The best books about women, birds, and nature

Tessa Boase Author Of Etta Lemon: The Woman Who Saved the Birds
By Tessa Boase

Who am I?

I’m an investigative journalist and social historian who’s obsessed with ‘invisible’ women of the 19th and early 20th century, bringing their stories to life in highly readable narrative non-fiction. I love the detective work involved in resurrecting ordinary women’s lives: shop girls, milliners, campaigning housewives, servants. . . The stories I’ve uncovered are gripping, often shocking and frequently poignant – but also celebrate women’s determination, solidarity and capacity for reinvention. Each of my two books took me on a long research journey deep into the archives: The Housekeeper’s Tale – the Women Who Really Ran the English Country House, and Etta Lemon – The Woman Who Saved the Birds.

I wrote...

Etta Lemon: The Woman Who Saved the Birds

By Tessa Boase,

Book cover of Etta Lemon: The Woman Who Saved the Birds

What is my book about?

Etta Lemon is the formidable woman who built the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Her surname suited her. She was bitter in her opposition to the plumage trade, acid in her scorn for women’s vanity. Her RSPB colleagues called her ‘The Dragon’, but to the public, she was simply ‘Mother of the Birds.’ Where she led, the Audubon Society would follow. Her legacy is Britain’s biggest conservation charity. But she has not been remembered by history.

Etta’s bird protection crusade was eclipsed by the more glamorous campaign for the vote, led by the elegantly plumed Emmeline Pankhurst. This fast-paced book shines a light on the interlinked (and often fractious) movements for women's rights and animal rights, showcasing two formidable heroines and their rival, overlapping campaigns.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Birds Art Life Death: The Art of Noticing the Small and Significant

Why did I love this book?

A perfectly formed, intimate epiphany of a book about birdwatching, by a non-birdwatcher. Unmoored by her father’s illness, Maclear tries to find a way of making life make sense. She experiments with calligraphy; she wrestles with writer’s block. One day she meets a birdwatching musician, who explains how the activity helps dissipate his worries and daily pressures. Intrigued, she asks if she can tag along. Reluctant at first, and almost despite herself, the author begins to find peace and unexpected beauty in the urban landscape. She discovers that simply being still triggers introspection. This is also a book about the tension between freedom and confinement – something that resonates particularly for me, as a writer with children.

By Kyo Maclear,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Birds Art Life Death as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

We live in a world that prizes the fast over the slow, the new over the familiar and work over rest. Birds Art Life Death is Kyo Maclear's beautiful journey to stake out a sense of meaning amid the crushing rush.

One winter Kyo Maclear felt unmoored. Her father had recently fallen ill and she suddenly found herself a little lost. In the midst of this crisis, she met a musician who loved birds. When he watched birds and began to photograph them, his worries dissipated. Curious, she began to accompany him on his urban birdwatching expeditions and witnessed the…

Book cover of Women Against Cruelty: Protection of Animals in Nineteenth-Century Britain

Why did I love this book?

Victorian women were at the forefront of Britain’s animal protection movement. We owe our compassionate reflex to their hard-fought battles against cruelty. Women founded the Battersea Dogs’ Home, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and the many groups that opposed vivisection. They lobbied for better treatment of animals, both through practical action (demonstrations, gruesome shop window displays, pamphleteering) and through writing, such as Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty. Yet their male opponents dismissed their efforts as sentimental and hysterical. For an overview of women’s struggles under the patriarchy (eg, patronisingly menial tasks dished out by a male RSPCA council) this is a fascinating read.

By Diana Donald,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Women against cruelty is the first book to explore women's leading role in animal protection in nineteenth-century Britain, drawing on rich archival sources. Women founded bodies such as the Battersea Dogs' Home, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and various groups that opposed vivisection. They energetically promoted better treatment of animals, both through practical action and through their writings, such as Anna Sewell's Black Beauty. Yet their efforts were frequently belittled by opponents, or decried as typifying female 'sentimentality' and hysteria. Only the development of feminism in the later Victorian period enabled women to show that spontaneous fellow-feeling…

Women on Nature

By Katharine Norbury,

Book cover of Women on Nature

Why did I love this book?

