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.

The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath (1963)

Published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas in 1963, Sylvia Plath’s only novel tells the story of Esther Greenwood’s rapid decline from a high-achieving student and hopeful intern at a prominent New York magazine to a young woman plagued by depression.

The Bell Jar

is a semi-autobiographical work that parallels Plath’s struggles with clinical depression, which resulted in her suicide shortly after the book’s UK release. Plath’s genius as a poet is evident in her descriptions of mental illness throughout the novel: “Wherever I sat – on the deck of a ship or at a street cafe in Paris or Bangkok – I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.”


Beloved, Toni Morrison (1987)

Morrison’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel is inspired by the real-life story of an African-American slave who was pursued by authorities after she fled to the free state of Ohio. Margaret Garner chose to kill her two-year-old daughter rather than have her recaptured. The book’s main character Sethe is forced into a similarly bleak situation, struggling to escape the post-war oppressions of 19th-century America.

Gone With The Wind, Margaret Mitchell (1936)

Another Pulitzer winner, set in the southern states during the American Civil War, Mitchell’s novel follows the spoilt daughter of a wealthy plantation owner whose privileges vanish with the ravages of war. Told from the perspective of a slave owner, the book’s portrayal of slavery and racial issues is controversial. Classified as Southern plantation fiction, it encapsulates the politics and prejudices of that time and has become a contemporary American classic. Mitchell’s use of symbolism is lauded, with the heroine Scarlett O’Hara christened both for her tempers and passion.

We Need To Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver (2003)

The 2011 film adaptation starring Tilda Swinton revived interest in Shriver’s arresting novel, which deals with the aftermath of a school massacre. Narrated by the killer’s mother, Eva Khatchadourian, the book documents her attempts to come to terms with Kevin’s atrocities. Taking the form of an epistolary novel, with letters from Eva to her estranged husband,

We Need To Talk About Kevin

delves into themes of guilt, maternity and nature-versus-nurture as the suspenseful plot unfolds.

The Time Traveller’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger (2003)

Blending elements of science fiction and romance, this debut novel depicts the marriage of Henry, a librarian with a rare genetic disorder, and his artist wife Clare who struggles to deal with her husband’s time travelling. Unable to control how long he travels for or where he goes, Clare waits in the present day of 1990s Chicago for him to return. An extended metaphor for failed and turbulent relationships in the author’s own life, the book was an international bestseller and was adapted to film in 2009.

Middlemarch, George Eliot (1871)

Set in the fictional British town of Middlemarch, Eliot’s “study of provincial life” is realist literature at its best. With a large cast of diverse characters, the author delivers a vividly rendered world that critiques the social and political norms of the day. Its many serious themes – gender inequality, hypocrisy, education, religion, marriage, idealism – are offset by the interlocking narratives of contrasting characters and the wry voice of the author that underpins them all.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou (1969)

The death of Maya Angelou earlier this year saw tributes pouring in across the world from readers and leaders alike, such was the reach of her writings and activism. Her 1969 autobiography

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

was the first in a seven-volume series and it charts her life from a young child to when she becomes a mother at the age of 16. A bildungsroman at heart, it shows a young woman battling and surmounting the confines of racism, first in her own life and then later for the world at large.

The Colour Purple, Alice Walker (1982)

Themes of racism, sexism and violence against women form the core of Walker’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel, which focuses on the lives of black women in 1930s Georgia. Frequently censored because of its explicit scenes, Walker uses the epistolary form to give her protagonist Celie a voice she is denied in reality. Celie’s letters to God and to her sister Nettie, whose life is equally hard, make clear the torturous conditions she must endure at the hands of men.

The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing (1962)

An example of Lessing’s “inner space fiction”,

The Golden Notebook

looks at mental and societal breakdowns through the story of writer Anna Wulf. The novel weaves together four fictional notebooks in order to create a final definitive version that becomes the eponymous golden journal. Each of the four colour-coded notebooks explores different aspects of Anna’s life. Black covers the writer’s time in Southern Rhodesia, red for her experiences as a member of the Communist Party, yellow for her ongoing love affair, and blue for the notes in her personal diary.

The Women’s Room, Marilyn French (1972)

One of the most influential novels of the modern feminist movement, the American author’s debut follows the life of Mira Ward, as she undergoes several transformations from her teenage years to adulthood. Rejecting an early suitor who seeks to dehumanise her, Mira nonetheless enters into a conventional 1950’s suburban marriage. The dinner parties she throws with her three friends – Natalie, Bliss and Adele – lead to the dissolving of social barriers and a feminist awakening for Mira.

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.