These Ladies Led the Way

books and tea

I felt another list coming on, and I decided to choose my favorite classic women authors. Here are the novels I love:

  1. Any of Jane Austen’s novels. If forced to choose, I’d pick Persuasion (1817). Anne Eliot’s quiet struggle against heartbreak and her second chance at love is irresistible. It’s probably not Austen’s best in the technical sense (she died before she could revise), but it’s the story that touches my heart the most, every time.
  2. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley (1818). A strange, fascinating read. I have no idea where Hollywood got their dumb, shambling version of the creature, but shame on them! The creature, intelligent and articulate, turns out to be more human than his creator. Mesmerizing.
  3. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte (1847). I first read this book in ninth grade English class, and instantly fell in love. Its gothic themes and romantic sensibility spoke to my adolescent heart, and it still does. I still don’t like Mr. Rochester too much (handsome actors in the movies tend to soften my opinion), but my love for Jane makes up for it.
  4. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte (1847). Charlotte’s sister was a strange creature indeed, but brilliant in her own right. What’s fascinating about this novel is how my opinion of it changes over the years. When I was in my twenties, I thought it romantic in the extreme. In my thirties, I realized what a repulsive, abusive man Heathcliff was. Now, I see how ahead of her time Catherine was: she wanted her husband and her lover, both for different reasons, and didn’t see why she had to choose. Wow, you go, girl!
  5. The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892). When I first read this long short story in high school, I didn’t quite get it. Stupidly, I thought it was a ghost story. Eventually, I realized it was a feminist work; it was the first time I’d heard of female “hysteria” and how it was treated: with isolation and ignorance, a total unwillingness to even investigate the root cause. No wonder women went mad! Creepy, and a startling look inside an intelligent woman’s mind, and who was denied its use. Someday I’d like to read Gilman’s novel Herland. 
  6. The Awakening, by Kate Chopin (1899). Tame by today’s standards, this novel caused outrage with its frank portrayal of a married woman exploring her sexuality. It’s a bit depressing, as she drowns herself at the end, but it’s a beautiful story of a woman finding her true nature (and unable to live in a world where she can’t express it). Chopin’s short stories are excellent, as well.
  7. My Antonia, by Willa Cather (1918). This is the only book of Cather’s that I’ve read, but I enjoyed it. It’s considered her first masterpiece; it brings into focus the lower classes in the pioneering west, and the setting becomes a character in itself. A quiet, thoughtful read.
  8. The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton (1920). Wharton was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction with this novel of upper-crust New York society in the 1800’s. A sort of Downton Abbey in the Gilded Age. Wharton has wonderful short stories, as well.
  9. Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf (1925). I want to love Woolf’s novels, but I seem to be more interested in her actual life than in her work. I did enjoy this one, however, of a day in the life of a woman planning a party, in Woolf’s signature style of flashbacks, interior dialogue, and soliloquies. Its themes of existentialism, feminism, homosexuality, and mental illness bring it firmly into the post-modern age.
  10. The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath (1963). Another novel about a young woman who lives in a world that seeks to mold her into its own idea of womanhood. Esther’s struggle between societal expectations and her need for freedom literally drive her mad; she undergoes electric shock therapy to treat her depression. Esther eventually recovers, but Plath committed suicide shortly after the work was published.

There are many other women writers who broke barriers and paved the way for the rest of us, but these are the ones I’ve read and loved the best.

What about you? Have you read and loved (or not) these books? Who are your favorite women authors, classic or contemporary? Leave a comment, and we’ll talk about it!

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