15 Facts About Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees

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A tale of love and loss, sisterhood and trauma, Sue Monk Kidd's 2002 novel The Secret Life of Bees has won the hearts of millions of readers around the world. But few know the full truth behind this inspirational novel.

1. THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES IS A BILDUNGSROMAN.

A bildungsroman is a novel that charts the moral or psychological growth of its protagonist. It's also known as a coming-of-age story. In this case, Kidd's novel follows the journey of its narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Lily Melissa Owens. After escaping her abusive father T. Ray, Lily finds solace with the beekeeping Boatwright sisters, and confronts the terrible truth about her mother's death.

2. THE NOVEL TACKLES RACE RELATIONS IN THE 1960S.

Set in South Carolina during the civil rights movement, The Secret Life of Bees presents examples of overt racism. In one scene, a trio of white men harasses Lily's mother-figure Rosaleen Daise, who is black. At the same time, the novel challenges pernicious racial stereotypes. Before meeting the Boatwrights, Lily, who is white, assumes all black women are uneducated laborers or maids like Rosaleen. Through her time with the sisters, who are accomplished business owners, the novel's heroine recognizes her own prejudices, and grows to realize her ignorance.

3. ASPECTS OF LILY'S CHILDHOOD MIRRORED KIDD'S OWN.

Upon the novel's 10th anniversary, Kidd offered a long list of autobiographical elements that can be found within The Secret Life of Bees. "Both Lily and I were adolescents during the summer of 1964, and like Lily, I was powerfully affected by the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the racial unrest that fomented during those hot, volatile months," she wrote on her website. "I, too, had an African-American caretaker. I, too, wanted to be a writer ... Lily and I created fallout shelter models for our 7th-grade science projects and wrote papers called 'My Philosophy of Life' before either of us were old enough to have a philosophy." Kidd clarifies, however, that she did not lose her mother when she was a child and her father was "nothing like T. Ray."

4. KIDD VISITED HONEYHOUSES AND BEEHIVES WHEN SHE WAS WRITING THE NOVEL.

"Some of those scenes where Lily is experiencing that rush of feeling and emotion when the bees come swirling out of their hives, I could never have gotten that from a book," the author told BookPage. "The fear and delight of all that and the sounds of it … the way your feet stick to the floor in a honeyhouse … the senses are alive in all of that experience."

5. BEES WERE A BIG PART OF KIDD'S CHILDHOOD.

In one way, Kidd lived in a honeyhouse of her own. "When I was growing up, bees lived inside a wall of our house, an entire hive-full of them—that is to say, 50,000 or so. They lived with us, not for a summer or two, but for 18 years," Kidd wrote on her website. "The room vibrated with bee hum. At times, the whole house seemed to hum. I remember my mother cleaning up the honey that leaked from the cracks and made tiny puddles on the floor. Being a good Southern family, we normalized the situation and went on with our lives."

6. THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES WAS KIDD'S FIRST NOVEL, BUT NOT HER FIRST BOOK.

Ahead of The Secret Life of Bees, the Georgia-born author wrote three books about aspects of Christianity: God's Joyful Surprise (1988), When The Heart Waits (1990), and The Dance of the Dissident Daughter (1996). It wasn’t until she was in her forties that Kidd shifted her focus to fiction, beginning with short stories. The Secret Life of Bees came out in 2002, when Kidd was 53 years old.

7. THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES HAS A SPIRITUAL CONNECTION TO KIDD'S EARLIER BOOKS.

The novel includes Christian iconography, notably the Black Madonna that adorns the Boatwrights' honey jars. Its coming-of-age plot also touches on spiritual awakening. As Kidd said in the 2002 interview with BookPage, "I think of it as something deeper and more profound happening to [Lily] at the level of soul, and I wanted her to have a real transformation and a real awakening … to this other realm."

8. THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES'S MEMORABLE MARY FIGUREHEAD WAS BASED ON A REAL ONE IN A MUSEUM.

In the novel, a religious service is held before a statue called Black Mary or Our Lady of Chains, which is the figurehead of a ship that carries a great significance to the Daughters of Mary, a group of women who follow a religion invented by August Boatwright. Kidd had seen a similar figurehead while visiting a Trappist monastery in South Carolina. "The day that I discovered her," Kidd said, "I was totally captivated by … the powerful imagery of this [figurehead] Mary that was surfacing from the deep, washing up from the deep, onto the shores of consciousness, so to speak."

