Susan Williams (ed),The Penguin Book of Classic Fantasy by Women

This anthology includes (loosely defined) fantasy by women published from 1806 to 1936.  I really enjoyed seeing a different side to writers I know far better for their work in other genres, writers such as Elizabeth Gaskell, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Edith Nesbit, Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolf.  I was also struck by the fact that the majority of the stories have male narrators which suggests that female authors found a freedom in creating male personas that they were denied elsewhere in their lives.

From the UK, there’s a fair bit of interesting, if not exactly earth shattering, hack writing from the likes of Mary Shelley, Amelia B. Edwards and Margaret Oliphant. These are the kind of stories women produced to feed their families and should be valued for that as much as anything.  I enjoyed Elizabeth Gaskell’s solid ghost story ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’ (1852). I didn’t like Rhoda Broughton’s ‘Behold it was a Dream’ (1873) which was effective but brought into uncomfortable light the virulent hatred of the Irish that was normalised in the mid nineteenth century.  Edith Nesbit’s  ‘Man Size in Marble’ (1893) is chilling and uncanny.  If you go into the old church near your house one night and find that the figures on the tombs “drawed out man size in marble” have gone, well, you’ll be very sorry, especially if you left your nervous young wife home alone back at the rustic cottage.

The strongest stories are North American.  There’s Harriet Prescott Spofford’s, ‘Circumstance’ (1863) in which a young woman from a pioneering community is attacked by an “Indian Devil” which carries her up into a tree and holds her there in its claws.  She finds that she can prevent it from eating her alive by singing, but how long can she keep that up?  The story is an interesting (and probably unintentional) meditation on colonialism.  Harrier Beecher Stowe wrote some really good weird stories, of which ‘The Ghost in Capn’ Brown’s House’ (1871) is included here.  Is there a ghost in Captain Brown’s house, or is he keeping a woman in there? If so, who is she?  There are a couple of contributions from our favourite New England lesbians, Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary E. Wilkins, both of which are really about relationships between women.  I also enjoyed Louisa M. Alcott’s ‘The Abbott’s Ghost,’ a rather complex gothic melodrama. It made me eager to read some of her gothic novels.  Perhaps the best written story in the entire collection is Edith Wharton’s ‘Kerfol’, a highly uncanny piece about a castle haunted by a silent pack of dogs.   Into the twentieth century and we have some science fiction with C.L Moore’s ‘Shambleau’ (1933). This is a nightmare of a story which taps into all my phobias. A mercenary on mars rescues what appears to be a young woman from an angry a mob.  He probably shouldn’t….

A good anthology for getting a sense of the tradition of women’s fantasy writing.

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