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Of all the lists in my reading bucket list series, this list of 20th century classic books written by women is one that I’ve most been looking forward to, and that has the most books that I want to read.
Why Classics by Female Authors?
So often, lists of classics are filled with male writers (usually white male writers). While I’m not saying their status isn’t deserved, it means that we end up with the same list of classics and a not-very-diverse list of authors for our must-read lists. (Anyone remember that 2015 Esquire list of 80 must-reads for men that included only ONE woman?)
When it comes to female authors, especially those writing before, say, 1970 or so, I also find myself thinking of the challenges they faced to even be writers.
Along with societal expectations that their work be in the home and family, women faced unreceptive publishers, a public more critical of both their writing and personal choices than those of men, and general dismissal of writing by women as merely fluff or niche.
We still see all of these things.
Even now, women are using male pen names.
Even now, criticism of Doris Lessing for leaving her family is more scathing than that for abusive male writers (in either case, can we separate the art from the artist? I am wrestling with this as well).
And even now, writing by women can quickly be designated “women’s fiction” or worse–“chick lit”–in spite of any mastery of the art.
Art about and by women is considered niche, while art about and by men is considered universal.
But most of the women listed here have transcended these difficulties and managed to create works that are seen as significant and worthy of reading–by everyone, not just other women.
For this list, I thought I’d put a little spin on the idea of “classics” and limit it to books written by women in the 20th century.
This takes the standard (few) classic women writers out of the running: Jane Austen, the Brontes, George Eliot, Louisa May Alcott, etc.
I trust most readers are familiar with these writers and have either read them, plan to, or have already decided to skip them.
It’s with these things in mind that I constructed this list of books and authors that I know have overcome some odds and gender biases, simply to have published and made names for themselves.
That their work has been accepted as enduring and obtained “classic” status was an even greater feat.
30 Twentieth Century Classic Books by Women
When a young woman otherwise destined for a life of service is swept off her feet by rich widower Maxim de Winter, she dreams of a wonderful life together at Manderly, the country estate he owns. But soon after their marriage and arrival at Manderly, she realizes that the shadow of Maxim’s late wife looms large and threatens her life, sanity, and their future together. While not a scary read, the tension underlying this entire book is masterful and the surprises continue until the very last page.
Kindred is famous for being the first science fiction novel written by a black woman. That’s significant, but the science fiction part of this story–the time travel–isn’t what makes it so compelling.
In the 1970s, a 26-year-old black woman is suddenly pulled back through time to save the life of a young boy who grows to be a slave owner in 1800s Maryland. Yanked without warning between present and past and back again, she returns multiple times throughout his life (as only minutes or hours pass in her own), and she realizes that she must keep him alive so he can father her great-grandmother. But through this, she also must live the life of a slave and face all the indignities, hardships, and heartbreaks that come with it.
This is an illuminating look at the lives of slaves, cognizant of our modern ideas that the people who were slaves must have been tougher than people now, somehow superhuman in their ability to endure. But the wounds from the whips and chains and inhuman disregard for their lives and families were real, and Butler sensitively examines the ways in which the people were beaten and worn into submission.
Light on the sci-fi aspects (sudden unexplained time travel is the only element) and a fast, worthwhile but difficult read (due to the subject matter). Highly recommended.
I first read this book as a young teenager and it blew my mind. In addition to this being my first dystopian read, it was one of my first exposures to a book that was subversive, political, and feminist. This is the story of Offred, a woman who not so long ago was a wife, mother, and independent woman. Now she is a handmaiden, separated from her family and pressed into service for her fertility. Each month, she must submit to the Commander in hopes of becoming pregnant. This is a frightening tale of a society where women are fully oppressed and valued for little else than their ability to procreate–scarily prescient in today’s political climate. This book remains a favorite, but it’s been years since I read it and I’m looking forward to reading it again.
The Color Purple is the story of two sisters–one a missionary to Africa and the other a child wife living in the South–who remain loyal to one another across time, distance, and silence. Beautifully imagined and deeply compassionate, this classic of American literature is rich with passion, pain, inspiration, and an indomitable love of life.
