Posterity is a strange thing. When you consider the rampant sexism, racism and outright bigotry that marks the canon of what’s considered “good” art, it’s hard to believe that any writer worth his or her salt gets published or remembered ever. And that’s in 2016. OK, so we’re kidding. The great news is now we have the Internet, and now it’s much easier to discover those novels that may have fallen through the cracks over the years, whatever the reason.
In honor of International Women’s Day, we’ve collected 11 fantastic female authors you’ve never heard of … 20th century edition. If you have read these authors, bully for you. Seriously, how do you do it? If not, you’ve got a great list to get started. In fact, we’re jealous that you get to read these brilliant authors for the first time.
Mortimer, an English novelist, journalist, and biographer, is best known for her 1962 novel The Pumpkin Eater, which was adapted for the screen by Harold Pinter in a film version starring Anne Bancroft and Peter Finch. The semi-autobiographical novel chronicles the dissolution of a woman’s marriage after the discovery of her husband’s adultery. Mortimer was also the author of a controversial biography of the Queen Mother (Elizabeth II’s mother) and a very funny, very readable two-volume memoir About Time. Mortimer’s courageousness, wit, and warmth should make her a household name.
Stephen King once called Shirley Jackson the finest horror writer America ever produced. You may remember her short story, “The Lottery,” the terror of all high school English students. But Jackson was prolific. In addition to her six novels, including the terrifying The Haunting of Hill House and the brilliant We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and hundreds of short stories, Jackson was also a chronicler of her children’s escapades two volumes of domestic writings, Raising Demons and Life Among the Savages, recently republished.
The late-blooming English novelist Penelope Mortimer may have not published her first book until she was 58, but she eventually beat-out none other than V.S. Naipaul to win the Man Booker Prize for her novel, Offshore, in 1979. Fitzgerald led a fascinating life, one of hardship, which was recently chronicled by the excellent biographer Hermione Lee. But it’s Fitzgerald’s passion for history and her commitment to packing as much meaning into as few words as possible that make her nine novels uniquely wonderful treasures.
Harlem Renaissance author Nella Larsen’s novel about a black woman “passing” as white is a modernist masterpiece. Larsen worked as a nurse and a librarian and published two novels, Quicksand, in 1928, and Passing in 1929. Though she received a Guggenheim Fellowship and the recognition of many of her peers, she went through a rough divorce and sadly returned to nursing in later life, never to publish again. Read by contemporary audiences, Passing has since been lauded as a groundbreaking description of the mixed-race experience in 1920s America.
No, not that Elizabeth Taylor. The work of this English novelist born in unfortunately the same era as the Hollywood star is just recently being rediscovered. Taylor mostly concerns herself with the interior lives and struggles of every day people. Her 1951 novel A Game of Hide and Seek, about an unforgettable affair in post-war England particularly showcases her sensitivity and talent. Though Taylor wrote a whopping 12 novels and four short story collections during her lifetime, her work has just begun to be appreciated by a whole new audience of readers.
Sylvia Townsend Warner
English novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote seven novels, 19 collections of short fiction, and two poetry collections. Her first novel, Lolly Willowes, tells the story of an Englishwoman who is simply fed up with the prescribed life, moves into the woods, and becomes a witch. Despite the fact that the book was very well received at the time, much of her work fell into neglect. We’re pretty sure we’d read the delightful Lolly Willowes over and over again.
Barbara Comyns was an English writer and artist who initially used her own life experience as material for her novels. Her novel Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, is loosely based on her first marriage, which was marred by poverty and infidelity. She introduces the book: “The only things that are true in this story are the wedding and Chapters 10, 11, and 12 and the poverty.” Her second marriage to British MP Richard Strettell Comyns Carr gave her the stability to publish professionally. Her unusual writing style was hailed by the likes of Graham Greene and is finding traction with modern readers, for her frank discussion of poverty, marriage, childbirth, and abortion.
Hardwick, who was born in Kentucky but made her life and career in New York, is mostly remembered as being a tough literary critic for Harper’s and other publications, and for being married to the poet Robert Lowell. Her collected work of criticism, Seduction and Betrayal, focuses on the work of female writers like Sylvia Plath and Zelda Fitzgerald. In addition to her expert critical eye it’s her 1979 excellent experimental novel Sleepless Nights that feels like it could’ve been written yesterday.
Fans of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar will find a kindred (yet slightly more cheerful spirit) in Elaine Dundy, the author of The Dud Avocado, The Old Man and Me, and The Injured Party. The bestselling, very funny Dud Avocado recounted Dundy’s experiences as a young American woman in Paris. The book received much critical acclaim, and even made a Dundy fan of none other than Groucho Marx. But a bad marriage (to theater critic Kenneth Tynan) undoubtedly put the squeeze on her work until they were divorced in 1964. Later, Dundy went on to write a series of biographies, including a dual biography on Elvis and his mother, Gladys.
Dorothy Baker was an American novelist whose first two books caused quite a stir. Her first, Young Man with a Horn, was about Jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke, and her second, Trio, features a lesbian relationship—hot topics for 1930s American audiences. A later novel, Cassandra at the Wedding, tells the story of identical twin sisters (one of whom is getting married), but her sister Cassandra isn’t exactly happy about it. Sound familiar? Films Margot at the Wedding (2007) and Rachel Getting Married (2008) feature similar plot lines. But Cassandra at the Wedding was published in 1962.
It shouldn’t take Jonathan Franzen to get Australian novelist Christina Stead’s name back in rotation, but hey, he’s got good taste. Stead has long been overlooked and under-appreciated. The author of 16 novels, short stories and translations, Stead also taught fiction at NYU and worked as a Hollywood screenwriter in the 1940s.The Man Who Loved Children, loosely based on her own upbringing, did not receive much attention until the poet Randall Jarrell wrote it’s introduction in 1965. Another novel, Letty Fox, was even banned in Australia for being “amoral.” Like all the writers on this list, the only thing amoral about Christina Stead is the fact that her work is not more widely read.