The best surprisingly feminist Victorian novels

Why am I passionate about this?

I fell in love with Victorian literature after reading Jane Eyre when I was thirteen years old. Since then, I’ve worked my way through Victorian book after Victorian book, and my own novel, The Secrets of Hartwood Hall, is a love letter to Victorian fiction. One of my key interests within Victorian literature has always been its exploration of gender and gender roles. There are so many fantastic Victorian proto-feminist novels, and while some are still remembered and read, many more have been largely forgotten. These are just a few of my favourite proto-feminist Victorian novels, all of which are very underrated and very much worth a read!


I wrote...

The Secrets of Hartwood Hall

By Katie Lumsden,

Book cover of The Secrets of Hartwood Hall

What is my book about?

It’s 1852, and Margaret Lennox is offered a position as governess at Hartwood Hall. She quickly accepts, hoping this isolated country house will allow her to leave her past behind. Cut off from the village, Margaret soon starts to feel there’s something odd about her new home, despite her growing fondness for her bright, affectionate pupil, Louis. The east wing sits abandoned. Strange figures move through the dark. And Mrs. Eversham, Louis’s widowed mother, is surrounded by secrets. Margaret is certain everyone here has something to hide.

As her own past threatens to catch up with her, she must learn to trust her instincts before it's too late...

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Half-Sisters

Katie Lumsden Why did I love this book?

Published in 1848, The Half Sisters is the story of two sisters, Alice and Bianca, who grow up without knowing of the other’s existence.

Alice is middle-class, legitimate, and respectable, and goes on to have the life Victorian women were meant to have – namely, marriage. She is also bored and unhappy. Meanwhile, her sister Bianca, who is working-class, illegitimate, and definitively not respectable, chooses a different path.

Keen to make a career for herself, she becomes an actress, and throughout the novel passionately defends women’s right to work. The novel is engaging and accessible, though often forgotten now, and I love how it fantastically examines the different options open – and, indeed, closed – to women in the Victorian period.

By Geraldine Endsor Jewsbury,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Half-Sisters as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This work has been selected by scholars as being culturally important, and is part of the knowledge base of civilization as we know it.

This work is in the "public domain in the United States of America, and possibly other nations. Within the United States, you may freely copy and distribute this work, as no entity (individual or corporate) has a copyright on the body of the work.

Scholars believe, and we concur, that this work is important enough to be preserved, reproduced, and made generally available to the public. We appreciate your support of the preservation process, and thank…


Book cover of Hester

Katie Lumsden Why did I love this book?

Hester, which came out in 1883, follows two central figures: Miss Catherine, an older woman who runs a bank – in itself quite a surprise to find in a Victorian novel – and Hester, her young relation, who is bored with her dull, ladylike life and wants something more.

What she really wants is to work, as Catherine does, but Catherine is determined that the bank will pass to a man. The novel focuses on their strained relationship – strained partly because they are so very alike. There’s so much I love about Hester, but I especially enjoy how it undermines and undercuts Victorian tropes about the novel and what is and isn’t a happy ending for a female character. It’s an absolutely fascinating read.

By Margaret Oliphant,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Margaret Oliphant is one of the great Victorian novelists and "Hester" is a masterpiece of psychological realism published in 1883. 
In exploring the difficulty of understanding human nature, it is also a compulsive story of financial and sexual risk-taking that inevitably results in a searing climax.

"Hester" tells the story of the ageing but powerful Catherine Vernon, and her conflict with the young and determined Hester, whose growing attachment to Edward, Catherine's favourite, spells disaster for all concerned.

Catherine Vernon, jilted in her youth, has risen to power in a man's world as head of the family bank. She thinks…


Book cover of Dombey and Son

Katie Lumsden Why did I love this book?

Dombey and Son, first published in 1846–8, is, for me, a take-down of Victorian gender roles.

Mr. Dombey is everything Victorian men were meant to be: unemotional, focused on money and commerce, driven by duty not passion – and he is clearly in the wrong. He entirely dismisses his daughter, Florence, caring only for his business and for the son who will inherit it; for him, girls and women are scarcely human.

Through the characters of Mr. Dombey and his daughter, Dickens sets up a debate between traditional Victorian ideals of masculinity and femininity – in which femininity emerges victorious. There is so much I find wonderfully proto-feminist in Dombey and Son – I haven’t even started on the wonderful character of Edith! – and I can’t recommend it enough.

