Camilla Leask

What better way to celebrate International Women’s Day than reminding ourselves of the incredibly pioneering female authors who used the power of pen to put forward the irrepressible voice of women globally. Without them, our world as we know it would be so very different. An expert in her field, Camilla Leask rounds up the most captivating female authors of our time. 

I have to start with Jane Austen, a giant of women's literature and a by-word for independent women, sisterhood, wit, exquisite turn of phrase and keen observations. Amazing to think she only wrote six novels and nigh-on impossible to choose a favourite. 

Mary Anne Evans, or, as we know her, George Eliot, the male pseudonym she chose to avoid being pigeon-holed as another Victorian chick lit female author. Huge respect to the woman for being recognised as England's finest living novelist in a male-dominated era. Adam Bede (1859) is a joy with its strong male leads but the women in this story tend to act as the vehicle of right and wrong.  For me, The Mill on the Floss (1860) is Eliot's best, starring the strong, complicated, compelling Maggie Tulliver and her devoted brother Tom. I'm a sucker for tragedy, especially when it's redemptive. I gather from a very erudite friend that Middlemarch is the book she returns to every few years and is like sitting down with an old friend. 

Charlotte and Emily Bronte (I gather Anne's brilliant too but haven't read Tenant of Wildfell Hall so can't comment) - sacrilege to bundle the sisters together but for the sake of brevity, these two were game-changers for female authors. In Jane Eyre (1847) Charlotte delivers romance, tragedy, horror, morality, psychology and the supernatural, tautly and accessibly written. Wuthering Heights (1847) is a less comfortable read, largely because of the moral ambiguity of the book. The reader is left to draw her / his own conclusions - clever, and SO different for its time, when books were designed to give a moral thumping. Non sequitur but just imagine the chats over sherry at the Bronte Parsonage...

Leap-frogging a few decades and hopping over the pond, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edith Wharton is formidable - apparently she was as deft a designer, gardener and hostess as she was an author. I've recently read The House of Mirth (couldn't be less mirth-ful, fyi), which I loved and which took me in a completely different direction to the one I was expecting. Her own life deserves attention too - read more here: https://www.edithwharton.org/discover/edith-wharton/

At the same time, Virginia Woolf was gaining admirers in the UK. Woolf would have relished International Women's Day although might have balked at the glacial pace it's taking to achieve a true gender balance.  Talking of glacial pace, Mrs Dalloway is a clever, poignant life-in-a-day epic - Woolf's trademark stream-of-consciousness narrative paints the minutiae of Clarissa Dalloway. To The Lighthouse is equally original and evocative and another stark reminder of gender imbalance.

Next stop on this whistle-stop tour is Daphne du Maurier, in particular (for me) Rebecca although Jamaica Inn deserves a mention as well for high drama.  Brooding, haunting Rebecca, with its mysteriously unnamed narrator, renders the reader incapable of trusting anyone. This psycho-thriller is a biting study in men with power, and women without.

I recently re-read Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, and was once again blown away, even more so than when I read the book as a teenager.  Harper Lee's exquisite coming-of-age tale transports the reader to Alabama and into the home of Scout, Jem and Atticus Finch, for me, some of literature's most memorable characters. It's only on re-reading this tale of race, innocence, experience and empathy that I truly appreciate what a zeitgeist Lee must have been. 

Elizabeth Jane Howard's Cazalet Chronicles are exceptional - I love books loaded with characters and here we have tons of acutely observed men and women, bound by complex family connections and transformed by World War II. Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love was like a warm hug at a particularly difficult time in my life - Mitford's eccentric, unconventional, privileged characters and their fervent, flawed belief in romance provided blessed relief and distraction.

If you haven't already, I urge you to read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, the first and best-known of Maya Angelou's seven volumes of autobiography.  Angelou charts her childhood with her grandmother in the American south of the 1930s, followed by her teenage years with her mother in California. In spite of terrible suffering, discrimination and extreme poverty, Angelou never portrays herself as a victim - instead, her lyrical writing radiates hope, joy and achievement.  Deeply moving and highly amusing in equal measure, the book deserves every ounce of praise.

The daughter of white settlers in 1970s Rhodesia, Alex Fuller's Don't Let's Go To The Dogs Tonight and Cocktail Hour Under The Tree of Forgetfulness are wryly observerd, heart-wrenching memoirs of an African childhood in a period of civil war. Fuller's books are an understated, unflinching  ode to family, women, humanity and life. The first book made me sob out loud in public. 

This round-up would be incomplete without Helen Fielding and Bridget Jones, a book I came to in my late '30s. I was 18 when it first published and immediately wrote it off as Not For Me. How could I have been so callow?  Fast forward 20 years and Bridget Jones deserves a place in the canon. Fielding's urban satire and perfectly flawed characters reflect the many brilliant, funny, critical, self-loathing women I've known and loved.  Bridget's seemingly ordinary diary about an ordinary girl does for 30-somethings what Adrian Mole did for teenagers.