9. THE BOATWRIGHT SISTERS REPRESENT A CELEBRATION OF FEMALE FRIENDSHIP AND SORORITY.

On her website, Kidd tells the story of how she came up with the Boatwright sisters' characters and setting. She had woken up in the middle of the night thinking about where Rosaleen and Lily were going to end up after escaping T. Ray. She picked up a selection of photos that she had hoped would spark creativity. "My eyes wandered back and forth between pictures of three African-American women, an uproariously pink house, a cloud of bees, and a black Mary, and suddenly, it fell in one unbroken piece into my head," she wrote. "My two runaways would escape to the home of three black sisters, who live in a pink house, keep bees, and revere a black Mary. This sudden revelation may have happened in part because down deep I wanted a way to write about the strength, wisdom, and bonds of women."

10. KIDD WAS INSPIRED BY TWO CLASSICS OF AMERICAN LITERATURE.

The Secret Life of Bees won applause for its insightful look into the inner lives of its female characters. It may be no surprise that its author says reading the groundbreaking feminist novel The Awakening by Kate Chopin, published in 1899, made a big impact on her. Kidd also cites Henry David Thoreau's Walden, the 1854 transcendentalist treatise on simplicity and self-reliance. When she read each book, Kidd told Scholastic, "I would say they were turning points in my life, but also I can look back and say they affected me deeply as a writer."

11. THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES WAS A RUNAWAY HIT.

The novel spent more than two-and-a-half years on The New York Times bestseller list and more than 8 million copies of the book have been sold worldwide. It has also been translated into 36 languages.

12. THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES ALSO EARNED CRITICAL ACCLAIM.

Many reviewers praised Kidd's beautifully rendered characters and setting. "Lily is a wonderfully petulant and self-absorbed adolescent, and Kidd deftly portrays her sense of injustice as it expands to accommodate broader social evils," The New York Times Book Review wrote. "August and her sisters, June and May, are no mere vehicles for Lily's salvation; they are individuals as fully imagined as the sweltering, kudzu-carpeted landscape that surrounds them."

In deeming the novel "buzz-worthy," People wrote, "populated with rich, believable characters and propelled by a swiftly paced plot, this debut novel is a cut above most coming-of-age tales."

The Secret Life of Bees was longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction (now the Women's Prize for Fiction) in 2002, and won the American Booksellers Association's Book Sense Paperback of the Year award in 2004.

13. THE NOVEL WAS MADE INTO A STAR-STUDDED MOVIE.

Gina Prince-Bythewood, who wrote and directed Love & Basketball and other features, adapted The Secret Life Of Bees into a period drama. The cast included Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson, Oscar nominees Queen Latifah and Sophie Okonedo, multiple Grammy winner Alicia Keys, and Dakota Fanning as Lily.

Kidd visited the film set in a tiny North Carolina town and marveled at how every detail of the production was just as she had imagined it. But months later, when she sat down in the movie theater to watch the film for the first time, she felt nervous. "I had no idea what I would see. I’d glibly said that handing over my novel to Hollywood had seemed like leaping out of an airplane, but sitting there waiting for the film to begin, it really did seem that way," Kidd wrote on her website. "The parachute opened, thankfully, and the whole thing floated rather nicely to earth."

The movie earned a People's Choice Award for Favorite Dramatic Movie and an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Motion Picture.

14. THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES HAS BEEN ADAPTED INTO A STAGE MUSICAL.

As part of Vassar College's Powerhouse Theater's summer season in 2017, the college and New York Stage and Film presented a workshop production of The Secret Life of Bees as a musical, which starred Orange is the New Black standout Uzo Aduba in the role of Rosaleen. The show featured music from Tony winner Duncan Sheik and a book by Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage.

15. KIDD REALIZED THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES WAS BIG WHEN IT WAS FEATURED ON JEOPARDY!.

Under the category "Women Writers," the long-running quiz show offered this answer: “Sue Monk Kidd’s debut novel is about these insects.” Kidd recalled that moment on her website: "I blinked at the television. Finally, I came to life and shouted, 'What are bees?' Fortunately, the contestant did not need my help."

8 Proper Facts About Jane Austen

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

More than 200 years after her death, English novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817) continues to be celebrated for her sharp, biting prose on love's various entanglements. The strong female characters in books like Pride and Prejudice and Emma are as resonant today as when Austen first pressed her pen to paper. Though her bibliography totals just six novels (alongside some unfinished novels and other works) in all, Austen's books and her insightful quotes have been subject to hundreds of years of analysis and—for the Austen die-hards—numerous re-readings. For more on the writer's life, influences, and curious editing habits, take a look at our compendium of all things Austen below.

1. Austen's dad did everything he could to help her succeed.

Austen was born in Steventon, Hampshire, England on December 16, 1775 to George Austen, a rector, and Cassandra Austen. The second-youngest in a brood of eight kids, Austen developed a love for the written word partially as a result of George's vast home library. When she wasn't reading, Austen was supplied with writing tools by George to nurture her interests along. Later, George would send his daughters to a boarding school to further their education. When Austen penned First Impressions, the book that would become Pride and Prejudice, in 1797, a proud George took it to a London publisher named Thomas Cadell for review. Cadell rejected it unread. It's not clear if Jane was even aware that George approached Cadell on her behalf.

