to share.  I hope to have it posted by this weekend.  Stay tuned.


  1. Do you really have to exclude Templeton? Your sub-title is, after all. "lesser-known British women writers...." Though I haven't been able to track it down for definite, my guess is she will have taken British nationality on her first marriage - and she did after all end up as a captain in British Army.

    My own mother would have deeply resented any suggestion that she was any the less British just because she was born in Czechoslovakia!

    My quibble would be with Templeton as "lesser-known". I love her too.....

    1. Well, Cestina, I think I can get around the "lesser-known" issue by saying that Templeton is far less known than she deserves to be. How's that? Very sad that those first four novels remain out of print. They are quite brilliant.

      As for British-ness, your comment has made me give this some serious thought. Of course, I never meant to cast any doubt on your mother's level of British-ness! I think, for purposes of my list, I was just distinguishing between legal citizenship, which is simple, and what we might call literary nationality, which seems trickier. Is Nabokov Russian or American? Is Conrad Polish or British? Is James American or British? Citizenship-wise, easy questions to answer, but it's funny when you think of the writing itself. As an American, I would say that, although Nabokov wrote brilliantly about American culture, he is always writing about it from the outside looking in. It's a quite different perspective from that of Wharton or Hemingway or Cather. On the other hand, despite the fact that James lived in England much of his adult life (as Nabokov lived in the U.S.), James feels much more like an American writer than Nabokov does. Somehow, it seems that, for writers, where one spends one's formative years is inescapable. Or am I completely crazy in feeling this?

      This is all the more odd, perhaps, when you consider that I am an American who submerges himself as much as possible in British culture, always knowing that, even were I to immigrate someday, I would always be inescapably pegged as an American!

  2. No umbrage taken on behalf of my mother - how could you know?;-)

    I see where you are coming from but I am not sure where this line of thought takes us. I would peg Conrad (much as I dislike him) as British since as far as I know, he wrote in English. Same for Templeton I think. And what about people of such mixed heritage as the amazing Sybille Bedford? It would never occur to me not to class her as a British writer though her origins are mixed to say the least and her formative years were spent all over the place.

    Judith Kerr is another, to me, British author born in Czechoslovakia.....I could go on and on!

    And maybe there is a difference across the Atlantic. I throw out the idea just for discussion. Because I realise that I class Josef Škvorecký as firmly Czech despite his many years of living and writing in Canada. Perhaps that's because his early writing was in Czech though.....

    A fascinating line of thought with a number of strands to follow up - thanks for expanding on it. I shall muse further and hope others will join in!

    1. You have certainly identified some inconsistencies in my list, Cestina, for which I thank you. You're right, based on the logic I described above, why would I have included Bedford, when she didn't so much as visit England until her teens? Another example similar to Templeton--I have always excluded Baroness Orczy because I considered her a Hungarian author, who only came to England at around age 30, but also married a Brit and took British citizenship.

      Ultimately, I am feeling inclined to agree with you. If I say my blog is about British women, then defining "British" only by where one is born and spends one's childhood is perhaps a bit misleading. But that approach may have some pitfalls of its own--especially in the case of some of the most obscure authors, where citizenship may be as difficult to determine as most other details of their lives. Hmmm. I will have to give this some more thought...

  3. Looking forward to your middlebrow starter kit list. I found your blog when searching for other titles to read after reading Beowulf by Bryher. Hoping to one day get A chelsea Concerto via interlibrary loan--request is in but seems not many copies circulate. So glad to have found such a wonderful source, I am an ardent fan of fiction and non fiction about the British home front during and after WWII

    1. So glad you found me, and thank you for commenting! A Chelsea Concerto is wonderful. I think my copy came from Cornell University if I recall, but demand for the book may have increased since Virginia Nicholson discussed Faviell in her book Millions Like Us. I hope the starter kit is enjoyable for you--I've agonized about it a LOT. Also among my "to dos" for down the road is a list of wartime writings--I've come across so many more novels and memoirs of the home front that sound interesting, and would like to compile them in one place. Coming soon!

  4. And then there's T S Eliot. Born American but always considered a British poet. He basically bookends (along with Chaucer) English Lit survey courses. (Maybe it's the April to April thing).

    I have to admit every time you exclude, with regret, a Canadian writer from your list, I think, "Maybe I should take it on...." But I always sharply remind myself there's no way on this planet I could fit it into my life. A shame, really. Sorry.

    1. I know, Susan. I originally thought I might get around to tackling Canada and Australia and New Zealand after I "finished" my list for Britain, but we all know how that has gone. When I come across writers from those countries in my researches, I do always save them in my database, just in case, but have never had time to go back and look at them very closely. I'm sure there are plenty of lost treasures there too--Grace Campbell? Mazo de la Roche? Gwethalyn Erichsen-Brown? Madge MacBeth? Hmmm.

    2. I have a theory about Mazo de la Roche which is that you will find a copy of one of her books at every single jumble sale and in every secondhand bookshop you encounter. I was even proved right in 3 Czech bookshops, to my great glee.

      She's such a compulsive writer - I hated almost every word of the Jalna books, and yet read my way through the whole series in my teens....

  5. Oh Mazo de la Roche. I loved those books in my impressionable late teens and early twenties, when she enjoyed a big resurgence. I have them ALL, in various editions, especially since PAN (I think it was) helpfully reissued them all around that time, though several are quite old editions.

    Now I look back and think I'd rather remember how I loved them than go back and read them again and perhaps cringe.

    Surging passions anyone?


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