When you think of classic books, which authors do you think of? Perhaps it’s Shakespeare, Dickens, and F. Scott Fitzgerald… but what about the women?
Some of the very best classic books are written by women, but they don’t always get the recognition and celebration they deserve.
From Virginia Woolf to Ursula K. Le Guin, and Mary Shelley to Octavia Butler, here are some of the best classic books written by women to read in your lifetime.
The best classic books by women of all time
1. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Why should you read Mrs. Dalloway? Because this book broke the novel’s traditional form into pieces, turning the events of a single day into a masterpiece.
Virginia Woolf is one of my all-time favourite writers, and Mrs. Dalloway is one of her most creative and innovative books.
It’s a vivid portrait of a single day in a woman’s life, as Clarissa Dalloway plans the last-minute details of a party while remembering faraway times before she needed to be the perfect hostess.
2. The Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki Shikibu
Why should you read The Tale of Genji? Because it marks the birth of the novel, written centuries before the time of Shakespeare and even Chaucer.
The Tale of Genji follows the tale’s hero, Prince Genji, through his many loves and varied passions.
This classic story influenced not only generations of courtiers and samurai of the distant past, but also artists and painters even in modern times.
“Not speaking is the wiser part,– Prince Genji, in The Tale of Genji
And words are sometimes vain,
But to completely close the heart
In silence, gives me pain.”
3. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
Why should you read And Then There Were None? Because it’s the most famous and beloved story from Agatha Christie, the Queen of Mystery.
Ten people are invited to an isolated mansion on Indian Island by a host who never appears. Cut off from everything but each other and the inescapable shadows of their own past lives, one by one the guests share their secrets… and one by one, they die.
And Then There Were None asks what has become the classic question of crime fiction: which one of them is the killer, and will the others survive?
4. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Why should you read Frankenstein? Because it’s the timeless classic book of the scientist whose creation becomes a monster.
Call it early sci-fi or horror if you want, but above all, Frankenstein is a story of the depths of human emotion.
If you’re feeling brave, read into the many tragedies of Mary Shelley’s own life. A good starting point to understand the tangled lives of the Shelleys and Byron is Young Romantics by Daisy Hay (or Reddit has you covered).
5. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Why should you read Wuthering Heights? Because it’s the sole masterpiece by Emily Brontë, published just a year before she died aged thirty.
Like many of the other classic books in this list, I still have such a vivid impression of Wuthering Heights years after reading it.
It’s not just a visual impression of the book, but also atmospheric… the dark Yorkshire moors, the destructive jealousy, and the complete disregard of upper class propriety.
Don’t compare Wuthering Heights to Pride and Prejudice or expect proper Victorian ladies: this book is dark.
6. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Retreat into Louisa May Alcott’s classic wholesome story of four sisters: grown-up Meg, tomboyish Jo, timid Beth, and precocious Amy.
7. Nada by Carmen Laforet
Why should you read Nada? Because this classic is renowned as Spain’s The Catcher in the Rye.
This passionate coming-of-age novel follows a rebellious young woman as she uncovers her family’s secrets in chaotic, polarized post–Civil War Barcelona.
8. Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
Why should you read Parable of the Sower? Because Octavia E. Butler wrote about race and gender at a time when science fiction was almost exclusively the domain of men.
If you loved The Handmaid’s Tale, read Parable of the Sower next. It’s one of the best modern novels, and way ahead of its time.
The badass strong woman protagonist is a teenager who spends most of the story disguised as a man while the world around her crumbles – a world that, despite being crafted in 1993, is eerily similar to our own.
9. The Waves by Virginia Woolf
Why should you read The Waves? Because Virginia Woolf created the foundation for the modern novel (and was just as influential as James Joyce).
The Waves is one of the most innovative and beautifully written books of all time, layering six voices in monologue; moving from morning until night, from childhood into old age. All against the backdrop of the sea.
10. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Why should you read Rebecca? Because this gripping masterpiece was the psychological thriller of its time – and is just as haunting today.
I first read Rebecca as a teen and had no idea what to expect. I thought it might be boring, honestly, but found a dark psychological tale of secrets and betrayal.
Dive into this surprisingly easy-to-read classic for its slow tension build, iconic gothic setting, and plot twists that keep you frantically turning pages.
11. Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery
12. Middlemarch by George Eliot
Why should you read Middlemarch? Because George Eliot was incredibly talented, fastidious with her research, and uniquely contributed to the evolving form of the novel.
Tackling Middlemarch is a bit like finding the courage to read War and Peace. But like Tolstoy’s classics, it’s a book that contains so much wisdom about life.
As Virginia Woolf described, George Eliot was a woman for whom “the burden and the complexity of womanhood were not enough; she must reach beyond the sanctuary and pluck for herself the strange bright fruits of art and knowledge.”
13. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Why should you read Pride and Prejudice? Because it’s the most famous Jane Austen novel for a reason. Love stories don’t get more timeless than this.
I love the optimism and freshness of Pride and Prejudice, but also the familiarity of it. It’s a real comfort read for me, and a perfect book to read in spring.
Retreat into the pages of this classic feel-good book for the first time or the fiftieth time and feel your heart defrost after a long winter.
14. Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin
Why should you read Wizard of Earthsea? Because it’s the first book of one of the most enduring and influential works (and worlds) of fantasy from the last century.
Explore Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea and fall into the wonderfully magical world of a must-read fantasy writer.
This coming-of-age trilogy about magic and self-discovery has inspired so many other authors, from Neil Gaiman to David Mitchell and Iain Banks.
15. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Why should you read Jane Eyre? Because it’s one of the best classic books of the gothic era and much more readable than you might think.
In this timeless classic, Jane Eyre is a seemingly plain and simple girl who wouldn’t be too out of place if dropped into today’s world.
However, her courage and rich inner life emerge and are tested as she begins her work as a governess at Thornfield Hall, the imposing home of the wealthy and impetuous Mr. Rochester.
16. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Why should you read The Color Purple? Because you will have a different view of the world after reading this Pulitzer Prize winner.
Separated as girls, sisters Celie and Nettie sustain their loyalty to each other across time, distance, and silence through a series of letters spanning twenty years.
The Color Purple is the iconic and heartbreaking modern classic that broke the silence around domestic and sexual abuse, narrating the lives of women through their pain and struggle, companionship and growth, and resilience and bravery.
17. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Why should you read The Bell Jar? Because it’s one of the best depictions of a struggling human mind – as well as our collective loneliness and societal pressures – ever written.
Sylvia Plath’s modern classic chronicles the breakdown of Esther Greenwood: young, brilliant, beautiful, and enormously talented, but desperately struggling.
The Bell Jar isn’t an uplifting novel by any means. But that doesn’t mean it’s not beautiful, nor an important classic work of fiction.
18. Beloved by Toni Morrison
Why should you read Beloved? Because this spellbinding classic transforms history into a powerful and unflinching story, looking deep into the abyss of slavery and its repercussions.
Sethe was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free from the memories of the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. Beloved is one of the most brutally real classic books that everyone should read.
For more of the best classic books to read in your lifetime, complement these recommendations with my must-read classics to read before you die, the best classics that are actually easy to read, and the best modern novels.