We will be reading eight books in total, beginning with a twentieth century novel before going back to the eighteenth century and moving forwards in time:
Sylvia Townsend Warner, Lolly Willowes (1926)
This enchanting novel tells the story of an unmarried woman who, breaking free from her family, goes to live alone in a rural village where she becomes involved in its secretive activities. The novel explores the limitations on women’s lives at the start of the twentieth century (203 pages).
Available from bookshops (republished by Virago in 2012 with an introduction by Sarah Waters) or online from AbeBooks (from £3.99), Blackwell’s (£6.99 new), The Hive (£7.85 new) & Waterstones (£9.99 new).
Françoise de Graffigny, Letters of a Peruvian Woman (1747)
One of the most popular novels of the eighteenth century. Tells the story of the Inca heroine Zilia, who is captured by Spanish conquistadores and separated from her lover, Aza. A love story and social commentary told through letters, Zilia writes to Aza about the hypocrisy and decadence she encounters in Europe (118 pages).
Ann Radcliffe, A Sicilian Romance (1790)
A gothic novel by one of the founders of the genre, hailed as the ‘Shakespeare of Romance Writers’. The book is set in sixteenth century Sicily, recounting the story of two sisters from the noble house of Mazzini. Features ruined castles, convents, underground caverns, murder, and supernatural events (256 pages).
Elizabeth Inchbald, A Simple Story (1791)
A best-selling novel about female education, autonomy, sexuality, and desire. Follows the scandalous behaviour of the ‘young, idle, indiscreet, giddy’ Miss Milner, exploring issues of female morality and immorality, and resistance to patriarchal or male control (384 pages).
George Sand, Indiana (1832)
A dramatic and idealistic romance set around the July Revolution of 1830 in France. Tells the story of Indiana, a young girl from Île Bourbon (now Réunion Island) near Madagascar, who is unhappily married to an ageing industrialist. The novel traces her search for happiness and meaning in life (320 pages).
Hannah Crafts, The Bondwoman’s Narrative (c. 1853-9)
A groundbreaking semi-autobiographical novel, the first published by a female slave, and potentially the first by a black woman (possibly pre-dating Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig in 1859). The full manuscript remained hidden in an attic in New Jersey for almost a century after it was written. Inspired by Gothic and sentimental literature, it charts life as a house servant on a North Carolina plantation (365 pages).
Dorothy Strachey, Olivia: A Novel (1949)
A beautifully written coming of age story about young love, set in a finishing school for girls in nineteenth-century Paris. This semi-autobiographical novel was first published anonymously – as Olivia by Olivia – and dedicated to the memory of the author’s friend Virginia Woolf (112 pages).
Buchi Emecheta, Second Class Citizen (1974)
This bold and moving autobiographical novel describes the experiences of a young Nigerian woman who moves to England to begin a new life. It details the compromises she has to make and the challenges she overcomes as she attempts to build a life for herself (192 pages).