An Alternative Literary Canon
The established literary canon sucks. There, I said it. As someone who has two English Literature degrees under her belt, I can say with full certainty that the canon is tired, dusty, over-analysed, dull, and mostly white and male. Gross.
Did you know - quelle surprise! - that other authors, poets and playwrights actually existed before the 20th century other than Shakespeare, Dickens, Oscar Wilde and Jane Austen?? I know right! Insane!! Instead of rehashing boring ass analysis of Dickens (let’s be honest, those novels are a chore) or reading Keats the OG fuckboy’s poetry for the twelve millionth time or trying to pretend that The Great Gatsby is anything more than a self-congratulatory wank over the American Dream TM, try picking up one of these wonderful volumes instead and broaden your horizons.
Sarah L presents:
a better literary canon
Instead of: Homer’s Odyssey
Try reading: Sappho’s poetry
Okay, the Odyssey has some pretty neat imagery and is a really formative text in literature, but it’s also macho masculine war central. Sappho was an Archaic Greek poet who lived approximately between 620 and 570 BC (about one generation after Homer). Her lyric poetry centres on same-sex love and is rife with homoerotic imagery (look out for the violets in her lap). Most of her poetry is now lost, aside from a few fragments and one complete poem titled ‘Ode to Aphrodite’, but her contemporaries regarded her with great esteem and she was given names such as the “tenth muse” to acknowledge their esteem. The modern term ‘lesbian’ is an allusion to Sappho and her homeland of the isle of Lesbos. I thoroughly recommend Sappho Bot on Twitter for fragmentary insights into her gorgeous poetry and imagery. Look out for a piece from E very soon diving further into Sappho’s works.
Instead of: Shakespeare
Try reading: Aphra Behn, The Rover (1677)
Known contemporarily as one third of the “fair triumvirate of wit”, Aphra Behn was born around 20 years after Shakespeare’s death. She was one of the first women to earn a living by her writing and smashed down cultural barriers around independent women in the limelight. The Rover was her biggest commercial success, and it very unusually earned an extended run which allowed her to live comfortably from the box office income.
Instead of: Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe
Try reading: The Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African (1792) and The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African (1789)
Robinson Crusoe has horrendously “yikes”-inducing colonial vibes. Instead, check yourself and read these two accounts of former slaves to humble and educate yourself.
Ignatius Sancho’s writings are some of the earliest accounts of African slavery by a former slave. He was born on a slave ship around the year 1729, and after his mother died and father killed himself on a Spanish colony his owner took him, at two years old, to London, where he was “gifted” to a family as a slave. He was educated by the Duke of Montagu, who helped set up him for success and independence later in life. He ended up finding success in England as a free man, becoming a composer, actor and writer. As a financially independent male householder living in Westminster, he qualified to vote in the parliamentary elections of 1774 and 1780; he was the first person of African origin known to have voted in Britain. He became known contemporarily as a man of letters and refinement, and counted such figures as Thomas Gainsborough (the great painter), Laurence Sterne (novelist and author of Tristam Shandy) and David Garrick (prolific theatre owner) among his acquaintances.
Olaudah Equiano was another former slave, born in Nigeria around 1745 and kidnapped with his sister at around the age of 11, sold by local slave traders and shipped across the Atlantic to Barbados and then Virginia. He bought his own freedom in 1766, before travelling to London as a free man. He subsequently became an active abolitionist in the UK with the group Sons of Africa, and was one of the most prominent anti-slave trade movement leaders during the 1780s.
painted by Thomas Gainsborough
Instead of: ignoring the eighteenth century
Try reading: John Cleland’s Fanny Hill (1748)
Literal actual smut, which bizarrely for the time centres female pleasure and actually captures a snapshot of sex workers enjoying their profession and finding joy and empowerment in their sexuality. Fanny Hill, or, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, was literally Cleland’s get-out-of-jail card. He wrote it while in prison for debt and used the proceeds to secure his release, and promptly received an obscenity charge for it. He tried to distance himself from it somewhat, but soz mate it was wildly popular and everyone and their aunt owned a copy. There’s no escaping that one! This is one of the most prosecuted and banned books in history, and it’s glorious. Prior warning, this book is very descriptive so read in public at your own peril.
Instead of: Wordsworth and Keats’ poetry (or any of the Romantics tbh)
Try reading: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818)
Okay fine, so Frankenstein is already part of the main literary canon, but it deserves an honourable mention as one of the most enduring and pioneering texts in the sci-fi genre, and began by a woman! Take that, neckbeards. Also, fun trivia for you - Mary Shelley is the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) (I also thoroughly recommend this one - it’s the first feminist manifesto!). Next time you read Frankenstein, look out for the layers of nuance and commentary in Frankenstein around motherhood, unnatural birth, witchcraft, eugenics, the role of men and women in procreation, and the monstrous capabilities of humans.
Instead of: anything by Charles Dickens
Try reading: Charlotte Perkins-Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), and Sarah Grand’s essay ‘The New Aspect of the Woman Question’ (1894)
The Yellow Wallpaper may be more well-known to you if you’ve carried your English study past high school, and it rightly deserves a more concrete spot in the literary canon. Charlotte Perkins-Gilman captures a disturbing and haunting insight into the treatment of “hysteria” in women, and the horrendous approaches to addressing post-natal depression and mental health in general during the late Victorian era. It’s a short story and it’s a very quick and compelling read with some really crucial commentary.
‘The New Aspect of the Woman Question’ is a short essay by Sarah Grand which originally appeared in the newspaper North American Review in 1894. In this piece she coined the term “New Woman”, as a precursor to the term “feminist” which would emerge later. This essay forms part of the body of work around the “New Woman” and “the woman question” which dominated late Victorian social commentary, and which contributed to the advent of First Wave Feminism. It’s a pivotal piece of literature, but often overlooked or unacknowledged.
Instead of: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby
Try reading: Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus (written in 1940s, published as a collection in 1977), and E M Forster’s Maurice (written 1913, revised in 1932 and finally published posthumously in 1971).
Don’t get me wrong, I do actually like Gatsby, but there are many better texts out there from the same period which don’t get the love they deserve. I've written this recommendation on Nin before for Boshemia, but she deserves the mention again. Delta of Venus is a collection of erotica that she wrote in the 1940s to make a living, and it’s a wonderful catalogue of beautiful, empowering vignettes on the female body and sexuality.
Both of these texts were published a considerable time after they were written, partly due to censorship laws which prohibited “obscenity” - which female sexuality and homosexuality both fell under. Forster’s Maurice was only published posthumously as Forster was too keenly aware of the climate he would be publishing into had he sought to release it during his lifetime; a note found on the manuscript read “publishable, but worth it?” Maurice is a tale of homosexual love in the early 1900s, deeply drawing from Forster’s own struggles with accepting and coming to terms with his own homosexuality.
Instead of: Kerouac or Hemingway
Try reading: Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse (1954)
If you don’t know who she is, let me give you a snapshot: she was expelled from her first school for a “lack of deep spirituality”, and from her second for hanging a bust of Molière with a piece of string. Sagan was a queer French writer with a speciality for capturing the disillusionment and futility of the bourgeois experience. Bonjour Tristesse is her first novel, written when she was a teenager, and trust me if you ever need a gorgeously melancholic nostalgic summertime romance read, this is the absolute one. This will give you all the wist and ennui of On The Road without the machismo .