The best books that sing the praises of unsung women

The Books I Picked & Why

Excellent Women

By Barbara Pym

Book cover of Excellent Women

Why this book?

The fiction of Barbara Pym is full of the kind of much-put-upon single women that society has tended to overlook. In her second published novel, Excellent Women, Pym’s heroine Mildred Lathbury, a clergyman’s daughter, describes herself as just the sort of person one can depend on in ‘the great moments of life—birth, marriage, death, the successful jumble sale, the garden fête spoilt by bad weather.’ Mildred’s church-focused, 1950s existence might sound rather quaint, but, trust me, anyone assuming that the life she leads is miles away from their own will quickly be dispelled of that notion. The human issues and emotions Pym explores can be markedly progressive and have more than enough power to move the hearts of today’s readers. 


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Convenience Store Woman

By Sayaka Murata, Ginny Tapley Takemori

Book cover of Convenience Store Woman

Why this book?

Though separated from Mildred Lathbury’s world by a vast gulf of space and time, Sayaka Murata’s 2016 novel unexpectedly occupies some of the same territory. Murata’s protagonist Keiko Furukura is a single woman in her thirties in a society that prizes marriage as the only real happy ending for women. Unlike Mildred, who does a little part-time work and otherwise survives on a small inheritance, Keiko has found a way of supporting herself financially and emotionally by working at one of Tokyo’s many convenience stores—that is, until things start to go wrong. Keiko’s fellow novel characters regard her as a social misfit and, as such, she often finds herself ignored. But to me she was unforgettable, and I’m sure you’ll think so too. 


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The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper

By Hallie Rubenhold

Book cover of The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper

Why this book?

Well over a century after his reign of terror, Jack the Ripper remains a household name, his identity the subject of endless public debate. In her group biography of the ‘Canonical Five’—the five women most widely regarded as the Ripper’s victims—Hallie Rubenhold takes a different approach. Instead of spilling yet more ink on attempts to unmask this Victorian serial killer, she focuses instead on the women whose lives were brutally taken away. I loved the way that Rubenhold’s justifiably angry narrative transformed Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly from a homogenous group of victims, to women from different backgrounds, who lived strikingly different lives, and whose names deserve to be more than mere footnotes to the story of a notorious villain.


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Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde

By Franny Moyle

Book cover of Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde

Why this book?

Franny Moyle’s biography of Constance Wilde reveals her subject to be much more than the long-suffering spouse of a more famous husband. Instead, in Constance we meet a fascinating woman, very much in tune with intellectual concerns of the day: an enthusiast for ‘rational dress,’ campaigner for women’s rights, and member of the secretive society the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, dedicated to the study of the occult. I was fascinated to learn that she was also a writer, and worked closely with her husband Oscar on several literary projects. Moyle more than convinced this reader that Constance is someone who deserves to be much better known.


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Wide Sargasso Sea

By Jean Rhys

Book cover of Wide Sargasso Sea

Why this book?

In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys takes up the story of the ‘mad’ first wife of Mr. Rochester in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Rhys asks readers to reconsider the circumstances that left this much caricatured literary figure languishing in her husband’s attic, thereby reminding them of the shocking ease with which ‘difficult’ individuals could once be hidden away. It’s an issue that particularly interests me since one of the women I write about in my most recent book, Georgina Weldon, narrowly escaped being incarcerated by her husband for supposed insanity. Rhys’s fictional story is sadder than Weldon’s, and in setting it down she asks important questions about the unjust treatment of women who have lacked social power throughout the course of history.


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