Often, when you read the work of great authors the weight and wisdom of their lives and thoughts is mesmerising – even more so when their style, character and behaviour lives up to their prose.
While publishing Teffi’s work for the first time in English, we realised not only is she one of these great authors, but also that we’d love her to be our grandmother. In light of this, we decided to put together a list of brilliant female writers, who as well as being role-models, we wish were our grans so that we could learn from their charm and fire.
The Grandmother who would make you laugh even if you were on the run…
“And if the author has to speak of herself, this is not because she believes she is of interest to the reader, but only because she took part in the incidents described and absorbed the impressions made by people and these events”–Teffi
Teffi was one of Russia’s great satirists. While living through the Russian Revolution in Petrograd, the Civil War in southern Russia and Ukraine, and the Nazi Occupation of France she used her talent to give a running commentary on the happenings of the time, made many laugh (including Lenin and the Tsar in each of their reigns) and has left us ,today, with a body of work whose insights are still crucially relevant. This work gives a wonderful sense of how this hilarious, elegant, intelligent woman lived and survived. Her fame was at such heights during her lifetime that she had chocolates and perfume named after her and Rasputin tried and failed to seduce her.
Pushkin Press has published, in English for the first time, her memoirs Memories: from Moscow to the Black Sea, a collection of short stories Subtly Worded and Other Stories, and a collection of her non-fiction work Rasputin and Other Ironies.
The one you’d want to decorate your bedroom and make you protest placards…
“I didn’t have time to be anyone’s muse… I was too busy rebelling against my family and learning to be an artist.”–Leonora Carrington
Carrington was a superb Surrealist artist. Whose involvement with the movement began with Max Ernst saving her drink from smashing at a soirée in London. Later, at the age of twenty, she ran away to Paris with the married 46-year-old. From then on her work bloomed, spanning projects on costume and set design, textiles, sculptures, murals, etchings, lithographs, illustrations and several hat designs. In her work she blurred folk-like mystical creatures with strange, fantasy backgrounds while adhering to her own secret personal code.
Alongside her visual practice she wrote essays, novels, poems and several plays. Her most famous novel The Hearing Trumpet (recently brought back into print by Penguin) has a 92-year-old protagonist, is set in an old folk’s home but acts as fantastical fairy tale.
When she was living in Mexico she co-founded the Women’s Liberation Movement, joined the student protests of 1968 and used both political militancy and her public role to endorse her views.
She also kept boxes of imported Yorkshire tea and PG tips locked up in her Mexican kitchen, keeping the key around her neck.
The grandmother you wish had kept everything she ever wore
“My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does.”–Joan Didion
Didion started as a humble promotional copywriter at Vogue but went on to become a famous author, literary journalist and cultural icon. Her range of work nearly always critiques society and its relevant morals, and throughout it all has a heavy focus on anxiety. The White Album explores the chaos of LA in the late 60s as well as the effects of her own neurological disorder.
Her recent work is about grief, like her play The Year of Magical Thinking which explores themes brought to light by the sudden deaths of her husband and daughter. She had a theatrical Café set up in the wings of the theatre, throughout the run, consisting of a check-table cloth, a hand-written sign and fried chicken with greens from a place on ninth avenue.
As well as being Céline’s face for their 2015 campaign, that promoted strong female figures and combated ageism, she was also one of the founders of New Journalism and Bret Eastern Ellis use to try and rewrite paragraphs of hers in an attempt to work out how she wrote as she did.
The one who’s too young to be on this list but needs to be anyway… “Is it like that. The men were not punished for having great convictions. Nor if they are able to produce a flawless speech and know many things. An intellectual woman must be prepared.”— Siri Hustvedt
Hustvedt has written six stunning novels, written perceptively and extensively on art, studied and lectured on neuroscience, psychoanalysis, philosophy and literature: leading to her work being published in several scholarly and scientific journals. She also has 3 honorary degrees.
Even with all this, people have suggested that her husband Paul Auster actually wrote her first novel The Blindfold, which is obviously true because we all know it’s impossible for a woman to write.
Her work sees a shift from the puritanical framework of the main stream Feminist movement, which she examined in a critical essay in 2005, towards sexuality and eroticism being included as a necessary and important element. She calls herself a feminist and believes those uncomfortable with the term are so because they fail to equate it with “gender equality”.
Hustvedt often forgets about the book she’s working on while dealing the practicalities of life, but when she is falling asleep the characters begin to talk to her or each other – these conversations usually stay intimate, outside of the published text.
Ursula le Guin
The grandmother who’d tell you the best bedtime stories“People think I mean everything I say and am full of conviction, often, when I’m actually just floating balloons and ready for a discussion or argument or further pursuit of the subject. It’s my fault—I speak so passionately. Probably because, as the youngest and shrillest child of an extraordinarily articulate and passionate family, I could only be heard by charging over the top, shouting […] every time I entertained a passing opinion.”–Ursula Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin, who has published twenty-two novels, seven books of poetry, four collections of essays, twelve children’s books and over a hundred short stories, engaged with literature early. She not only fell in love with Prince Andrei from War and Peace but also at 13 cut out from a library book a picture of Laurence Oliver’s Mr. Darcy in order to be able to have him with her all the time.
Her work investigates politics, fantasy, gender, religion, sexuality and much more. Her most famous series Books of Earthsea is a children’s fantasy which has also critically been seen as a narrative about finding a path through depression.
While this work has sold millions of copies in America and England, been translated into sixteen languages and been made into a film, Le Guin is out spoken with both her politics (when she was younger she even danced the conga line with Allen Ginsberg when he came to Portland to read Vedas For Peace) and on the commercialization of writing. She has loudly objected to Amazon, had a fight with Google over its digitization of copyrighted books and gave this amazing speech on the publishing industry and the need for writer’s freedom, when honoured at the National Book Awards…
“Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.”
Also, her and her husband’s pre-dinner ritual, when they are not entertaining, is to take it in turns to read to each other while drinking bourbon on the rocks.
Want more from Teffi? Get your copy of Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea and find out why we’re all obsessed with this incredible 20th century Russian icon.