Review: Righting the Mother Tongue

I’m not sure where I found this book originally, but it called out to me and my word-loving sensibilities.  Let it stand as a point in favor of libraries: you can have all the fun of impulse book-buying without any issues of budgeting (well, except your time) or storage (aside from the temporary tsundoku by your bed).

Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling is David Wolman’sWriting the Mother tongue journey through history to figure out just how English spelling became so confusing, whether it’s possible for it to be simplified, and what might become of the language in future.  Wolman himself grew up with siblings whose competence in spelling left his ability far behind – not to mention the frustration that attended his classroom attempts at words like “different,” “restaurant” and “license,” words from various forebears with diverse paradigms.  He heads on a road trip through various parts of England and America to discuss language shifts with a number of experts.

I was, for the most part, already familiar with a lot of his journey: the Wessex dialect of Old English spread on account of Alfred the Great’s influence; monks, clerics, and scribes set about copying manuscripts and Bibles; the Norman conquest brought an influx of French words, used mostly by the higher class.  Then there was a bit of an English resurgence, due in part to the popularity of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible.  Gutenberg’s printing press and its movable type meant that printing houses chose spellings that worked best for their margins, as opposed to the scribes who would tailor their wordwork for the ease of whoever was buying (and reading) it.

Chapter 5, which bridges the gap between the advent of printing and the publishing of Johnson’s dictionary, was the most illuminating section for me.  It noted that self-appointed tastemakers and language-shapers in the 16th and 17th centuries favored this or that construction/spelling and set it apart as most “correct,” so as to distinguish the polloi from the more educated, stylish elite.  For example, they included more Greek and Latinate terms, and, occasionally, tweaked certain words to more greatly resemble their fellows: rime became rhyme to match rhythm, delit became delight to match right and might (which had themselves undergone a shift, from pronouncing the “gh” to leaving it silent).

Then follows Samuel Johnson’s codification of English in his Dictionary of the English Language: In Which the Words Are Deduced from Their Originals, and Illustrated in Their Different Significations by Examples from the Best Writers, To Which Are Prefixed a History of the Language and an English Grammar.  Spelling was far more settled by this point (1755), and the dictionary cemented it further.

The chapters following that detail some history of American English, including several different parties in the past 200 years who wished to render English spelling a simpler matter.  Even today, the Simplified Spelling Society fights for a more efficient system.  Admittedly, the members of said society aren’t quite sure which system to utilize instead…but they all agree that English has a lot of “booby traps,” spelling-wise, that students have to spend a lot of time learning to navigate.

For my own part, that navigation was easy.  I grew up with the luxuries of educated, involved parents; plenty of reading material that taught me how words looked; and a fairly good memory for reproducing words, especially if I knew their etymology.  Wolman addresses this in a chapter on the Scripps National Spelling Bee:

Manning says she sees words differently now that she’s a Bee parent.  She had never thought much about all the other languages that influenced English spelling or the different parts of speech, but as her daughter developed a love of words and started studying for the Bee, Manning found that there was much more to spelling than just remembering what letters go where.  “It’s those clues and weird little histories that you pick up – that’s what makes it interesting.”

…an orthography that is perfectly reflective of pronunciation may not be ideal.  In isolation, words with silent or extra letters may strike people as inefficient, and at times they are.  But in other cases, they help our brains draw dotted lines between words with related meanings, such as sign and signature, condemn and condemnation, dough and doughnut, or bomb and bombard.

After deftly navigating the arguments between prescriptivists, who wish to prescribe, or lay down rules, for ‘proper’ spelling and grammar, and descriptivists, who prefer to record how people are in fact using language from day to day, Wolman goes on to examine how we treat orthography in the 21st century.  Nowadays, everyone’s computer or mobile device is outfitted with an spellchecker, which some suppose renders spelling irrelevant; does it matter if I forget the first “r” if my computer underlines “irelevant” with a red squiggle?  If we all disregarded the red squiggle, would the spelling change?  Wolman spends some time on the history of spellcheck before turning to Google and its suggested spelling function:

The last thing Google people want is to be perceived as setting rules or boundaries around what users do.  A company as big as Google already has enough trouble dispelling fears of Big Brother-esque practices.  “The question, ‘Do you mean?’ is deliberately ambiguous,” said Norvig.  “What we’re not saying is, ‘Here’s how you spell.’”  In this way, Google can be authoritative without being authoritarian, providing a snapshot of what’s out there in cyberspace without presuming to correct your English.

