30 Must-Read Classics by Women
If this is the year you’re determined to read more books by women, be sure not to sidestep the classics.
After all, these are the cornerstones of our literary tradition; The books that broke ground in themes and thoughts and style and made us think in new ways about old stories.
The books, that, whether we realize it or not, shaped the way we read and write today.
That said, it can be difficult to quickly pull together 30 names of classic books written by women.
When considering the literary canon (or even the modern one), there’s a tendency to focus on male writers over their female compatriots.
But women are not new to writing. They have been laying bare the unspoken layers of female life within their writing for centuries. And, in fact, there are so many fantastic books written by women in the past, that remain beloved, relevant and still a rollicking good read today.
So, below are 30 such books to get you started. I’ve put the cut-off for “classic” as being written at least 100 years ago.
And of course, these are only a taster - There are so many great women-authored classics out there, to the extent that you might have to make this “the decade” and not just “the year” that you start reading more women writers.
The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon (1002)
A personalized account of the life of women at the Japanese court, The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon is full of vivid and often humorous observations of the people, events and things around her. Shōnagon, who was called “conceited” by her contemporary Murasaki Shibiku (below), lists areas of her life in her diary under categories such as “Annoying Things” and “Things Which Distract in Moments of Boredom.” A delightful drama-queen, all of this makes for a smart and witty read.
The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shibiku (1008)
This sumptuous epic concentrates on the life and loves of the handsome and talented Hikaru Genji, born to an Emperor during the Heian Period. A culturally-significant and eye-opening tale depicting as it does court life and aristocracy in painstaking detail.
The Heptaméron by Marguerite de Navarre (1558)
This collection of 72 short stories written by Marguerite de Navarre (Princess of France, Queen of Navarre, 1492 -1549) was published posthumously in 1558. The collection is based around the stories that five men and five women, trapped by floods in an abbey high in French Pyrenees, entertain each other with to while away their days together. Centered around stories of love, lust, faithfulness and faithlessness, and the general debauchery undertaken by men and women in the 16th century, this is a delightful insight into the everlasting battle of the sexes.
Oroonoko by Aphra Behn (1688)
As one of the first books to express sympathy for African slaves, Oroonoko by Aphra Behn was a ground-breaking work of fiction, and still one of the most influential books in the English language. It tells of the passionate love between Prince Oroonoko, the grandson of an African king, and Imoinda, the daughter of the king's top general.
La Respuesta / The Answer by Juana Ines de la Cruz (1691)
A stunning critique from the 17th-century Mexican nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz of a 40-year-old sermon by a Portuguese Jesuit preacher who hoped to silence all women. In a gorgeously intelligent, outspoken and witty defense of the right of all women to attain knowledge, she famously wrote ‘One can perfectly well philosophize while cooking supper,’ and therein swept up the crown of “the first feminist of the Americas.”
The Female Quixote by Charlotte Lennox (1752)
This lively novel parodying the style of Cervantes introduces us to Arabella, the beautiful but sheltered daughter of a marquis, whose overactive imagination and penchant for reading romances cause her to get involved in all kinds of misadventures and comical misunderstandings.
Phillis Wheatley, Complete Writings by Phillis Wheatley (1760s – 1770s)
The extraordinary writings of Phillis Wheatley, a Boston-based slave girl turned published poet. Wheatley published her first poem in 1767 at the age of 14, and this collection includes many more of her poems, letters, stories and a poignant plea to the Earl of Dartmouth urging freedom for America and comparing the country's condition to her own.
A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft (1790)
A pioneering work of early feminism, this manifesto written by the 33-year old Wollstonecraft (also the mother of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley) was one of the first treatises to connect women’s education with their social position.
The Romance of the Forest by Ann Radcliffe (1791)
A gothic novel following the fate of its heroine Adeline who has been handed off to a criminal and his wife fleeing Paris, and who half-way through their journey is forced to take refuge in the desolate Abbey of St, Clair, deep in the forest of Fontanville, France. What ensues is a thrilling tale of mystery, murder and suspense.
Belinda by Maria Edgeworth (1801)
An engaging and often witty novel about a young woman navigating London’s high society marriage market, Irish writer Maria Edgeworth’s second publication was considered pretty risqué in its day for its depiction of interracial marriage.
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (1811)
Austen’s debut is a beautifully honest and humorous story that follows the romantic relationships of the near-destitute Dashwood sisters, and in doing so pits practicality against all-consuming passions in matters relating to life and love.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)
Jane Austen’s sparkling comedy of manners follows the burgeoning romance between the opinionated Elizabeth Bennet and her proud would-be beau, Mr. Darcy. Wound around this spirited central relationship is the fate of Elizabeth’s four equally unmarried sisters, who together offer up a satirical depiction of the expectations placed on the women of this era.
