A good few years ago as I was scrolling through the Internet I came across an article by a female journalist who, lamenting the bias towards male writers in the book market, decided to read only books by women for a year.
I can’t remember the journalist’s name or where I read the article. But I do remember that her argument was compelling and the idea intriguing enough to send me to my own bookshelves to see how many female authors were currently on display there.
Shockingly, even though I’m a lifetime reader and have, since my early teens, loved 19th-century classics, I saw that for every Gaskell there were three or four Dickens. Though I had the seven Brontë books, I also had most of Emile Zola’s 20+ novels. In modern and contemporary selections, books by male writers far outweighed those by women.
I decided there and then to follow the above-mentioned journalist’s example and for the next 12 months, only read books authored by women writers.
And Oh reader! I read her!
And another “her” and another.
And on and on. I read everyone from Jane Austen to Tayari Jones. I dived into all sorts of genres from magical feminism to mystery murders!
Being Part of the Chorus
And here’s what happened: I met myself. And others I could relate to, argue easily with and laugh or cry alongside.
It wasn’t that the books were better or had greater plot lines.
It was that they opened up a world to me where, as a woman, I felt understood and acknowledged. Where to paraphrase the writer and academic Gina Barreca, I didn’t feel like a soloist anymore but part of a chorus (though not necessarily a chorus line)! I didn’t have to feel slightly shamed by the madwoman in the attic – I was her! And bloody proud of it!
It is not an exaggeration to say that I learnt more about women’s roles in history, culture and society and how those holding the pen genuinely felt about their roles, during those 12 months than I had ever learnt at school or in my routine non-bookish life!
And I haven’t stopped reading books by women since.
Sure, I do read the odd male author (though it generally has to be an already loved writer or a fabulously-reviewed book). But mostly, I’m deeply drawn to books written by women.
It’s in these books that I unpick the past, wrestle with ideas that relate specifically to me and my life, and generally just have a jollier reading time all around!
Are You Reading Women Writers?
So, have a look at your own bookshelves. Are they lacking in female writers?
Don’t worry if they are – this is not a criticism. But if you do want to do something to rectify that, then why not make a deliberate decision to buy more women-authored books?
If you buy books by contemporary female writers then you’re supporting their art and possible livelihood.
If you pick up books by bygone authors then you’re telling publishers that women’s classics are worth investing in.
Whatever genre or era you opt for, you’re contributing to creating a world where books written by women and the stories that they tell – many of which are specifically female - are relevant and worthy.
Along with that, you might, like me, find some books that seem to speak directly to you, your interests and your sense of self – I hope you do!
And to help you, I’ve put together a short list of some of my favourite books by women writers that I’ve read over the last few years.
The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim
I adore this book! It’s one of those rare reads that leaves you feeling light of heart and full of love for the restorative power of fiction!
A wholly charming story of four very different women who decide to take a month-long holiday together in a small medieval castle on the Italian Riviera.
There’s no deep plot, but Von Arnim’s writing is deliciously wry and her descriptions of the women’s surroundings and the love that they’re opening up to in their own lives, are beautifully formed.
I’ve read a lot of Von Arnim since and the quality of her writing never disappoints.
BUY IT NOW! The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim
My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
I’m a huge fan of ALL of Du Maurier’s novels but this psychological gothic thriller is really one of her best. It’s so tightly plotted, full of suspense, and a slow, sinister turning of the tables in which you start to wonder, mid-book, who really is the victim here.
I recommend you start reading it early on in the day because you really won’t want to put it down until your reach the last page!
BUY A COPY NOW!: My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
This book about a loosely-linked group of people navigating the beginning and aftermath of a devastating pandemic that subsequently causes the collapse of civilisation might have seemed like a puzzling choice of novel to read during the 2020 Covid lockdown!
But, in truth, it’s a gorgeous, hopeful book about the power of art, friendship and the comfort of strangers.
Kindred by Octavia Butler
It’s hard to explain what I felt when I first read Kindred.
Butler, celebrated as a sci-fi writer, takes on the much-used time travel trope and blends it seamlessly - and heart-achingly - with concepts of slavery, race, and gender, to create a story that stays with you long after you’ve finished it.
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
This sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale told from the point of view of Aunt Lydia, turned out to be a perfect dénouement to that first powerful novel and the closure I didn’t realise I needed.
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
This is a wonderfully-atmosphere gothic crime novel set in a depraved Victorian-era Britain.
I really don’t want to say too much about the plot lest I give something away. Suffice to say that it involves two orphan girls, one growing up amongst thieves in the squalid laneways of London, the other growing up in a gloomy country house.
Throw in a large dollop of suspense, secrets, shocking twists and turns, and some Victorian porn, and you’ve got a book that you will not be able to put down!
I’m a massive Sarah Waters fan and though I’m suggesting the rollicking ride that is Fingersmith, I can hand-on-heart recommend any of her other five novels.
Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë
I’d read Agnes Grey many years ago but decided to pick it up again during my first year of only reading women writers.
It was Brontë’s first novel and based upon her experiences as a governess. It’s a much quieter book than her second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (which I would equally recommend) but it’s still a radical examination of the lack of choices 19th-century women had, regardless of their class or status.
Anne is generally viewed as the “other” Brontë sister and her work is often overlooked as a result. But she’s my favourite of the three.
I deeply admire her unflinching gaze at the world around her.
Equally, I love that the men who stand out as the true heroes in her novels are not broken, brooding abusers (yeah, I’m looking at you two, Heathcliff and Rochester!) but men worthy of the love her strong female characters have to share.
The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
This is a beautifully elegant novel set in modern-day Japan. It’s centred on the relationship that develops between a former maths professor who, ever since a traumatic head injury, cannot remember anything for more than 80 minutes at a time, and his housekeeper (and her son).
What the professor can recall is mathematics. This becomes the language through which he builds his friendship with the housekeeper.
If that sounds strange, in truth it’s beautifully realised within the book.
And, listen, I was a straight D- maths student but I still loved this short novel.