Chalk Google up as descriptivist, I guess.  I lean toward the prescriptive side myself, though not as heavily as I did before reading this book.  Reminding myself of the centuries of change English has already undergone makes me a tiny bit less likely to castigate someone’s spelling as wrong! …but see what I do next time something says “there” instead of “their.”

Overall, Righting the Mother Tongue is a fairly interesting book on the history of English orthography, a discussion of of spelling reform, and some description of the cognitive side of reading and writing (which helps account for the difficulties some people have in these activities).  While he examines the weirdness behind certain words – the now-silent “g” in “right,” the “h” in “ghost” or “rhubarb,” the in-and-outs of “aisle” and “isle” – Wolman spends more time on the shaping of the English language as a whole:

“Language is people,” Crystal told me as we stared out at the River Avon.  Words are not the flesh of thought entirely, for we also think in pictures, sounds, tastes, smells, and feelings.  But words are an essential part of the flesh of society and cultural intercourse.  They are products of human innovation, folly, power, preference, and change.  For that reason, correct English is nothing more than a phantom.  That doesn’t make English any less expansive and glorious, but the idea that there is clearly a right or a wrong way to go about the business of pronunciation, grammar, or even spelling, flies in the face of language’s true machinations.

English has grown and shifted before, an organism that changes with time and the people who use it.  It is not petrified or ossified, but living: it will continue to grow and shift and, perhaps, look quite different in a generation or two.

A Drinking Song

Among his myriad moments of poetic genius, W. B Yeats scribbled this tiny snippet. Does he drink to make her beautiful in his eye, or does he drink out of sorrow? Can it not be both? At any rate, I recited it in my best bad Irish accent. Here it be.

A Drinking Song
By William Butler Yeats 1865–1939

Wine comes in at the mouth
And love comes in at the eye;
That’s all we shall know for truth
Before we grow old and die.
I lift the glass to my mouth,
I look at you, and I sigh.

 

 

Be all that as it may, Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Quick Style Question, Y’all

How quickly can an author’s style influence, shift, or otherwise change yours?

I have a couple of book reviews in the pipeline, including one for Neil Postman’s Technopoly.  Since I am tracking my 2015 reading with GoodReads, I gave it a quick rating there, which exposed me to everyone else’s thoughts on it.

Intriguingly, even the people who hated or disagreed with its premise and/or arguments noted that they were impressed with the writing itself.  Some declared that the reason for their 2-star (rather than 1-star) rating; others were disgusted that his prose style was so compelling, as they believed that obscured the weakness of his arguments.

All of which is to say, Neil Postman’s got style.  And I wonder how to get it.

Or, well, that’s not quite it.  I’ve heard and read enough to know that style is an elusive sort of beast, slippery like a ferret.  And despite concerted effort, changing or shifting one’s writing style can be like moving a glacier: undeniable, inexorable, powerful…but slow.

So I wonder: how slow?  The other day, I came across this post about copying out the work of excellent writers in order to sharpen one’s skills.  It’s a method that promises improvement, but most certainly requires an investment of effort, a healthy measure of intention and attention, a careful ear and eye, and above all, time.

I’m not hoping for an overnight change to my own writing, but I want to put myself in mind of the fact that I am – and my writing is – what I read.  What I set before my eyes determines what issues from my mind and out through my mouth or keyboard or pen.

Perhaps I will start with Elements of Eloquence, or with a reread of Strunk and White.

No matter what, it is time to begin.

Review: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Last year, I was engaged in a search for books featuring unmarried women who nonetheless lead lives (or, at any rate, experience some events) worth the reading.  Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie made it to my list; I checked it out of the library; annnd it was promptly ignored for months and months, as I hemmed over my bookshelf and let myself be waylaid by other considerations.

Miss Jean BrodieHaving actually cracked it a week or so ago, I found it to be a fairly quick read.  Miss Jean Brodie teaches at a girls’ school in Edinburgh, and selects for herself a set of girls to be her crème de la crème: the girls who accompany her to museums, the theater, various rough neighborhoods, and tea at various houses.  Each one becomes famous for a certain trait or ability (from mathematics to sex, apparently), and the set as a whole are more devoted to this teacher and what she teaches them than they are to the school or their respective houses.  As the official summary puts it:  Determined to instill in them independence, passion, and ambition, Miss Brodie advises her girls, “Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth, and Beauty come first. Follow me.”

