The best classic books featuring exceptional female protagonists

Why am I passionate about this?

I first read and fell in love with Jane Austen's novels at the age of thirteen, and thus began a lifelong enthusiasm for nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century literature. Though I studied English Literature and Art History at university, I embarked on a professional career working in an entirely unrelated field. I never lost my childhood desire to write fiction. Inspiration came, as it will, unexpectedly. I sat down one day in the grand Reading Room of the New York Public Library, pad and pen in hand, and began to write. I happened to be suffering a spell of insomnia at the time, and before I knew it, I had a draft of my first novel.


I wrote...

Agnes Merriweather

By Eleanor Wilton,

Book cover of Agnes Merriweather

What is my book about?

Agnes Merriweather is a novel of self-discovery, friendship, and love, set in Regency England and inspired by the novels of Jane Austen. When Agnes must go and live with a brother in reduced circumstances, she fears that her prospects for making a successful marriage have entirely vanished, to say nothing of her chances of finding love. She feels trapped in the unvarying confines of life in a small country village. Clever and accomplished, she struggles to engage her lively mind and to quench her restless spirit. But new friendships and the arrival of an enigmatic gentleman teach her to set aside her prejudices and to open her mind to unexpected possibilities that will lead her to find happiness and fulfillment on her own terms.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Emma

Eleanor Wilton Why did I love this book?

I believe that Jane Austen’s novels continue to be massively popular largely because she possessed a talent for creating uniquely authentic and complex female heroines, and never more so than in Emma.

Austen famously said of Emma that she would be “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” From the opening line of the novel, we are set up to dislike this “handsome, clever, and rich” heroine.

Nevertheless, over the course of the novel we fall in love with Emma because despite her worst qualities—spoilt, headstrong, self-important—she is also smart, loyal, affectionate, and honest.

Against Austen’s prognosis, Emma does not prove unlikable, rather she is so entirely, compellingly human that we love her as we do our own sisters, friends, and daughters.

In few pages of literature we will find such a remarkably clear-eyed, beautiful portrait of a young woman on the threshold of maturity.

By Jane Austen,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked Emma as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Her masterpiece, mixing the sparkle of her early books with a deep sensibility' Robert McCrum, Observer

Although described by Jane Austen as a character 'whom no one but myself will much like', the irrepressible Emma Woodhouse is one of her most beloved heroines. Clever, rich and beautiful, she sees no need for marriage, but loves interfering in the romantic lives of others, until her matchmaking plans unravel, with consequences that she never expected. Jane Austen's novel of youthful exuberance and gradual self-knowledge is a brilliant, sparkling comic masterpiece.

Edited with an Introduction by FIONA STAFFORD


Book cover of North and South

Eleanor Wilton Why did I love this book?

Margaret Hale is an unlikely rebel.

When we first encounter her in Gaskell’s social novel concerning industrialization and class, she appears to be the model of demure Victorian womanhood. She has lived a happy, privileged life. Everything changes when her clergyman father suffers a crisis of conscience and becomes a dissenter.

Forced to uproot his family, they leave their picturesque village in the south of England for the thriving northern industrial city of Milton. In Milton, Margaret is overwhelmed by the jarring cacophony of industrialization.

Through her poignant friendship with a girl from the laboring class, and a contentious relationship with her father’s pupil and friend—Mr. Thornton, a cotton manufacturer—Margaret must come to terms with her own prejudices, stand for her convictions, and determine what makes for a truly meaningful life.

Her rebellion against the expectations of her class is quiet, but no less bold for its quietude.

By Elizabeth Gaskell,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked North and South as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As relevant now as when it was first published, Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South skilfully weaves a compelling love story into a clash between the pursuit of profit and humanitarian ideals. This Penguin Classics edition is edited with an introduction by Patricia Ingham.

When her father leaves the Church in a crisis of conscience, Margaret Hale is uprooted from her comfortable home in Hampshire to move with her family to the North of England. Initially repulsed by the ugliness of her new surroundings in the industrial town of Milton, Margaret becomes aware of the poverty and suffering of local mill…


Book cover of Far from the Madding Crowd

Eleanor Wilton Why did I love this book?

Thomas Hardy’s Bathsheba Everdene is like that friend who is sure she has all the answers but really has no idea how much she has yet to learn about life, love, and friendship.

When Bathsheba inherits her uncle’s farm she understands, and relishes, that she is now completely the master of her own destiny, a fate not common for unmarried young women of her time. Her determination is admirable, but she is as well a uniquely frustrating character.

Independent and intelligent, she is also dangerously headstrong and proud, and her inability to look to others for guidance makes her prone to grave errors.

Through all of her miscalculations and rectifications, we readers are rewarded with the portrait of a truly complex and remarkable heroine.

