The best books with extraordinary London heroines

Lucy Ribchester Author Of The Hourglass Factory
By Lucy Ribchester

Who am I?

This eclectic soiree of books is pretty symbolic of my reading taste – as long as it’s extraordinary, or larger than real life, I’m there for it. I moved to London when I was 22, to undertake my Masters at Shakespeare’s Globe, and after living in a small village, followed by a small university town, it really did feel like arriving at the centre of the universe. I love books that capture the way the spirit of London – its strange, anarchic, punkish, dangerous, and historic forms – can shape a woman into the person she is meant to be. That was what I wanted to capture with The Hourglass Factory’s heroine Frankie George. 


I wrote...

The Hourglass Factory

By Lucy Ribchester,

Book cover of The Hourglass Factory

What is my book about?

The suffragette movement is reaching fever pitch but for broke Fleet Street tomboy Frankie George, just getting by in the cut-throat world of newspapers is hard enough. Sent to interview trapeze artist Ebony Diamond, Frankie finds herself fascinated by the tightly laced acrobat and follows her across London to a Mayfair corset shop that hides more than one dark secret.

When Ebony Diamond mysteriously disappears in the middle of a performance, Frankie is drawn into a world of tricks, society columnists, corset fetishists, suffragettes and circus freaks. How did Ebony vanish, who was she afraid of, and what goes on behind the doors of the mysterious Hourglass Factory?

The books I picked & why

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Nights at the Circus

By Angela Carter,

Book cover of Nights at the Circus

Why this book?

Oh Fevvers - "Lor love you!" The opening words of this book chime in my heart like the bow bells. Sophie Fevvers, trapeze artist, Cockney Venus - face like a ‘meat dish,’ Fevvers who keeps her champagne in a cracked toilet bowl, on discarded fish ice from Billingsgate market. As the protagonist in Angela Carter’s magical realist masterpiece, Nights at the Circus, Fevvers lives and breathes London. London is in her nails and her hair, her bum, her voice, her attitude, and most of all in her history – she was hatched from an egg in a London brothel. Fevvers is the ultimate London heroine, shaped by the city’s grime, beauty, vulgarity, and kindness, and she carries London with her even when in the furthest reaches of Siberia. This is one of those books driven like a steam train by its central character, and I still remember where I was during each and every reading and re-reading of it. 


Fingersmith

By Sarah Waters,

Book cover of Fingersmith

Why this book?

Sure, Dickens wrote some great books about London, but the female characters almost always play second fiddle to the males. Enter Sarah Waters, swinging open the door on a dark and powerful city where the women’s stories are every bit as knotty and heart-rending as those of Dickens’ boys. 

Sue Trinder, Fingersmith’s heroine, is a perfect product of underground London, daughter of a criminal hanged at Horsemonger Gaol, bred in a baby farm, ducker, and diver of back alleys, pickpocket in a loving, ramshackle family. Without giving too much away about this wonderful book – I will never forget literally jumping up off the sofa at the twist – Waters cleverly riffs on the theme of nature/nurture, all the while layering her ideas on the plot of an exquisitely crafted thriller. One of the most outstanding books I’ve ever read and hands down my desert island crime novel. 


Orlando: A Biography

By Virginia Woolf,

Book cover of Orlando: A Biography

Why this book?

Though I am committing one of the greatest spoiler crimes in book-herstory by including Orlando on this list, how could I not?

I always remember the line towards the end, when Orlando is standing in a department store: "Someone lights a pink candle and I see a girl in Russian trousers." It alludes to her (and our) memory of the earlier glorious Thames frost scene, where Orlando first falls in love with Russian Princess Sasha. Like Orlando, we all walk among the ghosts of London's history, and our own history, and a single trigger can catapult us into the past. 

Woolf described this book as a "writer’s holiday," and a (male) friend of mine once called it "froth." Thank goodness contemporary scholarship has been busy dismantling that notion. It’s one of the richest, most poetic, mind-bending books you’ll ever have the pleasure to lose yourself in.


The Suffragette Movement: An Intimate Account of Persons and Ideals - With an Introduction by Dr Richard Pankhurst

By E. Sylvia Pankhurst,

Book cover of The Suffragette Movement: An Intimate Account of Persons and Ideals - With an Introduction by Dr Richard Pankhurst

Why this book?

The three main Pankhurst players in the Suffragette movement – Emmeline and two of her children, Christabel and Sylvia – all wrote accounts of the era. But Sylvia’s is arguably the most comprehensive and objective. The book starts out as a memoir of the Pankhurst family’s early lifetheir humble beginnings, their journey to political activismand Pankhurst does not shy away from the gory details of militant suffragette activity. But she is also not afraid to chronicle divisions in the movement, both among the different factions of the WSPU, and between the WSPU and the Labour party, who eventually chose to support working men’s rights above those of women. Sylvia Pankhurst has emerged from the period as the most egalitarian of its heroines, after leaving the main WSPU branch to focus on the cause of working-class women. It’s a tome, but a worthy read.  


The Autobiography of a Newspaper Girl

By Elizabeth L Banks,

Book cover of The Autobiography of a Newspaper Girl

Why this book?

When researching the newspaper angle of my book, I was already aware of the exploits of Nellie Bly, the New York-based pioneer of investigative, undercover journalism. But I wanted to try and track down a journalist who had achieved similar feats in late Victorian and Edwardian London. Enter Elizabeth Banks, an American journalist who emigrated to London at the turn of the century, and plied her trade as a freelancer, selling exposes on the lives of parlour maids, laundry workers, and flower sellers to the likes of The Illustrated London News. Pluck doesn’t even come close to covering her bravery and bravado – some memorable details from her book include her smuggling a camping stove into a London hotel because she couldn’t afford the dining room food, and pestering editors up and down Fleet Street to publish her words. She was a true entrepreneurial London woman, at a time when women were still considered ‘angels of the hearth.' She deserves to be better known. 


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in London, suffragettes, and the circus?

5,309 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about London, suffragettes, and the circus.

London Explore 328 books about London
Suffragettes Explore 18 books about suffragettes
The Circus Explore 21 books about the circus

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Suffragettes in the Purple, White and Green: London 1906-1914, Oliver Twist, and Kitty Peck and the Music Hall Murders if you like this list.