She doesn’t follow the usual curriculum nor the usual pedagogical methods, and is therefore something of a target for the criticisms of the headmistress and other staff – except for the men, who are rather taken with her.  As she never marries any of them, the story technically still fits my criteria…but I really wasn’t looking for someone who jumps in and out of unhealthy or adulterous relationships.

I also wasn’t looking for someone who declared “I am in my prime!” every page or two.  Miss Brodie’s prime is mentioned 57 times, without further digging into what one’s prime is or why it matters that she is in hers.

Whilst reading, I became convinced that both the book and I were missing something in turns.  I missed some shades of significance where British schooling, Edinburgh accents, and Scottish religious experience is concerned, while the book’s depiction of Jean Brodie misses the point by painting in generalities.

Or, at least, it seemed to miss the point.  Maybe it meant to outline a particular sort of person, leaving readers to fill in any gaps with their own experiences.  Or perhaps it was all an effort to portray a person of just such shallowness, the sort of shallowness that attempts (and sometimes manages) to appear profound.  If so, the effort is successful: I find myself quite agreeing with the character who eventually “betrayed” Miss Brodie (such that she lost her teaching post) that Jean Brodie is a bit of a fool – but folly being some distance from a fireable offense, she is sacked for being a fascist.

(This left me wondering how sensible or attractive fascism might have seemed to a woman in the 1930s. The fact that Jean Brodie admires Mussolini and Hitler is utterly foreign to me, having grown up in a post-world-war time when most everyone discusses Hitler as a means to talk about the worst person they can think of on short notice.)

On the bright side, the book does have a quite intriguing narrative setup.  It describes the girls in sixth form, jumping ahead to when this one dies, that one gets married, jumping back to when they were younger yet, returning to sixth form and the time thereafter. This arrangement makes for a good deal of dramatic irony, and illustrates something of how detached our understanding (of a character, a person, an event) can be: sometimes you learn how things turn out without having any idea how they got that way.

There are also some delightful turns of phrase, some particularly suggestive bits of description; it couldn’t very well be otherwise, given the sort of person Miss Brodie is.  One passage notes that “above all, Miss Brodie was easily the equal of both sisters together; she was the square on the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle and they were only the squares on the other two sides.”  Another notes her “excessive lack of guilt” and how one girl recognizes that as problematic.

“An excessive lack of guilt” might well characterize the whole book.  Both Miss Brodie and her set are unapologetically interested in Certain Things and disregard the rest. There’s a particular instance of religious conversion which must have involved a good deal of reading, thought, prayer, and various turnings of soul. It is given all of three sentences, and presented as a psychological change more than anything.

Bottom line: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a pretty good story, with somewhat lively characterization of a compelling personality.  But I’m not sure that it compels anyone in healthy ways, and as such it isn’t the story I was looking for.

Authors: Pursue Problems; Avoid Didacticism

As Thalia has noted, she and I have worked with Athanatos Christian Ministries for some years in guiding the semi-finalists of their annual novel contest in polishing their submissions.

When it comes to editing any sort of writing project, my kneejerk inclination, which I may or may not follow, is to read it through and take a red pen to any and all mechanical errors and questionable phrasing. This can get fussy, and honestly it’s all but meaningless with regard to the unfolding of the plot – unless there are some particularly egregious misspellings!

But spelling, grammar, and comma usage are a free-and-easy fix compared to more fundamental aspects of a story. Clearing away the haze of poor mechanics reveals the soundness (or deficiency!) of its underlying elements. So writers, bear in mind a couple of basic principles:

Problems are Plot. This took me a very long while to get my head around – first because I wrote self-insertion stories wherein I could ~magically~ do anything and everything (including fly a magic carpet to Venezuela, own a house full of gemstones the size of my fist, and have my grade-school crush fall in love with me: plain ol’ wish fulfillment, nothing more), and later because I crafted characters who I hated to subject to troublesome things. It seemed unkind, creating someone just to afflict him with grief, or her with financial disaster, or both of them with romantic disappointment that could easily be avoided with a little bit of communication.

But characters exist for story, and stories are fueled by problems. This is the essential Rule of Drama.  Maybe they’re internal problems, which eventually manifest in a strange or sudden action from the protagonist.  Maybe they’re mechanical problems: the car broke down in the middle of nowhere, the plane is falling from the sky, the parachute was replaced by a live alligator. Maybe they’re failures of communication or understanding. Maybe they’re the tension between what is right and what is easy. Maybe there are triplets, not twins.  Maybe a man came through the door with a gun in his hand.

