My favorite rebels are the quiet ones, the ones who keep their heads down and go on doing their work whether anyone is paying attention or not. Is it any surprise that so many of these are women of a certain age?
Take Penelope Fitzgerald. She published her first book, a biography of the artist Edward Burne-Jones, at 58 and her first novel at 60. She won the Booker Prize two years later for Offshore, a slim book based on her years living on a houseboat on the Thames with her family, until it sank. Ah ha, you might say, she won the Booker Prize! What’s so rebellious about that? But no one expected Fitzgerald to win, and, according to Hermione Lee’s biography of the writer, she was condescended to and humiliated by the media. When she appeared on the BBC’s Book Programme, the host started out by saying that “the Booker judges had made the wrong choice” and “the best book didn’t win,” Lee writes. Then, “snide pieces appeared...in the London papers, describing the winner as ‘Shy Penelope,’ author of ‘a whimsical family drama.’ ” Lee says Fitzgerald decided to keep “play[ing] the role which she would now adopt as a useful camouflage.” Then she went back to work, turning out books that were brilliant if not fashionable.
Many of my favorite rebels wrote short, either short novels or short stories. In addition to Fitzgerald, they include Gina Berriault, Lucia Berlin, Rachel Ingalls, and Edith Pearlman (the only one of these writers who’s still among us). Kathleen Collins was a playwright and filmmaker who left behind a trove of short stories when she died at 46. Diana Athill, who recently died at 101, spent most of her life as an editor but became a successful memoirist in the final decades of her life. Perhaps she’s the perfect role model for the writing rebel. Laurie Muchnick is the fiction editor.