By Charles Dickens, Andrew Sanders (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Dombey and Son as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'There's no writing against such power as this - one has no chance' William Makepeace Thackeray

A compelling depiction of a man imprisoned by his own pride, Dombey and Son explores the devastating effects of emotional deprivation on a dysfunctional family. Paul Dombey runs his household as he runs his business: coldly, calculatingly and commercially. The only person he cares for is his little son, while his motherless daughter Florence is merely a 'base coin that couldn't be invested'. As Dombey's callousness extends to others, including his defiant second wife Edith, he sows the seeds of his own destruction.

Edited…


Book cover of Jill

Katie Lumsden Why did I love this book?

Jill is a little-known but fascinating novel from 1884 about a young woman who, bored of her upper-class life, runs away from home to become a maid.

Jill is everything Victorian women weren’t meant to be: ambitious, scheming, brave, happy to lie, and much more interested in money than marriage. She’s also a bit in love with the woman she works for, which Victorian women certainly weren’t meant to be either.

There is so much I love about Jill, but one of my favourite things about it is how it turns Victorian tropes and expectations on their head, taking the set-up of a typically male adventure narrative and giving it to the character of Jill. It’s a wonderfully proto-feminist Victorian classic and well worth a read.

By Amy Dillwyn,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Jill as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Jill is an unconventional heroine - a lady who disguises herself as a maid and runs away to London. Life above and below stairs is portrayed with irreverent wit in this fast-paced story. But at the centre of the novel is Jill's unfolding love for her mistress. On the surface a feminist manifesto, Jill is a poignant story of same-sex desire and unrequited love. An accessible new introduction tells the autobiographical story on which the novel is based - the author's own passionate attachment to a woman she called her wife, but who she couldn't have.


Book cover of The Odd Women

Katie Lumsden Why did I love this book?

Published in 1893, The Odd Women focuses on women’s rights in the late Victorian period.

The odd in the title doesn’t mean strange but left out – not part of a pair. There were more women than men in late Victorian Britain, meaning that many women didn’t marry – which was a big deal in a society that saw marriage and childbearing as the end goal in life for women.

At the heart of The Odd Women are Rhoda Nunn and Mary Barfoot, both passionately dedicated to the cause of women’s rights; they run a typewriting school, offering women new career prospects and fulfilling single lives.

The novel has its limitations – Rhoda and Mary are only really concerned with the plight of middle-class women – but it is nonetheless a powerful criticism of injustice and patriarchy. 

By George Gissing, Patricia Ingham (editor),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Odd Women as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

`there are half a million more women than men in this unhappy country of ours . . . So many odd women - no making a pair with them.'

The idea of the superfluity of unmarried women was one the `New Woman' novels of the 1890s sought to challenge. But in The Odd Women (1893) Gissing satirizes the prevailing literary image of the `New Woman' and makes the point that unmarried women were generally viewed less as noble and romantic figures than as `odd' and marginal in relation to the ideal of womanhood itself. Set in grimy, fog-ridden London, these…


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Lap Baby

By Amy Q. Barker,

Book cover of Lap Baby

Amy Q. Barker Author Of Lap Baby

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Avid reader Nature lover Park ranger wanna be Best Nana ever

Amy's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

A story you'll never forget about survival, forgiveness, healing, and love.

Twenty years ago. A plane crash. Three women survivors are inexorably connected by fate, destiny, and a cause. 

Julie Geiger, a flight attendant, told five sets of parents to place their babies on the floor of the plane when it was going down. Now, she must live with the consequences. Will changing the emergency rules bring her healing and forgiveness? And where does love fit into her life now?

Marie Stanley lost her baby boy on that flight. And she knows exactly who to blame. Julie. The problem is that vindictiveness festers. And eats into your soul. How will Marie learn to move past her hate and save her marriage in the process?

Paige Montgomery, the lap baby who survived the flight, would love to forget it ever happened. After all, she’s happy. And she’s on the cusp of a new relationship. How will she learn to forge her own path, one that integrates all the elements of her past, including the crash, the loss of her parents, and her subsequent adoption?

Lap Baby

By Amy Q. Barker,

What is this book about?

Twenty years ago. A plane crash. Three women survivors inexorably connected by fate, destiny, and a cause.

Did you know that lap babies (children under the age of two) are instructed to be placed on the floor of a plane during an emergency? Sounds crazy, but it’s true.

Julie Geiger, a flight attendant, told five sets of parents to do just that. Now she must live with the consequences. Will changing the rules bring her healing and forgiveness? And where does love fit into her life now?

Marie Stanley lost her baby boy on that flight. And she knows exactly…


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