Don’t just show me a nondescript fellow carrying on his orderly life in a mediocre fashion.  Don’t just give me a flat sequence of happenstances, don’t spend the whole book describing the landscape or characters, don’t bore me with 12 chapters of exposition.  Start somewhere, add problems, work to solve the problems, add more problems in the meantime, and end up somewhere else – or as someone else.

This is also an important point.  The Catcher in the Rye presents us with a character and adds problems, or something like, but none of them are resolved.  The Holden Caulfield at the end is just like the Holden Caulfield at the beginning, except he’s a little bit older.  Which might be the idea: here, look at this teenager; behold how lame he is; don’t you just want to not be like him in any way?

It’s a long-winded, time-consuming way to teach a single lesson.  But it does follow my other main rule for writers:

Don’t Be Didactic.  What does that mean?  Well, in an earlier post I noted that “didactic” comes from the Greek word for “teaching,” and thus isn’t bad per se.  Teaching is good: but how to do it?  Show your work.  Don’t tell the reader “Well, that business was just evil” or “James suddenly behaved properly, fancy that” or “Communism doesn’t work.”  You have just told the reader about the start of the maze, then dropped him off at the end of the maze, and revealed none of the twists and turns within it.  You have held up a solved puzzle, an assembled model, a fully-folded piece of origami, and kept its inner workings to yourself.  Will it hold together?  How should we know?  Can we take your word for it, since you didn’t take us through the process?

Emily pointed out that some examples or excerpts would be helpful, and indeed, I stand convicted of doing the thing while telling storytellers not to do it.  The difficulty is that I don’t want to quote sections of Athanatos entries I’ve read, since that’s not in keeping with contest rules or a spirit of charity.

So let me take a step back and note that, as I understand Athanatos, their mission is to find and encourage Christian authors.  However, they want stories, first and foremost: well-crafted, well-told, beautiful stories, which will draw in and grip whoever reads them.  They need not be explicitly Christian, if that makes sense; in fact, a latent approach might be preferable.  Though we’ve gotten a fair few novels featuring one or more of the following tropes, it’s not always most effective to feature an altar call, full Bible verses, a conversion prayer, the appearance of angels, a discussion of various points of doctrine, or a bright shining light with a heavenly voice.  There might be occasions where one or another of these, or something like them, can be deployed to good effect; for the most part, such elements only speak to readers already on the inside of the circle.

Stories are journeys, not destinations, so let your characters and your readers travel.  Stick your travelers between a frying pan and a fire.  When difficult questions arise, don’t just answer them, straight off; let them unfurl into tension between characters who want different things, who believe different things – just like real life.  Let there be consequences to choices made, and let those consequences illuminate the nature of the choices instead of baldly stating your estimation of it.  Not that every single choice the characters make must be labored over in a welter of philosophizing – in that case, they might not do anything – but maintain personalities that are real enough to conflict with each other, in such a way that resolution of that conflict means something.

The best books have the power to change their readers.  Fashioning something with that power requires some heavy lifting and a good deal of internal wrestling (and revision, and revision, and revision).  But the end product shines like the sword Zhaligkeer:  “You have then the strength of four blades, not just one.  There is a tension in the twisting of the braid that is never undone.  This tension is what makes the sword leap to the hand and sing in the air.  No common blade forged of a rod and flattened can stand against it.”

Law Like Love

Law, say the gardeners, is the sun,
Law is the one
All gardeners obey
To-morrow, yesterday, to-day.

Law is the wisdom of the old,
The impotent grandfathers feebly scold;
The grandchildren put out a treble tongue,
Law is the senses of the young.

Law, says the priest with a priestly look,
Expounding to an unpriestly people,
Law is the words in my priestly book,
Law is my pulpit and my steeple.

Law, says the judge as he looks down his nose,
Speaking clearly and most severely,
Law is as I’ve told you before,
Law is as you know I suppose,
Law is but let me explain it once more,
Law is The Law.

Yet law-abiding scholars write:
Law is neither wrong nor right,
Law is only crimes
Punished by places and by times,
Law is the clothes men wear
Anytime, anywhere,
Law is Good morning and Good night.

Others say, Law is our Fate;
Others say, Law is our State;
Others say, others say
Law is no more,
Law has gone away.

And always the loud angry crowd,
Very angry and very loud,
Law is We,
And always the soft idiot softly Me.

