I for Isobel


Amy Witting

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I for Isobel Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Amy Witting's I for Isobel. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Amy Witting

Amy Witting was born Joan Austral Fraser in 1918. She grew up in Annandale, Australia, a suburb of Sydney. Her childhood was marked by a strict Catholic upbringing and a struggle with tuberculosis, a disease that would recur in her early adulthood. Fraser studied languages at the University of Sydney, received her teaching certification, and began working as a schoolteacher, writing only in her free time and only ever under a pen name. The name Amy Witting was derived from a promise Fraser made to herself to never be unwitting and to always be “witting”—both in her life and in her writing career, which was kept separate from her work as a schoolteacher and did not take off in earnest until the late 1970s. Witting published The Visit in 1977, followed by I for Isobel in 1989—a novel described as “exceptionally autobiographical” by those who knew Witting personally. Isobel was followed by a sequel in 1999, and the 2001 publication of Witting’s last book, After Cynthia, preceded her death from complications related to cancer at age 83 by just a few months.
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Historical Context of I for Isobel

The novel, which is set in the first half of the twentieth century, finds its fiery, intelligent, and headstrong protagonist Isobel coming up against the doubts others possess about her capabilities. In real life, Amy Witting herself—Joan Fraser Levick—found herself constantly battling the opinions of those who were uninterested in what women had to say and believed that writing was not a suitable career for a woman. These people urged her to follow a traditional path, fit into society, and focus on making a living rather than exploring her love of words. Witting, and other women of her generation, were forced to confront egregious sexism in the public sphere any time they made an attempt to have their voices heard. In the 1970s, Witting published a story about sex from a woman’s point of view in a literary magazine, and the piece was deemed so dangerous and salacious that a state education minister excoriated her in parliament as a “scribbler on lavatory walls.” Isobel’s burning desire to live a life of letters—and the concessions she must make to her duties to make a living for herself, fit into the status quo, and develop “useful” skills such as typing despite her disinclination towards them—reflects Witting’s real-life struggle to make her voice heard as a woman writing somewhat radically throughout the oft-repressed atmosphere of the mid—and even the late—twentieth century.

Other Books Related to I for Isobel

Isobel’s story of abuse, escape, and, eventually, a kind of fulfillment despite the traumas which have calibrated her early adulthood is one which many writers of fiction have explored. Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina—like Isobel, a highly autobiographical text—tells the story of a young girl growing up in poverty who is desperate for connection with her childish, distant, and abusive mother, and longing for more than her birth has suggested she’ll be able to achieve. Fraught or even dangerous mother-daughter relationships are found widely throughout literature—Rebecca Wells’ Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton, and Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit each focus on tumultuous mother-daughter relationships. Many of these works also feature a protagonist whose burning but repressed desire to come into her own as a writer, or simply to gain her independence from her mother, adds strain to relationships which are already physically or emotionally violent.
Key Facts about I for Isobel
  • Full Title: I for Isobel
  • When Written: Late 1970s
  • Where Written: Sydney, Australia
  • When Published: 1989
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Setting: Sydney, Australia
  • Climax: Isobel, sick of living in a Sydney boarding house which does not suit her needs and overwhelmed by the betrayals and endless intellectual posturing of her newfound group of friends, packs her belongings and leaves the boarding house, striking out on her own at long last.
  • Antagonist: Mrs. Callaghan
  • Point of View: Third person

Extra Credit for I for Isobel

An Aussie in “New York”. Amy Witting is the only Australian short fiction writer to have been published twice by the prestigious New Yorker magazine, whose fiction pages have jumpstarted the careers of literary fiction writers like J.D. Salinger, Donald Barthelme, and Annie Proulx. After Witting submitted her second story to New Yorker, the piece was heavily edited before publication; in response, Witting famously joked, “What’s the New Yorker, anyway?”