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Originally published July 22, 2013 at 5:31 AM | Page modified July 22, 2013 at 7:02 AM

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Resurrected from the archives: timeless women’s fiction

For decades, the label “women’s fiction” has unfairly cubbyholed worthy books. Seattle Public Library librarian David Wright rounds up recent reprints by Penelope Mortimer, E.M. Delafield and Shirley Jackson that showcase the nuance and insight of these novels.

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Lit Life

Editor’s note: Lit Life columnist Mary Ann Gwinn is taking a break. Today’s guest columnist, David Wright, is a reader services librarian with the Seattle Public Library..

The term “women’s fiction” is often used to describe books by and about women, and hence (it is supposed) of no possible interest to male readers. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, especially when buttressed by flouncy, prettified packaging that seems to brand such books as fashion accessories.

That women routinely read “men’s fiction” — or as it’s more commonly known, “fiction” — while men steer clear of books about women’s lives and relationships seems a sad waste of empathetic capital. Novels help us to understand each other, and where is there more need of this than between the sexes? These recently reissued classics hint at the breadth of experience that has been cloistered away in “books for ladies” over the years, and still is today.

The slighting of women’s fiction is nothing new. Reviewing Penelope Mortimer’s “The Pumpkin Eater” (NYRB Classics, 224 pp., $14.95 paperback original) in 1963, R.B. Nordberg condemned the book’s “soap opera heroine” as selfish, lacking common sense and preoccupied with “sex for its own sake,” dismissively concluding “This, in short, is a novel about and for women, and will probably sell very well indeed.” The reviewer egregiously misses the disconcerting brilliance of Mortimer’s fictionalized account of her own troubled marriage with writer John Mortimer.

Mrs. Armitage (we never learn her first name) reveals all to her smug therapist, employed to medicate her “little weeps” and to fix her inconvenient desire to have more children. Speaking with fierce wit and breathtaking candor yet without rancor, she presents a clear-eyed vision of the casual cruelties and mundane madnesses of her “successful marriage,” sweeping away the good doctor’s prescriptions for restored normalcy and leading her to a solution that will perplex some and inspire others.

E.M. Delafield explored similar territory in “The Way Things Are” (Bloomsbury Reader, 298 pp., $16.99 paperback original), although her treatment of the happy marriage of Laura and Alfred Temple is more subtle and subversive, more “Downton Abbey” than “Mad Men,” as befit the tastes of 1927, the year it was first published. Laura’s seven-year itch is only worsened by the blockish indifference of her husband, a man far more excited by the cultivation of sugar beets than by the warm helpmeet breathing at his side. Matters aren’t helped by the pettiness of her daily preoccupations as housekeeper and mother, and all it takes is for her unmarried sister’s friend Marmaduke Ayland to recognize her membership in the fairer sex for Laura to seriously consider parting ways with the burdens of respectability.

In contrast, D.E. Stevenson’s heroines are often striking for their lack of pretension, and no better example exists than the title character of her 1934 comic novel “Miss Buncle’s Book” (Sourcebooks, 304 pp., $14.99 paperback original), a blissfully naïf spinster who writes the aptly-titled novel “Disturber of the Peace,” based on her home village. It becomes a runaway best-seller with utterly charming results. Stevenson’s affection for her characters is evident on every page, and she would continue the misadventures of her holy fool in “Miss Buncle Married,” (Sourcebooks, 352 pp., $14.99 paperback original) and in two further reissues due out next year, “The Two Mrs. Abbotts” and “The Four Graces.”

Contrast Miss Buncle’s book with Shirley Jackson’s 1947 debut “The Road Through the Wall,” (Penguin, 208 pp., $15 paperback original). Both are warts-and-all satires of seemingly bucolic communities, but Jackson’s vision of suburban California is far more menacing than quaint, revealing the skull beneath the smile. While not overtly feminist, Jackson, author of “The Haunting of Hill House” and “The Lottery,” had a genius for undermining our cheery prefab notions of domesticity, exposing a dark undercurrent of xenophobia, coercion and dread which gives trenchant bite to even her cheeriest creation, “Life among the Savages” (Penguin, 256 pp., $15 paperback original), a hilarious memoir of motherhood for the ages, and for both sexes.

David Wright is a reader services librarian with the Seattle Public Library; get a personalized reading list from David and his fellow librarians at Your Next Five Books

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