Since it’s getting to the season of long flights on planes, lazy beach days and seemingly endless evenings of no new TV, I’m writing a series of feminist summer recommends to keep the bookshelves full and hand luggage impossible to lift.
Although most books from the English Literature canon aren’t exactly what you would call “feminist” (thanks, centuries of oppression!), there are also some real gems out there. (Although, as I studied 19th century literature at college, that might not be a universal opinion…). Even better, most of them are out of copyright, meaning they can be added to your Kindle or iPad for free!
(All summaries are taken from the Penguin Classics editions).
Emma by Jane Austen
Beautiful, clever, rich – and single – Emma Woodhouse is perfectly content with her life and sees no need for either love or marriage. Nothing, however, delights her more than interfering in the romantic lives of others. But when she ignores the warnings of her good friend Mr Knightley and attempts to arrange a suitable match for her protegee Harriet Smith, her carefully laid plans soon unravel and have consequences that she never expected.
Read it because: Emma is a vibrant, flawed, often almost detestable female heroine who you end up falling for anyway. Austen’s prose is nothing short of delightful, with lively characters and sharp, often brutal, satire of the ins and outs of life in early 19th century England.
Middlemarch by George Eliot
It was George Eliot’s ambition to create a world and portray a whole community—tradespeople, middle classes, country gentry—in the rising fictional provincial town of Middlemarch, circa 1830. Vast and crowded, rich in narrative irony and suspense, Middlemarch is richer still in character and in its sense of how individual destinies are shaped by and shape the community.
Read it because: the world is immersive, the characters compelling, and the prose absolutely to die for. Eliot weaves an amazing tale of women who find that marriage isn’t all they hoped it would be, and although the novel is quiet, almost uneventful, emotion bursts from every page. It’s heartbreaking and insightful, and although the page count isn’t for the fainthearted, those who get through its 1000 pages will be left with a novel that they will never forget.
A Room with a View by E.M. Forster
This Edwardian social comedy explores love and prim propriety among an eccentric cast of characters assembled in an Italian pensione and in a corner of Surrey, England. A charming young English woman, Lucy Honeychurch, faints into the arms of a fellow Britisher when she witnesses a murder in a Florentine piazza. Attracted to this man, George Emerson–who is entirely unsuitable and whose father just may be a Socialist–Lucy is soon at war with the snobbery of her class and her own conflicting desires. Back in England she is courted by a more acceptable, if stifling, suitor, and soon realizes she must make a startling decision that will decide the course of her future: she is forced to choose between convention and passion. The enduring delight of this tale of romantic intrigue is rooted in Forster’s colorful characters, including outrageous spinsters, pompous clergymen and outspoken patriots.
Read it because: it’s a beautifully written novel about the conflict between society’s expectations and a young woman’s own desires. It mixes social satire with genuine, compelling emotion, and it reads lightly and easily. A thoroughly enjoyable book.
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
This novel is an extraordinarily poignant evocation of a lost happiness that lives on in the memory. For years now, the Ramsays have spent every summer in their holiday home in Scotland, and they expect these summers will go on forever. In this, her most autobiographical novel, Virginia Woolf captures the intensity of childhood longing and delight, and the shifting complexity of adult relationships. From an acute awareness of transcience, she creates an enduring work of art.
Read it because: Virginia Woolf understood how people’s minds work. Longing for the past. Uncertainty about the future. Delusion, denial and doubt about oneself. Woolf takes us by the hand and leads us into the minds of Woolf’s female (and male) characters, and each of them is heartbreakingly real. Although not always the easiest of reads, the beautiful prose of this modernist novel will wash over you and leave its mark long after you’ve closed the pages.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Having grown up an orphan in the home of her cruel aunt and at a harsh charity school, Jane Eyre becomes an independent and spirited survivor-qualities that serve her well as governess at Thornfield Hall. But when she finds love with her sardonic employer, Rochester, the discovery of his terrible secret forces her to make a choice. Should she stay with him whatever the consequences or follow her convictions, even if it means leaving her beloved?
Read it because: it’s practically the classic 19th century feminist novel. Although Bronte’s prose is often a little unpolished, it spills over with emotion, desperation and desire, the scream that I am a person too. Give me the freedom I deserve.
Bleak House by Charles Dickens
Bleak House opens in the twilight of foggy London, where fog grips the city most densely in the Court of Chancery. The obscure case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, in which an inheritance is gradually devoured by legal costs, the romance of Esther Summerson and the secrets of her origin, the sleuthing of Detective Inspector Bucket and the fate of Jo the crossing-sweeper, these are some of the lives Dickens invokes to portray London society, rich and poor, as no other novelist has done. Bleak House, in its atmosphere, symbolism and magnificent bleak comedy, is often regarded as the best of Dickens.
Read it because: Charles Dickens isn’t what I would call a “feminist” author, and the novel has many problematic elements, but he presents some fantastic female characters here. Esther is a woman who has always learnt that she should be without consequence, dedicating herself to improving the lives of others, and the novel takes us into her psyche as she begins to struggle against this expectation. Meanwhile, Lady Dedlock is utterly bored with her rich, uneventful life, and harbors secrets about what life’s restrictions do to even the most proper of ladies. A daunting book, but once you begin, it will grip you and not let you go.
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
After the death of her parents, Mary is brought back from India as a forlorn and unwanted child, to live in her uncle’s great lonely house on the moors. Then one day she discovers the key to a secret garden and, like magic, her life begins to brighten in so many ways.
Read it because: it is a beautiful novel, telling a memorable tale about friendship, imagination, and a little girl who nobody loved.
The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Based on the author’s own experiences, The Yellow Wallpaper is the chilling tale of a woman driven to the brink of insanity by the “rest cure” prescribed after the birth of her child. Isolated in a crumbling colonial mansion, in a room with bars on the windows, the tortuous pattern of the yellow wallpaper winds its way into the recesses of her mind.