One of the questions I get asked most often is “I’m a fan of . What books and resources should I read to find out more?”
When I wrote The Heroine’s Bookshelf, I very deliberately decided to make the book as accessible as possible…which meant excluding a bibliography or academic footnotes. However, the history major in me demanded a very rigorous research process, and I consulted multiple books and primary sources for each chapter.
Rather than bore you with my long, snarled list of primary sources and books, I’d like to recommend some great further reading to serve as an entree into the lives of my literary heroines. Please bear in mind that I could have written an entire book on the research materials alone, so this represents a very truncated list!
Jane Austen: If you’re looking for a comprehensive guide to all things Jane, by all means start at The Republic of Pemberley’s most impressive Selective Jane Austen Bibliography. Great starting places include Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World by Claire Harman and A Memoir of Jane Austen: And Other Family Recollections, by James Edward Austen-Leigh, a great period document that informs Jane bios to this day.
Zora Neale Hurston: Nobody wrote about Zora’s life quite as well as Zora herself, notably in Dust Tracks on a Road, but I particularly enjoyed Valerie Boyd’s Wrapped In Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston and Zora Neale Hurston: A Biography of the Spirit by Deborah G. Plant.
Lucy Maud Montgomery: Maud scholarship is making huge strides, thanks in part to the L.M. Montgomery Institute and the Lucy Maud Montgomery Literary Society. I found true inspiration and great information in Irene Gammel’s Looking for Anne of Green Gables, Mary Henley Rubio’s Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings, and the lovely Annotated Anne of Green Gables edited by Wendy Elizabeth Barry, Margaret Anne Doody, and Mary Doody Jones and published in a gorgeous edition by the Oxford University Press.
Alice Walker: Alice Walker is still living out her own biography. I enjoyed Alice Walker: A Life by Evelyn C. White and Alice Walker: Critical perspectives past and present, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and K.A. Appiah.
Betty Smith: I was disappointed at the dearth of biography on this amazing figure of literature, and hope that more authors take up the call to document Betty’s life in greater detail. That said, I devoured Valerie Raleigh Yow’s Betty Smith: Life of the Author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and found Carol Siri Johnson’s online dissertation on Betty Smith to be quite helpful.
Colette: Though she was a formidable, fascinating figure indeed, Americans don’t tend to pay too much attention to Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, and many of her biographies are out of print. I enjoyed Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette by Judith Thurman and found interesting information in Michele Sarde’s Colette and Colette: A Life by Herbert R. Lottman. If anything, any book on Colette is worth peeking into for ravishing photos of the famously beautiful Colette!
Margaret Mitchell: Peggy Mitchell was notoriously…unreliable when it came to relating her own biography. That said, Ellen Firsching Brown and John Wiley have done a stunning job with their recently-released Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind: A Bestseller’s Odyssey from Atlanta to Hollywood. Darden Asbury Pyron’s Southern Daughter is an entertaining starting point for more biography on Peg as opposed to the book for which she is famous.
Harper Lee: Nelle was the only other living author featured in my book, and she is notoriously private about her life to the chagrin of her fans and the detriment of her biographers. That said, it is hard to find a biography as lovingly researched and thorough as Charles J. Sheilds’s Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee.
Laura Ingalls Wilder: Laura’s another writer who is currently undergoing a scholarship renaissance, helped along by the amazing folks at Beyond Little House and Laurati who are doing interesting work nationwide and even worldwide. I was particularly entranced by Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life by Pamela Smith Hill, which is hands-down my favorite Laura biography. Other great bios include John E. Miller’s Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder, Anita Clair Fellman’s Little House, Long Shadow, and the ever-controversial The Ghost In the Little House by William Holtz, which chronicles the life and work of Rose Wilder Lane. As far as Laura expertise, you can’t be savvier or more well-informed than the legendary William Anderson, who has made a place for himself as THE Laura expert of the ages. Click here for a bibliography of his books and pamphlets on Laura.
Charlotte Brontë: Charlotte’s one of those women who has had books written on the books about her…there’s that much incredible information about the Brontë family. I personally love Elizabeth Gaskell’s warm, chatty memoir about her friend, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, though it’s been criticized for its insistence that Charlotte was proper rather than passionate. In case you care to read a biography on Charlotte not written in the nineteenth century, you can’t go wrong with Rebecca Fraser’s The Brontës or Lyndall Gordon’s Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life.
Louisa May Alcott: On last count, I personally own over 10 books about Louy. My favorites include the very innocent, anachronistic yet informative Invincible Louisa by Cornelia Meigs and John Matteson’s unforgettable, Pulitzer-prize-winning double biography of Louisa and her father, Bronson…Eden’s Outcasts gets special mention as one of the only biographies that has both made me cry and that I have dreamt about. Highly recommended. That said, 2010 was a banner year for Alcott scholarship, producing both Harriet Reisen’s Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women and Susan Cheever’s Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography.
Frances Hodgson Burnett: “Fluffy” Burnett was another woman I found it hard to research, since she has been shunted off to the kidlit category by many dismissive biographers. Her lovely autobiography, The One I Knew Best of All, is barely worth mentioning for its obvious unreliability. That said, we must content ourselves with Anne Thwaite’s dual Frances bios and Gretchen Gerzina’s Frances Hodgson Burnett, and with Gerzina’s perceptive biographical notes in the W.W. Norton Annotated Secret Garden.