One of the most important and enduring books of the twentieth century, Their Eyes Were Watching God brings to life a Southern love story with the wit and pathos found only in the writing of Zora Neale Hurston. Out of print for almost thirty years—due largely to initial audiences’ rejection of its strong black female protagonist—Hurston’s classic has since its 1978 reissue become perhaps the most widely read and highly acclaimed novel in the canon of African-American literature.
“Ten . . .”
Ten strangers are lured to an isolated island mansion off the Devon coast by a mysterious “U.N. Owen.”
“Nine . . .”
At dinner a recorded message accuses each of them in turn of having a guilty secret, and by the end of the night one of the guests is dead.
“Eight . . .”
Stranded by a violent storm, and haunted by a nursery rhyme counting down one by one . . . one by one they begin to die.
“Seven . . .”
Who among them is the killer and will any of them survive?
This extraordinarily sensitive and insightful portrait of religious life centers on Philippa Talbot, a highly successful professional woman who leaves her life among the London elite to join a cloistered Benedictine community. In this gripping narrative of the crises surrounding the ancient Brede abbey, Rumer Godden penetrates to the mysterious, inner heart of a religious community—a place of complexity and conflict, as well as joy and love. It is a place where Philippa, to her own surprise and her friends’ astonishment, finds her life by losing it.
The Bell Jar chronicles the crack-up of Esther Greenwood: brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under — maybe for the last time. Sylvia Plath masterfully draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that Esther’s insanity becomes completely real and even rational, as probable and accessible an experience as going to the movies. Such deep penetration into the dark and harrowing corners of the psyche is an extraordinary accomplishment and has made The Bell Jar a haunting American classic.
Staring unflinchingly into the abyss of slavery, this spellbinding novel transforms history into a story as powerful as Exodus and as intimate as a lullaby. Sethe, its protagonist, was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has too many memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. And Sethe’s new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved. Filled with bitter poetry and suspense as taut as a rope, Beloved is a towering achievement.
A modern classic, Housekeeping is the story of Ruth and her younger sister, Lucille, who grow up haphazardly, first under the care of their competent grandmother, then of two comically bumbling great-aunts, and finally of Sylvie, their eccentric and remote aunt. The family house is in the small Far West town of Fingerbone set on a glacial lake, the same lake where their grandfather died in a spectacular train wreck, and their mother drove off a cliff to her death. It is a town “chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather, and chastened again by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere.” Ruth and Lucille’s struggle toward adulthood beautifully illuminates the price of loss and survival, and the dangerous and deep undertow of transience.
A ruthless dissection of American life in the late 1960s, Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays captures the mood of an entire generation, the ennui of contemporary society reflected in spare prose that blisters and haunts the reader. Set in a place beyond good and evil-literally in Hollywood, Las Vegas, and the barren wastes of the Mojave Desert, but figuratively in the landscape of an arid soul-it remains more than three decades after its original publication a profoundly disturbing novel, riveting in its exploration of a woman and a society in crisis and stunning in the still-startling intensity of its prose.
The House of the Spirits brings to life the triumphs and tragedies of three generations of the Trueba family. The patriarch Esteban is a volatile, proud man whose voracious pursuit of political power is tempered only by his love for his delicate wife, Clara, a woman with a mystical connection to the spirit world. When their daughter Blanca embarks on a forbidden love affair in defiance of her implacable father, the result is an unexpected gift to Esteban: his adored granddaughter Alba, a beautiful and strong-willed child who will lead her family and her country into a revolutionary future.
Now a classic, Bad Behavior made critical waves when it was first published, heralding Mary Gaitskill’s arrival on the literary scene and her establishment as one of the sharpest, erotically charged, and audaciously funny writing talents of contemporary literature.