If we, dear, know we know no more
Than they about the Law,
If I no more than you
Know what we should and should not do
Except that all agree
Gladly or miserably
That the Law is
And that all know this
If therefore thinking it absurd
To identify Law with some other word,
Unlike so many men
I cannot say Law is again,

No more than they can we suppress
The universal wish to guess
Or slip out of our own position
Into an unconcerned condition.

Although I can at least confine
Your vanity and mine
To stating timidly
A timid similarity,
We shall boast anyway:
Like love I say.

Like love we don’t know where or why,
Like love we can’t compel or fly,
Like love we often weep,
Like love we seldom keep.

– Auden

Thoughtwash

Today, I’ve been pondering the Pensieve. One of J.K. Rowling’s inventions in the Potterverse, it is a bowl with various runes carved into it; magic allows one to draw silvery threads of thought out of one’s head and put them into this basin.

The purpose is twofold. The first is that when one’s head is too full of thoughts, some of them can be unloaded.  Imagine how useful: remove the thought when you need to stop replaying your worst memory in your head; when you need to focus on one task instead of a dozen others; when you can’t sleep for anxiety; when you have so many ideas to ponder that you cannot pick and follow a single train of thought to its terminus.

Typically, though, we only see it used (in the books, at least) to examine memories – an extremely plot-convenient film reel or record of events, made shareable through the magic of the Pensieve, and more exact than life.

Also: inadvertent (or not so much) spying on one's professors

Also: inadvertent (or not so much) spying on the past of one’s professors

Useful though it sounds, I don’t typically long for a Pensieve. The act of picking out which thoughts to remove, to line up, to examine – that is organization enough for my Muggle purposes.  I also imagine that removing the first two or three thoughts could render one unable to recall which other thoughts one had wanted to cull and examine.

On the other hand, there are thoughts I wish I could erase or delete or scrub away with brain bleach.  The objects we perceive are grist for the mill of our cogitation, memory, and imagination; and only that which has been milled by the internal senses can contribute to our intellect and understanding.  Thus the things I see, the stories or articles I read, the words or music I hear, all become a part of me.

I should take far greater care for what grist enters the mill of my mind.

And so it bears mentioning Pensieve cabinetthat while I hunted for a picture of this thoughtbowl – look how decorative! – other basins came to mind, specifically baptismal fonts. I don’t believe Rowling meant to allude to the sacrament of baptism with her cogitation-basin, but I reckon that the baptismal font is the best help available for management of our thoughts and our inner life.

Luther’s Large Catechism reads as follows:

These two parts, to be sunk under the water and drawn out again, signify the power and operation of Baptism, which is nothing else than putting to death the old Adam, and after that the resurrection of the new man, both of which must take place in us all our lives, so that a truly Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism, once begun and ever to be continued. For this must be practised without ceasing, that we ever keep purging away whatever is of the old Adam, and that that which belongs to the new man come forth.
But what is the old man? It is that which is born in us from Adam, angry, hateful, envious, unchaste, stingy, lazy, haughty, yea, unbelieving, infected with all vices, and having by nature nothing good in it.
Now, when we are come into the kingdom of Christ, these things must daily decrease, that the longer we live we become more gentle, more patient, more meek, and ever withdraw more and more from unbelief, avarice, hatred, envy, haughtiness.

What a litany.  Angry, hateful, envious, unchaste, stingy, lazy, haughty, unbelieving, infected with all vices.  True, true, true, true, and true.  I need much more than the removal of this or that unhealthy story, rude joke, vacuous song, or meaningless article.  I need nothing less than the washing of regeneration for all my thoughts, each and every day.

Baptism is not a one-time event.  It is the power of God to drown that Old Adam daily.  The thoughts put in to the baptismal font will either be redeemed, or they will be eradicated.

 

Follow-Up: A Single Story

A year ago, I wrote about my search for various things, including stories about single ladies living their lives without worrying about their singleness:

But Susan’s story (and Hannah Coulter, and The Princess Bride, and any given article on Boundless) suggests that there is no other narrative, that no lady can ever be happy without The One, that the only ending possible is marriage.  This ground has been trod by a lot of women in tiresome family-vs-career arguments, but the fact remains that I want a story: a different story than my usual fare, something involving a woman who is content with a different sort of happy ending.  I’m looking for a female character who is content to live her life on her own, if only to show me that it is possible.

