“Happy Women’s Day, and enjoy it while it lasts,” said Dame Harriet Walter cheerily. “The other 364 are for the men.”
She was kicking off a marathon session of readings on Thursday to commemorate the 100th International Women’s Day. It’s been a whole century of Days since the time when women still struggled to win equal rights, equal pay and a vote in general elections. The Independent Bath Literature Festival marked the centenary by focussing on female writers. In the church of St Michael’s Without, in the centre of Bath, for eight hours from 10am to 6pm, works by 100 women were read out by volunteers, three minutes a time. Anyone could choose a favourite passage of poetry or prose by a favourite woman writer and join in, by prior arrangement.
Dame Harriet led the readings with a passage from a fiction by her friend Pauline Melville, the Anglo-Guyanan actress turned novelist, an extract that moved from a flawlessly ventriloquised scene of Foreign Office spymasters plotting a fake “incident” to a scene in which a Surinamese girl with a pail of lemonade on her head is monstered by killer bees.
Walter/Melville was followed by readings from Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. By 2pm, no fewer than 65 local women and schoolgirls had queued patiently for their turn: bringing to yelping life the words of Fay Weldon, Carol Ann Duffy, Jeanette Winterson and Charlotte Bronte. A passage from Pride and Prejudice was recited with a fine dramatic flourish by Jackie Herring, director of the local Jane Austen Festival, dressed in period costume and a rather thrilling bonnet.