Set in Manhattan’s Lower East Side and peopled with working-class drug addicts, intelligent hookers, stable housewives, smug yuppies, and sensually deprived professionals, Bad Behavior depicts a cruel and tender world where romance and modern perversity go hand in hand. Gaitskill delivers powerful stories of dislocation, longing, and desire that depict a disenchanted and rebellious urban fringe generation groping for human connection.
The Bridge of Years tells the story of a Belgian family during the years between the two world wars. The family is held together by mother Melanie, a tenacious businesswoman who keeps the farm running. She and her philosopher husband Paul, and their three very different children, face a changing Europe and must decide how to face the challenges of another impending war. I read this book on a whim, not having heard of May Sarton or the novel before, and it was truly a hidden gem. Written in 1946, this novel isn’t far removed from the time in which it’s set, but I highly recommend it for fans of historical fiction.
The Poisonwood Bible is a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. They carry with them everything they believe they will need from home, but soon find that all of it—from garden seeds to Scripture—is calamitously transformed on African soil. What follows is a suspenseful epic of one family’s tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa.
My Antonia tells the stories of an orphaned boy from Virginia, Jim Burden, and the elder daughter in a family of Bohemian immigrants, Ántonia Shimerda, who are each brought as children to be pioneers in Nebraska towards the end of the 19th century. Both the pioneers who first break the prairie sod for farming, as well as of the harsh but fertile land itself, feature in this American novel. The first year in the very new place leaves strong impressions in both children, affecting them lifelong. This novel is considered Cather’s first masterpiece. Cather was praised for bringing the American West to life and making it personally interesting.
At the end of a long and useful life, Penelope Keeling’s prized possession is The Shell Seekers, painted by her father, and symbolizing her unconventional life, from bohemian childhood to wartime romance. When her grown children learn their grandfather’s work is now worth a fortune, each has an idea as to what Penelope should do. But as she recalls the passions, tragedies, and secrets of her life, she knows there is only one answer…and it lies in her heart.
It was a cloudless summer day in the year 1900. Everyone at Appleyard College for Young Ladies agreed it was just right for a picnic at Hanging Rock. After lunch, a group of three girls climbed into the blaze of the afternoon sun, pressing on through the scrub into the shadows of the secluded volcanic outcropping. Farther, higher, until at last they disappeared. They never returned. . . .
In The Good Earth Pearl S. Buck paints an indelible portrait of China in the 1920s, when the last emperor reigned and the vast political and social upheavals of the twentieth century were but distant rumblings. This moving, classic story of the honest farmer Wang Lung and his selfless wife O-Lan is must reading for those who would fully appreciate the sweeping changes that have occurred in the lives of the Chinese people during the last century.
Four mothers, four daughters, four families whose histories shift with the four winds depending on who’s “saying” the stories. In 1949 four Chinese women, recent immigrants to San Francisco, begin meeting to eat dim sum, play mahjong, and talk. United in shared unspeakable loss and hope, they call themselves the Joy Luck Club. Rather than sink into tragedy, they choose to gather to raise their spirits and money. “To despair was to wish back for something already lost. Or to prolong what was already unbearable.” Forty years later the stories and history continue.
In this vivid portrait of one day in a woman’s life, Clarissa Dalloway is preoccupied with the last-minute details of party preparation while in her mind she is much more than a perfect society hostess. As she readies her house, she is flooded with far-away remembrances. And, met with the realities of the present, Clarissa reexamines the choices she has made, hesitantly looking ahead to growing old. Undeniably triumphant, this is the inspired novelistic outline of human consciousness.
