The Mothers of Literature

As an English major, I can tell you that for a long time, literature was a wooden clubhouse with a ‘Boys Only’ sign hanging on the door. That adage about ‘for most of history, anonymous was a woman’ holds true for a reason. Even today, the discipline is rife with sexism, especially through the genres of science fiction and fantasy. There’s a reason J. K. Rowling published under her initials, after all. But a key fact these entitled nerd boys seem to forget is that women have been instrumental to the development of literature. Not only has their writing defined genres, sometimes it even invented them. Here’s four trailblazing women and their works:


1. The First Novel - Tale of Genji

Written by Murasaki Shikibu, a Japanese noblewoman and lady-in-waiting in the early 11th century CE, Tale of Genji is regarded as the world’s first novel, psychological novel, and first novel still considered a classic. Her work was believed to have been written chapters at a time and read to other ladies-in-waiting. The story has over four hundred consistent characters and tells of the emperor’s son, Hikaru Genji (“Shining Genji”), and Kiritsubo Consort, as Genji is removed from the line of succession and pursues a commoner’s career as an imperial officer. While the original manuscript no longer exists, it was translated into modern Japanese in the early 20th century by poet Akiko Yosano, and a well-received English translation (The Tyler Genji) was published in 2001.


2. First Classic Regency Novel - Pride and Prejudice

    Technically, Jane Austen invented an entirely new genre all on her own in 1813. While critics have tried to pin her down as a comedy of manners, social realism, or romanticism, she doesn’t quite fit. While Austen was unique in her time, today she’s the pinnacle of a modern genre of Regency Romance. Not to be confused with Regency Historicals, Regency Romances mimic Pride and Prejudice in their detail of the era, devotion to descriptions of courting practices and the London Season, and plucky heroines who will not sit down and stay silent. Leading by example, Pride and Prejudice tells us about Elizabeth Bennet and her ill-tempered romance with Mr. Darcy, as she learns first impressions are not always accurate.


3. First Science Fiction Novel - Frankenstein (or The Modern Prometheus)

It’s nearly impossible not to have heard of Frankenstein -- it’s that pervasive in Western culture. Frankenstein celebrated its 200th birthday last year and is more relevant than ever in an age of bio-punk and speculative fiction. Mary Shelley was eighteen when she, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John William Polidori, and mad, bad, dangerous-to-know Lord Byron got rained in at their Geneva Villa and decided to have a writing competition. Mary wasn’t content to merely win the contest, but invented an entirely new genre in the process with her story about Victor Frankenstein’s mad attempts to play God by using science to reanimate a man from dead body parts.


4. First Superhero Novel - The Scarlet Pimpernel

In 1905, Baroness Orczy published a novel about Sir Percy Blakeney, a mild-mannered aristocrat who leads a double life as fencing master and escape artist, The Scarlet Pimpernel, saving aristocrats before they are beheaded. His unknowing wife, Marguerite Blakeney, is blackmailed into tracking down his secret identity. Sound familiar? (Zorro, Superman, like, any superhero comic?) Baroness Orczy did it all over a century ago when she set the standard for many tropes that are hallmarks of superhero stories, including the entire concept of a secret identity, or the idea of a superhero league, whose nineteen members assist our hero in the well-named League of the Scarlet Pimpernel. And she, like many authors, continued to write stories about her hero for the next thirty-five years! She even wrote origin stories!


So if you’re looking for some classics, or just a way to shut up geek dudes who wonder why a girl is interested in sci-fi, superheroes, or any novel ever, just remind them that the only reason they’ve got something to obsess over is because of the kick-ass women who did it first.