The best books that sing the praises of unsung women

Who am I?

I am the author of Out of the Shadows: Six Visionary Victorian Women in Search of a Public Voice, and also the co-author (with Emma Claire Sweeney) of A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf. A historian and writer, I am interested in shining a light on lesser-known stories about the lives of women of the past and hopefully bringing them to wider public attention.

I wrote...

Out of the Shadows: Six Visionary Victorian Women in Search of a Public Voice

By Emily Midorikawa,

Book cover of Out of the Shadows: Six Visionary Victorian Women in Search of a Public Voice

What is my book about?

Out of the Shadows tells the stories of six enterprising nineteenth-century women, whose apparent ability to contact the dead brought them fame, fortune, and astonishing social and political influence.

The Fox sisters inspired some of the era’s best-known political activists and set off a transatlantic séance craze. Emma Hardinge Britten delivered controversial speeches to crowds of thousands while seemingly in a trance. Former childhood clairvoyant Victoria Woodhull, a Wall Street trailblazer, became America’s first female presidential candidate. And Georgina Weldon, whose beliefs nearly saw her confined to an asylum, went on to establish herself as a successful campaigner against archaic lunacy laws. Drawing on diaries, letters, and rarely seen memoirs and texts, Out of the Shadows illuminates a radical history of unusual female power.

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The books I picked & why

Excellent Women

By Barbara Pym,

Book cover of Excellent Women

Why did I love 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. 

By Barbara Pym,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Cover design by Orla Kiely Mildred Lathbury is one of those 'excellent women' who is often taken for granted. She is a godsend, 'capable of dealing with most of the stock situations of life - birth, marriage, death, the successful jumble sales, the garden fete spoilt by bad weather'. As such, though, she often gets herself embroiled in other people's lives - and especially those of her glamorous new neighbours, the Napiers, whose marriage seems to be on the rocks. One cannot take sides in these matters, though it is tricky, especially when Mildred, teetering on the edge of spinsterhood,…

Convenience Store Woman

By Sayaka Murata, Ginny Tapley Takemori,

Book cover of Convenience Store Woman

Why did I love 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. 

By Sayaka Murata, Ginny Tapley Takemori,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Meet Keiko.

Keiko is 36 years old. She's never had a boyfriend, and she's been working in the same supermarket for eighteen years.

Keiko's family wishes she'd get a proper job. Her friends wonder why she won't get married.

But Keiko knows what makes her happy, and she's not going to let anyone come between her and her convenience store...

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

Why did I love 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.

By Hallie Rubenhold,

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked The Five as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'An angry and important work of historical detection, calling time on the misogyny that has fed the Ripper myth. Powerful and shaming' GUARDIAN

Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane are famous for the same thing, though they never met. They came from Fleet Street, Knightsbridge, Wolverhampton, Sweden and Wales. They wrote ballads, ran coffee houses, lived on country estates, they breathed ink-dust from printing presses and escaped people-traffickers.

What they had in common was the year of their murders: 1888.

Their murderer was never identified, but…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Franny Moyle,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In the spring of 1895 the life of Constance Wilde changed irrevocably. Up until the conviction of her husband, Oscar, for homosexual crimes, she had held a privileged position in society. Part of a gilded couple, she was a popular children's author, a fashion icon, and a leading campaigner for women's rights. A founding member of the magical society the Golden Dawn, her pioneering and questioning spirit encouraged her to sample some of the more controversial aspects of her time. Mrs Oscar Wilde was a phenomenon in her own right.

But that spring Constance's entire life was eclipsed by scandal.…

Wide Sargasso Sea

By Jean Rhys,

Book cover of Wide Sargasso Sea

Why did I love 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.

By Jean Rhys,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked Wide Sargasso Sea as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Wide Sargasso Sea, a masterpiece of modern fiction, was Jean Rhys's return to the literary center stage. She had a startling early career and was known for her extraordinary prose and haunting women characters. With Wide Sargasso Sea, her last and best-selling novel, she ingeniously brings into light one of fiction's most fascinating characters: the madwoman in the attic from Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. This mesmerizing work introduces us to Antoinette Cosway, a sensual and protected young woman who is sold into marriage to the prideful Mr. Rochester. Rhys portrays Cosway amidst a society so driven by hatred, so skewed…

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