Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
We went hardcore on this great Gothic novel because, with Northanger Abbey, Austen turned the whole gender-genre thing on its head. This book's got a self-conscious female narrator in a Bildungsroman —something unheard of at the time. Female protagonists weren't supposed to carry a whole novel.
A heroine who doesn't operate by the terms of the patriarchy? What the…?
Catherine Morland was more interested in figuring out the story's mystery than in getting married. As Austen described her, Catherine was "noisy and wild, hated confinement and cleanliness, and loved nothing so well in the world as rolling down the green slope at the back of the house." She's no homemaker at the hearth. That spells trouble for the men folk.
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus
Before Mary Shelley's novel, the monster was just a monster—a villainous blob without feeling or thought. With Frankenstein, the monster came to life, so to speak, and was granted the privilege of subjectivity. Like women, monsters had always been a marginalized bunch.
Never mind that Victor Frankenstein loathes the monster. (That's right, the monster's name is not Frankenstein—that's a bit of pop culture confusion right there. Frankenstein is the doctor who creates the monster. The monster has no name.)
In our writing, we looked at how revolutionary Shelley's monster was. Shelley completely transformed the scifi genre by showing how monsters can have their feelings hurt too; the monster in Frankenstein embodies nobility, complexity, and humanity. Like the madwoman in the attic freed from her confines, Shelley's monster is free to express anger at the oppression he has known all his life.
Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights
Did someone say domineering brutal patriarchy? We did. Just check out Emily's many overbearing male characters with nefarious intentions. Then consider the very masculine figure of Catherine, who holds an inexplicable power over the lot of them and demonstrates much more fiery power and fierce self-empowerment than that masculine crew.
Catherine cannot be contained by all of the domestic restraints of Victorian culture. This is a woman who gets what she wants, a woman who no amount of misogyny can stop.
On top of all these inverted characters, Emily Brontë also refused the patriarchal narrative form, in which one male authority controls the whole story and how it's told. Wuthering Heights has multiple narrators. All of the narrators are unreliable, and no one narrator is privileged over any other.
Edna St. Vincent Millay, A Few Figs from Thistles
Edna—who referred to herself as "Vincent"— was like the early 20th century's Courtney Love. Experimental, risky, lewd, and self-indulgent, Vincent loved her some good times. Plus, she was an excellent poet who could fill entire auditoria with screaming fans. Just like with today's celebs, her short bob started a revolution in the haircut industry.
Edna was a woman who would have freedom at any cost—usually that of a young man's or woman's feelings. Vincent was overflowing with sex, like a playboy in a dress. She wasn't afraid to declare erotic desire in a poem, and she was a serious player.
Over her career, she tried on many identities. But her image of choice was that of the femme fatale controlling the emotions of her lovers like so many chess pieces. Her collection of poems, A Few Figs from Thistles, was a personal manifesto of her past and hopefully-future conquests.
H.D. was a true shape shifter. We love that. Why should a modern woman choose one sex, one image, one identity, one partner, one anything? Especially when, as H.D. says, modern males had become so… well, unmasculine.
With the loss of manliness in men, women were given a get-out-of-jail-free card; they could, in theory, do whatever they wanted with their genders. H.D.'s poem "Toward the Piraeus" makes this notion into a declaration. She says that men were "puny, passionless, weak," so the female poet just had to make her move.
In this short masterpiece, H.D. also refuses to allow men to control her language. It's not just her gender she's worried about. See, men aren't so great and strong, the narrator explains, so their whole "godlike" thing is stuff of the past.