Despite the significant progress made in the representations of women in writing and publishing literature, there’s still plenty of work to be done when it comes to popularizing and analyzing texts written by women. With that in mind, we here at Goliath have collected 10 novels that were written by women which you should read immediately. It’s a wide and varied sort, but we’ve made sure there’s something for everyone, from classics to science fiction to mystery. So go ahead and cuddle up in your favorite recliner with one of these texts and appreciate some fine literature written by the fairer sex.
10. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
Canadian author Margaret Atwood often writes novels labelled as “speculative fiction,” which combine elements of science fiction, horror and fantasy to explore troubling themes present in today’s society. Her most famous novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, uses the tropes afforded by its genre to explore misogyny, power relations and prejudice against women, while delving deep into the ways in which those women can regain agency and control in their lives. Winner of the 1985 Governor General’s Award, the novel follows Offred, a concubine, who is expected to act as a surrogate for a high ranking general and his wife. Stretching to offer insight on themes of government, body politics, class and gender, the novel has much to say, part of the reason it’s become a classic and is often recognized as Atwood’s finest work. An excellent place to start when looking for some pro-woman literature.
9. The Mysterious Affair at Styles – Agatha Christie
The first in a long line of publications that saw Agatha Christie become one of the most prominent novelists in the world, The Mysterious Affair at Styles is a landmark achievement both as a detective story and as an early example of an extremely popular female novelist. Working within many of the mystery tropes she herself would help popularize, Christie crafts a riveting whodunit which introduces her mainstay protagonist, Hercule Poirot, as he attempts to suss out a murderer at a wealthy English estate. While this plot may seem familiar, it’s most likely due to the fact that Christie’s formula has since been copied and disseminated innumerable times, further illustrating the vast impact this literary titan has had on culture.
8. Good Morning, Midnight – Jean Rhys
While initially met with mixed reviews, Jean Rhys’ 1939 novel Good Morning, Midnight has since become a modernist classic and a testament to the influence of women on this particular literary movement. The text, which draws its title from a poem by famed wordsmith Emily Dickinson, follows protagonist Sasha Jensen as she navigates her way through Paris in the 1930s. In a tumultuous era sandwiched between two world wars, Sasha deals with the absence of her husband and the death of her child by acting destructively, contributing to the often dour and occasionally experimental elements of the text. Demonstrative of many of the themes which would go on to define modernism, this text deals with depression, anxiety and isolation as filtered through the female psyche. It’s an excellent (if occasionally depressing) read that shows a strong writer at the top of her game.
7. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
This one’s a bit obvious, but perhaps that’s why it’s all the way down here at #7 on this list. If there’s one novel on this list most people will have read, it’s Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a text which has seen a massive resurgence in popularity following both BBC and silver screen adaptations (the former of which is far superior to the latter). Focused on young Elizabeth Bennett as she navigates the complex web of manners, marriage and morality present in 19th century England. This navigation, of course, ends with her meeting and eventually being courted by Fitzwilliam Darcy, the occasionally eccentric owner of the Pemberley estate. Quite possibly the most famous novel ever written by a woman, Pride and Prejudice features exceptionally strong dialogue and enjoyable characters, even if several do come across as stilted.
6. The Secret History – Donna Tartt
Billed not as a whodunit but rather as a whydunit, Donna Tartt’s debut novel The Secret History tells us someone is dead from the first page; it’s not the solving of the murder that takes center stage, but rather why the murder occurred that becomes important. Told mostly retrospectively, the story explores the machinations of murder and what can drive a group of individuals to kill. A riveting page turner, it’s been compared to the Greek tragedies of old, and the novel features many allusions to Greek history and other classical civilizations. The novel’s prose matches its thematic fascinations, and it’s written in a very purple manner gushing with Victorian influences. A stellar read, it’s a must for anyone who loves a good murder mystery (or reverse murder mystery, as it were…).
5. The Awakening – Kate Chopin
Originally titled A Solitary Soul, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening is a landmark text that paved the way for many other famous southern authors, including William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, to explore the modernist literary movement as it related to their native South. Intrinsically progressive, the novel explores untraditional understandings of motherhood, female sexuality and femininity as it follows Edna Pontellier on her quest to fashion a truly unique identity for herself. A gifted writer, Chopin’s prose is indicative of the numerous authors who would come to use the American south as a setting to explore cultural inconsistencies and espouse social commentary. One of the earliest known examples of feminist literature, The Awakening remains an excellent read to this day.
4. Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus (the text’s full title) is not only one of the most important novels ever written by a woman, rather, it’s one of the most important novels ever written, period. A classic that’s had an immeasurable influence on the development of literature (in particular, the genre of horror and the Romanticism movement) and has been adapted into more movies, plays and television series than one can count, the novel follows Victor Frankenstein in his quest to create life. Of course, this quest goes terribly awry, leading to the creation of the now infamous monster and the tragic series of events which occur after he escapes. A truly historic text, Frankenstein also contributed to the development of the gothic and science fiction genres and is increasingly read as a proto-feminist novel. At the very least, its overwhelming popularity and timelessness cement its place near the top of this list.
3. Beloved – Tony Morrison
Toni Morrison’s heart-wrenching novel Beloved is not for the faint of heart. One of the most decorated novels published in the last 100 years, it won heaps of awards including, but not limited to, The Pulitzer Prize and the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Book Aware. A brutal tale which attempts to explore the traumatic African American experience in the post-Civil War era, Beloved also touches upon themes of motherhood, history and humanity. Heartbreaking in its earnestness and gripping in its fragmented depictions of memory and trauma, the novel is among the most recognized of Morrison’s works, no small feat considering the absolutely astounding literary catalogue she has managed to cultivate over the course of her career as an author.
2. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
Originally published under the pseudonym “Ellis Bell,” Wuthering Heights is the only novel published by Emily Bronte. A harsh novel which criticized many of the unspoken beliefs of the time (especially those regarding religion, marriage, gender equality and class structure), Wuthering Heights has since been placed in the canon of literature where it is regarded as an English classic. Exploring the complex and haunting relationship between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, the novel is routinely brutal in its depictions of cruelty, both mental and physical. It remains a progressive text, however, for its unconventional ideology which juxtaposed harshly with social norms of the period, a fact which led to extremely mixed reviews at the time of its publication.
1. Mrs. Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
Any list of female authors would be remiss in excluding Virginia Woolf; as it stands, she remains one of the most recognizable and accomplished authors in the history of literature. She’s penned numerous classics, not the least of which is her novel Mrs. Dalloway, which follows a single day in the life of the titular character Clarissa Dalloway. A terrific exercise in stream of consciousness writing (a central component to modernist literature, of which Woolf is one of the foremost proponents), Mrs. Dalloway touches upon common modernist themes of existential angst, fragmented social identities, developing mental health issues and the ramifications of war. A fundamental feminist text which both identifies and later skewers the idea of traditional feminine roles in society, the novel is often cited as one of the greatest ever written.