This turned out to be a bit difficult, such that I am returning to it now with what little bit of insight I’ve gleaned over the past year.  Since readers and friends all suggested one or two books at most, and that with some amount of struggle, I was reassured that I hadn’t missed an entire section at the library or bookshop.  Initial suggestions included:

Miss Marple stories – Agatha Christie
I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith
The Thirteenth Tale – Dianne Setterfield
The Story of a Soul – St. Therese of Lisieux (autobiography)
Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc – Mark Twain

It’s a small field, one friend suggested, because for centuries, a lady’s singleness didn’t just mean loneliness, awkwardness amongst the society of couples, or agonizing over whether she was fulfilling her telos.  It meant being without provider or protector, in a time when it was much more difficult, if not impossible, for women to provide for or protect themselves.  Thus, she said, the only stories of that type to be expected would focus on nuns – living within the provision and protection of an abbey – or great queens, who held enough power to concern themselves with affairs and interests beyond their marital state and household management.

I later learned that, unbeknownst to me, The Atlantic had published an editorial on the same subject about a month before I addressed it.  Ms. McKinney’s concerns were somewhat different from mine; she seemed to call for a story with a female protagonist and no love subplots whatsoever, which is a rather formidable task.  She made a few suggestions, not all of them equally hopeful:

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark
Housekeeping –
Marilynne Robinson
The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver
The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
The Help
– Kathryn Stockett
The Awakening –
Kate Chopin
The Devil Wears Prada –
Lauren Weisberger
Salvage the Bones –
Jesmyn Ward

More useful than McKinney’s musings were the comments.  Normally, the comments section of any given article online is a wasteland of hatred, name-calling, and poor grammar, but these responses contained thoughtful criticism and a plethora of recommended titles.  Here are a few comments that struck a chord:

Lasting love is perennially hard to find… for both men and women, so it makes for good story and character development in literature.

Girls too young to be interested in boys made good stories. 

I think there are probably more love-plotless books in the YA category than the adult category

It’s not spite [on the part of publishers]. They won’t choose it simply because it doesn’t appeal to them, so they think it won’t sell. It doesn’t appeal to them because they aren’t used to it. They aren’t used to it because there are NONE IN THE SYSTEM.

I also disagree with your premise that self-discovery is always a solitary process. Why can’t a woman’s process of self-discovery include a little romance? That doesn’t mean that the entire purpose of her life is now to be married and have kids.

…To some extent human biology, and psychology, cares about reproduction because otherwise the species dies. So it’s likely at least some characters will have a drive for heterosexual love or sex unless there is a reason none of them do. (It’s a children’s book or they’re all children, it’s set in a monastery or convent, they’re all gay, it’s some kind of futuristic unisex setting where people reproduce by cloning, etc) But this isn’t really a male/female issue. I think there’s likely few novels, for adults, with male protagonists where love or sex has absolutely no role.

The author overlooks the fact that in the past looking for a man was more than about looking for love; it was about looking for a secure future–the equivalent of a job. For this reason many female authors such as Jane Austen are quite unsentimental when it comes to husband hunting…

I grew up reading the lives of saints. That is as diverse a group of women as you could ever hope to meet. One thing they all seemed to have in common was a strength of character that allowed them to face the unknown, challenge norms – even lead men into battle if that is what God called them to do.

Yes, we need more female protagonists that represent the modern woman. No, I don’t expect to find them in the Victorian Era.

I went through the various recommendations to see if they were, indeed, what I was looking for.  Admittedly, I am working from secondhand sources, because I wanted to share the possibilities before reading through all of them; precedent suggests that I wouldn’t have posted this for another 5 years if I read them all first.  But based on Goodreads, the following books show some promise in depicting women whose stories are not romances:

The Crow Trap (and other tales of detective Vera Stanhope) – Ann Cleeves
A Field of Darkness
– Cornelia Read
Remarkable Creatures – Tracy Chevalier
My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin
State of Wonder – Ann Patchett
Clan of the Cave Bears/Valley of Horses – Jean Auel
Deed of Paksenarrion Trilogy – Elizabeth Moon
Friday – R. Heinlein
Titan/Wizard/Demon - John Varley
Hyperion Cantos – Dan Simmons
Little Bee – Chris Cleave
The Optimist’s Daughter – Eudora Welty
Loitering with Intent - Muriel Spark
The Voyage Out – Virginia Woolf

Perhaps in another year I’ll be able to report back on how happy or fulfilled these characters are.

Please let me know if you have any additions, corrections, or thoughts on this list!