Dorothy Parker (August 22, 1893 – June 7, 1967) was an American poet and satirist, best known for her wit, wisecracks, and eye for 20th century urban foibles. From a conflicted and unhappy childhood, Parker rose to acclaim, both for her literary output in such venues as The New Yorker and as a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table. I haven’t read any Parker yet, and while I’m generally more likely to read short stories than poetry, I’m also tempted by the clever turns of phrase in her poems. Basically, I’m ready to pick up any collection of Parker’s work I can find.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Maggie and Ira Moran have been married for twenty-eight years–and it shows: in their quarrels, in their routines, in their ability to tolerate with affection each other’s eccentricities. Maggie, a kooky, lovable meddler and an irrepressible optimist, wants nothing more than to fix her son’s broken marriage. Ira is infuriatingly practical, a man “who should have married Ann Landers.” And what begins as a day trip to a funeral becomes an adventure in the unexpected. As Maggie and Ira navigate the riotous twists and turns, they intersect with an assorted cast of eccentrics–and rediscover the magic of the road called life and the joy of having somebody next to you to share the ride . . . bumps and all.
Powered by the dreams and struggles of three generations, The Thorn Birds is the epic saga of a family rooted in the Australian sheep country. At the story’s heart is the love of Meggie Cleary, who can never possess the man she desperately adores, and Ralph de Bricassart, who rises from parish priest to the inner circles of the Vatican…but whose passion for Meggie will follow him all the days of his life.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the much-loved classic about a young girl, Francie Nolan, growing up in poverty in turn-of-century Brooklyn. Francie is a bookish, resourceful child, caught between her dreamer of a father and her work-worn, practical mother. Francie is self-aware and a keen observer of people and the life around her, a heroine who manages to continue to seek beauty even as it seems determined to elude her. I finally read this in 2017 and it made my list of best books of the year.
Sent by their mother to live with their devout, self-sufficient grandmother in a small Southern town, Maya and her brother, Bailey, endure the ache of abandonment and the prejudice of the local “powhitetrash.” At eight years old and back at her mother’s side in St. Louis, Maya is attacked by a man many times her age—and has to live with the consequences for a lifetime. Years later, in San Francisco, Maya learns that love for herself, the kindness of others, her own strong spirit, and the ideas of great authors (“I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare”) will allow her to be free instead of imprisoned.
Anna is a writer, author of one very successful novel, who now keeps four notebooks. In one, with a black cover, she reviews the African experience of her earlier year. In a red one she records her political life, her disillusionment with communism. In a yellow one she writes a novel in which the heroine reviles part of her own experience. And in the blue one she keeps a personal diary. Finally, in love with an American writer and threatened with insanity, Anna tries to bring the threads of all four books together in a golden notebook.
This now classic book revealed Flannery O’Connor as one of the most original and provocative writers to emerge from the South. Her apocalyptic vision of life is expressed through grotesque, often comic situations in which the principal character faces a problem of salvation: the grandmother, in the title story, confronting the murderous Misfit; a neglected four-year-old boy looking for the Kingdom of Christ in the fast-flowing waters of the river; General Sash, about to meet the final enemy.
Seventeen-year-old Cassandra and her family live in a castle in the English countryside, but they are far from wealthy. This family of dreamers and creatives can hardly put food on the table. When two young Americans, Simon and Neil Cotton, arrive to take over the estate of their deceased landlord, they bring new hope to the family: of creative patronage, of potential marriage, and of (continued) free rent. Aspiring writer Cassandra details the adventures of the family in her journal as they move from abject poverty into high society. Full of charming observations and self-awareness, Cassandra teeters between childhood and adulthood and, through her her writing, she comes to realizations about herself, her family, and love. The family is by turns frustrating and amusing–I was confused by the inability of all of them (save Stephen, their ward) to find work in any capacity. That aside, Cassandra is a delightful companion through the story–on par with Anne Shirley–and the castle itself is pure fantasy for any romantic Anglophile.
In case you missed them, here are other posts from this series. Check them out for more book recommendations, plus thoughts on why and how to build a reading bucket list:
- 50 Books on My Reading Bucket List
- 30 Middle Grade Books for Your Reading Bucket List
- 30 Historical Fiction Novels for Your Reading Bucket List
- 30 Contemporary Fiction Novels for Your Reading Bucket List
- 30 Memoirs and Nonfiction Books for Your Reading Bucket List
- How to Create a Reading Bucket List that You’ll Actually Finish