Literary Women Illustrated

well-read womenWell-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction’s Most Beloved Heroines

Samantha Hahn
Chronicle Books

I picked this book up because of the arresting cover illustration. It’s Hahn’s portrait of Brett Ashley, from Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. A haughty flapper with short, red-gold waves and eyelids heavy with blue-black shadow turns her nose up to us. It’s nighttime. Her fur and pearls are of a piece with the starry sky. Her lips are pursed in disdain. Then the title, in an over-sized but skinny deco: Well-Read Women. The book caught my eye.

I’m not a connoisseur of book design, but I am picky, I guess. Kristin Hewitt’s design work is as much a star as Samantha Hahn’s illustrations–well, they’re perfectly complementary. Font choice, the positioning of textual quotes, the use of patterns on the outside cover and interior–an extension of Hahn’s own clever use of pattern–all work to show Hahn’s work to its best advantage and are lovely in and of themselves. The editor deserves some credit here too. Quotes are well-chosen, and the portraits come in exactly the order they need to. This is a well-made book.

Oh shit, have I raised expectations too high? Never fear. The actual content is good too.

Well-Read Women is exactly what the title says, with some editorializing, of course–these are Hahn’s most-beloved, drawn primarily from the Western canon, and more American than not. They’re solid choices though, ranging from Charlotte’s Web, to Madame Bovary; from whimsical to heated. We begin with Daisy Buchanan (The Great Gatsby), looking steadily to her left. There’s something sardonic in her gaze. Or something sad? The strength is undeniable. The accompanying quote: “All right … I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool–that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world. A beautiful little fool.” It’s a begin-as-we-shall-proceed kind of opening. Daisy is a quick line of a woman–simply pretty–armored in crimson lipstick and pearls. Next up is Clarissa Dalloway (Mrs. Dalloway): seashell turban and watercolour collage of a dress. Her quote: “What a morning–fresh as if issued to children on a beach.” If it isn’t already clear, another few portraits should do it–this is a book on a mission.

An unspecified percentage of the book’s sales have been earmarked for A Room to Read, an access to education charity that focuses on literacy and gender equality in education. It’s of course a play on the title of Virginia Woolf’s famous essay, A Room of One’s Own. (Have you read it? Here, it’s on Gutenberg Australia). Woolf argued that a woman intending to write, or to do other creative, intellectual work, needed a room (desk, nook, space) of her own. She needed space to experiment that she could call her own. And her room needed a lock. Woolf, along with other feminists of her era, has been rightly criticized for her attendance to middle-to-upper class women’s troubles, and the overwhelming whiteness of her thought. But the issue of space remains crucial today–it’s picked up by third wave feminists and in the safe space movement; recast from a second wave room/cupboard/desk to both literal space and in space within feminism itself, which has been hostile to non-liberal critiques of class, race, and ethnicity.

mrs dalloway

This is not a book that acknowledges third wave, international and black feminist (and womanist) critique; there are only two women of colour included and only a handful who don’t belong to the leisure class. There’s no attempt to situate Well-Read Women‘s feminism within contemporary conversations about white feminism and its mistreatment of women of colour. It’s a point that needs to be foregrounded, not brushed over, I think. Especially in a book aiming at the rehabilitation of literary women (real and fictional) and raising funds for a literacy program. It’s not merely “girls” who need equal access to literacy programs, but particular classed and raced girls.

But hearteningly, Hahn doesn’t present her work as the be-all-end-all; it’s not an attempt to recast the canon on her terms. In the introduction, she says:

“Each of these characters is now as familiar to me as a close friend. I learned so much about myself from getting to know each of them. I invite you into this book as though you, too, are in the scene the author created. Meet these heroines, befriend them, and in the process, perhaps, learn about yourself. Whether you’ve read some or all of these stories, I hope you enjoy gazing into the eyes of all the powerful, damaged, beautiful, and incandescent women in my book. I hope you follow them back to their original stories and come to see them in your own way.”

While Hahn didn’t limit her selection to women writers–difficult if you’re to mine the canon!–this is a book of her–our–own, I think. The quotes serve not just to contextualize and characterize the portraits (that is, they aren’t mere statements of character), but they carry a larger argument about womanhood in the literary canon and in the world–without, at any time, making this explicit. And how clever is that?

