I was amazed to find so much rib-tickling in Virago's Wicked: Women's Wit and Humour from Elizabeth I to Ruby Wax (pounds 14.99), edited with aplomb by Fidelis Morgan. Contributors tend towards the literary, though crowned heads and comic auteurs put in a good showing. In the section "God is Love, But Get it in Writing" (a line attributed to Gypsy Rose Lee), Catherine the Great rubs big shoulders with Jo Brand, the former declaring " I shall be an autocrat: that's my trade. And the good Lord will forgive me, that's his" while Brand's gospel runs, "Jesus was also well-known for his miracles, and probably would have formed a band if Smokey Robinson hadn't done it."
When it comes to one-liners there are some women who never let you down: Dorothy Parker, of course, and Mae West - "I used to be Snow White but I drifted". Margot Asquith appears frequently and scores highly, as do Katherine Whitehorn and French and Saunders. Less Joan Rivers would have gone a long way. There are comic stories and such prose oddities as Margaret Atwood's maternal slant on Hamlet in "Gertrude Talks Back", while neat solo turns include Princess Anne's "When I appear in public people expect me to neigh, grind my teeth, paw the ground, swish my tail - none of which is easy."
Two thumping great books from OUP celebrate the rude good health of American women's writing today, while honouring the literary foremothers who brought it about. Editors of both books - Cathy N Davidson and Linda Wagner-Martin - are lively Southern professors who think "big and authoritative" can still mean freewheeling and unstodgy. The Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (pounds 35) is a 1,000-page encylopedia which includes short biographies, definitions of feminist terminology, descriptions of women's movements and trends in criticism. You can tiptoe through the feminist (and backlash) minefield, bone up on cultural traditions, fill any black holes in your literary vocabulary and wince at the new argot: "performativity" and "gynocritical" may not be pretty words, but at least you will know what is meant by them.
Five hundred American scholars were asked to contribute entries, which leads to a baffling diversity of styles: some definitions tidily encyclopedic, while free-form topics like "Girlhood" or "Beauty" become a platform for someone's pet rant (all entries have by-lines). The definition of "a storytelling" is a long first-person narrative featuring the contributor's four-year- old son. But if you're in the mood for a meander from topic to topic, it works a bit like a good gossip and must be a godsend for students.
The companion to the Companion, as it were, is The Oxford Book of Women's Writing in the United States (pounds 20): "We hoped to build a book that, relieved of an obligation to be comprehensive, readers could simply enjoy." And, as in the Companion, "writing" includes not just formal literature but letters, diaries, daybooks, even recipes. There are some fascinating historical treats, like Marietta Volley (1836-1926), a St Louis political satirist as popular in her day as Mark Twain, who, writing through her homespun, plain-talking heroine Samantha (wife of a conservative clod), addresses racism, family violence, class pretensions and the sexual double standard with wit and clout. Further north, in New York, late-Victorian women found a sympathetic portraitist in Kate Chopin, whose "A Pair of Silk Stockings" shows a widow mentally dividing up a $15 windfall she has received between her many children's needs and then going on her own unstoppable shopping spree. In "The Captain's Lady's Cookbook" of 1871, a grateful wife celebrates her husband's return from the sea, and includes the tempting-looking recipe he brought back for "Jamaica Schrimp".
The word "body" appears with great frequency in Sisterfire: Black Womanist Fiction and Poetry (Women's Press pounds 7.99). African-American women are highly conscious of their need for bodily defence, with specific women's illnesses related to HIV and Aids hitting their community disproportionately. The crack epidemic has led not only to individual addiction but social violence, and editor Charlotte Watson Sherman includes a striking range of responses to the drug wars. In a section on health, Alice Walker unambiguously addresses politicians who wish to restrict black women's access to abortion in a raging poem "What Can the White Man Say to the Black Woman?" (she has a few suggestions), while Terry MacMillan wonders why black men should so often be shielded from the pain of this choice in a fine story called "Disappearing Acts". But in case this all sounds too embattled, the collection is also seasoned with some very sassy humour, the sex section is outrageously unbridled and some of the pieces on ageing are brilliant.
In her Introduction to The Penguin Book of Contemporary Women's Short Stories (pounds 6.99), Susan Hill explains that she cast her net wider than for the book's companion volume, The Penguin Book of Modern Women's Short Stories, by including some burgeoning writers in English from outside Great Britain. It is curious, then, that she includes no authors' biographical notes to indicate the actual origins of this second lot. (There is no index either.) Even so, among Hill's fresh faces is a wonderful writer called Judy Corbalis whose portrait, in "The Bridesmaids", of a precociously articulate 12-year-old girl is pure delight. The book is strong on bold portraiture. Penelope Gilllatt's "The Redhead" captures a theoretical zealot who dedicates herself anti-socially and wilfully to worthy causes, only to find them debased by her fundamental inability to believe in them. Ellen Gilchrist too unleashes an enthusiast, a girl sick of her brothers' exclusive male domains, who strips off her new taffeta dress and teaches herself to pole-vault by moonlight in "Revenge".
Gilchrist's story is one of three duplicated in Hermione Lee's The Secret Self: A Century of Short Stories by Women (Dent pounds 20/pounds l0.99), the others being Angela Carter's "Peter and the Wolf" and Janet Frame's "Swans". Considering the prodigious output of all three, this is a strange serendipity. Combining her two earlier story anthologies and adding some new work, Lee firmly declares these "52 of the very best short stories by women in this century" and one begins to see her point; it is a wonderful collection. Hermione Lee loves an injection of the subversive into the everyday, from Jane Gardam's singular ghost of someone not yet dead in "The Weeping Child" to Alice Munro's superb notion of a woman in hiding right in the visible midst of her bustling family in "Miles City, Montana", which also contains an unforgettable child's-eye view of what is disgusting about adults "with their sex and funerals". Elsewhere Rose Tremain illustrates romantic retribution by votive candle, Fay Weldon immortalises the horrors of a smug husband and Margaret Atwood runs through a wicked range of permutations on living happily ever after in the tailpiece, "Happy Endings".Reuse content