The quest was to find the novel that has most influenced the lives of women in Britain. Research for the Watershed Women's Fiction study was sponsored by The Orange Prize for Fiction and BBC Radio 4's 'Woman's Hour'. At the top of the list were the popular 19th century classics such as 'Jane Eyre' by Charlotte Bronte, 'Wuthering Heights' by Emily Bronte, 'Middlemarch' by George Elliot, and 'Pride and Prejudice' by Jane Austen. But two new favorites also crept into the top five. 'Beloved' by Toni Morrison (a tale of slavery and its impact on future generations) polled fifth, in a tie with 'Pride and Prejudice'. And Margaret Atwood's 'The Handmaid's Tale' (a futuristic fable of a far-right society in which women have no power) came in third.
Lisa Jardine, a professor at the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters in London, who led the study said, "We defined a 'watershed' book as one that has made a crucial difference during some transitional period in life...Absolutely every woman we spoke to had one, and the wide variety of things that that book meant to each individual woman was very interesting." She and her colleagues talked to 400 women involved in literature, publishing and culture.
The novel Jardine herself chose was Joseph Heller's 'Catch 22'. "I was in hospital. I was very much alone as my parents were out of the country. I remember exactly where I was lying, what I could see out of the window when I was reading it. It was the most intense kind of solace for me. I went inside that book and inside the fact that I was unwell, alone, unhappy - I was only 20-something but my body had let me down. And the book is very much about how your mind tries to rise above your body."
Professor Dame Gillian Beer, a literature professor at Cambridge University, chose Doris Lessing's 'The Golden Notebook' because, she said, "It opened up complexity and challenged its readers to ask questions about their lives and those of others. It urged freedom and showed the difficulty of freedom." Carole Welch, Associate Publishing Director of Sceptre books chose 'Pride and Prejudice'. "It fanned the flames of my interest in books as a young teenager," she said, "which led to my studying English literature, which eventually led to my becoming a publisher."
More people than ever are reading for pleasure in Britain. Sixty-five per cent today, compared with 55 per cent in 1979, according to a survey conducted by the National Reading Campaign in September 2004. In fact, reading and sharing thoughts on novels has become so popular that thousands of reading clubs have been set up in villages and communities throughout the country. Most are informal with monthly meetings and members taking turns to recommend a book.
Serena Shuli, a public relations executive, formed her own reading club with five friends in west London. She said she missed university when she and fellow students were encouraged to share their thoughts on novels. "I put the word out among my friends, and they all thought it would be a good idea. We meet once a month in a quiet pub. We don't always discuss formalities such as development of character, plot, metaphorical meaning. We often stick to why we liked or didn't like the book and then go on to talk about the rest of our lives. It's a relaxed night out and I really enjoy it."
The novel that she said affected her life the most was `Anna Karenina' by Leo Tolstoy. She said, "It taught me never to appear needy in any relationship with a man. Vronsky adored Anna and did everything he could to lure her away from her husband. Once she left her marriage, lost her family and standing in society; Vronsky became disdainful and treated her badly. She had no power. That really affects how I view romance. I will never be needy in any relationship."
Reading groups have been credited with putting some authors on the bestseller list. 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin' by Louis de Bernieres was little known until word-of-mouth recommendations pushed the book into popularity. A similar path to fame was made by Alexander McCall Smith's 'The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency'. Bookshops have been keen to get involved and many have started to offer reading club discounts. Some, especially those with in-house coffee bars, have set up their own reading clubs, dubbed the "latte literati" by many.
Jardine says, "We have reached an understanding of just how important a few key books have been to every woman we spoke to." The list of Watershed Women's Fiction is already circulating around reading groups. The 19th Century classics by the Bronte sisters are showing increased sales, while Shuli has recommended her friends read 'The Handmaid's Tale'. "It's a book that's always been on my list of things to read, but I've never gotten around to it," she said, "Now, I guess I will."
The Top Five Watershed Women's Fiction Titles:
Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte)
Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte)
The Handmaid's Tale (Margaret Atwood)
Middlemarch (George Elliot)
Beloved (Toni Morrison)
Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)