Much later, in 1810, her brother Henry would act as her literary agent, selling Sense and Sensibility to London publisher Thomas Egerton.

2. Her works were published anonymously.

From Sense and Sensibility through Emma, Austen's published works never bore her name. Sense and Sensibility carried the byline of "A Lady," while later works like Pride and Prejudice featured credits like, "By the Author of Sense and Sensibility." It's likely Austen chose anonymity because female novelists were frowned upon for having selected what was viewed at the time as a potentially lewd, male-dominated pursuit. If she was interrupted while writing, she would quickly conceal her papers to avoid being asked about her work. Austen was first identified in print following her death in 1817; her brother Henry wrote a eulogy to accompany the posthumous publications of Persuasion and Northanger Abbey.

3. She backed out of a marriage of convenience.

Many of Austen's characters carry great agency in their lives, and Austen scholars enjoy pointing to the fact that Austen herself bucked convention when it came to affairs of the heart. The year after her family's move to the city of Bath in 1801, Austen received a proposal of marriage from Harris Bigg-Wither, a financially prosperous childhood friend. Austen accepted but quickly had second thoughts. Though his money would have provided for her and her family (and, at the time, she was 27 and unpublished, meaning she had no outside income and was fast approaching Georgian-era spinster status), Austen decided that a union motivated on her part by economics wasn't worthwhile. She turned the proposal down the following day and later cautioned her niece about marrying for any reason other than love. "Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection," she wrote.

4. She took a decade off.

Because so little of Austen's writing outside of her novels survives—her sister, Cassandra, purportedly destroyed much of her correspondence in an effort to keep some of Austen's scathing opinions away from polite society—it can be hard to assign motivations or emotions to some of her major milestones in life. But one thing appears clear: When her family moved to Bath and subsequently kept relocating following her father's death in 1805, Austen's writing habits were severely disrupted. Once prolific—she completed three of her novels by 1801—a lack of a routine kept her from producing work for roughly 10 years. It wasn't until she felt her home life was stable after moving into property owned by her brother, Edward, that Austen resumed her career.

5. She used straight pins to edit her manuscripts.

Austen had none of the advancements that would go on to make a writer's life easier, like typewriters, computers, or Starbucks. In at least one case, her manuscript edits were accomplished using the time-consuming and prickly method of straight pins. For an unfinished novel titled The Watsons, Austen took the pins and used them to fasten revisions to the pages of areas that were in need of correction or rewrites. The practice dates back to the 17th century.

6. She was an accomplished home brewer.

In Austen's time, beer was the drink of choice, and like the rest of her family, Austen could brew her own beer. Her specialty was spruce beer, which was made with molasses for a slightly sweeter taste.

Austen was also a fan of making mead—she once lamented to her sister, "there is no honey this year. Bad news for us. We must husband our present stock of mead, and I am sorry to perceive that our twenty gallons is very nearly out. I cannot comprehend how the fourteen gallons could last so long."

7. Some believe Austen's death was a result of being poisoned.

Austen lived to see only four of her six novels published. She died on July 18, 1817 at the age of 41 following complaints of symptoms that medical historians have long felt pointed to Addison's disease or Hodgkin's lymphoma. In 2017, the British Library floated a different theory—that Austen was poisoned by arsenic in her drinking water due to a polluted supply or possibly accidental ingestion due to mismanaged medication. The Library put forth the idea based on Austen's notoriously poor eyesight (which they say may have been the result of cataracts) as well as her written complaint of skin discoloration. Both can be indicative of arsenic exposure. Critics of the theory say the evidence is scant and that there is equal reason to believe a disease was the cause of her death.

8. She's been cited in at least 27 written court decisions.

As Matthew Birkhold of Electric Lit points out, judges seem to have a bit of a preoccupation with the works of Austen. Birkhold found 27 instances of a judge's written ruling invoking the name or words of the author, joining a rather exclusive club of female writers who tend to pop up in judicial decisions. (Harper Lee and Mary Shelley round out the top three.) According to Birkhold, jurists often use Austen as a kind of shorthand to explain matters involving relationships or class distinctions. Half of the decisions used the opening line from Pride and Prejudice: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." The sentence is often rewritten to reflect the specifics of a case: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a recently widowed woman in possession of a good fortune must be in want of an estate planner," as one 2008 tax court case put it.

Others invoke characters like Fitzwilliam Darcy to compare or contrast the litigant's romantic situation. In most cases, the intent is clear, with authors realizing that their readers consider Austen's name synonymous with literary—and hopefully judicial—wisdom.

