18th February 2001
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Capturing the spirit of women

By Ruhanie Perera

There was once a time when women were not expected to get an education. Learning opportunities for women were not encouraged and as a result, did not come their way. What was expected instead was that young girls would stay out of trouble, grow up, fall in love (if they were lucky), get married, make babies guaranteeing that there would be more girls caught up in the same cycle and finally grow old. They were however, allowed one outlet, one that would prove to immortalise the voice of women - letter writing.

Seeing a woman bent over a table with a sheaf of papers before her and a pen in hand many men thought she was innocently employed. Well, little did they know! For in those letters exchanged by women over the years, to friends, family, lovers and even leaders was the spirit of women.

'Women's Voices - Their Lives And Loves Through Two Thousand Years Of Letters', written by British author Olga Kenyon is a very different and delightful book that catalogues the growth of a woman through different letters, starting from the birth of a daughter right through to confronting death.

Written in five parts under headings such as childhood, growing up, courtship, dowries, doubts, marriage, motherhood, running a household, divorce, work, money, travel, surviving into one's fifties, illness and widowhood, the book is home to many women of varied situations, cultures, social strata and even centuries.

It's truly an amazing collection of letters. There are those by Queen Victoria on the memories of her childhood, Jane Austen on what it was like to be courted by a younger man and Czarina Alexandra's letter of love to Czar Nicholas II. On a lighter note are the letters written by Florence Nightingale on her travels in Egypt and the more intense ones by Mary Queen of Scots plotting to escape imprisonment, and Virginia Woolfe's last letter to her husband before she committed suicide.

Olga Kenyon, feels that letters can be, "as dramatic as theatre, as structured as a short story and as lyrical as a poem". Thus, almost 15 years ago, when she realised that this "wonderful tradition of women's letter writing" had not been looked into, she decided to put them into literary form and discovered in the process that women had been writing both skilfully and impressively for over 2000 years. "The subjects were so varied and the writers themselves so interesting that I decided to make a book as interesting as the writers; one that would enable women to enjoy what other women had written. What's more it's just as enjoyable for men." Sold out already it seems that many have enjoyed this glimpse into history through the lives of women.

Funnily enough the initial idea for the book came from Olga's husband, who had urged her to write something more 'interesting'. Having written only literary criticisms before, this came as an opening to "explore areas never written about before".

On the same lines she has written yet another book on 800 years of women's letters. "But that is an academic work," she says, "the subjects of the letters dealing with politics, social issues, etc.". This was, in her opinion, more reader-friendly.

Research for a book of this nature may not have been too easy, but it proved to be very interesting. "And help came from unexpected quarters as well. For example one of my students who worked part time at Hampton Court managed to get me some letters from there - written by Queen Elizabeth." Before she knew it she possessed a host of letters, "some from working class women, some in the form of petitions, lovely travel pieces and the icing on the cake, dating back to 200 BC, the oldest letter in her collection.

Holidaying in Sri Lanka last week, Olga, who wrote even as a kid, "but never took it too seriously", went into teaching as she felt that was her social calling. The one time head of the Humanities Department at Morley College and lecturer at the Open University, London says that the opportunity to write came purely by chance, but once her initial book (Women Novelists Today, 1988) was published the rest just flowed.

This book had been Olga's chance to do something for the women whom she has written about. Thanks to this book the lives and experiences of forgotten women, ignored authors, budding writers and even women who may never have been heard of will be read about. "I'm pleased that I've been able to help," says Olga Kenyon.

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