As part of 4th Estate’s month-long celebration of women’s writing, we’ll be bringing you personal picks from the 4th Estate team. Those who make up our editorial, marketing, publicity and sales teams will be sharing their favourite piece of women’s writing. An incredibly tough question to be faced with, we know, but one that certainly got everyone thinking. First up is Publishing Director Helen Garnons-Williams.
What’s your favourite piece of women’s writing?
It’s almost impossible to pick a favourite when so many women writers have inspired and entertained and encouraged me – whether it was Jane Austen who taught me about wit, and about love (and how one should generally use the former to help navigate the latter); or having my heart broken by Emily Bronte; or learning about courage and self-determination from Virginia Woolf, and friendship (the toxic kind as well as the healing kind) and feminism from Margaret Atwood and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. But the writer who had a profound impact on me as a child, who continues to inspire me as an adult and who made me impatient for my daughter to grow old enough to be introduced to her books, is Joan Aiken.
Her ‘Wolves’ chronicles, featuring – among others – the wonderful, irrepressible Dido Twite and the villainous Slighcarps laid a path that led me on to Dickens but also to Susan Cooper and Ursula le Guin, and to M R James. They gave me a taste for gothic fiction and fantasy, and introduced me to the notion of alternate histories, something that still feels wonderfully anarchic when I come across it in novels, but also deeply satisfying when it’s done well. They taught my 10-year-old self that girls can make the best heroes, be handy with rifles, resourceful, funny and full of their own agency. And they also showed me that humans can be far more dangerous than wolves.
Aiken’s imagination is bold and inexhaustible, and the adventures she sends her young characters on are outlandish and terrifying and wild (involving pink whales, poisoned mince pies, enormous canons and hot air balloons…). Yet her control of pacing and narrative is exemplary and she grounds her flights of fantasy with characters and dialogue that feel utterly believable. She is also a writer alive to all the senses and even now I can feel the softness of the feathers of Simon’s geese, or of Sylvia’s fur-lined cape, or smell the pastry of a hot pie on a dark London night. The joy she takes in storytelling is a seam that runs through all the books and makes them darkly delightful – and often very funny – to read. Hers were the first full length novels that showed me what it meant to be truly lost in a good book, and how wonderful that escape can be. It’s something I still look for every time I pick up a new submission…
Find out more about WOM4N, a month wide celebration of women’s writing at 4th Estate.
Subscribe to the 4th Estate podcast.