By Thomas Hardy,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Far from the Madding Crowd as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

HarperCollins is proud to present its new range of best-loved, essential classics. Here is one of Thomas Hardy's most popular novels, soon to be released as a major motion picture in May 2015.

'I shall do one thing in this life - one thing certain - that is, love you, and long for you, and keep wanting you till I die'

Independent and spirited, Bathsheba Everdene owns the hearts of three men. Striving to win her love in different ways, their relationships with Bathsheba complicate her life in bucolic Wessex - and cast shadows over their own. With the morals…


Book cover of O Pioneers!

Eleanor Wilton Why did I love this book?

It is impossible to separate Cather’s heroine Alexandra Bergson from the Nebraska prairie she farms.

Alexandra’s character mirrors the land she, as the eldest child, inherited from her father and which she devotes her life to working. When other families give up, sell off, and move on, she doggedly remains through harsh winters and, against all likelihood, prospers as an unmarried woman managing a vast expanse of land.

Like the land, she remains both knowable and unknowable, at once harsh and majestic.

Possessing an external manner that is reticent, internally hers is an indomitable spirit. She is among the most inimitable of women to have ever appeared in print.

By Willa Sibert Cather,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked O Pioneers! as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

At the turn of the twentieth century. When their father dies young, exhausted by the failure of his attempts at agriculture, it is left to the visionary Alexandra to guide the family to prosperity and safeguard the fortune of her brothers. Strong-willed and fiercely independent, she succeeds against all odds, but only at the cost of her own fulfilment as a woman. Central to the novel's action is the Nebraskan landscape it describes, by turns unyielding and fruitful, bitter and ecstatic.O Pioneers! joins Cather's My Antonia in Everyman's Library.


Book cover of The Custom of the Country

Eleanor Wilton Why did I love this book?

Is Undine Spragg Edith Wharton’s least admiral protagonist? Perhaps. But as well, she is her most beguiling.

With her modest mid-western roots and her hunger for something more, she personifies the American dream, only she incarnates its less noble form. Cunning and beautiful, she uses her every charm exclusively in service to her ambition.

There is something thoroughly modern about her self-belief, her perpetual reinvention. It’s impossible to look away as she ruthlessly forges her own future, defying expectations and conventions time and again. 

They say what goes around comes around; but when it comes to Undine Spragg we are constantly left wondering if the truism can hold.

By Edith Wharton,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Custom of the Country as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Edith Wharton’s classic story of one woman’s quest for wealth and status after the turn of the twentieth century

Beautiful, selfish, and driven, Undine Spragg arrives in New York with all of the ambition and naiveté that her midwestern, nouveau riche upbringing afforded her. As cunning as she is lovely, Undine has but one goal in life: to ascend to the upper echelons of high society. And so with a single-minded tenacity, Undine continues to maneuver through life, finding all the while that true satisfaction remains just beyond her grasp.

Hailed by Elizabeth Hardwick as “Edith Wharton’s finest achievement,” The…


You might also like...

A Beggar's Bargain

By Jan Sikes,

Book cover of A Beggar's Bargain

Jan Sikes Author Of The Edge of Too Late

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Avid reader Lover of Music Astral Traveler Tarot Reader Grandmother

Jan's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Historical Fiction Post WW2.

A shocking proposal that changes everything.

Desperate to honor his father’s dying wish, Layken Martin vows to do whatever it takes to save the family farm.
Once the Army discharges him following World War II, Layken returns to Missouri to find his legacy in shambles and in jeopardy. A foreclosure notice from the bank doubles the threat. He appeals to the local banker for more time—a chance to rebuild, plant, and harvest crops and time to heal far away from the noise of bombs and gunfire.

But the banker firmly denies his request. Now what?

Then, the banker makes an alternative proposition—marry his unwanted daughter, Sara Beth, in exchange for a two-year extension. Out of options, money, and time, Layken agrees to the bargain.

Now, he has two years to make a living off the land while he shares his life with a stranger. If he fails at either, he’ll lose it all.

A Beggar's Bargain

By Jan Sikes,

What is this book about?

A shocking proposal that changes everything.

Desperate to honor his father's dying wish, Layken Martin vows to do whatever it takes to save the family farm.

Once the Army discharges him following World War II, Layken returns to Missouri to find his legacy in shambles and in jeopardy. A foreclosure notice from the bank doubles the threat. He appeals to the local banker for more time-a chance to rebuild, plant, and harvest crops and time to heal far away from the noise of bombs and gunfire.

But the banker firmly denies his request. Now what?

Then, the banker makes an…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in choosing a mate, farms, and social class?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about choosing a mate, farms, and social class.

Choosing A Mate Explore 17 books about choosing a mate
Farms Explore 63 books about farms
Social Class Explore 91 books about social class