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10 Nottingham Women in Literature

12 January 18 words: John Baird
illustrations: Dolly Loves Dallas

Mention Nottingham’s literary heritage and people often cite Byron, Lawrence or Sillitoe. But our female writers are equally as rebellious and ground-breaking. Margaret Cavendish was one of the earliest science fiction writers; Lucy Hutchinson was the first female writer of an epic English poem; Ada Lovelace is credited as the first computer programmer; suffragist, Alice Zimmerman, worked as a writer and translator; and Alma Reville was an influential screenwriter. In more recent times, Nottingham has been home to one of Britain’s funniest authors, Mhairi McFarlane; Pippa Hennessy played a key role in our successful bid to become UNESCO City of Literature; and Sandeep Mahal took up her position as its first director last year. Up the women. Here’s ten more who’ve contributed to Nottingham’s incredible literary landscape...

Panya Banjoko
It’s fitting to begin with a multiple award-winning poet, whose performances have appeared on our airwaves and screens, and even graced the Olympic Games. Published widely, Panya Banjoko’s poems address issues of sexism, racism and social justice, making people consider what it’s like to be seen as “other.” Banjoko empowers and informs, and through her work with Nottingham Black Archive, she’s helped document our city’s black history, heritage and culture, playing a vital role in preserving and promoting an understanding of the contribution black people have made, and continue to make, to Nottingham. Banjoko puts diversity on the agenda, identifying ceilings and smashing through them. Look out for her latest collection of poetry, Some Things, due out later this year.

Florence Boot (1863 - 1952)
Daughter of a bookseller, and wife of Jesse Boot, Florence Boot established the Boots Booklovers’ Library, which went on to become the largest library system of its kind in the world. A key influence on the business – of which she later became a company director – Boot created library departments in an effort to address the poor literacy levels she’d noticed in Nottingham. The first of these libraries was probably in the “wonderstore” on Pelham Street (now Zara). The majority of the members were women, and the libraries became important social hubs. Boots’ famous green labels were found all over the world and they developed an organised distribution system, uniquely offering an inter-store exchange of books. The University of Nottingham named its first hall of residence after Florence Boot.

Helen Cresswell (1934 - 2005)
A former Nottingham High School for Girls student and a member of Nottingham Writers’ Club, Helen Cresswell loved creating stories for children. And in a 45-year career, the BAFTA award winner penned well over 100 of them. Combining comedy and mystery, she created the character Lizzie Dripping, which she adapted into a hit BBC TV drama. Cresswell devised several series and also wrote for television productions of The Secret World of Polly Flint, Five Children and It and The Famous Five. Her best-known book is Moondail (1987) –  also a BBC TV series – but the menacing and often overlooked The Winter of the Birds (1976) is said to have been her favourite.  

Mary Howitt (1799 - 1888)
Devoted to “the entertainment, the good and the advancement of the public”, Mary Howitt championed rights to education, the suffragette movement and free expression. She considered herself “bound to no class” and her writing was popular with both adults and children. In addition to her own prose and verse, she translated the fairytales of Hans Christian Anderson and the novels of the feminist reformer, Fredrika Bremer. Living in the heart of Nottingham, she and her husband witnessed first-hand a turbulent time in our history; one that included the Reform Riots, of which they were on the side of those seeking radical reform. She’s best known for her moralistic stories and poems for the young, in particular The Spider and the Fly.

Alison Moore
Alison Moore is best known for her debut book, The Lighthouse (2012), which gained her a place on the Man Booker Prize shortlist, making her the first member of Nottingham Writers’ Studio to be included. Throughout most of her thirties, Moore worked as an assistant to the director of Nottingham University’s Lakeside Arts Centre, and wrote short stories in her spare time. She’s now an honorary lecturer in the University’s School of English and has written three acclaimed novels and a short story collection. The author is equally at home with literary fiction and horror. Her first children’s book, Sunny and the Ghosts, is out this year, along with her fourth novel, Missing.  

Kim Slater
At the age of forty, Kim Slater enrolled on a writing course at Nottingham Trent University, and now has a first-class honours degree in English and Creative Writing, and an MA in Creative Writing. She’s also a respected young adult author and one of the best-selling novelists working in Nottingham today. Slater burst onto the literary scene with her debut novel for which she gathered ten awards and around 100 nominations. Refusing to rest, Slater continues to produce popular YA novels and thrillers, all set in her beloved Nottingham. Now on her fourth YA book and her fifth psychological thriller, it’s worth noting that her first book, the prize-gathering Smart (2014), and her first thriller Safe with Me (2016), both began as university assignments.

Sue Thomas
Both of our universities support Nottingham as a UNESCO City of Literature and the creative writing courses they offer contribute much to our city’s literary output. Sue Thomas was the first course leader of Nottingham Trent University’s MA in Creative Writing, one of the longest established postgraduate courses of its kind in the UK. During her sixteen years at the university, Thomas wrote a book for creative writing teachers and founded Trace Online Writing Centre; a unique, international creative community which used the internet to develop innovative work. Her other published titles include science fiction, and important research on how digital technology and nature impact our well-being.

Dorothy Whipple (1893 - 1966)
Between the world wars, Dorothy Whipple was Nottingham’s best-known novelist, and the “Jane Austen of the 20th Century”, according to J. B. Priestley. Whipple’s second novel, Greenbanks (1932,) brought with it a great success that continued with her subsequent tales of everyday life, most of which are set in Notts, or as it appears, “Trentham.” One of her books was inspired by a cottage she rented in the grounds of Newstead Abbey, and two of them were made into films: They Knew Mr Knight – which includes many scenes shot in Nottingham – and They Were Sisters starring James Mason. Her final novel, Someone at a Distance (1953), is perhaps her best. Whipple describes it as “a fairly ordinary tale about the destruction of a happy marriage.”

Amanda Whittington
A former columnist for the Nottingham Evening Post, Amanda Whittington entered the mainstream with a string of popular and accessible plays featuring the experiences of women. Her debut play, Be My Baby, sheds light on teenage pregnancy in the sixties, and is studied at GCSE and A-Level English Literature. Nottingham features in Amateur Girl, the story of a woman who lives in a Viccy Centre flat. Whittington has also adapted Saturday Night and Sunday Morning for the stage. A winner of the Dennis Potter Screenwriting Award, Whittington is a Doctor of Philosophy by Publication, awarded for a programme of work Bad Girls and Blonde Bombshells, and she’s currently working on new commissions for theatre and radio.

Susannah Wright (1792 - unknown)
Nottingham lace worker Susannah Wright was charged with unlawfully publishing and selling the scandalous and blasphemous. She defended herself in court, using the opportunity to assert her right to free expression and calling for the people, not the church, to make the laws. She was indicted for profanity, becoming the only woman to be imprisoned on this charge. After her release, she opened a radical bookshop in Hockley and was met by a riotous mob who smashed their way in, but Wright held out. On one occasion, she withdrew a pistol from her counter and calmly asked if the threatening yobs should like it fired at them. Wright defeated the Committee for the Suppression of Vice and moved her successful bookshop to larger premises.

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