Hahn’s subjects are incandescent, both with strength of character and artifice. These heroines are uniformly gorgeous. It makes for a singularly lovely read (are there prints? there should be prints), but there’s a bit too much of youth, and clear skin, and plump lips. Even adorable Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables) is perfectly coiffed, with a single stylish plait, neatly dressed, and well-made. Of course there is nothing wrong with appreciating beautiful women, or with women being beautiful and enhancing their beauty, but where are all the old women? Where are the conventionally ugly women, who we love even if their eyes aren’t clearest green (deepest blue, whatever)? This was another sour note in an otherwise enjoyable book.

Dorothy Gale (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) could have stepped straight out of an illustrated children’s version of Oz. All the elements of Dorothy-ness are present (silver slippers and red, Toto, the house, and the yellow brick road); she’s sweet and young and ready for adventure.

Catherine Earnshaw (Wuthering Heights) is without makeup, and of course, melancholy. She’s just Catherine, presented without artifice, circled in a faint wash of blue and overlaid with the diamond pattern of the paned window she’s looking out of. She’s caught and uncatchable at once.

And Mary Lennox (A Secret Garden). I love this one. It’s adorable, of course. Mary’s half-sprawled in her garden, fingers digging into the grass, surrounded by huge-blooming tea roses. There’s just the hint of the wall, a quick swipe of Hahn’s brush across the top of the page, and in the bottom right of the opposite page is a key. “You learn things by saying them over and over and thinking about them until they stay in your mind forever.”

Esther Greenwood (The Bell Jar) is … sad, maybe? Her stare is ambiguous. Besides that, she’s vampish hair, lips and brow. Esther is framed by her hair, penned in and hiding in it, as Mary isn’t by the walls of her garden. “There is something demoralizing,” she says, “about watching two people get more and more crazy about each other, especially when you are the only extra person in the room.” Over her face is a faint stamp from some official document. Esther is, of course, the lead character of Sylvia Plath’s only novel. She is struggling under the weight of a metaphorical bell jar and attempts suicide several times. But Well-Read Women isn’t all young innocents and jaded adults: The Bell Jar ends with Esther getting better, embracing her sexual freedom, and–perhaps–finding happiness.

bell jar

That so arresting Brett Ashley illustration comes second last. The quote: “We could have had such a damn good time together.” The full page illustration has her delicately touching her breast, and her dress and the bold-patterned wallpaper fading into each other. The focus is all on her face, and on her glass of wine. She’s all character. It’s a stunning portrait and shows off Hahn’s mastery of colour; it’s an effective counterpoint to Hemingway. Like The Bell Jar, The Sun Also Rises is usually read as a plain roman a clef, and Hemingway is much less sympathetic to Lady Brett Ashley (analog to the real Lady Duff Twysden he made a fool of himself over) than Plath is to Esther. Hemingway’s Ashley is alluring, lovely, and certainly a rare bird (another one of those “new women”) but ultimately destructive of male friendship. Hahn’s Ashley is all her own, without implication of a male gaze. Certainly she’s dressed up and made up, but she’s luminous not just because of that–it’s in the fuck-you tilt of her head; the way that her face and her pleasure (her wineglass) are the only points of interest. Whatever, Hemingway, Hahn seems to say, Brett Ashley is amazing.

The final portrait is of Scarlett O’Hara (Gone with the Wind). What’s interesting about it is that it’s just Scarlett. Hahn doesn’t comment on the book’s romanticization of the old South and what Scarlett, apotheosis of the Southern Belle, represents. It’s clear she’s mainly interested in Scarlett’s more admirable characteristics: her determination and her willingness to dream about a better future. Whatever else it is (slavery apologia, certainly), Gone With the Wind is a bildungsroman, and Hahn presents to us Scarlett’s catastrophic coming of age; the moment she finally put away childish things. She gazes out of the page, her lips are parted. She’s framed by an over-sized bow at her throat, and an over-sized hat circling her face in black. There’s a wash of red-black haze. Tara is burning, and Scarlett is dreaming. “After all,” she says, “tomorrow is another day.”

Well-Read Women is about Hahn’s, and our, relationships to female literary characters, and to writers, both male and female. Its central message is that we women readers, and these female characters, are worthy of attention, consideration, and affection. It’s not the book I’d make (my illustration capabilities are about the level of How To Draw Manga: Step One), but it’s an interesting one.

*You can find Samantha Hahn’s online portfolio here.
Megan Purdy

Megan Purdy

Publisher of all this. Megan was born in Toronto. She's still there. Philosopher, space vampire, heart of a killer.