Books by women that changed my life

Guess which book written by a woman was voted the most influential! Following the announcement of the winner of the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize this year (Eimear McBride for A Girl is a Half-formed Thing) the organisers launched a campaign to find novels ‘that have impacted, shaped or changed readers lives’. The top 20 were reported in the Guardian in July.

136 Mockingbird coverTop of the list was To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee. I suspect that some of its influence is due to the 1962 film of the book, starring Gregory Peck. It’s also a book that is often on the school curriculum, despite Michael Gove’s attempts to promote British fiction over all others. (For readers outside the UK, Gove was the Conservative Secretary of State for Education until recently.)

The top 10 most influential books in the Baileys’s poll:

  1. To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee
  2. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  3. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  4. Harry Potter by JK Rowling
  5. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
  6. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  7. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  8. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
  9. I Captured the Castle by Dodie Smith

136 Pride & PrejI loved To Kill a Mocking Bird when I read it. But it is not my first choice for the ten most influential books. Indeed my choices are very different from the full list of 20.

My list of 10 most influential books by women:

Some of these I have mentioned before in a post called Ten books that made me think. That list included books by men, but this list is confined to women. It is #Readwomen2014 after all.

These are in chronological order, rather than reflecting any hierarchy of influence.

  • What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge: a manual for growing up a good girl, now rejected!
  • The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff: perhaps the source of my enduring love of history and the reason it was the focus of my first degree.
  • Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden: adolescence anticipated.
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen: nothing to be said except it is #6 on the Baileys’s list.
  • Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy: a world where gender was not predominant fed into my growing feminism.
  • Middlemarch by George Eliot: another classic and #16 on the list.
  • The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing: more feminism.
  • The Women’s Room by Marilyn French: yet more feminism.
  • Writing a Woman’s Life by Carolyn G Heilbrun: see my post about this one, here.

49 Golden nbook

What I like about this topic is that it bypasses any notion of favourite. What would be on your list of influential books by women?


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8 Responses to Books by women that changed my life

  1. The Women’s Room made such an impression on me as did Erin Pizzey’s ‘The Watershed’ which on the surface was a fairly standard novel with feminism lite at its heart. But it educated and inspired in a subtle way and it was funny and sad and infuriating

    I re-read the Womens Room every year and it offers something fresh each time.

    • Caroline

      Hi Nicola, some books just strike the right note at the right moment, don’t they? I’ve not read ‘The Watershed’, but I know what you mean about its effect on you.
      Thanks for this.

  2. Eileen

    I have read 8 of the 10 books on the first list – but Harry Potter by JK Rowling does not interest me in the least and I Captured the Castle by Dodie Smith is one that I have never heard of!!! I like your list but I have not heard of The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff.
    I would add by My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier and Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. Loved those as I was growing up. So many others. I need to create my own top ten.
    I did a similar exercise for Tate recently for their new research centre website – academic books and was surprised that only 3 of the 10 were by women. I was shocked. Love e x

    • Caroline

      Shocking about the academic books! But I guess we know from our professional lives that it is not really surprising. Sad but not surprising.
      Rosemary Sutcliff is a children’s book. I have loads of them on my bnewly rearranged shelves. Every time I move my books I find more I want to re-read.
      I liked My Cousin Rachel, and Cold Comfort Fram (on first reading) but neither of them changed my life. And I was very disappointed with CCF when I re-read it recently.
      Thanks for the comment.
      C xx

  3. I’d agree with a number of those already up on the board, but in addition here are a dozen novels by women which had a strong influence on me both as a person and as a writer. Sorry. Couldn’t keep it to ten!

    Joanna Trollope – The Rector’s Wife
    Gail Godwin – Father Melancholy’s Daughter
    Karen Joy Fowler – The Jane Austen Book Club
    Maggie Smith – A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
    Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar
    Margaret Atwood – The Penelopiad
    Barbara Kingsolver – The Poisonwood Bible
    Anna Quinlen – Still Life with Bread Crumbs
    Nancy Springer – Larque on the Wing
    Nancy Kress’ Beggars Trilogy (Beggars in Spain, Beggars and Choosers, Beggars Ride)
    Connie Willis – The Doomsday Book
    Ursula K. LeGuin – Always Coming Home

    • Caroline

      Thanks for these Paula. I have just finished, and enjoyed, Anna Quindlen’s Still Life with Bread Crumbs. Ursula Le Guin is one of my favourites. She writes well about writing.
      Have you tried Karen Joy Fowler’s We are a`ll completely beside ourselves? Very compelling. Such a good list. My TBR pile isd out of control!

  4. So many! Don’t laugh, but I loved the Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe in college. And then everything by George Eliot. Middlemarch is one I took a week off to re-read a while back and it was even more amazing than I remembered. I recently discovered Sensation Fiction and think Lady Audley’s Secret by Elizabeth Braddon is amazing. Everyone mentions Austen and Virginia Wolff, so I’ll leave them off my list though they are personal bigges. Others: Elizabeth Taylor, Olivia Manning, Alison Lurie, Anais Nin (the fiction as well as the diaries), Jean Rhys, Laurie Colwin, Ann Tyler, Joan Didion. Those come right to mind. If I studied my bookshelves I’m sure I’d find many more who have influenced me as an author. 🙂

    • Caroline

      What a great big enthusiastic list. Thanks. I share so many of your choices. You will find that I have reviewed many of these authors on this blog.And lots more to go. Thanks for the comment.

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