The Wanderer by Frances Burney (1814)
Frances Burney’s final novel tells the story of a mysterious woman escaping the Reign of Terror in 1790s France and boarding a ship to England. In England, she attempts to forge an independent life while hiding her identity. Like all of Burney’s novels, The Wanderer addresses the complicated matter of being a woman in 18th century England, while also giving a sharp critique of London’s high society.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
Frankenstein or, The Modern Prometheus, is a tale timeless in its themes of fear of change and the unknown and an extraordinary feat of writing from the then 18-year old Mary Shelley. The “Frankenstein,” of the book is a young natural philosophy student who, fascinated with the possibilities of creating life, does so only to reject his terrifying “creature” in fear and disgust.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847)
Charlotte Brontë’s bold titular heroine searches for a sense of home, happiness, and true love. Though this search is tempered by her need for independence, in the brilliant, brooding Mr. Rochester, she finds a man brave enough to love her for who she really is.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1847)
A truly haunting tale of passion, punishment, and thwarted love, Emily Brontë’s star-crossed lovers, Heathcliff and Cathy, remain an unparalleled example of how love can sometimes torment and destroy. In its depiction of emotional abuse in all its rawness, even today, this book is not for the faint of heart.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë (1848)
A powerful and sometimes shocking portrayal of a woman attempting to rebuild her life with her child after escaping an oppressive marriage with a violent and alcoholic husband.
Indiana by George Sand (1832)
The first novel by Amantine Aurore Lucile Dupin (aka the gender-nonconforming George Sand), the titular Indiana is a naive, love-starved woman suffering in an ill-suited marriage to a much older husband. When a chance of love appears, she grasps it, even if it means taking a huge risk.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852)
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s powerful abolitionist novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is a heartfelt tale of three slaves yearning for freedom. Though Stowe herself called the novel's "representation of slavery" inadequate, the book did, at the time help provoke a collective cultural awakening to the plight of those enslaved. It sold more than 300,000 copies in the American North the first year it was published, and proved even more popular overseas, selling tens of thousands of copies a day upon publication in England.
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (1854)
Gaskell puts a clash of principles and the pursuit of profit at the center of a captivating love story between the provincial Margaret Hale, drawn to sympathize with the struggles of the factory workers she meets when her father moves his family to England’s industrial north, and the contemptuous mill-owner, John Thornton.
The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot (1860)
Centered around the lives of Tom and Maggie Tulliver, a brother and sister whose strong bond in childhood is tested as they grow and each takes a different path in life, The Mill on the Floss is a powerful and poignant tale about sibling love, rivalry, and regret.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs (1861)
Harriet Jacobs's remarkable biography highlights the life, times, and work of a mother and fugitive slave whose indomitable spirit carries her from a life of degradation in America’s south to freedom and a life surrounded by her children in the North.
Little Women by Louise May Alcott (1868)
A heart-warming coming-of-age story about four sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy – who, along with their patient and loving “marmee” survive the difficulties of the American Civil War and the dramas of ordinary family life.
Middlemarch by George Eliot (1872)
Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life, is an exceptionally modern masterpiece written by George Eliot (who was, of course, Mary Ann Evans.) In detailing the lives in a fictitious Midlands town in Victorian Britain, Eliot doesn’t shy away from portraying the loneliness, failures, and frustrations of people – particularly women – attempting to find their place in a changing world. Lauded by Emily Dickinson, Middlemarch also received high praise from Virginia Woolf who called it, ‘one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.’
The Awakening by Kate Chopin (1899)
A daring portrayal of a woman seeking more from her life than society deems reasonable. Edna Pontellier leaves her stifling marriage and embarks upon a passionate affair in an attempt to uncover the unique individual she knows is lost somewhere inside herself.
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1902)
This classic children’s novel is about a wealthy girl who becomes an orphan and finds herself living in the attic of Miss Michnin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies. A beautiful celebration of the imagination.
The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy (1905)
An exuberant historical adventure novel set during the early stages of the 1792 French Revolution. The Baroness Orczy’s dauntless hero is Percy Blakeney, an aristocratic English dandy who leads a double life rescuing his noble French peers from execution. Known as the Scarlet Pimpernel, this masked crusader established the genre of the identity-hiding heroes that would become a fixture in fiction and other media.
Oh Pioneers by Willa Cather (1913)
Willa Cather’s masterpiece is an extraordinary novel about a Swedish family trying to survive in the brutally unforgiving prairie lands of Nebraska at the turn of the 20th century. The heroine of the tale, Alexandra Bergson, is a fiercely independent woman, determined to claw success out of the land she’s inherited from her father - at any personal cost.
Suffragette: My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst (1914)
A wonderfully illuminating and sharp-witted autobiography from the leading light of the Suffragette movement, Emmeline Pankhurst. The book chronicles her first interest and forays into feminism right through her fight to get women the vote. Throughout it all, she endured ignominy, infamy, prison, hunger strikes and the continuous frustrations and slap-down of her principles from men in power.
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1920)
Winner of the first Pulitzer Prize ever awarded to a book written by a woman, Edith Wharton’s 12th novel is a stunningly realized exploration about the struggle between love and duty in Gilded Age New York.