‘What would happen,’ Norbury writes in her introduction to this anthology, ‘if I simply missed out the 50 percent of the population whose voices have been credited with shaping this particular cultural form?’ (ie, the ‘lone enraptured male,’ as writer Kathleen Jamie once memorably put it). The answer is a compulsively readable and constantly surprising anthology: a magpie curation of glittering treasures.

One of the many things I love about this timely book is its arrangement by alphabetical order. So you have contemporary nature blogger Nic Wilson next to Virginia Woolf, and Monica Ali rubbing shoulders with Elizabeth von Armin – and Enid Blyton next to Tessa Boase. This feels oddly apt: the writer who got me reading. Her entry illustrates Norbury’s inspired eye for what counts as ‘nature writing’: here, Philip mansplains a slow-worm to silly Dinah.

By Katharine Norbury,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

What would happen, I wondered, if I simply missed out the fifty per cent of the population whose voices have been credited with shaping this particular 'cultural norm'. If I coppiced the woodland, so to speak, and allowed the light to shine down to the forest floor and illuminate countless saplings now that a gap has opened in the canopy.

There has, in recent years, been an explosion of writing about place, landscape and the natural world. But within this, women's voices have remained in the minority.

This anthology gathers the voices of women from the fourteenth to the twenty-first…

Book cover of On Gallows Down: Place, Protest and Belonging

Why did I love this book?

An unusually honest, rural memoir by the RSPB’s longest-serving female columnist. Chester’s writing has a lovely elasticity, dancing between wonder, introspection, and anger as she moves from the particular to the universal. I learned a lot about how Britain’s countryside is managed. I also enjoyed her more eccentric impulses, such as lying down in the snow on the edge of a field one night, just to see what might happen. She belongs to the disappearing English rural working class, and is intent on handing this baton to her three children. Chester also explores the familiar tension between wanting to write and being needed at home. The heady ecstasy of time carved out alone, in nature. The scrabble to earn a precarious living, and the insecurities of occupying a tied cottage. The idea of ‘home’ lies at the heart of this fierce, beautifully written, immersive book about one’s place within the landscape.

By Nicola Chester,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Shortlisted for the Richard Jeffries Award 2021

[A] wonderfully accurate, powerful and funny memoir of rural life Stephen Moss

It's ever so good. Political, passionate & personal. Robert Macfarlane (via Twitter)

I couldn't put it down! A must read! Dara McAnulty (via Twitter), author of The Diary of a Young Naturalist

An evocative and inspiring memoir Claire Fuller, author of Unsettled Ground and winner of Costa Novel Award 2021

Part nature writing, part memoir, On Gallows Down is an essential, unforgettable read for fans of Helen Macdonald, Melissa Harrison and Isabella Tree.

On Gallows Down is a powerful, personal story…


By Hannah Bourne-Taylor,

Book cover of Fledgling

Why did I love this book?

Here’s how an intense, almost obsessive focus on wildlife can bring solace from chaos and alienation. Young bird-lover Hannah Bourne-Taylor moves to Ghana as a ‘trailing spouse,’ and it’s the fauna that keeps her going as she struggles to rebuild her identity. Two stray dogs leap into her life; a pangolin needs saving from someone’s dinner table. But it’s the act of saving a swift and a mannikin finch, nurturing and releasing the birds back into the wild, that provides the key to this closely observed, touching story. At first, the finch doesn’t want to re-wild – and Hannah realizes with a shock that she’s humanized it. Explores interesting dilemmas about intervening on nature’s behalf, and whether one act of compassion can really make a difference. A book full of hope.

By Hannah Bourne-Taylor,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Read the powerful account of one woman's fight to reshape her identity through connection with nature when all normality has fallen away.

When lifelong bird-lover Hannah Bourne-Taylor moved with her husband to Ghana seven years ago she couldn't have anticipated how her life would be forever changed by her unexpected encounters with nature and the subsequent bonds she formed.

Plucked from the comfort and predictability of her life before, Hannah struggled to establish herself in her new environment, striving to belong in the rural grasslands far away from home.

In this challenging situation, she was forced to turn inwards and…

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