5 Facts About Shirley Jackson

Photo illustration: Shaunacy Ferro. Images: Penguin Random House
Photo illustration: Shaunacy Ferro. Images: Penguin Random House
Midcentury American writer Shirley Jackson has long been known for her spooky short story "The Lottery," which caused widespread controversy when it came out in The New Yorker in 1948 and continues to appear in short story anthologies today. Her equally haunted novels are less widely read. But now that her 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House has been turned into a hit Netflix series, her work is on its way to a critical and popular revival more than 50 years after her death. (A well-reviewed 2017 biography as well as new releases of some of her short stories and previously unpublished writings in the last few years have no doubt helped.) If you’re just catching on to Shirley Jackson mania, here are five things to know about the master of gothic horror.

1. Many modern writers cite her as an inspiration.

Shirley Jackson has a number of fans among modern writers. Stephen King has called The Haunting of Hill House one of the two "great novels of the supernatural in the last hundred years,” and he has said he wrote The Shining with Jackson’s The Sundial in mind. Writers like Neil Gaiman and Joyce Carol Oates sing her praises, and Donna Tartt has called her stories “among the most terrifying ever written.” Sylvia Plath was a fan, too, and hoped to interview her during summer internship at Mademoiselle in 1953. It didn’t work out, but Plath would go on to write works with plenty of parallels to Jackson’s.

2. Shirley Jackson was her family's chief breadwinner.

Jackson’s husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, was a writer, too. A literary critic who taught literature at Bennington College, it was his job that brought the couple to the small Vermont city, where Jackson often chafed at being placed in the role of faculty wife. Yet it was Jackson’s work that supported the family. (Like many wives of her day, she also did all the cooking, cleaning, taking care of their four kids, and driving the family around town—as one of Hyman’s former students wrote of him, “Stanley never did anything practical if he could help it.”) In addition to the fees she earned selling short stories and novels, Jackson had a lucrative career writing lighthearted essays on motherhood and family life for women’s magazines, which she eventually parlayed two successful memoirs.

3. She claimed to be a witch.

In keeping with the haunted themes in her writing, Jackson studied the history of witchcraft and the occult, and often told people she was a witch—though that may have been in part a publicity tactic. As Ruth Franklin writes in her 2017 Jackson biography Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life:
"During her lifetime, she fascinated critics and readers by playing up her interest in magic: The biographical information on her first novel identifies her as ‘perhaps the only contemporary writer who is a practicing amateur witch, specializing in small-scale black magic and fortune-telling with a tarot deck.’ To interviewers, she expounded on her alleged abilities, even claiming that she used magic to break the leg of publisher Alfred A. Knopf, with whom her husband was involved in a dispute. Reviewers found those stories irresistible, extrapolating freely from her interest in witchcraft to her writing, which often takes a turn into the uncanny. ‘Miss Jackson writes not with a pen but a broomstick’ was an oft-quoted line."
It’s not clear whether she actually performed any magic rituals, but she referenced them often, usually in a tongue-in-cheek way. She often joked with her editors about bringing about victories for her favorite baseball team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, through her magical abilities. Her interest was definitely real, though. She started studying witchcraft while writing a paper as a student at the University of Rochester, and later took up tarot reading. Her personal library was filled with hundreds of books about witchcraft, and in 1956, she wrote a children’s book, The Witchcraft of Salem Village, about the history of the Salem witch trials.

4. She considered becoming a professional cartoonist.

Jackson wasn’t just good with words. She loved to draw, and even considered becoming a professional cartoonist at one point, according to Franklin. While her favorite subjects were cats, she regularly made minimalist, humorous sketches of herself and the people around her (particularly her husband), keeping a kind of cartoon diary of her life. “They’re Thurber-esque in style, but they’re kind of edgy, too,” her son, Laurence Jackson Hyman, told The Guardian of the drawings in 2016. “There’s one in which she is trudging up a hill carrying bags of groceries, and my father is sitting in his chair, reading. ‘Dear,’ he says, without bothering to get up. ‘You know you’re not supposed to carry heavy things when you’re pregnant!’” Some of these drawings are held with Jackson’s papers in the Library of Congress, including sketches she made of how she imagined the layout of Hill House. Her unpublished illustrated ABC book for kids, The Child's Garden of New Hampshire, is also held there.

5. She died before finishing her last novel.

Jackson died unexpectedly from heart failure in 1965 at the age of 48. (At the time, newspapers listed her as 45, as she often lied about her age, perhaps to minimize the age difference between her and her husband, who was two years younger than she.) A significant chunk of her work has been published since her death, though. When she died, she was in the midst of writing a novel, Come Along With Me, which was published in its incomplete format by her husband in 1968. In 1996, Laurence Jackson Hyman found a crate of unpublished stories by his mother, and, with his sister, Sarah Hyman Dewitt, turned them into a collection called Just an Ordinary Day. In 2015, they edited and released Let Me Tell You, a collection of stories, essays and lectures from her archive that were mostly unfinished or unpublished at the time of her death.

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