The best books with extraordinary London heroines

Why am I passionate about this?

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?

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Nights at the Circus

Lucy Ribchester Why did I love 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. 

By Angela Carter,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Nights at the Circus as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction

From the master of the literary supernatural and author of The Bloody Chamber, her acclaimed novel about the exploits of a circus performer who is part-woman, part-swan

Sophi Fevvers-the toast of Europe's capitals, courted by the Prince of Wales, painted by Toulouse-Lautrec-is an aerialiste extraordinaire, star of Colonel Kearney's circus. She is also part woman, part swan. Jack Walser, an American journalist, is on a quest to discover Fevvers's true identity: Is she part swan or all fake? Dazzled by his love for Fevvers, and desperate for the scoop of…

Book cover of Fingersmith

Lucy Ribchester Why did I love 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. 

By Sarah Waters,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

“Oliver Twist with a twist…Waters spins an absorbing tale that withholds as much as it discloses. A pulsating story.”—The New York Times Book Review

Sue Trinder is an orphan, left as an infant in the care of Mrs. Sucksby, a "baby farmer," who raised her with unusual tenderness, as if Sue were her own. Mrs. Sucksby’s household, with its fussy babies calmed with doses of gin, also hosts a transient family of petty thieves—fingersmiths—for whom this house in the heart of a mean London slum is home.

One day, the most beloved thief of all arrives—Gentleman, an elegant con man,…

Book cover of Orlando: A Biography

Lucy Ribchester Why did I love 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.

By Virginia Woolf,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Orlando as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 14, 15, 16, and 17.

What is this book about?

HarperCollins is proud to present its new range of best-loved, essential classics.

'The flower bloomed and faded. The sun rose and sank. The lover loved and went. And what the poets said in rhyme, the young translated into practice.'

Written for her lover Vita Sackville-West, 'Orlando' is Woolf's playfully subversive take on a biography, here tracing the fantastical life of Orlando. As the novel spans centuries and continents, gender and identity, we follow Orlando's adventures in love - from being a lord in the Elizabethan court to a lady in 1920s London.

First published in 1928, this tale of unrivalled…

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

Lucy Ribchester Why did I love 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.  

By E. Sylvia Pankhurst,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

“The Suffragette Movement - An Intimate Account Of Persons And Ideals” is a 1931 work by E. Sylvia Pankhurst. In this volume, Pankhurst aims to describe the events and experiences of the movement, as well as the characters and intentions of those involved. In this fascinating volume, Pankhurst shows the strife, suffering, a hope behind the pageantry, the rhetoric, and the turbulence of the time. Highly recommended for those with an interest in the British suffragette movement and worthy of a place on any every bookshelf. Contents include: “Richard Marsden Pankhurst”, “The Rise of the Women's Suffrage Movement”, “Emmeline Goulden”,…

Book cover of The Autobiography of a Newspaper Girl

Lucy Ribchester Why did I love 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. 

By Elizabeth L. Banks,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Autobiography of a Newspaper Girl as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The autobiography of a newspaper girl (1902)

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Lightning Strike Blues

By Gayleen Froese,

Book cover of Lightning Strike Blues

Gayleen Froese Author Of Lightning Strike Blues

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Communications officer Singer-songwriter Fan of all animals Role-playing geek Nature photographer

Gayleen's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

One summer night in a small prairie city, 18-year-old Gabriel Reece accidentally outs himself to his redneck brother Colin, flees on his motorcycle, and gets struck by lightning on his way out of town.

He’s strangely fine, walking away from his melted pile of bike without a scratch. There’s no time to consider his new inhuman durability before his brother disappears and his childhood home burns down. He’s become popular, too—local cops and a weird private eye are after him, wanting to know if his brother is behind a recent murder.

Answers might be in the ashes of the house…

Lightning Strike Blues

By Gayleen Froese,

What is this book about?

On Friday, Gabriel Reece gets struck by lightning while riding his motorcycle.

It's not the worst thing that happens to him that week.

Gabe walks away from a smoldering pile of metal without a scratch-or any clothes, which seem to have been vaporized. And that's weird, but he's more worried about the sudden disappearance of his brother, Colin, who ditched town the second Gabe accidentally outed himself as gay.

Gabe tries to sift through fragmented memories of his crummy childhood for clues to his sudden invincibility, but he barely has time to think before people around town start turning up…

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Interested in London, suffragettes, and the circus?

11,000+ 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 817 books about London
Suffragettes Explore 32 books about suffragettes
The Circus Explore 33 books about the circus