Write on, sister: 20 great books by women
The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction last week announced a list of the top 20 most influential books written by women. We continue our series on female authors, looking at the books as voted for by the public.
Top row (l-r): Sylvia Plath, Toni Morrison, Margaret Mitchell, Lionel Shriver and Audrey Niffenegger. Bottom row (l-r): George Eliot, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Doris Lessing and Marilyn French
Top row (l-r): Harper Lee, Margaret Atwood, Charlotte Brontë, JK Rowling and Emily Brontë. Bottom row (l-r): Jane Austen, Daphne du Maurier, Louisa May Alcott, Donna Tartt and Dodie Smith
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (1960)
This classic of modern American literature won the Pulitzer for Harper Lee and has been educating generations of school children on the fundamentals of human rights and the law ever since. A bildungsroman that sees Jem Finch and his younger sister Scout learn some difficult worldly truths, To Kill a Mockingbird is set in the fictional “tired old town” of Maycomb, Alabama during the Great Depression. A black man is on trial for the rape of a white woman and the children’s father, the lawyer Atticus Finch, tries to get the community to see past its prejudices.
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985)
Atwood’s dystopian world is a truly frightening prospect for women, who are categorised hierarchically according to their reproductive capacity and class status. Ultimately they exist to serve men, the ruling class in the near future totalitarian theocracy the Republic of Gilead. The award-winning novel has seen numerous adaptations across radio, cinema and television, with its heroine Offred struggling to escape her position as concubine in a world where she is little more than a puppet, controlled by her owners and their whims.
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë (1847)
CharlotteBrontë’s most famous novel is often spoken of in terms of the relationship that develops between the heroine and her Byronic lover Mr Rochester. Beginning with Jane’s orphaned background at a strict boarding school and showing her development into a kind and intelligent woman, it offers far more to readers than a romance story. Ahead of its time, the novel explores themes of class, gender, sexuality and religion. Relating the interior world of her heroine so convincingly earned Brontëthe title of “’first historian of the private consciousness”.
Harry Potter, JK Rowling (1997)
It’s hard to remember a time before the existence of Harry and his friends at Hogwarth’s. JK Rowling’s fantasy series exploded onto scene in 1997 with the publication of the first of seven books, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Helped along by Ronald Weasley and Hermione Granger, Harry’s quest is to defeat the Dark Wizard Lord Voldemort in a classic tale with contemporary twists that sees good triumph over evil.
Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë (1847)
If Emily Brontëhad lived past 30, who knows what other works of literature might have emerged from this talented writer? The bond between Cathy and Heathcliff has inspired a host of adaptations from ballet to television to opera to Kate Bush’s 1978 song.Brontë’s depiction of the remote moorlands in northern England is one of the finest examples of setting in literature. Challenging the strict Victorian ideals of the day, the book received mixed reviews when published butBrontë’s first and only novel is widely regarded as a classic today.
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen (1813)
Austen’s much loved novel of manners tells the story of the Bennett sisters, doomed to be turfed out of their estate because of their gender and in need of a good suitor to save them from destitution. With a suspenseful love plot, a hilariously irritating mother, a diverse cast of characters and arch commentary on the social mores of 19th century life,Pride & Prejudice is still as relevant today as it was when first written. Add to this the most quoted opening line in literary history, and it is a truth universally acknowledged that Austen’s book will remain a classic as long as there are people who read.
Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier (1938)
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” The second Mrs de Winter tells the story of the ill-fated estate and its inhabitants. Belonging to her husband Maximilian, Manderley becomes the young narrator’s new home after a whirlwind courtship results in marriage. Haunting the place is the ghost of Maxim’s first wife Rebecca, her presence kept alive by the creepy housekeeper Mrs Danvers who refuses to let her beloved mistress rest in peace.
Little Women, Louisa May Alcott (1868)
Following the lives of the Marsh sisters from childhood to adulthood, Louisa May Alcott’s novel was written in several months to meet her publisher’s deadlines. An immediate commercial and critical success, the author wrote two sequels as readers begged to know more about the Marsh family. With the four sisters portraying different facets of womanhood – wilful Jo, homemaker Meg, gentle Beth and artistic Amy – Alcott’s family drama has appealed to a wide variety of readers down through the ages.
The Secret History, Donna Tartt (1992)
Disgruntled with his Californian life and family, Richard Papen applies to a liberal arts college in Vermont. Once there he becomes obsessed with a clique of students studying Ancient Greek. Admitted as an outsider in their ranks, Richard comes to regret the membership when the secrets of their Dionysian lives are revealed. Tartt’s talent for characterisation and the black humour that underpins her story have made for one of the most popular literary titles in the recent past.
I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith (1940)
The British author Dodie Smith is best known for her children’s book The 100 and One Dalmatians but she was also an acclaimed playwright and novelist. Her debut novel I Capture the Castle was written in the 1940s, after Dodie and her husband emigrated to California. The novel harks back to the pre-war 30s, relating the adventures of the Mortmain family and their lifestyle of genteel poverty in a decrepit English castle.