The best 1930s books featuring women who did it their way

The Books I Picked & Why

All Passion Spent

By Vita Sackville-West

Book cover of All Passion Spent

Why this book?

After a lifetime of dutiful marriage, the newly widowed Lady Slane shocks her family by striking out on her own, moving from London to a suburban cottage where she will live alone and please herself (for once!). Her decision rumbles through her grown children’s lives and inspires one of her great-granddaughters to pursue an independent life herself.

I love that this book focuses on an older woman (Lady Slane is 88 years old), proving that it’s never too late to live life on your own terms. And in Deborah, her great-granddaughter, we get a glimpse of the new sort of woman who was really making her presence felt in this period: young women exploring their independence and living very different lives from their parents and grandparents.

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Gaudy Night

By Dorothy L. Sayers

Book cover of Gaudy Night

Why this book?

Gaudy Night puts mystery writer and amateur sleuth Harriet Vane front and centre as she reluctantly investigates a series of crimes at her Oxford alma mater. Like my heroine, Astra, Harriet was orphaned in her early 20’s and had to make her own way in the world. She pursued a college education at a time when this was very unusual for women, lived with a man (scandalous!), and rejects the romantic attentions of an aristocrat until she feels the two can come together on equal terms. She’s fantastic and I adore her. I also love how, in this novel, she carefully examines women’s struggles to widen their roles in the world and achieve more independence. No wonder this has been called “the first feminist mystery novel”. 

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Their Eyes Were Watching God

By Zora Neale Hurston

Book cover of Their Eyes Were Watching God

Why this book?

Hurston’s heroine, Janie Crawford, lives in a time and place when a woman was supposed to be defined by the men in her life. But Janie, though she suffers suppression and abuse at the hands of her husbands, remains strong-minded, pushes back when she can, and ultimately experiences love on her own terms, becoming an independent woman with her own voice. This classic of the Harlem Renaissance not only provides us with a fascinating, remarkable woman in Janie; it’s also a great portrait of black lives and culture in the early 20th century.

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The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

By Gertrude Stein

Book cover of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

Why this book?

Toklas was Stein’s life partner—their relationship lasted nearly four decades and ended with Stein’s death in 1946. As the book shows, Toklas led a remarkable life, fleeing the devastation of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to move to Paris, where she met Stein and became a centrepiece of the avant-garde art scene that included Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Picasso, and Matisse, to name just a few. Although she was viewed as a sort of background figure (it seems she was quite shy), she worked as Stein’s caretaker, editor, critic, confidante, lover, and cook. She finally got the recognition she deserved when Stein published this book, which became her best-known work.

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The Ways of White Folks

By Langston Hughes

Book cover of The Ways of White Folks

Why this book?

The most famous short story in this collection is about Cora, whose whole life is spent in drudgery first to her own family, and then to the locally prominent Studevants. In her own life, Cora is somewhat unconventional—she feels no shame for having an illegitimate child at a time when that was frowned upon, to say the least—but she’s quietly obedient to her difficult employers. Until, that is, one of them causes a tragedy, and Cora feels compelled to speak up very publicly. And, oh, when she does it is immensely satisfying! (TW: racially charged language and abortion)

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